• The Apostle Paul is in prison in Rome, and among others attending him is Onesimus from the city of Colossae. Onesimus had become a Christian through the ministry of Paul, and they now had a close relationship. There was a problem, however: Onesimus was a “runaway slave” having fled from his master, Philemon, and Philemon was also a dear friend of Paul, also having become a Christian through Paul’s ministry. In the Roman empire, a runaway slave was to be returned to his or her master. So how should Paul handle this delicate situation involving his two friends and brothers-in-Christ? Paul’s letter to Philemon is the answer, and through this letter, God shows us the importance of love and grace, and the meaning of being part of the body of Christ and living out that reality in the situations of one’s life at whatever the cost or consequence.

  1. Thanks and Encouragement (Philemon 1-7)
  • Paul writes to his beloved brother, Philemon, thanks him for their relationship and his work for Christ, prays that he would be even more effective in that work, and encourages him for the results of his work..
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • God has placed His children in a family – the Church – in which relationships one with another are crucial. – Philemon 1 & 2
  • Praying for one another is a key aspect of the life of the Church. – Philemon 4 & 6
  • The “glue” of relationships in the Church is love. – Philemon 5 & 7
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • How do you consider others in the Church? Do you think of them as family?
  • What is so important about our praying for one another? Are you praying for others in your church?
  • What is the key ingredient of “love?” How do you live out love for others in your church?

Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • While the letter is personal to Philemon, why does Paul also address it to Apphia, Archippus and the church in Philemon’s house?
  • Describe Paul’s relationship with Philemon as reflected in the text.
  • What is Paul’s desire for Philemon and why?
  • What do we learn about prayer, and particularly intercessory prayer, from the text?
  • What is the implication of one’s faith in Christ “toward the Lord Jesus” and “toward all the saints?” In other words, how does faith work itself out in one’s relationship with Jesus and with other believers
  • What is the “fellowship” of one’s faith? (verse 6)
  • How does knowing the good things in you for Jesus’ sake relate to the effectiveness of your faith?
  • What does it mean to refresh the hearts of other believers? How does doing that give joy and comfort to others?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • What is your response when you receive a correspondence from a “beloved” Christian sister or brother?
  • How do you intercede in prayer for your Christian brothers and sisters?
  • In what ways and for what things can you be thankful for how God is working in others for whom you are praying?
  • How are you working out your faith “toward all the saints?” What more can you do to work out your faith in regard to your Christian brothers and sisters?
  • How can the fellowship of your faith become effective through knowing What God in Christ has done for you?
  • How might you refresh the hearts of your Christian brothers and sisters?
  • How do you see the principle of mutuality working out in the life of the church, particularly in relationships one with another?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
In this series, we embark on a four-part study of the short New Testament book of Philemon. Actually, the book is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to his beloved friend, Philemon who, as best can be deduced, lived in the city of Colossae located in Asia Minor (cf. Colossians 4:9). Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter, most likely in Rome, where his imprisonment was a form of house arrest (Acts 28:16, 30 & 31). It seems when he wrote this letter that he anticipated his release (Philemon 22).  Paul also wrote a letter to the church at Colossae which was to be delivered to the church by Tychicus and Onesimus (Clossians 4:7-9), and it seems that the letter to Philemon was being delivered at the same time. The letter follows the standard letter format of the day in which there was an opening greeting, thanksgiving and a prayer, the body of the letter, messages from others, and the closing. Paul, of course, adopted the standard format to his own uses and infused all his letters with a uniquely Christian content in all aspects of these letters. The letter to Philemon is no exception.

Who is this Philemon to whom Paul was writing and what was the reason for the letter? As noted above, Philemon was a resident of the city of Colossae. He was apparently a person of some means as a house church met in his home (Philemon 2), and he owned at least one slave (Philemon 16). He was a believer who was evidently converted under Paul's ministry (Philemon 19). He had become a dear friend of Paul (Philemon 1), and they had apparently ministered together in some manner as Paul called him his “beloved fellow worker.” (Philemon 2). The occasion of the letter was Paul's intercession on behalf of one Onesimus, who was a “runaway” slave owned by Philemon, but who had converted to Christianity under Paul's ministry (Philemon 10) and was now engaged in assisting Paul while he was in prison (Philemon 11).

