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Biblical Context of Philemon

This is the second lesson in a series of lessons on the book of Philemon. In this lesson I’m going to talk about how Philemon fits into the rest of the Bible.

Watch the video or scroll down to read a transcript.

Transcript:

Thanks for visiting Bible Mountain. This is the second lesson in a series of lessons on the book of Philemon. In this lesson, I’m going to talk about the biblical context of Philemon.

In the first lesson of this series I talked about why. I divided that into three parts. Why was the letter of Philemon originally written? Why did the Holy Spirit inspire the letter of Philemon and cause it to be included in the Holy Scriptures? And why is the book of Philemon valuable to you and me? What are you and I supposed to learn and take from the book of Philemon? 

We saw that the book of Philemon was originally written by Paul and he wrote it as a letter to send along with Onesimus when he sent Onesimus back to Philemon. Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, but Onesimus had run away. He ran to Paul. While Onesimus was with Paul, he became a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him, but he knew the right thing was to send Onesimus back to Philemon, since Onesimus was a slave of Philemon. 

But Paul didn’t want to send Onesimus back empty-handed, so Paul wrote a letter to send along with Onesimus. The letter was addressed to Philemon and in this letter Paul informed Philemon that Onesimus was now a brother in Christ. Paul asked Philemon to give grace and mercy to Onesimus. 

The reason the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of this and caused it to be included in the Holy Scriptures is because there are verses throughout the Bible which give us commands regarding masters and slaves. There are verses that tell masters how to treat their slaves. There are verses that tell slaves how to treat their masters. These verses particularly pertain when one or both is a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

The story of Philemon and Onesimus is a short little story that illustrates what it looks like in real life to live out these commands. And so the book of Philemon is included in the Bible as an illustration for us to understand some of these commands that are given elsewhere in the Bible. 

As far as why Philemon is valuable to you and me, it’s easy for us in the 21st century to look around and see that slavery is mostly illegal. So we might think that Philemon is not relevant to us. However, in addition to the commands to masters and slaves, there are other commands in the Bible given about authority in general. There are commands about submitting to the governing authorities. There are commands about wives submitting to husbands. There are commands about submitting to all who are in authority. 

Each of us lives in a culture where there are scenarios where people exercise authority over other people, and there are commands regarding how to exercise that authority and how to submit to that authority. As Christians, we need to know how to live out those commands. The story of Philemon and Onesimus is a short little story that illustrates how to live out these commands when one person is exercising authority over another, particularly when one or both of them is a believer. 

As I said earlier, in this lesson I’m going to look at the biblical context to see how the book of Philemon fits into the rest of Scripture. 

As you know, the Bible is divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament tells us about people and events that took place before the birth of Christ. The New Testament tells us about people and events from the birth of Christ and after the birth of Christ. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek. The Old Testament focuses primarily on the nation of Israel. The New Testament focuses primarily on the church. The Old Testament tells us about something known as the Age of Law. The New Testament tells us about something known as the Age of Grace. 

Now let’s take a closer look at the Old Testament. This is a list of all the books of the Old Testament. In general, we divide the Old Testament into five groups. We have the books of law. We have the books of history. We have the books of poetry. We have the major prophets. And we have the Minor Prophets. 

We find references to slavery throughout the Old Testament. For example, in the book of Genesis we read about Abraham purchasing slaves. We read about Pharaoh giving servants to Abraham. We also read about Joseph being sold as a slave into Egypt. 

In the book of Exodus we read about the Israelites being slaves in Egypt. We read about Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery. 

In Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy we read about the Mosaic Law. We read the provisions that were in the Mosaic Law. Within the Mosaic law were commands to the Israelites about who they could and could not buy or sell as slaves. 

So again, there are many references to slavery throughout the first five books of the Old Testament. 

In the book of Joshua we read that the Israelites forced the Gibeonites to be slaves. Slavery comes up in the book of Judges when the Israelites were being oppressed by foreign countries. There was concern about the foreign countries turning them into slaves.

