The Letter of Paul to Philemon
1 Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.[a] 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus,[b] whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
We are drawing near to the end of our study of the Bible as a whole. Probably no more than two or three messages after this one. When thinking about the New Testament texts, obviously the Apostle Paul is a key author. There are twenty-seven New Testament texts, thirteen of them are written by Paul. There are some distinctive aspects of Paul’s letters I can point out that will help us to organize his thoughts and message to his hearers. Reading a letter written to someone else is like listening in on a conversation that is not for you, it can be easy to misunderstand things. So, I want to begin by sharing some of these that are commonly found.
- Distinctives of Paul’s Letters
- Regular Introductory Sections
Here in Philemon it’s v.1-7
Who is writing?
To whom is it written?
A general greeting
An exhortation of thanksgiving
A theological summary
It is important to realize that these elements are not always there, but often are, so when you are reading a Pauline epistle, don’t get ahead of Paul. Look for them as you read. Make a note when Paul transitions to his point. He is gonna get to the point of the letter, but not till he is done with the introductory matters.
- What we believe and what we do
In a Paul’s letters, Romans and Ephesians this is especially easy to see. First comes the information, then comes the exhortation. Theology, then application. Orthodoxy, then orthopraxy. The gospel is information, the law is exhortation. In Galatians Paul starts by talking about the gospel and ends with walking by the Spirit, sowing to the Spirit. Information about the gospel and then exhortation about what to do. This gives us some wisdom into what the source of bad behavior in life is, or what the source of good behavior. If we are believing the right things, then we will do the right things. The fruit of the Spirit is character. Doctor Inch used to say that if you are having trouble believing, focus on obeying and if you are having trouble obeying, focus on believing.
What we believe informs our action, but when we obey God, then we know Him better and that allows us to obey Him better, which in turn allows us to experience Him more and so on.
Romans chapters 1-11 have a total of one statement of something to do. The rest is information. Then from 12:1 Therefore… to the end of the book it is full of things to do.
Ephesians chapters 1-3 are all theological information, especially as it relates to salvation, then beginning with chapter 4 there is one logical statement of application following another!
Paul on prayer: Paul is a fascinating study on prayer. He prays often in his letters in writing for the churches. Understanding how he prays should inform us in our praying. Also, Paul often asks people to pray for him. That should also give us wisdom!!
I counted twenty three passages in Paul’s thirteen letters where he mentions prayer specifically or prays for people! I know that there are even more, because I thought of more after writing 23. The writings of Paul are a great place to go to understand how to pray for others!!
Romans 1:8-10; Romans 8:26-27; Romans 15:30 pray for Paul
II Cor 1:11 how prayer works
Ephesians 1:15-19; Ephesians 3:14-21; Ephesians 6:18-20
Philippians 1:9-11; Phil 1:19; Phil 4:4-7
Colossians 1:9-12; Col 4:2-4 Col 4:12
I Thes 1:2-3; I Thes 3:9-10; I Thes 5:16-18
II Thes 1:3,11-12; II Thes 3:1-2
I Tim 2:1-4,8; I Tim 4:4-5
II Tim 1:3-7; Philemon 1:4-6
General statements about Paul and prayer: Paul thanks God for the joy that he experiences because of the faith, love and ministry of the gospel in people’s lives.
Paul prays that people would know God’s will, wisdom, love and power. He prays that people’s lives would be worthy of the gospel and please God.
Paul asks that people would pray for him that he would have opportunity and boldness to speak the gospel to others and that they would respond in faith!
Paul and the term “In Christ”. This is a reference to all of God’s grace given to people because of what Jesus has done for them. This is how it works: “How can I be forgiven? There is forgiveness in Christ. How can I be confident in my relationship with God? There is confidence because of Christ etc.
II Cor 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ,
- Final greetings and partnerships
Paul’s letters often end with long sections of people’s names. But what I want you all to keep in mind is that these are all important people who partner with Paul in his mission. We don’t know who many of them all, but Paul does and they are working together.
This says something about the importance of people who work behind the scenes (Paul is the one who in the listing of spiritual gifts says that those that seem less important are more necessary!) and it says something important about “shared ministry”.
- Difficulties in Reading Another’s Mail
- Historical context can be a challenge
The text means what Paul means for it to say to the first readers.
General Epistles vs. Specifically directed Epistles. How much personal stuff is in there?
The classic text from I Corinthians 7:1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
Or I Cor 11: 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him,
Before we would know for certain how to apply this passage, we need to know what the question was that they wrote about.
We know from the totality of Scripture that it will have a narrow application.
- Topical application of theological principles
Take the same verse above and think about all the theological principles that apply to human sexuality. Our application will come from one of those principles.
- Interpretation first then application
What does the writer mean to say to the people about the issue he is addressing? Then that is what the text means. Phil 4:19 for example. Or Phil 4:13 for example.
III. Philemon as an Example
- Beginning and Ending are standard Pauline form
Written from Paul and those with him.
Written to Philemon and those with him.
Grace and Peace to you! Grace is what God gives. Peace is the result of grace received!
Paul’s personal general encouragement: v. 4-7
It is common for Paul to praise his hearers in a personal way indicating the importance of their faithfulness to him personally and also he often indicates how he is praying for them.
Salutation: 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you,
24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
- Historical context of slavery
Not the easiest issue to draw application from! But there are worse forms of slavery! Just like there are worse job situations.
How do we define people? Onesimus has become a follower of Jesus. Paul calls him “his” child.
- Topical application of spiritual principles
Need for people to respond to God freely out of love
Respect of the image of God in people (slave or not!)
Respect of the usefulness of Onesimus to Paul and their relationship (Paul has led Onesimus to Christ)
Respect for Philemon’s financial investment in Onesimus
Respect for Philemon’s authority over Onesimus
Power of Jesus to redefine relationships
Serving others: Paul serves the slave in Christ!
Ultimately we have a picture of what it means to be a follower of Jesus because of Paul’s letters. To care for a slave, to elevate the slave to the level of friend. To pay the debt of the slave, to protect the slave from their previous bad behavior. To mediate the relationship between slave and master. All of these things are seen in Paul’s actions and should inform how we honor and treat others as well.