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Why is Philemon in the Bible?

This is the start of a series of lessons on the book of Philemon. Today, I’m going to talk about why. Why is Philemon in the Bible? I’m going to divide this into two parts or two questions. 

The first question is why did Paul write this letter? In other words, about 2,000 years ago there was a point in time when Paul sat down and wrote this letter we call Philemon. Why did he do that? What issue was he addressing? What main idea was he trying to communicate? 

The second question is why is this letter in the Bible? After Paul wrote this letter, it was included in the Bible. It was included within the body of documents that were recognized as having been inspired by Yahweh the Creator and intended for you and I to have, read, study, learn, and follow. Why? What is the main idea Yahweh wants you and I to glean from the book of Philemon?

Watch the video below or scroll down to read a transcript.

Transcript:

Hi, welcome to Bible Mountain. My name is Roger Dombach. I am your host. 

This is the start of a series of lessons on the book of Philemon. Today, I’m going to talk about why. Why is Philemon in the Bible? I’m going to divide this into two parts or two questions. 

The first question is why did Paul write this letter? In other words, about 2,000 years ago there was a point in time when Paul sat down and wrote this letter we call Philemon. Why did he do that? What issue was he addressing? What main idea was he trying to communicate? 

The second question is why is this letter in the Bible? After Paul wrote this letter, it was included in the Bible. It was included within the body of documents that were recognized as having been inspired by Yahweh the Creator and intended for you and I to have, read, study, learn, and follow. Why? What is the main idea Yahweh wants you and I to glean from the book of Philemon?

Those are the two questions I’m going to answer today. Here is how I’m going to do this. First, I’m going to read through the whole book of Philemon. That is going to take about three minutes. It’s not a very long book. As I read it, I want you to think about these two questions. Why did Paul write this? Why is this in the Bible? What are we supposed to learn from this? Then after I read it, I’ll come back and answer these questions. 

Philemon 1:1  Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy the brother, to Philemon, the beloved and our fellow-worker, 2 and to Apphia the sister, and to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the assembly in your house. 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Philemon 1:4  I always give thanks to my God, making mention of you during my prayers,  5 hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 so that the fellowship of your faith might be effective in the knowledge of every good which is in us for Christ. 7 Indeed, I came to have much joy and encouragement from your love because the hearts of the saints were refreshed through you, brother.

Philemon 1:8  Therefore, having enough boldness in Christ to order you to do that which is proper, 9 because of love, I rather exhort, being of such a kind as Paul, now elderly, but also a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I exhort you concerning my child Onesimus, whom I begat during the imprisonment, 11 the one formerly useless to you, but now useful to you and me, 12 whom I sent to you. This is our heart, 13 whom I wish to keep to myself so that on your behalf he might minister to me during the imprisonment for the gospel. 14 However, without your consent I wanted to do nothing, so that your goodness might be due not to compulsion, but rather to willingness.

Philemon 1:15  Indeed, perhaps for this reason he was separated for a time, in order that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, rather more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 Therefore, if you regard me as a partner, receive him as you would me. 18 But if he wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to me. 19 I, Paul, write with my own hand. I will repay (so that I might not mention to you that you also owe me your own self). 20 Yes, brother, I hope to have joy from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

Philemon 1:21  Being confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do more than I say. 22 Moreover, at the same time, prepare also a guest room for me, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you.

Philemon 1:23  Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you. 24 Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke are my fellow-workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

That is the entire book of Philemon. As you can see, it is not a long book. As I said earlier, I want to address why. I’ll divide this into two questions. The first question is why did Paul write this letter? 

Here is a summary of this letter. There was this man named Paul who wrote the letter. There was a man named Philemon. Paul and Philemon were friends. We don’t know much about the relationship or the friendship, but they knew each other. Philemon had a servant named Onesimus. 

We know from reading this letter that Onesimus ran away from Philemon. He ended up with Paul. Paul was in prison. Somehow Onesimus arrived at the same place where Paul was in prison. Paul and Onesimus started talking to each other. Eventually, Onesimus became a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. He became a servant and follower of Jesus Christ. 

At that point Paul recognized that the proper thing was for Onesimus to go back to Philemon. Even though Onesimus ran away, he was still a servant of Philemon. The right and correct thing was for Onesimus to go back to his master. 

Paul decided to write a letter to send along with Onesimus. He wrote this letter that we know as the book of Philemon. Then Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with the letter.

In the letter Paul informed Philemon that Onesimus was now a brother in Christ. Paul asked Philemon to accept Onesimus as if Onesimus was Paul himself. Paul also brought up the possibility that Onesimus might owe money to Philemon. Paul said he would pay whatever Onesimus might owe.

That is the reason Paul wrote this letter. He was sending Onesimus back to Philemon. He wrote a letter for Onesimus to take along in which Paul asked Philemon to give grace and mercy to Onesimus.

Now let’s address the question of why this letter is in the Bible? I believe there are two reasons. 

First, it’s in the Bible to illustrate grace and mercy. Grace is receiving something good that we don’t deserve. Mercy is not receiving something bad that we do deserve. The ultimate example of grace and mercy is salvation. 

