Preparation Prior to the study session, participants should read the entire book (it's the shortest book in the Bible!)
Orientation Philemon is book #18 of 27 in the New Testament, and and is one of Paul's letters. For more information see the Bible Overview page.
Synopsis Philemon was a resident of Colossae (Greece). His house served as a meeting place for the local church. His slave, Onesimus, ran away, wound up being converted by Paul, and now is being sent back home.
Paul strongly hints throughout the letter that Philemon should free Onesimus, so he can again help Paul. Paul exerts his influence throughout the letter:
Philemon was shown mercy through the grace of Jesus. Now Paul hopes - and expects - that he will show that same mercy to his own slave, who returns to him as a fellow believer.
- This is a public letter to the church (2) so the members may exert peer pressure on Philemon.
- Paul praises Philemon's faith and his love for all people (5) - hint: including slaves.
- Paul, as an apostle, has the authority to direct Philemon to free Onesimus - but prefers Philemon do it on his own initiative (13-14).
- Paul urges Philemon to treat Onesimus "as he would me" (16-17). Philemon would not treat Paul as he would a runaway slave.
- Paul offers to cover expenses (18) but points out you "you own me your life" (19); implying Philemon owes Paul.
- Paul plans to come visit Philemon (22) so he had better do the right thing before then.
Activity Compare this letter to the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23). What parallels do you see? Discussion points This letter may have served as a turning point at the time on the issue of slavery. If Philemon chooses to release Onesimus, he will be taking a step that, while advocated by Paul as a Christian thing to do; is clearly against the culture of their society. This may open Philemon up to criticism from the community. It is not an easy choice.
The Bible does not contain the outcome of Philemon's choice. However, according to Halley's Bible Handbook, it is believed that Philemon did choose to free Onesimus.
Connections This letter is a companion letter to Colossians. They share many references, and were written about the same time; during Paul's imprisonment in Rome.
For source citations see the home page. Revised April 11 2014
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