UB David + I'll B Jonathan, Inc.


Used with permission: Character by Character compiled by Selwyn Hughes and Trevor Partridge. Copyright © CWR (www.cwr.org.uk).




Scripture passages referenced and linked in this lesson are written out for your convenience on this page.

UB David + I'll B Jonathan, Inc.


Character by Character, Series 4

Lesson 11: Philemon


Scripture passages referenced and linked in this lesson are written out for your convenience on this page.

Philemon: “Affectionate”

Fellow worker

Philemon v. 1 (click the link to read the passage)

development of these churches depended, humanly speaking, on the local believers

During the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, many churches, both large and small, were established by him. However, the continuation and further development of these churches depended, humanly speaking, on the local believers who nurtured and discipled the groups of Christians meeting in different homes. Paul was the first to acknowledge the importance of appointing trusted Christians for the task of nurturing others—these were often spoken of as his ‘fellow workers’ in the Gospel. In introducing Philemon to us as a ‘fellow worker’, we catch a glimpse of someone with a deep dedication and a firm commitment to the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ.

For thought and contemplation:

Isn’t it fascinating how, in just a couple of words—‘fellow worker’—it is possible to get a vivid impression of a man’s industriousness and character? What does this term conjure up in your mind? Spend a few moments thinking through just what might be involved. Could this phrase be used of you?

“Thus you will walk in the ways of good men and keep to the paths of the righteous.” (Prov. 2:20, NIV)

A personal letter

Philemon vv. 1-3

Paul writes to Philemon from a prison cell in Rome

Paul writes to Philemon from a prison cell in Rome. He sends greetings from Timothy and himself to Philemon, his wife Apphia, his son, Archippus (Col. 4:17), and to the members of the church in his house in Colosse. At the end of the letter, he sends further greetings from other fellow workers who are with him in Rome. Epaphras is mentioned first. He was probably known to Philemon because he was the evangelist who, under Paul’s direction, founded the church in Colosse.

Paul had a special request to make of Philemon, which he makes most tactfully and compellingly in this very personal letter.

For thought and contemplation:

This is the only letter of Paul’s in the whole of the New Testament that is of a personal nature; the rest, without exception, are his official correspondence to the churches. Why should this personal letter be included in the canon of Scripture? Could it be because God wanted us to know how Paul faced the problem of slavery—one of the most difficult social problems of his time?

“This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” (Heb. 10:16, NIV)

Philemon - letter to a prominent Christian

Jerome [4th century Church father and Biblical scholar] tells us that the Letter to Philemon was rejected by many writers. From the absence of doctrinal teaching in this Letter, they concluded that it was not by St. Paul, or that, if it was his, it did not belong to the canon, since it contained nothing by which the Church might be edified. This decision arose out of a narrow view of the canon, and the primitive Church, as a whole, did not ratify the verdict.

Although it concerns a personal relationship, the Letter is addressed not only to Philemon, but to “the church”. It approaches the question of master-slave relationships which posed a problem for the whole of the Church. In Christ, the Letter shows, earthly relationships are transformed—brotherhood is the context in which they must be worked out.

Faith recalled

Philemon vv. 4-5 & 10

he singled out his love and faith towards Jesus Christ and his fellow believers

Paul constantly remembered in prayer the Christians known to him, and thanked God for the good things about them which he knew from personal experience, or through the testimony of others who knew them. In Philemon’s case, he singled out his love and faith towards Jesus Christ and his fellow believers. This, no doubt, convinced Paul that he could safely appeal to Philemon, rather than command him, to welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul had led to Christ in Rome. This appeal of Paul to his old friend Philemon is, in fact, the central thrust of this short but appealing epistle.

For thought and contemplation:

A man’s nature, it has been said, is shown as much by the letters he receives as by those which he writes. This letter is almost as great a credit to Philemon as it is to the apostle Paul. What kind of letters do you receive? Be assured, your correspondents are saying something about you—if only between the lines.

