Forgiveness and reconciliation are free, but not without cost …

Thirty years prior to writing to Philemon, Paul learned about forgiveness. Acts chapter nine covers Paul’s conversion to Christ. In that single chapter in Acts we see Saul (later to become Paul) — the great persecutor of the early church — meeting Christ, receiving His forgiveness and eternal life, and being forgiven and accepted by the church in Damascus. Remarkable! Forgiveness and reconciliation were free by God’s grace, but not without cost.

About 30 years later, Paul writes to his fellow believer and friend Philemon. He writes to him about forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul knew the subjects well. He had been on the receiving end of them. He was certainly qualified to speak to and instruct Philemon on these topics.

With that context in mind let’s set the stage with the main characters of the Book of Philemon and the story line. We will do so by answering a few questions. The answers will help you unpack Paul’s letter to Philemon and give you a peek into the beauty and power of this small, New Testament book.

1. Who was Philemon?

Paul had met and led Philemon to Christ (Philemon verse 19) while at Ephesus years earlier. Philemon and Paul became close friends. Years later, Philemon was a prominent member of the church at Colossae. The church regularly met in Philemon’s house (Philemon verse 2). The letter was for him, his family, and the church. It was written at the time of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. So, it is known as one of Paul’s “Prison Letters.”

We also know that Philemon was wealthy. He had a large house (Philemon verse 2) and at least one slave — Onesimus. He most likely had several slaves.

2. Who is Onesimus?

He was a slave that had run away from his owner and fled to Rome. In Rome, he met Paul. This is clearly God directing Onesimus’s life. Rome was a huge metropolis. For Onesimus to met Paul (a prisoner) was remarkable.

To gain a better grasp of the story, let’s see what slavery looked like in the Roman Empire in 62 A.D. Slavery was common in the Roman Emprise. One-third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. Slaves were not just common laborers in the Roman Empire. They could be very well-educated and serve as teachers, accountants, musicians, and even doctors. Slaves in those days were not considered persons, there were considered tools of their owners. Slaves could be bought, sold, inherited, exchanged or used to pay a master’s debt. Slaves could learn the trade of their owners and at times, even become a loved part of the family.

While this might sound counterintuitive, some people in those days chose slavery over poverty. To be a slave meant a secure home, food, and work.

As the New Testament was written, we see a change in the way that slaves were viewed and treated (thanks to the Gospel). They were seen as spiritual equals to their owners. (Philemon v 14, Gal. 3:28, Ephesians 6:9 and Col 4:1)

So, Onesimus was a slave, who had run away, and according to Roman Law deserved severe punishment. Thankfully, he met Paul, came to know Christ as Savior, and was being sent back to Philemon to be forgiven, restored, and to fulfill his obligations.

3. What is the book about?

The book is about Paul sending Onesimus back to Philemon. Although Paul longed to keep Onesimus with him, he wrote to Philemon to encourage him to forgive Onesimus, receive him back (without punishment), and treat him as a Christian brother.

He sent Onesimus back to Philemon. This was dangerous due to roaming slave catchers/bounty hunters in that day. So, Paul sent Onesimus with Tychicus. Tychicus was also delivering the letter to the Colossians church from Paul (Col 4:7-9).

There is a lot going on here. Tychicus is taking two “prison letters” from Paul. One was to taken to the Colossians church (the letter of Colossians) and one to Philemon. Rather than peppering you with more facts, please take this background information and re-read Philemon in mind. You will see the book of Philemon open and sense the beauty and power of the message of grace, forgiveness, and friendship that are in Christ.

I will post again on Saturday. We will use our outline of the Book of Philemon to begin to break it down into three sections for further study.

Enjoy it! It’s a wonderful book that shows us God’s grace in Christ.

Odd name, short book, great message …

Please pardon my tardiness. My intention was to post this introduction to the study of the Book of Philemon last week. Then, I had the fortune of receiving the flu. To be clear, I did not “get” the flu. To “get” suggests that deliberate action was taken in order to obtain something. No such action was taken. Instead, I received the flu. It is unclear whom I received it from. Whomever it was, thanks, I pray that your your tax returns will be delayed and your toe nails will thicken to the point of being untrimmable. There. Did I mention the Book of Philemon is about forgiveness? Oops.

After spending two and a half days in bed impersonating a tranquilized, but shivering, 182 pound sloth, I now am getting back to semi-normal, or at least as normal as I was to begin with.

So, all of that to say, my apologies for the post being a few days behind schedule.

Even though the Book of Philemon is only one chapter with 25 verses — it’s body of water might be short in width, but it is great in depth — it contains plenty of lessons and truths that will take us the rest of the month to examine.

You won’t be surprised if we take an odd route into it, will you? So, let’s clear the path with this thought: How do we see and know Jesus through this book. Our continual goal in studying God’s Word is to get to know Jesus better, and grow in our relationship with HIm. Remember that having eternal life is knowing Jesus and God the Father.

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. – John 17:3

The word for “know” in John 17:3 means to have an intimate relationship with someone, not just an acquaintance.

Jeremiah also points out the importance of knowing God, not just knowing about Him.

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” – Jeremiah 9:23-24

In sum, we will study the book of Philemon to get to know Jesus better and become more like Him.

On to Philemon. Below is a suggested outline to aid in your reading:

  • Paul’s Greeting – verses 1-3
  • Forgiveness requires Christ-like character. 4-7
  • Forgiveness requires Christ-like actions. 8-18
  • Forgiveness requires Christ-like motives. 19-25

The outline shows us that forgiveness is a critical theme in this book. It is, and it will astound you.

Verses 15-16 are key verses in Philemon. They show God’s providence, grace, and forgiveness!

For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother-especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16

As a smart reader you already see how this book shows us glimpses of Jesus, and will help us to become more like Him.

Between now and Tuesday, please read Philemon a couple of times. On Tuesday, I will post some background information that will help sort out who the main characters are (Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus) and some context that will tie the ends together. Then, we will dig in.