An overview of the historical background and theology of Philemon to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
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Paul, along with Timothy, wrote this letter to Philemon during one of his imprisonments. It’s his shortest letter (335 words in the original Greek). He wrote it to address a delicate issue.
Philemon appears to have been a wealthy Roman citizen who lived in Colossae. One of his slaves, Onesimus, wronged Philemon, ran away, and had evidently crossed paths with Paul. He had become a believer, helping Paul in his ministry (Col. 4:9).
Slavery was accepted in the Greco-Roman world. It took many forms, all of them different from more recent forms of slavery. Anyone, regardless of ethnicity, could be a slave, and many slaves were educated and held important positions. Many of them had the opportunity to work toward freedom, although they would always be recognized as ex-slaves. Although slavery then was better in some ways than more recent forms of slavery, Roman slaves were treated as property. Many of them faced harsh conditions, and some of them faced sexual exploitation.
Paul wanted to send Onesimus back to Philemon as required by Roman law. But by the same law, slaveowners had the right to punish or execute runaway slaves. So Paul wrote to Philemon with a delicate request: welcome Onesimus back as he would welcome Paul, not as a runaway slave but as a brother (v. 17).
Although Paul writes this letter to Philemon, he makes it clear that this is also a letter for the wider church (v. 2). In writing this letter, Paul resolves a crisis between two believers, a master and a slave, showing how the gospel impacts our relationships and social structures.
Series Title: Living the Implications of the Gospel
Big idea for this series: The gospel changes our status, absorbs our debts, and welcomes us—just as we are called to do to others.
This series takes a slower pace through the book and focuses on how the gospel is never explicitly mentioned in Philemon, but is embedded and implied in every detail. Paul calls Philemon to portray the gospel in his response to Onesimus: to confer a new status, welcome, and assume (with Paul) the repayment of what is owed. Philemon’s response to his runaway slave is a portrait of the gospel.
Text: Philemon 1-7
Title: The Gospel Changes Us
Exegetical Idea: Paul gives thanks for how the gospel has changed Philemon and prepared him for service.
Big Idea: The gospel changes us and prepares us for service.
Text: Philemon 8-16
Title: The Gospel Changes Relationships
Exegetical Idea: Paul asks Philemon to respond to Onesimus out of love rather than obligation.
Big Idea: The gospel prepares us to respond to others out of love.
Text: Philemon 17-25
Title: The Gospel Calls Us to Cross-Centered Living
Exegetical Idea: Paul asks Philemon to do what Jesus has done to him: to receive others, release debts, and share in fellowship.
Big Idea: The gospel frees us do to others what Jesus has done for us.
Series Title: The Gospel Changes the World
Big idea for this series: As the gospel transforms individuals, those changes begin to transform the wider world.
This series is shorter and examines how the gospel changes not only us, but how it affects our entire lives and the surrounding world.
Text: Philemon 1-7
Title: The Gospel Changes Individuals
Big Idea: The gospel changes individuals and our relationships with others.
Text: Philemon 8-25
Title: The Gospel Changes the World
Big Idea: When the gospel changes us, these changes transform our relationships and the surrounding world.
Philemon is short. Once hearers understand the historical background, it’s relatively easy to understand. Applying Philemon is multilayered because of how it affects us personally, as well as our relationships, and the social structures of the world.
Onesimus wronged Philemon. Paul wrote to Philemon, asking him to forgive Onesimus and treat him as a brother, not as a runaway slave.
At the most basic level, Philemon is an example of forgiving others who have wronged us. Jesus repeatedly spoke of the importance of forgiving others and said that if we did not forgive others, God would not forgive us (Matt. 6:14-15). Philemon is a case study in releasing the debts that others owe to us, and treating them not as they deserve but as God has treated us through Jesus.
The gospel transforms our relationships. Paul thanks God that Philemon has been brought into fellowship or partnership (v 6). It changes our relationship with other believers in practical ways. It changes individuals from different social classes, with differing levels of authority, into brothers and sisters (vs. 15-16). It calls for a response of generosity, welcome, and hospitality to others (vs. 17-22). It also changes our motivation: we don’t do all of this out of obligation, but out of love (vs. 8-9, 14).
The gospel doesn’t only change us individually. It changes everything about our relationships in practical ways, even when it costs.
Paul did not directly attack the institution of slavery, but he undermined it in this letter. When Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother, and asked Philemon to share this letter with the entire church, he overturned the values of Greco-Roman society.
Paul’s vision gives us a vision of reality in which social structures opposed to the gospel are replaced by new relationships of love and mutuality at every level of human relationships. The letter to Philemon is a living demonstration of Colossians 3:11: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
Paul does not explicitly cover a lot of theological material in this short letter, but theology permeates everything he writes.
Paul treats the matter between Philemon and Onesimus not just as a private matter, but as one that belongs to the entire church (v. 2). Apart from the greeting, he uses the second-person plural pronoun, signifying that he is addressing more than Philemon. Our individual lives are not private; they are part of the life of the church. The letter also portrays the church as a new community in which all are equal recipients of God’s grace no matter one’s background or social position.
This letter is the only one in which Paul does not explicitly mention Jesus’ death or resurrection, but Paul embodies the gospel in everything he writes. Paul takes on the ministry of reconciliation, bringing those who were separated by sin into relationship with each other. He calls Philemon to a cross-shaped response: treating others not as they deserve, but extending welcome and relationship instead of exacting payment from the offending party. The gospel also changes our motivations: we obey not out of obligation but out of love.
My Encounter with Philemon
I have only preached through Philemon once, a long time ago, and that time I focused on the theme of forgiveness. While it’s valid to preach forgiveness from Philemon, there’s so much more to explore.
It’s time for me to revisit this letter again. We don’t have the same kind of slavery in my context, but we face social divisions and inequality. People struggle with how the gospel applies beyond their private devotion to Christ. Philemon is a book that gets under your skin, that helps you re-imagine the entire world around you.
It’s time for me to preach Philemon once again!
Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008).
Peter O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 44, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1982).
David W. Pao, Colossians and Philemon, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).