Bible Study: The Book of Philemon
In the words of CS Lewis he says, "Everyone says that forgiveness is a wonderful idea, until he has something to forgive." The biggest focus points in the book of Philemon are compassion and forgiveness.
The book of Philemon is Paul's letter to Philemon and his associates regarding Onesimus' return to him after being considered his runaway slave. But before taking an in-depth look at the book of Philemon let's look at the three main people involved.
First there is Philemon himself. It is thought that Philemon's social status was more along the line of upper middle class of today. Philemon was a respected leader of a Colossian church. This isn't a church like we think of today. It was a church hosted in a home and many times it was done in secret due to the persecution of the time.
"I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful to both you and to me." Philemon 1:10-11 NIV
Onesimus was a slave of Philemon. Now keep in mind that slavery was different from the type of slavery of the Civil War in the United States. In Philemon's time, many people volunteered to be slaves. In return they would work for food and shelter. Often times the slaves were treated quite well.
It is assumed that Onesimus went to Rome because it is a large city filled with diversity where he could blend in well. It is also believed he went there to seek out Paul. It is suggested in Philemon 1:10-11 that while he was there visiting Paul, Onesimus becomes a believer in the word of God because Paul refers to him as his new son and mentions that Onesimus was useless to Philemon before.
Surely Onesimus must have been afraid to return to Philemon because as a runaway slave, Philemon has the right to have him executed. However, now Onesimus was a servant to God and had to make amends to Philemon.
There is strong evidence to suggest that Paul was imprisoned in Rome or Ephesus at this time which is estimated at 60-63 AD. Paul was respected and a highly influential man of God. Paul uses this situation as a way to teach not only Philemon about compassion and forgiveness, but all of mankind.
Paul begins his letter by addressing it to not just Philemon but to Apphia, Archippus, and to the church. He then states how thankful he is to hear about their faith in Jesus and the saints. He goes on to pray that they continue to have a full understanding of all the good we have in the teachings of Jesus.
Next, he pleads for Onesimus. Paul explains that he could order Philemon in what he ought to do, but instead would rather Philemon to have a complete understanding of the teachings by deciding on his own what he should do. This is also when he explains that Onesimus is now considered one of his sons, or pupil, therefore they both could use Onesimus to continue God's will.
Paul then explains how much he would love for Onesimus to stay and help him but would not do so without Philemon's consent. Paul never asks for Onesimus to stay, just merely mentions how useful he would be. Paul continues on to explain that it is possible that Onesimus' actions may have been God's plan all along because Onesimus is now better than a slave because he is now a brother in the Lord.
What Paul states next is similar to what is believed that Jesus did for us on the cross. He tells Philemon that if he is welcomed then Onesimus must be welcome too. He goes a step further. Paul states that if Onesimus owes Philemon anything then to charge him for it, not Onesimus. Paul vows to pay the debt back while still reminding Philemon that he was the one who brought him to the word of God through his ministry therefore he saved Philemon's life. Paul quickly iterates that he does not seek profit or any benefit in Philemon coming to the teachings of Jesus.
Remember, as Christians believe Jesus took on all of the debts of mankind and paid them at the cross, now Paul is being an example of how to be like Jesus by taking on the debts of Onesimus, who is now considered to be a brother in the word of God.
The point to Paul's letter in the book of Philemon is that Philemon should have compassion and forgive Onesimus. However, the decision has to be Philemon's. Paul could order him to do so, but Philemon has to make the decision on his own for true forgiveness to occur.
"Yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus" Philemon 1:9 NIV
God requires us all to have compassion and forgive. This isn't always an easy task, but we have to remember that God forgives us if we ask for forgiveness so why shouldn't we extend the same to all of mankind. Paul serves as a kind of middleman between Onesimus and Philemon. We need to be able to move toward forgiveness without using a middle person. We need to learn to have compassion and come to forgiveness on our own. Paul briefly implies in verse 9 that forgiving Onesimus is not only what God wants, but Paul's imprisonment for Christ Jesus is more difficult than giving Onesimus forgiveness.
There are other lessons we can take from the book of Philemon. We need to be more aware of the needs of others and should be more apt to bear the burdens of our fellow brothers and sisters that are struggling. We should encourage them to have faith and encourage other Christians to help those in need.
We also learn more about how to pray. We should always give thanks to the Lord God for the spiritual growth in our fellow Christians. In fact, we should always try to look for the best in people and give them praise and encouragement even in our prayer to God. It doesn't matter what they have done in the past, if God can forgive them of their sins so shall we.
© 2014 L Sarhan