Before looking at the text, a few words about the institution of slavery in the Roman empire are in order. Slavery was an integral part of the fabric of life in the Roman empire. There were literally millions of slaves, and some historians estimate that as many as a quarter of the population of the empire were slaves. Most of these slaves were conquered peoples who now served the empire or individual Roman citizens. Some slaves, however, consisted of those who “sold” themselves into slavery in order to pay their debts. Slaves were considered “property” and therefore had no rights, though by Paul's day Roman law gave slaves some rights. Nevertheless, as property, they could be bought, sold, discarded or freed. Slaves worked in homes, farms, mines, factories and on government projects. Many slaves served in the Roman army. In time, and depending on where they served, some slaves were able to accumulate wealth and even purchase their freedom. Altogether, slaves were vital to the Roman economy as they were the workers. That their lives could be miserable and their lives cheap, was of no moment to many Romans, though slaves who were costly (e.g., those with skills, trades, or training and education) were generally treated well if for no other reason than the protection of one's investment. Household slaves were often treated as valued members of the household, serving to educate the children and doing the work of keeping the household running. They were even allowed a measure of freedom. As an institution, there was no thought of overthrowing slavery. The several slave rebellions were ruthlessly quelled. The society would not function without the slaves, the slave market, and the work the slaves did. Certainly the aristocratic class had no desire to change things as they were the ones who profited from the slave trade and were the beneficiaries of the work the slaves did. Thus, it is fair to say that while Christianity brought a new social order, namely that of the Kingdom, the leaders and teachers of Christianity such as Paul did not seek to undo the institution of slavery. Rather, they dealt with the condition of the heart, sought lives transformed by the gospel, and preached the application of such transformation to how one lived day to day, whether slave or free. Such was the mindset that prevailed for Paul even though he fully understood that as a result of the new life in Christ, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11)

So in this letter we have Onesimus who is a runaway slave; he has left his master and in his runaway journey has become a follower of Jesus Christ through the gospel ministry of Paul, and has even come to be his “beloved brother” (Philemon 16) just as Philemon is (Philemon 1). Under Roman law, a runaway slave was not considered a runaway if he went to a mutual friend to seek that friend's intercession with the slave owner. In such a status, the slave has to be returned to his owner who would then have the right to treat the runaway any way desired, including execution. Paul knows the position of Onesimus, and through this letter intercedes on his behalf with Philemon, but within the context of Kingdom principles as we shall see.

Paul begins the letter with greetings from himself and his fellow worker, Timothy. As he was wont to do, Paul labeled himself as “a prisoner for Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1), seeing his imprisonment as part of his life for carrying out his calling as a minister of the gospel. He addresses the letter to Philemon, Apphia (generally held to be Philemon's wife) and Archippus (some identify him as Philemon's son). Apphia is a believer, as she is called “sister,” and Archippus is a fellow soldier, meaning in the fight for the gospel. Then Paul notes that he also addresses the church that is in Philemon's house (Philemon 2). Thus, while the letter is personal to Philemon, Paul clearly intends it for the community of faith, the church, at Colossae, as the message has import and application to the entire church. To these addressees, Paul extends grace and peace (a customary greeting) from the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ.

Verses 4 through 7 give backdrop for what Paul will request later in the letter by touching on who Philemon is in Christ, how he has impacted the lives of others including Paul, and what he wants for Philemon's spiritual walk and growth. As Paul thanks God for Philemon and prays for him, we find in these verses a deep relationship between Paul and Philemon, and man of great character: we already know Philemon is a church leader and a beloved brother in Christ, but here we read Paul's encouragement of Philemon for his love and his faith and its outworking in the body of Christ (Philemon 5). Philemon is clearly living out the gospel; but Paul prays that Philemon's life of faith as shared with others of like faith (Philemon 6) would grow deeper as he comes to know Jesus better. That is really the message of verse 6. Paul prays that Philemon would grow in love and the practice of his faith so that he will understand more fully that which he has in Christ and the participation he has in the lives of others in and through Christ. And in verse 7, Paul indicates that such has already happened as he, Paul, “has derived much joy and comfort” from Philemon's love, in that he has seen the “hearts” of others in the body of Christ refreshed by Philemon's life and actions. Philemon has learned, and needs to learn still more, that the basis of life in the body of believers is love, that is, selfless love, that is shared; in short, that there is a mutual participation of life amongst believers which redounds to the glory of God and the sake of Christ, not to mention refreshes believers in their inner person and hearts. Philemon has a transformed relationship with God through Jesus, and has a heart of compassion which is the mark of shared, participatory faith.

What powerful words of encouragement to Philemon! The message to Philemon from Paul so far is that one's personal faith in Christ is more than personal; it is worked out in service to Christ first and then to others, for the body of Christ is a new community in which the “law of love” reigns and is lived out both in relationships and in service (cf. John 13:34 & 35; 15:12). How we as believers treat others – and especially other believers – is, at base, how we treat Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 25:34-40). Mutual love within the body of Christ not only identifies believers with Christ, but it testifies to the gospel. As believers, we belong to each other, and share (or participate) in the life of Christ together; and the more we do it, the more we grow in that participation and the more we honor Jesus (cf. Colossians 1:10-12; 3:12-17). That is the life of the body of Christ; that is the “koinonoia” (Greek word for sharing, participation, partnership) of the church. Philemon was practicing it and growing in it, and we in the church today need to do likewise, and the doing so will “become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” (Philemon 6)