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This introductory course is designed to provide key insights into the book of Philemon by pulling together a number of key resources: overview videos from Fast Facts and The Bible Project, helpful contextual information from The ESV Study Bible, commentary recommendations from The Gospel Coalition, a single sermon that sums up the book from beginning to end by Mark Dever, and much more. By watching, listening to, and reading these resources, you’ll be better prepared to read, study, teach, or preach the book of Philemon.
This simplified letter approximates the letters that people ordinarily write, in contrast to the more stylized and literary five-part format that characterizes most NT epistles. The letter is a masterpiece of persuasion and can be analyzed in terms of how Paul seeks a favorable reception for the returning bondservant, where the normal response of the master would be vindictive. Paul’s strategy follows that prescribed by Greek and Roman rhetoricians of the day: begin by building rapport and goodwill with an audience (Philemon 4–10), then lay out the facts in a way that will convince the mind or intellect (Philemon 11–19), and finally appeal to the emotions of the audience (Philemon 20–21).
The theme of Philemon is the power of the gospel to transform lives (“formerly he was useless” but “now he is indeed useful,” Philemon 11) and to impact human relationships (receive him “no longer as a bondservant [or slave] but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother,” Philemon 16). On the Gk. word doulos, see the ESV Study Bible Preface, p. 21.
Philemon was a wealthy Christian who lived in the city of Colossae, about 100 miles (161 km) inland from Ephesus. Apparently during Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus (A.D. 52–55), Philemon heard the gospel and was saved. He began serving the cause of Christ in the Colossian community, opening his home for a group of Christians to meet there regularly.
At some point, Onesimus, one of Philemon’s bondservants, fled to Rome. Possibly having stolen money (or property) from Philemon and now a fugitive, Onesimus was living in the most populated city of the Roman Empire, hoping to escape detection. In a rather remarkable set of circumstances—not recounted in the letter but certainly reflective of God’s sovereignty—Onesimus somehow came into contact with the apostle Paul and became a Christian. As he grew in Christ, he spent much time and effort helping Paul, who was severely constrained by his imprisonment.
As much as Paul would like to have retained the services of Onesimus, Paul knew that Onesimus’s fugitive status, severed relationship, and wrongdoing against his master needed to be addressed. Paul thus wrote this letter as an appeal to Philemon to appreciate the transformation that has occurred in Onesimus’s life and to receive him back not merely as a bondservant but as a “beloved brother” (Philemon 16).
It is difficult to know if Paul was seeking Onesimus’s full emancipation and freedom (see ESV Study Bible notes on Philemon 16 and 21). It is clear, however, that he was seeking a transformed relationship between bondservant and master—a new relationship that would defy all of the ingrained status distinctions of the surrounding Greek and Roman culture. There is no doubt that it would have been difficult for this kind of servitude to survive in the atmosphere of love created by the letter, and in fact the elements of Paul’s appeal found in this letter helped lay the foundation for the abolition of such servitude.
The following recommendations are from D. A. Carson, New Testament Commentary Survey. 7th ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013.