Lesson 29: An Introduction to the book of PHILEMON
Paul's Prison Epistles. This is lesson #29, an introduction to the book of Philenon. Please turn to the book of Philemon, the 18th book in the New Testament. Pronounced: Phi-le-mon, spelled P-H-I-L-E-M-O-N. This letter of only 25 verses is roughly one-fourth the size of the book of Coloasians that we just finished. In our general introduction to this study series, Paul's Prison Epistles, I tried to emphasize that Philemon is a personal letter. It differs from the other books in this series in this respect. Paul probably wrote many personal letters; but, this is the only personal letter we have that was written by the apostle Paul. There are a couple personal letters written by the apostle John that are placed later in the N.T., called II-John and III-John; but, this is the only letter we have from Paul written to an individual or individuals on a personal basis. Of course you know, there are three letters addressed to Timothy and Titus. These letters are addressed to individuals; however, Paul's letters to these preachers deal primarily with preacher problems and doctrine all the way through, thus making I-Tim., II- Tim. and Titus (in effect) general by nature and content. We shall cover. Lord willing, the books of I Timothy, II Timothy and Titus in another series entitled: Paul's Letters To Preachers. I think it is fair to say Philemon was a preacher (or a minister) in the general sense of that term also, for in the first verse of this book, Paul referred to Philemon as a "fellow laborer," Then Paul referred to Philemon a couple times (v.7, v.20) as "brother," just as Paul refers to Timothy as "our brother" (in v.1). Thus, this letter of Philemon was written to a preacher also; however, it was not written because he was a preacher and thus does not discuss preacher duties and preacher problems. The letter is of a private nature relating to his household and his slave, Onesimus. This letter was written by Paul, although as I have said, Timothy's name is appended to the letter also. It may be that Paul dictated the letter and Timothy did the penmanship of getting Paul's message on to a scroll. We cannot be sure about this. Perhaps, I need not be repetitive; but, may I (once more) point out that Timothy's name appears also at the top of Paul's letter to the Philippians and his letter to the Colossians. The apostle refers to himself in this letter to Philemon as being "in bonds" a couple times (v.10 and v.13). He refers to himself as "a prisoner" twice (it occurs in v.1, v.9) and he refers to Epaphras (in v.23) as "my fellow prisoner." Thus, I conclude that Philemon is one of Paul's prison epistles, written while Paul was connected to that chain in or near the imperial prison in Rome and thus fits into this series of lessons. It is my conclusion that this letter to Philemon was written at the same time and in the same time frame as Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, (probably in the year of AD 62). The letter was most probably sent by (and delivered by) Tychicus who also delivered the letter to the Colossians and the letter to the Ephesians; although, Tychicus is not mentioned by name in the letter to Philemon as in the other two letters. Taking into consideration the distance that Tychicus and Onesimus had to travel, the content of these letters and Paul's circumstance and comments included therein; I am inclined to think Tychicus delivered all three letters, Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon all on the same trip. It seems the natural thing to do and they all blend together very nicely when you consider them in this way. Epaphras, Archippus and Onesimus are all three mentioned near the end of the book of Colossians in Paul's final greetings and these three are also mentioned in this book, the book of Philemon. The evidence is sufficient, I believe, to connect Philemon with Colossae even though the word Colossae is not mentioned in this book as such. Now, Philemon was the head of this household; however, please notice in v.2, that this letter was written "to" or "unto" Apphia and "to" or "unto" Archippus and "unto" or "to the church in thy house." Perhaps you are thinking, this is not exactly a personal letter after all. So, who was Archippus? Well, I think you remember this man as having received a ministry in the Lord at Colossae (back in Col. 4:17, next to the last verse in that book). Thus, Archippus was a minister. We have said, Philemon was a minister at Colossae also. How many ministers were there at Colossae? Every Christian, i.e. every active Christian was a minister or a servant (if you will). Every Christian was EXPECTED to be active, serving the Lord and serving the congregation in some way. There was no such thing as clergy and laity. That word "minister" as used in the book of Colossians, applied to Paul, applied to Epaphras, applied to Tychicus