PURPOSE OF THE EPISTLE
OUTLINE (of the verse by verse study)
NOTES (verse by verse study)
NOTE. For more details see, McGee, Philemon. This study is taken from that book with modifications. The study is also available online in audio at: Philemon.
This is one of the most remarkable epistles in the Scripture. It is only one chapter; so you may have trouble finding it. If you can find Titus, just keep going; if you find Hebrews, you have gone too far.
DATE A.D. 61 or 62
The epistles or letters in the New Testament were a new form of revelation. Before them, God had used law, history, poetry, prophecy, and the gospel records. When God used the epistles, He adopted a more personal and direct method. There are different kinds of epistles. Some are directed to churches; some to individuals and are rather intimate.
Reading this epistle is like looking over the shoulder of Philemon and reading his personal mail. Paul wrote this letter to him personally. That does not detract from the inspiration and value of this epistle. The Holy Spirit has included it in the Scriptures for a very definite reason.
Philemon lived in Colossae, way up in the Phrygian country in the Anatolian section of what is Turkey today. It was a great city in Paul’s day. There is no record that Paul ever visited Colossae, but Dr. McGee suspects that Paul did visit that city.
The story of this epistle was enacted on the black background of slavery. There were approximately sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire where the total population did not exceed one hundred million. A slave was a chattel. He was treated worse than an enemy. He was subject to the whim of his master.
In Colossae was a very rich man, Philemon, who had been saved. He apparently had come down to Ephesus, as Paul was there speaking in the school of Tyrannus every day, and people were coming in from all over the area to hear him. Millions lived in Asia Minor, and Philemon was just one of the men who came to know the Lord Jesus.
Philemon owned slaves, one of whom was Onesimus. One day, Onesimus made a run for it. He moved into a great metropolis, Rome. In that great population, he could have been buried and never recognized.
One day, Onesimus found out that there was a slavery in freedom and a freedom in slavery. When he was a slave, he did not worry about where he was going to sleep or what he was going to eat. His master took care of that. In Rome now, he has a real problem. Maybe he is homesick and hungry. Somehow, he came into contact with Paul, who was a prisoner in chains. Onesimus had run away from chains, and he thought he was free, but when he listened to that man, Paul, he thought, “That man is free, and I am still a slave—a slave to appetite, a slave to economy. I’m still a slave, but that man, although he is chained, is free.”
Paul led him to Christ—presented the gospel to him, and told him how Jesus had died for him and how He had been buried but rose again on the third day. He asked Onesimus to put his trust in Christ, and he did.
Onesimus did what any man does who has been converted; he thought back on his past life and the things which were wrong that he wanted to make right. He confessed to Paul that he was a runaway slave, that he was from Colossae, and that his master was Philemon. He wanted to know if he should go back to him master and Paul told him yes. Paul sent a letter with Onesimus, the letter which we have before us.
In the human heart, there has always been a great desire to be free. But right now, there are millions of Americans who are slaves to alcohol, or to drugs, or to the economy, to racism, to hatred planted in them by Satan’s own liberal troopers, or to the almighty dollar. We live in a day when people pride themselves on being free, but the Lord Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” You will not get arguments for or against slavery in this epistle. What you do learn is that freedom that is above all the slavery of this world. It is the freedom that every one of us wants to have.
PURPOSE OF THE EPISTLE
The primary purpose of this epistle is to reveal Christ’s love for us in what He did for us in pleading our case before God. This is one of the finest illustrations of substitution. “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account” (verse 18). We can hear Christ agreeing to take our place and to have all our sin imputed to Him. He took our place in death, but He gives us His place in life. “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself” (verse 18). We have the standing of Christ before God, or we have no standing at all. Onesimus, the unprofitable runaway slave, was to be received as Paul the great apostle would have been received in the home of Philemon.
The practical purpose is to teach brotherly love. Paul spoke of the new relationship between master and servant in the other prison epistles. Here he demonstrates how it should work. These men, belonging to two different classes in the Roman Empire, hating each other and hurting each other, are now brothers in Christ, and they are to act like it. This is the only solution to the problems and hatreds between capital and labor, hatred between races, hatred of any type.
OUTLINE (of the verse by verse study)
- Genial Greeting to Philemon and His Family (vv1-3)
- Good Reputation of Philemon (vv4-7)
- Gracious Plea for Onesimus (vv8-16)
- Guiltless Substitutes for Guilty (v17)
- Glorious Illustration of Imputation (v18)
- General and Personal Items and Requests (vv19-25)
NOTES (verse by verse study)
GENIAL GREETING TO PHILEMON AND HIS FAMILY (vv1-3)
v1 Notice that Paul does not mention the fact that he is an apostle. When he was writing to the churches, he gave his official title: an apostle of Jesus Christ. But this is a personal letter to a personal friend. He does not need to defend his apostleship. He intended for this to be very personal, and I (Dr. McGee) think he would really be surprised to know it can be read by the whole world.
“Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” Dr. McGee notices that several of the commentaries try to change this and explain it away by teaching that Paul really meant that he was a prisoner because he was preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. But that is not what Paul said, and Paul had the ability of saying exactly what he had in mend. He was using the Greek language which is very flexible, versatile language. He said he was a prisoner of Jesus Christ. Also, the Holy Spirit is guiding this writing, and certainly the Holy Spirit, God, says what He means.
Paul would tell you Jesus Christ would put him in jail, not the religious leaders who brought the charges or the Romans. You might ask Paul, “You mean that you would serve Someone who would put you in prison?” “Yes, when it’s His will for me to be in prison, I’m in prison. When it’s His will for me to be out of prison, I’ll be out of prison. When it’s His will for me to be sick, I’m going to be sick. I belong to Him. Since I belong to Him, I have learned to be content in whatsoever state I am in. Everything is all right. Don’t worry about me.”
