Philemon Bible Study:
A Letter of Love and Fellowship

Engaging in a Philemon Bible study, we find one of the most unique books of the New Testament. 

  • It is only one of four books which has only one chapter.    The other three are Jude, 2 John, and 3 John.
  • It is only one of four books which were written while Paul was in prison.  The other three are Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.
  • It is the only book in the New Testament which was written by one person to one person about one person. 

As we study the book of Philemon, we find a book that is all about love and fellowship.  Let’s look at the overall context of the book of Philemon, and then look specifically at what is written within the book itself.

Philemon Bible Study:  The Overall Context

As with any book of the Bible we study, we always want to ask three questions so that we can put what is written in the book into a contextual setting.  Doing so will help us make better sense of what the writer is communicating.

1.  Who wrote the book of philemon?

To answer that question, we can go to the very first verse of this book. 

Philemon 1.1:   “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother…”

The author of Philemon is the apostle Paul.  It is worth noting that the apostle Paul identifies himself as a prisoner of the Christ Jesus.  If you skip down to verse 12, he refers to his “chains for the gospel.”

When I turn to the book of Acts, I read that the apostle Paul had been imprisoned because of his faith in Jesus.  Paul had been warned that chains awaited him in Jerusalem  (Acts 20.23).  As he arrived in Jerusalem, he was arrested by the Romans because they wanted to protect him from the Jewish mob, or so they claimed  (Acts 23.27-30). 

Paul went through a long trial process while the Romans sorted out why the Jews were accusing him during which he was held in prison.  Because of political reasons, the Roman authorities kept Paul in prison much longer than necessary because they wanted to do the Jews a favor  (Acts 24.27).

When we read the book of Philemon, we are reading a letter written by the apostle Paul who was in prison in Rome and visited by his spiritual brother Timothy.

2.  To whom was the book of Philemon written?

To answer that question, let’s go back to the beginning of the book. 

Philemon 1.1,2:  “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house”

This is a letter primarily written to one man, and possibly his family.  You have Philemon, and possibly his wife Apphia and son, Archippus.  As an aside, it was a letter also addressed to the church which met in his house.

Notice that Paul refers to Philemon as “our beloved friend and fellow laborer.”  Paul considered Philemon as a good friend whom he loved.  He was a fellow laborer.  Just as Paul worked hard to advance the cause of Christ, so did Philemon.  Paul and Philemon were even partners in the faith  (Philemon 1.17).  It is even implied that Philemon was converted by Paul  (Philemon 1.19). 

Philemon was a Christian, a fellow laborer with Paul, a partner with Paul in their endeavor to advance the cause of Christ.  Philemon was also a slave owner  (Philemon 1.16).  Keep in mind that the New Testament does not condemn nor condone slavery.  But we can read about it as something that was part of society at that time.  It is interesting that you had a man, Philemon, who was a strong and faithful Christians, regarded highly for his faith, and he had a slave.

3.  Why was the book of Philemon written?

To find out why any book was written, you need to do some digging and look for key verses and key words.  We find such a verse in Philemon 1.10

Philemon 1.10:  “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains”

The apostle Paul was in prison because of his faith in Christ.  He is writing this letter to Philemon, a fellow Christian as a slave owner.  The reason Paul is writing this letter is to appeal to Philemon on behalf of Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. 

As we delve into the text, we find a situation.  For reasons not revealed in Scripture, Onesimus ran away from Philemon and wound up with Paul. 

Paul always took advantage of situations just like this.  He actually converted Onesimus to Christ when they were together  (Philemon 1.10).  Now Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter.  This is a personal letter to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus asking Philemon to take him back.  However, he is requesting Philemon to take Onesimus back not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ  (Phil. 1.16).  And so we have the whole basis of the book of Philemon. 

Philemon Bible Study:
The Message of the Letter

Having established the overall context in this Philemon Bible study, let’s get into the book of Philemon and see the contents of this letter.  What is Paul actually saying to his beloved fellow laborer and brother in Christ?