We humans don’t deserve salvation. We actually deserve eternal punishment. However, Yahweh the Creator extended grace and mercy to us. The mercy is we will not receive the eternal punishment we should receive. The grace is we will receive eternal life in Heaven which is something we should not receive. That’s grace and mercy. 

The story of Philemon and Onesimus illustrates grace and mercy. Onesimus ran away and deserved some sort of punishment. Apparently, he owed money to Philemon. He should have been forced to repay. However, Paul asked Philemon to extend grace and mercy. Paul asked Philemon not to give Onesimus the punishment he deserved. Instead, Paul asked Philemon to accept Onesimus as if Onesimus was Paul himself. Paul offered to pay the debt Onesimus owed to Philemon. Those are things Onesimus did not deserve. 

The book of Philemon is an illustration of grace and mercy. These are important concepts to understand because grace and mercy are central to salvation. We need to understand these concepts in order to grasp the reality of what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross. 

I believe the second reason Philemon is in the Bible is to help us think about relating to fellow believers in multiple realms. Here’s what I mean by that. Onesimus was a slave of Philemon. Onesimus ran away. Then he became a follower of Jesus Christ. When Onesimus went back to Philemon, Philemon and Onesimus were now not only master and slave, they were also brothers in Christ. 

We see this in verses 15 and 16. 

Philemon 1:15  Indeed, perhaps for this reason he was separated for a time, in order that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, rather more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Notice, Paul pointed out in verse 16 that Onesimus was now a beloved brother. When Onesimus went back to Philemon, Philemon and Onesimus had to relate to each other in two different realms. In one sense they were still master and slave, but in another sense they were also brothers in Christ. Philemon is in the Bible to help us think through how to navigate those kinds of relationships.

Let’s think about some scenarios where you and I might have to relate to fellow believers in multiple ways. Slavery is no longer legal in 21st century western civilization, so that’s not a common scenario that we would have in our lives today. However, there are situations where Christians have to relate to each other in multiple ways. 

Think about government. There are some believers who serve as government officials. They make rules and laws, and enforce rules and laws that other people have to follow. Some of the people who have to follow their rules and laws are fellow believers. When these believers who are government officials go to church, they’re going to church with people who are brothers and sisters in Christ, but then during the week, when they’re fulfilling their duties as government officials, they’re exercising authority over their brothers and sisters in Christ. That is a scenario in which believers have to relate to each other in multiple ways. 

Another example is law enforcement. There are many law enforcement officers who are believers. They exercise power and authority over residents of our society. When these law enforcement officers go to church, they are interacting with people who are their brothers and sisters in Christ. However, when those same law enforcement officers are at work fulfilling their duties as law enforcement officers, they are exercising authority over some of the people they go to church with and who are their brothers and sisters in Christ. 

The same thing is true in the military. The military is a very hierarchical organization. Officers have authority over enlisted personnel. Within the officer ranks there are different ranks, and within the enlisted personnel there are different ranks. People have authority over other people. All through the military hierarchy there are people who are followers and servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. On the one hand the believers in the military have to relate to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and yet at the same time, they have to relate to each other within this hierarchy where some people have power and authority over their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

The workplace is another example. This is not as strong of an example in 21st century western civilization because most employees have a lot of freedom to resign from a particular job when they want to leave. For the most part, they’re not required to stay in a particular job. It’s very different than the military. When someone joins the military, they make a commitment and they have to serve for a certain number of years. The workplace is also different than a master slave relationship, such as the one we see in the book of Philemon. Onesimus was not free to declare his freedom whenever he wanted to be free. 

The employer employee relationship in the workplace is a little bit different, but there is still some authority there. From time to time, there are situations where an employer, an owner of a company, a manager, or a supervisor who is a believer, is exercising authority over an employee who is also a believer. They might go to church together. In the workplace they have one type of relationship with a fellow believer that has some authority attached to it. However, when they go to church, they are brothers and sisters in Christ and have a different relationship. 

As we go through our lives as servants of Jesus, we have to navigate these various scenarios and relationships. Philemon is in the Bible to help us think about relating to fellow believers both as brothers and sisters in Christ, and also as people within a structure where some people have authority over other people.

Let’s review what we’ve learned. In this video we’ve been talking about the book of Philemon and answering the question why. 

First, I talked about why Paul wrote this letter. We saw that Paul wrote this letter to ask Philemon to extend grace and mercy to his servant Onesimus. 

Second, I talked about why this letter is in the Bible. I said this letter is in the Bible for two basic reasons. 

One, it’s an illustration of grace and mercy. Paul asked Philemon to show grace and mercy to Onesimus and that is a picture of the grace and mercy that Jesus Christ extended to each one of us. 

Second, I said Philemon helps us think about how to relate to fellow believers in multiple roles. Philemon had authority over Onesimus because Onesimus was a servant of Philemon, but they were also brothers in Christ. They had to relate to one another in both of those roles. Likewise, there are scenarios in our lives where we have relationships with fellow believers that involve one believer exercising authority over another believer, but then we also have to relate as brothers and sisters in Christ. We have to learn how to relate to each other in both of those realms. The book of Philemon helps us think through that dynamic. 

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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)