Obviously, the letter to Philemon is one of the prison epistles. It goes along with Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.
“And Timothy our brother.” That means he is not only Philemon’s brother and Paul’s brother, but he is your brother if you are a Christian. All believers are brothers in Christ.
“Unto Philemon our dearly beloved.” Does that sound as if Paul is really buttering him up. Dr. McGee thinks so. He did love this man and he is going to make a request of him.
Apphia was apparently the wife of Philemon. Philemon is a Greek name and Apphia is a Phrygian name. Phylemon met a Phrygian girl named Apphia and married her. They have both become Christians.
v2 Dr. McGee assumes that Archippus was their son. He is called a “fellowsoldier” – he also is a soldier in the army of Jesus Christ. He is a fellowsoldier. All believers should be soldiers and every believer has gifts that God wishes him to freely exercise as a member of a local church body in pursuance of the spiritual warfare believers and churches are called to fight. Sometimes believers do not exercise their God given gifts as a member of a church body and sometimes churches constrain some members from freely exercising those gifts God has given them. When that happens, neither the body nor the affected member(s) are functioning as God would desire.
“And to the church in thy house.” The local church was not down on the corner in a separate building – they had no building. There were great temples to the pagan gods, but the early churches did not have buildings which they erected and owned in the name of the church. It is estimated that for two hundred years, churches met in homes.
The great cathedrals of the past were actually never meant for public meetings. Westminster Abbey in England, for example, was never intended for public services. It was built in the shape of a cross as a monument to Jesus Christ. In my (Jerald Finney) opinion, this grieved our Lord, who set the example and gave the instructions (throught the Apostle Paul) for His churches.
v3 This is Paul’s usual greeting to every person and church to whom he wrote.
GOOD REPUTATION OF PHILEMON (vv4-7)
v4 Philemon is a man for whom Paul prayed.
v5 The life of Philemon was a testimony. Paul describes it in a lovely way. He showed love toward our Lord Jesus and toward other believers. His faith was toward the Lord Jesus and he showed it to other believers.
v6 His faith was shared. The life of Philemon was a testimony.
v7 Paul had great joy and consolation in the love of Philemon for other believers and for him. “Bowels” implies the entire psychological nature. It is the inner life of the believers that had great satisfaction through him.
GRACIOUS PLEA FOR ONESIMUS (vv8-16)
Paul is coming to the purpose of the letter. He approaches the subject diplomatically and cautiously and lovingly. He makes his request on a threefold basis:
- “For love’s sake.”
- “Being such an one as Paul the aged.” Paul, in his sixties, had suffered and been persecuted as a missionary for Christ. This had aged him. He is saying, “You know that I am an old man now.”
- “A prisoner of Jesus Christ.” It is evident he cannot come to Philemon in person.
v10 Paul is pleading on behalf of his son-one of his many spiritual sons whom he had led to the Lord.
v11 The name Onesimus means profitable. Paul is saying, “When you had Profitable, you didn’t have Profitable. Now that you don’t have Profitable, you do have Profitable.” As a slave, Onesimus wasn’t very useful. He did not work because he wanted to. His heart wasn’t in it. Now that Onesimus is a believer, Paul says, “He is going to be profitabe as a slave.”
vv12, 13 Paul is asking Philemon to receive Onesimus just as if he were receiving Paul. Paul admits he would like to have kept Onesimus who would have been of great help to him as an old, sick, cold man in prison. But Paul would not do that.
v14 Paul is saying, “I wouldn’t keep Onesimus because that would not be right-although I thought of it. If you willingly want to send him back, that will be all right.” We don’t know if Philemon sent Onesimus back, but Dr. McGee thinks he did.
vv15-16 “For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” Onesimus is still a slave, but more than a slave, a dearly beloved brother.
GUILTLESS SUBSTITUTES FOR GUILTY (v17)
Verse 17 with verse 18 gives us one of the grandest illustrations of substitution and imputation. Behind Paul’s plea is Christ’s plea to the Father on behalf of hte sinner who trusts Christ as the Saviour. The sinner is received on the same standing that Christ is received. The saved sinner has as much right to heaven as Christ has, for he has His right to be there. We are accepted in teh beloved (Ep. 1.6). “Don’t put him out in the cold, put him in that guest room where you put me when I was there.”
GLORIOUS ILLUSTRATION OF IMPUTATION (v18)
Paul had a credit card because he was a believer in Christ. Paul says, “Look, if Onesimus stole something from you or did something wrong, just put it on my account.” All this is a glorious picture. When one comes to God the Father for salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ says, “If  has wronged Thee or oweth Thee anything,m put that on My account.” Christ on the cross paid the penalty for my sins. But that isn’t all. I am sure that God the Father would say, “That fellow is not fit for heaven.” The the Lord Jesus would say, “If Thou count Me therefore a partner, receive Jerald Finney as Myself.” That is what it means to be in Christ-accepted in the Beloved. This is a very precious epistle.
GENERAL AND PERSONAL ITEMS AND REQUESTS (vv19-25)
v19 The Lord Jesus Christ gave His life and shed His blood to pay our entire debt of sin.
“Albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.” Paul had led Philemon to the Lord. How could he ever repay Paul for that?
v20 Paul is pleading for Onesimus.
v21 Paul expresses his confidence that Philemon will do more than he requests. It is characteristic that believers will do more than is requested. Jesus asks us to go the second mile.
v22 Paul expects to be released from prison. He requests prayers for that purpose. Since this letter was written during Paul’s first confinement in Rome, he was released and probably visited Philemon personally.
vv23-25 This beautiful little letter concludes with personal greetings to mutual friends.