The Introduction:

Philemon 1:1-3:

In the first three verses we learn that it is the apostle Paul writing to the household of Philemon.  It is here that Paul identifies himself as being in prison because of his faith in Christ.  It is also here that he identifies Philemon as his “beloved friend and fellow laborer.”

Paul's Appreciation for Philemon

Philippians 1.4-7:  

Paul expressed great appreciation to Philemon for all he did for the Lord.  Philemon had “love and faith…toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints”  (Philemon 1.4,5).  To love is to believe, and to believe is to love.  Here is a man who believed in Jesus because he loved Jesus.  Here is a man who believed in the his fellow Christians because he loved them. 

Paul praised Philemon because of the “sharing of your faith.”  (Philemon 1.6).  Philemon shared his faith with others, and Paul prayed on his behalf that his sharing would be more effective when others saw “every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus”  (Philemon 1.6).  Here is a man who shared his faith.  He was telling other people about Jesus.  He was effective in sharing Jesus because of all the good that others could see in him. 

Is that not a lesson in itself?  If we are trying to tell others about Jesus, but others see the sin and worldliness in our lives, we are not going to be effective in converting others to Christ.  It is only when the world can see Jesus living in us that we become effective when we share our faith  (cf. Rom. 2.21-24; Gal. 2.20)

Because of all that Philemon did for the saints as he loved and believed in his fellow Christians, “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother”  (Philemon 1.7)

Paul'S Appeal to Philemon

Philemon 1.8-20:  

As an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul had the authority to command Philemon to take back Onesimus  (Philemon 1.8).  However, as Philemon was a good man who had demonstrated his love for Jesus and for all the saints, “yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you”  (Philemon 1.9).

What was Paul asking Philemon to do?  Paul is appealing to Philemon on behalf of his slave Onesimus.  Onesimus ran away from Philemon and found his way to Paul who then converted him (v. 10,11).  Now Paul is sending him back to Philemon and asking Philemon to receive Onesimus back  (Philemon 1.12,13).  

The word “receive” found in verse 12 translates the Greek word “lambano.”  Literally, it means “to grab hold.”  Attached to it is the prefix “pro” meaning “towards.”  Prolambano is a word that literally carries the idea of grabbing a hold and pulling toward yourself.  Paul says that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.  Grab hold of him and pull him towards you.  As much as Paul could have commanded Philemon to take back Onesimus, he did not want to do so “that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary”  (Philemon 1.14).

In what way was Philemon to receive Onesimus?  Paul did not want Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a slave, but to welcome him back as an equal, as a brother in Christ.  Paul speculated that perhaps this is why Onesimus left and found his way to Paul in the first place, so that he could be saved  (Philemon 1.15,16).  Paul appeals to the love and fellowship that he had with Philemon and pleaded with Philemon to receive Onesimus just as if he were welcoming his beloved friend Paul  (Philemon 1.17,18). 

Just in case there is any hesitation in the heart of Philemon, Paul reminds him that he owes Paul his life implying that Philemon himself was saved because of Paul  (Phil. 1.19,20).

So in this section we have Paul appealing to Philemon to welcome back his slave who ran away.  And he was to welcome him back as a fellow brother in Christ.  Philemon loved and cared for all the saints.  Onesimus should be treated no different. 

There are a host of differences between members of the body of Christ.  There are different races.  There are different genders.  There are different economic standings.  There are different hobbies, likes and dislikes.  We could go on and on.  Yet we are to receive one another regardless of our differences, for we are all one in Christ.  This is what Paul was asking Philemon to do.

Paul's Anticipation of Philemon's Obedience

Philemon 1.21,22:

Paul had confidence in Philemon that he would do what Paul had requested.  Paul believed that Philemon would receive Onesimus back and love him as a brother in Jesus  (Philemon 1.21). Paul also anticipated coming to see him soon  (Philemon 1.22)

The Conclusion

Philemon 1.23,24:

In his final words, Paul sends greeting be those who were with him and have been helping him.  He identifies by name Epaphras who was in prison with him as well as those who visiting him and involved in helping him including “Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke.”  (Philemon 1.23,24).

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