Background: Philemon was a prominent Christian in Colossae whose house served as a meeting place for at least part of the church there (Phm 1:2). Like Epaphras, he had likely come to know the Lord through Paul’s three year ministry in Ephesus when “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Phm 1:19, Acts 19:10). Philemon’s slave Onesimus had wronged him in some way, perhaps stealing from him (Phm 1:18), and run away to Rome whose distance from Colossae and large population would help him escape detection. Because of Paul’s influence upon Philemon, Onesimus had no doubt heard of the apostle and in Rome came under his influence and was saved (Phm 1:10). Although he had become useful to Paul in his imprisonment, to make right the wrongs he had committed in running away Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon in the company of Tychicus, who was traveling to Asia to deliver the letters we know as Ephesians and Colossians to the saints there and inform them about Paul’s circumstances (Eph 6:21-22, Col 4:7-8). Because runaway slaves could be punished severely to the point of death, Paul wrote this letter appealing to Philemon that in love he receive Onesimus as a Christian brother and accept him as he would accept Paul himself.
Phm 1:1-3: How do we know Philemon was from Colossae? See Phm 1:10, Col 4:9. What seems to be the relationship between Philemon, Apphia and Archippus? See also Col 4:17. In what sense was Philemon Paul’s “fellow worker”? See Phm 1:2,7. Do you think it significant that in the first two centuries when the Church was most vibrant the saints met in homes and had no special church buildings for worship, or that the same is true today among the vibrant churches in China? Why do you think that is?
Phm 1:4-7: What qualities demonstrate the true Christian nature of Philemon for which Paul gives thanks? What quality in particular stands out? See Phm 1:5,7,9. Was his Christian love only towards the Lord? See again Phm 1:5,7. Is ours? Can it be said of us that the hearts (lit. the viscera, referring to man’s emotional makeup) of the saints find comfort, relaxing rest, and refreshment through us? What is Paul’s prayer for Philemon, and how does it relate to the issue at hand?
Phm 1:8-20: What does Paul’s example in Phm 1:8-9 teach us about the best way to exercise God-given authority? Note the ancient proverb: It’s easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar. Describe Paul’s affection for Onesimus; why did he find him useful? Note: “Onesimus” means “useful” or “profitable”. In what way was Onesimus formerly useless, and how does his example describe each of us before being born again? See also Col 3:22-24. What did Paul consider the responsibility of those Christians who are free to be to those who are in prison for the gospel? See Phm 1:13, Phil 2:30. Are we fulfilling our responsibility to our Christian brothers and sisters who are in bonds around the world? See also Mat 25:36, 39-40, Heb 13:3. Slavery has been a common social institution throughout history and is still found in parts of the world today. Why is human slavery inevitable apart from the gospel of Christ? Hint: bondage is bondage, and spiritual bondage to sin must inevitably lead to physical bondage of those who are weak to those who are strong. Although Paul never condemns the practice of slavery outright, how do his words here and the gospel message in general ameliorate its influence and provide the basis for its eventual eradication? See Phm 1:15-16. Is there a danger that as the world increasingly rejects the gospel principles that have led to the eradication of slavery we may someday see its return? **See note below and consider that many of our Christian brothers and sisters in China, North Korea, and many communist and Islamic nations are in fact slaves today. Compare Paul’s example to that of Jesus. See Phm 1:18-19. Considering that Paul typically used an amanuensis to write his letters (perhaps even due to some infirmity) what does the fact that he penned this letter himself communicate about the importance he placed upon the matter? In what way does Philemon appear to have been wronged? See Phm 1:18. Given such circumstances, would we be as willing to forgive as Paul would have Philemon forgive?
Phm 1:21-25: What word in Phm 1:21 describes Paul’s expectations of Philemon in regard to the matter of Onesimus? Considering that he had been unjustly wronged do you think Philemon would feel like forgiving Onesimus and accepting this person of the lowest social status as a Christian brother of equal standing? Is such forgiveness and restoration based on feeling? What is it based upon? See again that word Paul uses to describe Paul’s expectations of Philemon. What do Paul’s words in Phm 1:22 tell us about his expectations for his upcoming trial in Rome? Identify each of the people Paul mentions in Phm 1:23-24. For Epaphras see Col 1:7, 4:12; for Mark see Acts 12:12,25, 13:13, 15:37-39, Col 4:10, 2 Tim 4:11; for Aristarchus see Acts 19:29, 27:2; for Demas see Col 4:14, 2 Tim 4:10; and for Luke see also 2 Tim 4:11.
** “People from every corner of the globe look across the seas and envy America. They want what we have, but fail to understand what produced it – even homegrown Americans fail to understand what has given them such privilege. They want the fruits of the Gospel of Jesus Christ while, at the same time, hating its principles and practicing the religion that produced poverty and bondage in the land from which they fled. But it is these things that are protected and advocated, while biblical Christianity and the tranquility, justice and morality that it produces are under attack from within and without. The fruit cannot long remain when the root is destroyed. The benefits of the Gospel that our forefathers advocated cannot long be enjoyed if the foundations are abolished.”
Dick York, Shield of Faith Mission International, Jan/Feb 2005 Update