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Introduction to the Epistle of Philemon


I. Writer


               Paul the apostle (Philem. 1). According to the records of the Bible, Paul was formerly called Saul (Acts. 13:9), an Israelite, of tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11:1), a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil. 3:5) considering parentage. Paul was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, at the feet of the famous teacher Gamaliel, educated according to exactness of the Jewish law (Acts. 22:3). Afterwards, he became to live a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of the Judaism (Acts. 26:5) and was zealous for God and persecuted the assembly (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:6). However, he did it ignorantly, in unbelief (1Tim. 1:13). One day, when he intended to go to Damascus to seize Christians, the Lord Jesus manifested to Him on his way (Acts. 9:1-5). He became a Christian henceforth and was called to be an apostle (Rom. 1:1). The apostleship of Paul was mainly towards the Gentiles (Gal. 2:8). He went out to preach for tree times east to Jerusalem and west to Rome and his tracks were found in all satrapies of the Roman Empire. He established many churches and made the groundwork for the preaching of the gospel of Christianity all over the world today. He wrote altogether thirteen epistles in the New Testament, thus becoming the main exegete of the truth of Christianity.


II. The Time and Location the Book was Written


         It was written in the Roman prison and it was about between A.D. 61 to 63.


III. The Recipients


         There are four recipients of this epistle: 1) “Philemon Paul’s beloved friend and fellow laborer” who was the person in charge in the local church; 2) “the beloved Apphia” according to the tradition of the church, it was said that she was the wife of Philemon in one saying and the sister of Philemon in another saying; 3) “Archippus our fellow soldier” according to the tradition, it was said that he was the son of Philemon in one saying and the husband of Appia, i.e. brother in law of Philemon in another saying; 4) the church in the house of Philemon, i.e. the church in Colosse (See Col. 4:9, 12, 17; Philem. 2, 10, 23).


IV. The Motivation for Writing the Epistle


         There was a bondman named Onesimus in the house of Philemon. He stole something from his master and left his house (See v.18). And he ran and passed through many places and arrived at Rome. Somehow he got in touch with Paul in the prison and heard the gospel from Paul, repented for his sins and turned to believe in the Lord Jesus (See v.10). After Paul had known the fact, he encouraged him to return to the house of his master to deal with the sin which he had committed. And therefore Paul wrote this epistle and asked him to bring it to return to the house of his master.


V. The Importance of This Book


         W.G. Scroggie, the Scottish Bible exegete, said that this short epistle had seven values: 1) the individual value; 2) the moral value; 3) the value of God’s hidden guidance; 4) the practical value; 5) the value of preaching; 6) the social value; 7) the spiritual value.


VI. General Description


         The main theme of this epistle is “the action of love” and practicing “teachings” by “actions”. When God’s love and salvation change the life of a believer, he becomes a part of the body of Christ regardless of his former social status and he is equal to other members.


VII. Special Points


           The features of this epistle are as follows:

     1) This epistle is the shortest one in all the epistles of Paul.

     2) This epistle is the individual one that Paul wrote to Philemon. Philemon probably was led to turn to the Lord by Paul (See v.19), however, the tone of Paul was very tactful and he made a request as a friend skillfully and persuasively.

     3) This epistle implies the social idea of respecting human rights. Though the slavery at that time is not attacked openly, such seed is hidden between the lines and the indelible foundation is made for the establishment of equal society in the future.

     4) Some special theological doctrines have not been mentioned in this epistle, however, all the attitudes “in Christ” are contained in it and all those who have received the grace of the Lord should bestow favor to others.

     5) This epistle is full of the communion and love among Christians that we share the faith (v.6), are fellow labors (v.1), fellow soldiers (v.2), partners (v.17) and even fellow prisoners (v.23).


VIII. Key Verses 


         “For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave--a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philem. 15-16).


IX. Key Words


         Love” (5, 7, 9); “heart” (7, 12, 20); “refresh” (7, 20); “Onesimus…profitable” (10-11)


X. Outlines of the Book


The Request of love

I. The foreword and greeting (1-3)

II. The thanksgiving------for Philemon (4-7)

III. The request------for Onesimus (8-20)

IV. The epilogue and blessing (v.21-25)


── Caleb HuangChristian Digest Bible Commentary Series

   Translated by Sharon Ren