Pesky questions yield powerful answers …

Let’s take a different approach in this post. Our working outline for Philemon divides the short book into four sections. Let’s use that outline to generate questions that will aid our reading and study of the book. Rather than sharing facts or context, I will offer questions that you can use as tools to break down what you are reading. Sound good? Let’s give it a go.

Here is our working outline:

Paul’s Greeting – verses 1-3

In the greeting or conclusion of many of Paul’s letters he often specifically names or refers to fellow believers. Take a moment and look at some of Paul’s letters to see this common practice of his. Why do you think that Paul consistently did this?

Forgiveness requires Christ-like character. 4-7

These verses show us the stellar character of Philemon. How many Christ-like traits can you spot in these verses? As you spot them, jot them down. Use them as you pray and ask God to develop those same characteristics in your heart and mind.

Forgiveness requires Christ-like actions. 8-18

Paul had led Onesimus to Christ. As a brother in Christ, Paul then began to help restore Onesimus to Philemon. This would not be easy, or simple. Is there a fellow believer in your life that needs your help or encouragement? Take a moment and pray about it. Be still. Wait. I am certain that God will bring someone to mind. Then, consider calling them or sending them a note to encourage them. When someone needs our help it rarely happens at a time that suits our schedule (Paul was in prison after all, not exactly a place of convenience or comfort). We have to go out of our own way it we want to be useful to others.

By the way, there is a great play on words in verse 11. In the original language of the New Testament the name Onesimus means “useful.” In verse 11, Paul says that because of his disobedience “Useful” was no longer “useful” to Philemon, but now, in Christ Onesimus is “useful” again. Ponder on that one for a little while. There is a great lesson and it is beautifully crafted. God’s word reveals His truth and Himself, and God does it with amazing images, language, and word play. In your daily Bible reading keep your antennae perked to spot how God uses words cleverly to convey His truth.

Forgiveness requires Christ-like motives. 19-25

For the sake of Onesimus and Philemon, Paul was willing to do, or pay, whatever it took to re-connect the two. He was putting his money where his motives were. Paul longed for their reconciliation. He was willing to go to any lengths to see it through.

Is there an act of service, or sacrifice, that you need to consider for a fellow believer? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to see it through?

Sometimes, pesky questions give us powerful answers — answers that move us toward Christ and shape us to become more like Him.

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.