and indirectly applied to Archippus (I put it on your last test) and it's not some big denominational title as some would try to read into it today. These persons were ministers in a very simple and very humble sense, in the sense of serving the Lord and serving the congregation where they were in some way...i.e. providing simple, humble service. When we use the word scriptur-ally, we use the word that way today. Please hang on to that! Please use the word scripturally from hence forth. These persons were a minister, not THE minister. If you are a Christian, you are a minister OR you should be. Maybe you haven't learned that yet; but, you should be. Because you should be serving in some way. A servant is not the one who makes all the decision and does all the criticizing and gives all the orders and directions. That's the Master! A servant does the work... whatever work might be needed and whatever service you can provide. I hope I qualify as a minister (that's with a little "m"), I hope I qualify as a minister because I am ministering to your needs... those of you who are taking these courses... and because I am doing a service... not because the Mason County congregation and others are providing my support. You can minister in a 1000 ways. You can receive support or you can support yourself. It doesn't matter. Give your neighbor an enrollment card and encourage them to take a Bible course and obey the gospel. You have ministered to their needs, their spiritual needs. Provide transportation to worship services, or even care for their children so that they can study...you are ministering. How did Philemon minister? Well, for starters it would appear he provided a place for the Colossians congregation to meet, in his home. How many met there? I don't know and I leave that to your imagination. But, he labored (that's the last word in v.1), he labored someway. Paul said he thanked God (v.4) and he had great joy (v.7) because the bowels of the saints were refreshed by Philemon. Was Philemon a public speaker? Well, maybe yes...maybe no! But, he was a servant. Servants are ministers. Do you get it? Most commentators think, from the way this is written that Apphia was the wife of Philemon and that Archippus was the son of Philemon. I would be inclined to think that may have been the case. I have no way of proving this. However, if this be the case, they were part of Philemon's household and thus would have a strong interest in anything that Paul said about Onesimus, one of their family salves. Paul spoke of Apphia as "our beloved" and Paul spoke of Archippus as "our fellow soldier" in the cross; so, I am inclined to think this was a Christian family, Philemon, the father and husband, Apphia, the wife and mother and Archippus, the son and a preacher. I believe the commentators are probably right.
Now, the next question comes: yes, but, what about the church? the congregation that met in Philemon's house? Why was this letter addressed to them also? What business was it of theirs that Paul wrote about Onesimus the slave of the Philemon family? Well in v.10, Paul referred to Onesimus as "my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds." This is usually interpreted to mean (and I believe this is correct) that Paul taught and converted Onesimus there in Rome while Paul was connected with a chain to that Roman soldier. Paul referred to Onesimus as "a brother" (down in v.16). Back over in Col. 4:9, Paul referred to Onesimus as "a faithful and beloved brother." What business was it to the congregation? If Onesimus was now a Christian, they were all interested. Paul gave the Colossian congregation instruction concerning slaves and slave masters beginning back in Col. 3:22, do you remember? It did involve the congregation—very definitely so. So, Paul wrote to the Philemon family and Paul wrote to the congregation that met in their house. Personal? I believe the letter was very personal. It involved a lot of people, but it was a personal and confidential matter. You might think of this as Onesimus1 letter of commendation. The elders, the deacons, every servant needed to know this information about Onesimus. Paul's letter to Philemon and his household serves as an example to us as to how we should handle personal and confidential matters. To the Galatians, Paul said: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." In another letter, you might be familiar with, Paul said: "there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all." Did you ever hear that? I hope you remember! (That's Col. 3:11). The Galatians and the Colossians must treat slaves and slave masters as equals in Christ Jesus. And there is a hint there for us, also. As I said before, even though the institution of slavery is not attacked or condemned as such in the Bible, it would be impossible for that institution to continue if Christian principles were scrupulously applied.
