Be Forgiving

Explore the Bible Series

May 29, 2011


Lesson Passage: Philemon 1-25




This is a very difficult lesson. The grammar and vocabulary seem straightforward enough, but the implications of the epistle trouble me.Of all people, Southern Baptists should navigate these waters carefully, given the history of the denomination.I am a life-long Southern Baptist, and I love my spiritual ďhome.ĒMy love for Southern Baptists compels me, all the more, to want the best for our beloved people.


Our denomination has made great progress in recent decades, on racial matters; therefore, it seems very important that any of our readers, especially those from minority backgrounds, understand my personal aversion to the kind of racism that enslaved more than four million Americans, at the outset of the Civil War, and sadly continued in its support for Jim Crow, well into my lifetime.The Convention began as a result of the slavery debate, and many of our early, foundational leaders were slaveholders.Though many of these men espoused pro-Union sympathies, they did not do so out of any antipathy for slavery.After the war, most Southern Baptists supported segregation, well into the 1960s, especially fundamentalist Baptists like W.A. Criswell (See Michael Philipsís White Metropolis, outlining segregation in Dallas, Texas).I find it particularly strange that, during the golden age of SBC missionary work (late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century), so few Baptists saw the incongruity between American segregation and foreign mission work.Thankfully, much of that has changed, in our generation.


I do not know why the Apostle Paul refrained from confronting the blatant issue of Roman slavery; rather, he seems almost compliant with the practice, encouraging slaves to submit to their masters (in Ephesians and Colossians), and sending a run-away slave back to his master.Defenders of slavery had a field day with passages like those found in our lesson.Certainly, Paul confronted other issues without reservation or quarter-- Why not the practice of buying and selling human beings?We can never know the answer to this question.Perhaps Paul privately condoned slavery, though he avoided any public affirmation of the slave system.He came from a prominent family from Tarsus, Roman citizens who may have owned slaves.If this was the case, I vigorously disagree with his compliance.More likely, Paulís observations, in Ephesians and Colossians, dealt with real-life concerns.How, given the institution of slavery, were slaves to flesh out the practical demands of the faith?††† Given my present understanding, this second option seems best.


Background of the Epistle to Philemon


Commentators have interpreted this epistle in two ways.Some believe that Philemon sent his slave Onesimus to assist Paul during the apostleís imprisonment; then, after a season of service, Paul sent the slave back to his master.However, Onesimus had proven so valuable to Paul that the apostle hoped Philemon might release his slave to continued service to Paul.The traditional view, on the other hand, sees Onesimus as a run-away who had wronged Philemon in some way (perhaps had stolen from his master).Paul, seeking to set right the relationship, sent Onesimus back to Colossae, pledging to recompense Philemon for any wrong committed by his slave.While the text gives no direct evidence of Onesimusí escape, it does seem clear that the slave had left his master under unfortunate circumstances, circumstances Paul felt necessary to set right.The second option (the traditional view) seems to fit the context best.


Lesson Outline


I.                   Introduction and Thanksgiving (vv. 1-7)

A.    Salutation (vv. 1-3): The introduction of the Book of Philemon follows Paulís familiar pattern.He mentioned Timothy in his greeting, and, in addition to his general inclusion of the church, the apostle specifically addressed the book to three individuals.

1.      Philemon: It seems apparent, from our study of Colossians, that Paul did not personally know the believers in that city.He did, however, know Philemon well.It seems plausible that Paul met Philemon in Ephesus, and after Philemonís conversion, the two men developed a warm friendship. Philemon owned Onesimus, and Paul used this letter to appeal to this master to receive the slave as a brother in Christ.

2.      Apphia: Ancient Christian tradition identifies this woman as Philemonís wife, but the text does not clearly indicate such a relationship.

3.      Archippus: Some have speculated that this man was the son of Philemon, and the text indicates he served an important leadership role on the Colossian churchóthe church apparently met in his home.Note the indication that the early church met in private homes.

B.     Thanksgiving (vv. 4-7): Again, Paul touched on familiar themes: thanksgiving, prayer, love, faith, evangelism, and joy.His relationship with Philemon brought Paul much comfort and joy.


II.                Paulís Request (vv. 8-21)

A.    The nature of Paulís request (vv. 16-17): The apostle asked his friend to receive warmly his slave.Apparently, some personal rift troubled this master/slave relationship, and Paul hoped to win Philemonís forgiveness and love for Onesimus.Love infuses every verse of this section, love that sought the best for both Philemon and Onesimus. We should also note that Paul did not force Philemon top forgive his wayward slave; rather, he made a passionate appeal based on several persuasive arguments (See vv. 8-9 and v. 14).

B.     The grounds of Paulís request (vv. 8-21): Scattered throughout this paragraph, Paul grounded his request on several arguments.

1.      Paulís status as a seasoned apostle (v. 9): He believed his advanced age and apostolic status would carry weight with Philemon.

2.      Onesimusí conversion (vv. 10-11 and v. 16): We cannot discern the exact time and circumstance of Onesimusí conversion, but it seems that he came to Paul as an unbeliever; then, under the apostleís tutelage, Philemonís slave became a follower of Christ. In Paulís mind, this conversion changed the relationship between the formerly unprofitable slave and Philemon.

3.      Paulís partnership with Philemon (v. 17): These dear friends were partners in gospel labors, and now Paul wanted to include Onesimus in this partnership.This appeal centers attention on Kingdom concerns that transcended personal disagreements between Philemon and Onesimus.

4.      Paulís willingness to recompense Philemon for Onesimusí wrongs (vv. 18-20): We cannot know the exact nature of the offense, but, in some way, the slave had wronged his master. The text implies an offense related to Philemonís property.Traditionally, Bible students have surmised that Onesimus stole something from his master. Whatever the offense, Paul agreed to repay any wrongdoing by Onesimus.

5.      Paulís confidence in Philemon (v. 21): The apostle knew the character of his friend, and this intimate knowledge encouraged his certainty that Philemon would do the right thing.


III.             Conclusion (vv. 22-25)

A.    Paulís hopes to visit Colossae (vv. 22): The apostleís imprisonment did not rob him of hope for his freedom and addition gospel labors.He planned, after his release, to visit Philemon, in Colossae.

B.     Greetings from Paulís associates (vv. 23-24): All of these names appear at the end of the Epistle to the Colossiansóplease see notes from last weekís lesson.

C.     Blessings (v. 25): As with almost all of Paulís letters, this epistle ends with the blessing of grace.