In 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles we read about Solomon building his palace and the temple. We read about him using forced labor to build those buildings. Later, at the end of 2 Kings and the end of 2 Chronicles, we read about the Israelites being exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. That means they were forced to leave their homeland and go to another country. That was a form of slavery. In the book of Esther we read about people being sold as slaves. 

The books of poetry, the major prophets, and the minor prophets were all written in the context of the history that we read about in Joshua through Esther. Slavery is a theme that appears over and over in the Old Testament, illustrating to us that slavery is something that existed throughout the Old Testament time period. 

Now let’s take a look at the New Testament. This is a list of the books of the New Testament. Again, we generally divide the books of the New Testament into five groups. We have the Gospels, which tell us about the life of Jesus Christ here on Earth. We have the book of Acts, which tells us what the apostles of Jesus did after Jesus went back to heaven. We have the letters that were written by Paul to various churches and individuals. We have the general letters which were written by various men to various individuals. And we have the book of Revelation, which tells us about events that will happen in the future, events that still have not happened as of our lifetime. The Book of Philemon is one of the books that was written by Paul. 

Let’s go back to the Gospels. We see references in the Gospels to slavery. At one point, Jesus made reference to selling people as slaves. That tells us slavery existed at the time of Christ. It tells us that slavery existed in the Roman Empire. 

The events of the book of Acts took place in the Roman Empire. The letters of Paul and the general letters were written within the Roman Empire as the apostles of Jesus were sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. When we read the letters of Paul, we see multiple references to slavery. There are commands to masters on how to treat their slaves. There are commands to slaves on how to treat their masters. 

It is in that context that we have the book of Philemon, which is a short little story about Philemon and Onesimus which illustrates for us how to live out the commands that were given by Paul in some of his letters. Let’s take a look at some of these commands that Paul gave to both slaves and masters. Let’s start in the book of Ephesians.

Eph. 6:5   Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; 6 not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.

We see here a command to slaves. They were supposed to obey their masters, but they were supposed to do it with a good attitude. They were supposed to do it as if they were serving Christ. 

Eph. 6:9   And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.

So here is a command to masters that they were not supposed to threaten their slaves. There is a reminder to masters that they also have a master in heaven whose name is Jesus. There is a reminder that both the master and his slaves serve this master in Heaven whose name is Jesus. 

Col. 3:22   Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 

Here is another command to slaves to obey their earthly master.

Col. 4:1   Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.

Here’s a command to masters to give justice and fairness to their slaves, reminding the masters again that they have a master in heaven.

1Tim. 6:1   All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. 2 Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, 

Here is another command to slaves to submit to and obey their earthly masters. 

Titus 2:9   Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith so that they will adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect.

This is not only a command to slaves to obey their masters, but to do it without arguing, and without pilfering or stealing from their master. 

In summary, what we see in all this is slavery shows up throughout the Old Testament, telling us that slavery is something that has always been a common part of human experience. In the New Testament we see that slavery also existed in the Roman Empire, which is the context in which the New Testament was written. Jesus made reference to buying and selling slaves. Paul gave commands to both masters and slaves, giving them instructions on how to treat each other. 

What we have in the book of Philemon is a short little story about Philemon and Onesimus that illustrates how to live out these commands that Paul gave in the New Testament. Paul told masters to give fairness and justice to their slaves. Paul told slaves to submit to their masters and do it with a good attitude. 

Even though slavery is illegal in our culture, the story of Philemon and Onesimus is still valuable to us because in our culture we have scenarios where people have authority over other people. There are commands in the Bible that pertain to those situations. As Christians, we have to know how to exercise authority over other people. We have to know how to submit to those who are in authority over us. And the story of Philemon and Onesimus is an illustration for us, illustrating how to live out those commands dealing with authority. 

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Scripture quotations from Philemon taken from a translation by Bible Mountain.

“All other Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®,
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973,
1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission.” (www.Lockman.org)