“For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” (1 John 5:4, NIV)

Benevolence shown

Philemon vv. 6-7

Having highlighted Philemon’s faith and love, Paul moves on to tell Philemon that he is praying that the sharing of his faith with others will spread the knowledge of all that is to be found and possessed in Christ. He recalls the joy and comfort he has drawn from Philemon’s love, and how his benevolence has refreshed all the Christians with whom he has come in contact. It is a simple but beautiful expression of appreciation for Philemon’s Christian contribution and not, as one commentator believes, “the buttering-up of Philemon before confronting him with the challenge of accepting back his runaway slave on a more Christian basis.”

For thought and contemplation:

The virtue which Paul especially highlights in Philemon’s life is that of ‘benevolence’. Some translations use the word ‘kindness’, ‘hospitality’ or ‘love’. Someone put it like this: “God lets His kindly rain fall on the evil and the good—we, too, ought to rain kindliness on all.” How ‘kind’ a person are you?

“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42, NIV)

An appeal to love

Philemon v. 9

plead the cause of the runaway slave, Onesimus, who has been converted to Christ

Having commended Philemon for his attributes and qualities, as well as for his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul gets down to the main point of his letter, which is to plead the cause of the runaway slave, Onesimus, who has been converted to Christ under Paul’s ministry in Rome. Paul explains that he would like to have kept Onesimus as his servant, but he would not do that without Philemon’s consent, and thus he was sending Onesimus back to his master. He makes a special plea for Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household, not as a servant, but as a brother in Christ.

For thought and contemplation:

How much easier it is to approach people over difficult and sensitive areas in the Christian life when you know that they are eager to do the right and loving thing. Do you experience this with others? But, more important: do others experience this with you?

“May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” (1 Thess. 3:12, NIV)

Obedience anticipated

Philemon v. 21

asking him to receive Onesimus

Paul makes an eloquent plea to Philemon, flowing from his own love for Onesimus which has developed during their short acquaintance in Rome, asking him to receive Onesimus, not just as a ‘beloved brother’, but as he would the apostle himself. He offers to repay personally any loss which Philemon may have suffered because of Onesimus’ defection, but gently reminds Philemon of his own spiritual debt towards the apostle as his spiritual father. Paul also explains that he needs some encouragement from Philemon since he is now in prison, and that his acceptance of Onesimus as a brother would be inspiring news indeed. Paul expects Philemon to do, not only what he asks, but far more.

For thought and contemplation:

“Expect the best of people”, goes an old saying, “and you will get what you expect.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. How different things might be in our personal relationships, however, if we adopted the attitude of expecting the best from people, rather than the worst!

“If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land.” (Isaiah 1:19, NIV)

Hospitality claimed

Philemon v. 22

As a pioneer missionary, Paul depended a good deal upon the hospitality of his friends, and he confidently asks Philemon to prepare a guest room for him, as he hopes to be released from prison soon in answer to their prayers. He seems to have had no doubt that Philemon would do this, and that he would be welcomed with joy when he eventually arrived in Colosse. He was sure, too, that Onesimus would be part of the household again, and would be there to greet him if he had not been sent back by Philemon to serve him in Rome. The last three verses of the epistle are greetings from others and a final prayer for Philemon.

For thought and contemplation:

Was it faith—a divine assurance—or mere wishful thinking that led Paul to ask Philemon to prepare a room for him following his release from prison? Scholars have debated this question for centuries. What do you think?

“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Peter 4:9, NIV)

The lesson to be learned from Philemon

Some of the Church Fathers argued that, as Paul’s letter to Philemon contained no doctrinal teaching and was a purely personal and private letter, it ought not to be included in the canon of Scripture. However, the Holy Spirit overruled, and in so doing, has preserved for us a picture of a man with some very interesting character traits. He was benevolent, loving, kind and given to hospitality.

There are many lessons one can draw from his life, but perhaps the greatest is this: approachability. Paul, as we saw, did not hesitate to open up to him on one of the most delicate issues of the day—slavery—but he did so in the confidence that Philemon would respond positively to his loving appeal.

Used with permission: Character by Character compiled by Selwyn Hughes and Trevor Partridge. Copyright © CWR (www.cwr.org.uk).

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