Philemon is the third shortest book in the Bible. The Greek text is only 22 sentences in six paragraphs, 335 words total. Only II and III John are shorter. It is a personal letter from Paul to a Christian named Philemon, written about AD 60 during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, at the same time as Colossians. In the letter, Paul intercedes on behalf of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus, who had gone to Rome and had been converted under Paul’s ministry. Paul writes to urge Philemon to forgive Onesimus and receive him back not as a slave, but as a Christian brother.
Philemon is about reconciliation and relationships between believers. It’s about how the Gospel is the change that changes everything.
Special note on slavery in the First-century world:
People could become slaves by birth, criminal punishment, military conquest, or voluntarily becoming a slave to pay a debt. There were several million slaves in the Roman Empire. In the early Christian period one out of every two people in Rome was a slave.
Many slaves became trusted servants and confidants, and some even ran businesses to their own and their master’s benefit. The New Testament neither condoned nor called for the overturn of slavery, but Christian teaching transformed the relationship between master and slave.
The Gospel does not propose political solutions to social problems, but begins to change social structures by changing the people within those structures. Eventually, Christians would drive slavery out of the whole civilized world. Paul takes the custom as a cultural given of the world in his day.
As a New Testament epistle, Philemon fits the usual pattern for the epistolary genre: a well-defined opening, a body, and a close/benediction. Philemon is also an example of hortatory discourse that seeks to persuade the addressee to fulfill commands that are given in the discourse. The usually pattern for hortatory discourse is the statement of a problem, the command, then reasons or motivation for obedience.
Most English translations, like the ESV, divide Philemon into four pericopes:
- Greeting: 1-3
- Philemon’s love and faith: 4-7
- Paul’s plea for Onesimus: 8-22
- Final greetings: 23-25
In the Greek Text, however, the book comprises six paragraphs that each serves a different function:
- Greeting: 1-3. Paul, along with Timothy, greet Philemon, “the beloved” (ἀγαπητός) and fellow worker; Apphia, our sister (ἀδελφή), perhaps Philemon’s wife; Archippus, our fellow soldier (συστρατιώτης), who may be Philemon’s son; and the church (ἐκκλησία) in your house. Paul greets them with “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” which is his common greeting. The personal pronoun “you” in the greeting is plural, referring to all of those mentioned in verses 1 and 2, but then switches to first-person as Paul begins to make his request of Philemon.
- Reason Paragraph: 4-7. Paul says two things in the second paragraph that give warrant to his confidence that Philemon will respond favorable to the request that Paul is about to make: a) he praises and gives thanks for Philemon’s faith and love that have refreshed the church and brought comfort and joy to Paul, and b) he and prays that the fellowship that exists between them may result in a greater understanding of the blessings that are theirs as Christians.
- Amplification: 8-16. In the third paragraph, Paul amplifies the grounds on which he will base his request of Philemon, even before he makes it. This “mitigated exhortation” to Philemon is done with extraordinary tact, delaying the content of the request until later in the letter.
Although Paul could command (ἐπιτάσσειν) Philemon, he does not, but pleads (παρακαλέω) on behalf of Onesimus (v. 8–9). The verb “to plead” is repeated in verse 10. Onesimus is not mentioned by name until the end of a long clause in verse 10.
Paul appeals to Philemon on the basis of love (τὴν ἀγάπην). This could be the general love that should characterize Christians in their dealings, the mutual love of Paul and Philemon for one another, the love that Philemon should now have for Onesimus as a brother in Christ.
Paul also mentions that he could appeal on the basis of his advanced age or his position as a prisoner for Christ.
Paul mentions that Onesimus has become his spiritual child, whom he had begotten while in bonds. He is Paul’s heart (σπλάγχνα). This once useless slave had become so beloved by and useful to Paul, that Paul wanted to keep him.
Paul is returning Onesimus to Philemon, even though he would have liked to keep him in order that he might help Paul (v. 12–13). But Paul will not do anything without Philemon’s consent (v. 14).
Paul suggests that perhaps Onesimus’ flight was God’s divine providence to transform the relationship between the master and his slave (v. 15–16).
- Paul’s appeal: 17-20. This paragraph is the heart of the letter and the key to preaching it, whether in one sermon or several. Paul asks Philemon to receive (προσλαμβάνω) Onesimus back (v. 17). It is the first imperative verb in the letter. Paul also promises personally to make good any loss Philemon may have suffered (v. 18–19).
He indirectly mentions that he won’t mention that Philemon himself is a spiritual debtor to Paul, asking Philemon for this favor or benefit (ὀνίνημι) in the Lord. Paul concludes his appeal with, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”
- Summary of Paul’s appeal: 21-22. Paul summarizes his appeal, expressing confidence that Philemon will not only comply with his request, but also do even more (v. 21) He couples that with the additional request that Philemon be ready to receive him, because he hopes to come to them before long (v. 22). The last request includes a measure of accountability for Philemon. Whatever he does with Paul’s request, Paul will see for himself when he comes to Colossae.
- Final Greeting: 23-25. The final greeting is Paul’s standard close, invoking the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to “be with your spirit.”
Preaching Possibilities for Philemon
The key idea in Philemon, seen in verse 17, is that the Gospel radically transforms all relationships. Because the Gospel changed Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus’ individual relationship to God, it also changed each man’s relationship with the others.
The Gospel makes us: family, partners, fellow workers, fellow soldiers, and sometimes fellow prisoners
What Paul does here is a picture of the Gospel. He is modeling the Lord Jesus. “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” Because of Christ’s relationship with the Father, he asks the Father to receive us as the Father receives him!
“If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” Everything we owed God as sinners and spiritual debtors has been charged to Christ’s account!
The letter to Philemon demonstrates:
- Christian grace, peace, and love in action.
- The power of affirming people.
- Reconciling broken relationships.
- The power of interceding on behalf of another.
- Gaining by giving up.
- Doing the right thing for the right reason.
- Going above and beyond the call of duty.
- Mentoring people rather than ordering them around.
- The value of accountability (inspect what you expect).