MANual Lessons: Paul’s Private Letter to Philemon

My year-long journey through The MANual, an NIV Bible for Men, brings us to the short book of Philemon, the eighteenth book of the Christian New Testament. It’s a good example of a very private, personal letter and how to handle a disagreement with a friend.

You may remember from my previous post on the lessons from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul wrote four “prison letters” (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon) while he was under house arrest in Rome from approximately A.D. 60–62.

Who Was Philemon?

Philemon was a first-century Christian and a minister (possibly the bishop of Gaza). He was a wealthy man who hosted a church in his home in Colosse (sometimes more properly written as Colossae). Philemon’s name means “affectionate,” or “one who kisses” in Greek.  The only mention of Philemon in the Bible is in the opening line of the book that bears his name.

Paul had led Philemon to faith on one of his visits to Colosse when he stayed in Philemon’s home. Paul wrote this letter to a close friend whom he calls a “dear friend and fellow worker” (Philemon 1:1). Slavery was very common in the Roman empire. Like many of the affluent in that region of the world, Philemon likely owned at least one slave. 

Some commentators surmise that  “Apphia, our sister, and Archippus, our fellow soldier” (Philemon 1:2) were probably Philemon’s wife and son or an elder in Philemon’s house church. However, Paul may not have used his church-hosting friends’ real names during this time when Christianity was illegal and often imprisoned or fed to the lions by the wagon load.

The Menaia, a liturgical book used by the Eastern Orthodox Church that contains the ordering and propers for fixed dates of the Gregorian calendar, speaks of Philemon as a holy apostle who was martyred at Colosse in the first general persecution during the reign of Nero.

About Paul’s Letter to Philemon

The short book of Philemon is Paul’s personal appeal to his friend on behalf of his runaway slave named Onesimus, whose name means “helpful,” “useful,” or “profitable.” Onesimus had robbed his master Philemon and fled to Rome, a large city where he could easily hide. He likely encountered Paul in Rome where the apostle was serving time in prison.

Some scholars suggest that Philemon sent Onesimus to Rome to help Paul. Paul may have led Onesimus to Christ previously in Colossae, which is why Onesimus sought out Paul on purpose.

Regardless of how or why Onesimus was now in Rome, Paul writes to Philemon about the disagreement with his friend: “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains” (Philemon 1:10).

Because he was the property of Philemon, Paul sent him back to his owner with this letter. Paul cared so much for Onesimus and longed for him to stay at his side: “I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary” (Philemon 1:12–14).

Paul suggests that the reason Onesimus was separated from Philemon for a little while was that he might have him back for good – not as a slave but as a brother in Christ (Philemon 1:15-16).

The relationship between Paul and Philemon is clearly warm and respectful. Paul is comfortable enough with the friendship to gently remind his friend that Philemon owed Paul his “very self” for introducing him to Jesus (Philemon 1:19).

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a key to resolving disagreements with a friend. Have you ever seen a friendship ripped apart by betrayal or unresolved conflict? Did you stand by helplessly as two former compadres turned into enemies? Have you ever wondered if you could mediate such serious rifts? 

Paul gives us a strategy for repairing broken relationships. He appeals to Philemon’s sense of duty. Paul gently reminds Philemon that Onesimus is now a brother in Christ and that should define their relationship. As a follower of Christ, Philemon had a responsibility to show the same forgiveness to Onesimus that he himself had received from God. Paul urges Philemon to give Onesimus another chance as a personal favor to him. 

  • What would happen if you used the same strategy the next time you had an opportunity to be a peacemaker between two feuding friends? 

Paul closes his letter with greetings from Epaphras, his fellow prisoner who help start the church in Colossae. Epaphras was a hero there, helping hold it together while Paul was traveling. Paul also mentions Mark, Aristarchus, Demus, and Luke who had joined Paul during the latter stages of his imprisonment. I this letter, Paul urges Philemon to be reconciled to his slave by receiving him as a brother in Christ. 

God Buddy Focus

Today, there are many barriers between people – race, social status, politics, sexual preference, and personality differences. But Christ breaks down these barriers so we can transform the most hopeless relationships into deep, loving friendships. 

The book of Philemon gives us a great template for appealing to and resolving a disagreement with a friend. Like Paul, we should be neither demanding nor threatening to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We must deal graciously with each other like God has dealt with us through Christ. The book is invaluable for learning how to dispense grace in our day-to-day lives. 

This week discuss :

  • Have you ever had any disagreement with a friend?
  • Have you ever helped resolve a conflict between two friends? 
  • Was it a good outcome or one you regretted afterward?
  • What would you have done differently after reading about Paul’s letter to Philemon? 

The next post is about the letter to the Hebrew Christians.

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