At the end of the Colossian letter in our last lesson, I encouraged you to close your eyes and do a visual of what you know about the Colossian congregation, the church of Christ at Colossae, the Colossain community and the Lycus Valley in general. We have said this community was about 100 miles east of Ephesus. And, Ephesus was a great sea port on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea and on the western tip of Asia Minor or what we call the country of Turkey. Ephesus and Colossae were both in the same Roman province, called at that time very simply Asia, A-S-I-A. The town of Colossae was some where near the eastern border of that province of Asia. I've mentioned before the great Roman highway that connected Ephesus with Colossae. How, we do not know the connection and association between Paul and Philemon. As we mentioned in Col. 2:1, it is generally assumed that Paul had never been to Colossae. How or where they met, we do not know. As I read v.19-20-21 of Philemon, I am inclined to think that Paul taught and baptized Philemon also. Possibly the whole Philemon family, we don't know. Someone has suggested that Philemon may have been a student of Paul at Ephesus during the two years that Paul conducted the school in the house of one Tyrannus (do you remember Acts 19:9-10?). This was some 6 or 8 years before the time we're talking about. Or maybe Archippus was the student or possibly both. If so, this could have also brought Paul in contact with Onesimus, the slave, even before Onesimus came to Rome, we simply don't know how these people first met. Or another possibility is, Epaphras may have been the student and the link that brought Paul and these people together originally. Philemon must have been a man of some wealth, I conclude this from the fact that he was a slave owner and that he had a house large enough for the Colossian congregation to assemble. However, wealth in this respect is a very relative thing. We don't even know the size of the Colossian congregation, thus you must form your own conclusions here. We know that Epaphras was a very dedicated preacher. This Paul emphasized in the Colossian letter. Why Epaphras was behind bars in Rome, we simply don't know. I am assuming that is what Paul meant (in v.23). Then why did Onesimus, the slave, desert his master, Philemon? Did he steal something from Philemon? Does v.18 suggested this? Why did Onesimus head for Rome after his desertion? Or did Onesimus run afoul of the law and was picked up and arrested in the city of Rome because he was a run-away? Did he personally come to Paul? maybe broke and outcast? or did he just accidentally drift into association with Paul as a prisoner? You can guess and I can guess; but, we really don't know the details here. One thing I might suggest is this, we have a tendency, usually at least, to think of slaves as an uneducated class of people. That was not necessarily the case in the Roman Empire. Some slaves were teachers and very educated people. Was Onesimus educated? Could he read and write? Well, again we don't know. Of course, these things made no difference to Paul. When Onesimus came to Paul, Paul made a Christian out of him. Paul taught Onesimus the gospel, and Onesimus obeyed. He was baptized into Christ. When he was buried in baptism, his sins were forgiven and he was spiritually quickened by the faith of the operation of God (Col. 2:12-13). He was a new creature (II Cor. 5:17), "old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new," i.e. spiritually speaking. Of course, he was still a slave. In other words, that was his citizenship status in the Roman Empire and his Roman status did not change. However, his heavenly citizenship status did change, his name was added to the Lamb's book of life (Rev. 20:15 and 21:27). He was at that moment adopted as a son of God and an heir of salvation through Christ (Gal. 4:7). He was a fellow heir, and of the same BODY, and a partaker of the promise in Christ Jesus by the gospel (Eph. 3:6). He now had "the answer of a good conscience toward God" (I-Pet. 3:21). Onesimus was ready to make restitution as best he could. He was ready to serve the Lord in that niche carved out for him in this life. He needed help and encouragement, just as every babe in Christ, unskillful in the word (Heb. 5:13). But, he was ready to start his spiritual exercise program (Heb. 5:14). So, Paul wrote him a letter of commendation to his master and his brother in Christ, Philemon, and to the congregation where he would be laboring, the letter of Philemon. These things touched Paul, he had great compassion for Onesimus (v.12). He could see great potential in this run-away slave. It stirred a desire in Paul to visit Colossae (take a look at v.22). Paul would have kept Onesimus longer, teach him more about Jesus and help ground him in the faith. And, in turn, Philemon could have been a great help to Paul. But, Onesimus belonged to Philemon. He was the property of Philemon, according to Roman law. He would be a source of encouragement to all the Colossian brethren. Thus, it was his niche to serve the Lord at Colossae. So, Paul embraced this slave and undoubtedly as they shook hands to the rattle of a chain, Paul gave this new Christian and Tychicus a letter and asked them to deliver it to Philemon. It would serve as a way of re-introducing Onesimus and Paul was trying to make this transition just a easy as possible for Onesimus, for Philemon and for the Colossian congregation. There's a great message here. Christians start and Christians WORK where they are (I-Cor. 7:18-19-20). Where are you? How are you working? Have a good day!