The Book of Philemon: Bible Story Summary, Key Verses and Lessons
What are key verses of the Book of Philemon? What is the summary of this book? And what lessons does this book hold for believers today?
Who is Philemon?
The Book of Philemon is one of the most interesting, yet neglected books of the Bible. This book was written by Paul while he was in prison around A. D. 60. Philemon was a Christian and a slave holder. It appears that he was a slave holder before he was saved. His slave, Onesimus (pronounced “own-sim-us”) had run away and by divine providence may have become imprisoned with Paul since runaway slaves were sometimes arrested. It is also possible that Onesimus was not imprisoned but had heard about the Apostle Paul and sought him out and found out that he was in prison. It might even happened that Onesimus was freed from prison and then was Paul’s “go-for” guy on the outside. Most would say that it was a coincidence that Onesimus found Paul but there are no coincidences in the sovereignty of God. This letter or epistle to Philemon was for the purpose of having Onesimus freed and accepted as a fellow saint by Philemon. Besides, Onesimus had been serving Paul who was imprisoned at the time (1:11-13).
Why Was Philemon Written?
What is amazing here is that the Apostle Paul could have used his apostolic position and demanded that Philemon release Onesimus (1:9). This letter is one of the rarest of Paul’s epistles since it was written by his own hand and not transcribed as most of his letters were (1:19). Paul’s admonition to slaves can be likened to that of employees to employers in that they should be in subjection to their bosses (masters) in all that they ask, not just giving eye-service, not talking behind their backs about them, not back-talking to their face, not stealing from them, and being shown to be trustworthy (1:16). A good example of the latter would be when the boss is gone the employee (slave) should work as unto the Lord regardless of whether the boss is gone or not. This is reflective of Old Testament teachings as well like in Ecclesiastes 9:10 which says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol (or the grave), to which you are going.”
Paul‘s letter to Philemon was to display God‘s not being any respecter of persons by saying to Philemon that he should have a relationship with his slave Onesimus like that of a brother in Christ just as Paul was to Philemon (1:16). Paul also addressed Onesimus to tell him that he has a duty to return to his master Philemon (1:8, 15). This letter gives believers the model with which to characterize what mutual love and respect should be embodied among members of the church. Paul reflects this brotherly relationship in not using his apostolic authority to order Onesimus to go back to Philemon or to have Philemon free Onesimus. He was asking Onesimus to return to Philemon out of love and respect for authority and as an example of being in submission to his master (1:9).
Key Verses and Lessons
Philemon 1:1-2 “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.”
Paul is first and foremost not a prisoner of man, for he is there only by God’s sovereign will, but is primarily a prisoner of Jesus Christ and is His slave. Paul models Christian relationships even in the way that he addressed Philemon as a dear friend and fellow worker. He is a fellow worker in the sense that he is also laboring for the Lord (1:6). Paul considered Philemon as a co-heir and fellow worker in the gospel and thus not trying to exalt himself over Philemon (Walvoord and Zuck, 770). In this regard Christians ought to consider believers as beloved friends, co-heirs, co-workers, and co-equals. This is evidenced by Paul calling Philemon’s wife a “sister” and Philemon’s son a “fellow soldier” (1:2).
Philemon 1:4 “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers.”
Paul also is thankful to believers and is often seen expressing this in his writings. He even models that of being a father figure to them. This implies that of being in a family-like relationship (Walvoord and Zuck, 772). His relationship to Onesimus was like that of a brother which denotes an affectionate attachment and one of brotherly love (Walvoord and Zuck, 773).
Philemon 1:6-7 “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”
What was truly significant to me was the love that Paul displayed in one of the last letters that he would write. I find it interesting that Philemon means “loving” because that is exactly the way that Paul writes…with a true love for both Philemon and for Onesimus.
Philemon 1:8-11 “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.”
Paul regarded Onesimus as a child of his. By Paul’s use of such powerful language, even though Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon, Paul referred to him as a son (1:10) as he did Timothy(1 Tim 1:2). This could mean that he also lead Onesimus to faith in Christ and when he does this, he usually addresses such converts as his own sons. By reading Philemon you can see by Paul’s words that his love was deep for Onesimus evidenced by Paul’s statement that by his sending Onesimus he was sending “my very heart” back to Philemon (1:12). This is like an attachment that a father has for a son who is departing. How heartbreaking this must have been to Paul to send back Onesimus because had been attending to the needs of Paul while he was imprisoned and during this time Onesimus and Paul must have formed a strong, loving relationship with one another (1:11,13). Now Paul would be alone, save for His relationship with Christ.
Philemon 1:14 “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.”
Paul’s love for Philemon is obvious because even though Paul could have asked Philemon to let Onesimus stay with Paul to aid him, Paul was still respectful to Philemon as being Onesimus’ master. Paul is not being presumptuous in this and he does not try to use his apostolic authority in trying to keep Onesimus with him (1:14).
Philemon 1:16 “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.”
The similarity of this family-like love relationship is displayed by Paul’s regarding Onesimus as a brother (1:16). This brotherly relationship is more than that of blood brothers but of fellows brothers in the Lord.
Philemon 1:17-18 “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”
Paul’s offer to pay Onesimus’ debt is authentic and not just cheap talk. This is what a real brother would do for another. How much more so for one in the family of God?
Philemon 1:21-22 “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 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.”
Paul was so confident of the authenticity of Philemon’s faith that he was confident that Philemon would do what Paul was asking (1:21). He was also confident that he was going to be released soon, soon enough that Philemon could go ahead and prepare a room for him right now (1:22).
One of the best commentaries that are available is the Matthew Henry Commentaries. Matthew Henry states that “the apostle argues from love, rather than authority “. Paul is obviously not condescending in making a request of Philemon for Onesimus to stay with him and minister to him in prison because he could have easily used his church authority and that of a direct apostle of Jesus Christ. How many other church leaders would be so humble in asking for favor knowing that they had or could use their God-ordained authority? This letter shows the true humility of Paul and his unpretentious nature.
Check out other F&E articles covering books of the Bible, here is a popular one from the New Testament: the book of Philippians.
Guest Post By: Jack Wellman
Jack is a Christian Author and Freelance Writer. He is Pastor at the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane, Kansas. Jack is also a Senior Writer and Communications Editor for “What Christians Want To Know” Website and Facebook page. In addition to that Jack is finishing receiving his masters in religous studies. His books are available on Amazon.