Dependable Discipleship 14 – Notes and Questions – PhilemonDependable Discipleship
Philemon – Paul’s Plea for a Runaway Slave
Paul’s request of Philemon that he forgive and reconcile with his runaway slave Onesimus is everything that a letter should be. It’s personal, authentic, courteous, tactful, and respectful. And it’s to the point. It serves as an example for each of us today, as we build bridges, make peace, and restore relationships with others.
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As noted in the CSB Study Bible: Philemon is Paul’s only letter of a strictly private nature. It concerns a runaway slave, Onesimus, who had robbed his master, Philemon, and escaped from Colossae to Rome. There Onesimus met the imprisoned apostle Paul and converted to Christ. Paul wrote to Philemon concerning Onesimus. Paul sent both the letter and Onesimus back to Colossae. Paul’s letter to Philemon is little more than a postcard, but it comes from the tender heart of a friend writing as a friend rather than as an apostle exercising his authority.
Onesimus had apparently run away and taken with him some of his master’s money or possessions (vv. 15; 18). Perhaps attracted by the anonymity of a large, distant city, he traveled to Rome seeking a life of freedom. His path crossed Paul’s, and he became a Christian (vv. 10; 16) and a useful helper to Paul (v. 11).
This letter has served as an inspiration for the liberation of slaves. Paul’s clear preference was to keep Onesimus with him (v. 13), but he recognized that Philemon was his legal owner and decided to send him back (v. 12) so Philemon could either reinstate him as a slave who was now also a Christian brother (vv. 15–16) or else set him free for further service to Paul back in Rome (vv. 13; 20–21). Onesimus returned to his master with this letter, knowing that Paul was confident of Philemon’s “obedience” (v. 21) but also knowing that neither forgiveness, reinstatement, nor emancipation was guaranteed.
Questions for Thought and Discussion
What do you most appreciate in a personal letter you receive?
How do you include those same elements when you write a letter yourself?
How would you outline Paul’s letter to Philemon?
1. Greetings. 2. Prayer and Thanks. 3. Request. 4. Future Plans. 5. Farewell.
What do we know about Philemon himself? Apphia? Archippus?
What does the name “Philemon” mean? “Affectionate.”
For what does Paul commend Philemon? What has Paul heard?
How would you describe a “refreshing Christian?” Give examples.
What’s the difference between compliments and flattery?
How can we persuade people without manipulating or forcing them?
What incentives does Paul use to persuade Philemon to say yes?
1:4 “I thank God as I pray for you!”
1:5-7 “Your love … faith … bringing joy, comfort, and refreshment!”
1:8 “I could order … authority, but instead I appeal … love.”
1:9 “Personally for myself, Paul, as an old man, in prison for Christ.”
1:10 “You would actually be helping my own child.”
1:11 “No longer useless, but useful.” (Onesimus means “useful.”)
1:12 “Sending him back to you is like giving you my very heart.”
1:13 “I’d gladly keep him for myself, as your minister to me!”
1:14 “I won’t force you! Do only what you really and truly want.”
1:15-16 “Maybe this brief separation can lead to a permanent reunion, with a much better relationship! What an improvement – a slave who is also a brother!”
1:17 “Since I’m your partner, treat him as you would treat me!”
1:18-19 “If he wronged you (perhaps by theft) or owes you, charge me! I will pay it. I’m signing the promissory note right here. Of course, you owe me your own life!” (This implies that Paul had led Philemon to Christ.)
1:20 “You’re my brother! As you’ve refreshed others, refresh me!”
1:21 “I’m sure you’ll go the extra mile. That’s just who you are!”
1:22 “Set up a room. I hope to come your way and stay with you!”
1:23-25 Final greetings and close.
If you were Philemon, and you received this very letter from Paul, what would you decide to do as a result? Why?
Would you feel pressured or persuaded?
Would you feel free to say yes or no, without fear of his response?
How can / should Paul’s approach to Philemon affect you …
— When you write a letter to make a request?
— When you ask a friend for a favor?
— When a friend asks you for a favor?
What difference does / should it make when all the parties involved are Christians?
Written by Cory Collins
Cory Collins is a Bible teacher and a minister of the gospel. He serves with Keller church of Christ in Keller, Texas. He and his wife, Tanya, have been married since 1977. They have two children and one grandchild.