1. Theme: The intercession of Jesus Christ
2. Key Verse: Philemon 18
This outline partitions Philemon into sections of verses. Each section is labeled to relate to the theme of the whole book.
I. The intercessor graciously greets the master * Philemon 1-3
II. The intercessor's appeal is to a beloved and loving master * Philemon 4-7
III. The intercessor's appeal is based not on necessity but on love * Philemon 8-9
IV. The intercessor appeals for the once unprofitable servant who has become a useful brother * Philemon 10-16
V. The intercessor is surety for the appeal * Philemon 17-19
VI. The intercessor is confident in the master's obedience to his appeal for both the servant and himself * Philemon 20-22
VII. The intercessor has witnesses to his appeal * Philemon 23-25
4. General Comments
A good way to introduce the book of Philemon is to recall the following experience common to almost everyone. Many of us can remember when we were a child and were in trouble for doing something wrong. We may have known that what we did was wrong and that we deserved the punishment we expected from our parents. Oh, how we wished that we would not be punished! How frightened we were! Like many children, we wanted to hide and have it all go away. We may have been sorry for what we did, but more than that we sought protection. How alone we felt! If only we had a friend who cared and could help us! When we are in trouble we need a friend.
This problem is similar to the situation that faces all people. But the situation is a lot more desperate than that of a naughty child. People are in danger of much more than a temporary reprimand and some kind of physical punishment. All people deserve to be cast into hell, eternally under the wrath of God. A child may feel alone and fearful as he faces the anger of his parents, but no loneliness or fear can compare to that of a sinner who recognizes his rebellion against God and the awful vengeance that is coming. If there were only someone to help! If there only were someone to plead his case!
One beautiful message of the little New Testament letter of Philemon is that someone is indeed willing to approach God on behalf of sinful people. There is within this letter a parable of the wonder and drama of Jesus Christ standing before the Father, pleading the sinner's case.
Even though we shall look at Philemon as a parable, which can be defined as an earthly story with a spiritual meaning, the characters are true people of history whose relationships and actions are accurately described in this letter. But, altogether the people and events found in Philemon point beyond themselves and demonstrate the sacrificial initiative of Jesus Christ to inconvenience Himself, to burden Himself with the task of pleading for mercy for sinners. The characters in Philemon are not in every detail exact imitations of whom they represent spiritually. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul's plea to Philemon on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus is a beautiful picture of Christ's intercessory work on behalf sinners (Rom. 8:34).
The Bible says that sinners are God's property. Sinners have departed from God and robbed Him of the glory due Him. The law is not an asylum, nor is any vain philosophy an adequate covering to protect them from the terrible threat of God's wrath announced by the law. Punishment is coming. Unless someone intervenes in some way, there will be no escape from the impending doom. Sinners need a friend who can help. Sinners must flee to Jesus, the only Intercessor, Redeemer and Friend. Their debt of punishment is put to the account of and paid by Jesus Christ. Jesus then pleads for sinners on the basis of what He has done and they are returned and restored to fellowship with God. In a way we could think of Philemon as a true story that illustrates I John 2:1, "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."
We are justified in looking at Philemon from the point of view of a parable for several reasons. For one thing, Mark 4:34 teaches the principle that Jesus always spoke in parables. Since all of the Bible is the word of God, including Philemon, we can conclude that this letter is the word of Jesus in which He speaks in a parable. Another support for looking at the historical situation in Philemon as a parable is the example of Psalm 78. Psalm 78:2 states that what is to follow is a parable, and then proceeds to describe the history of the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt and wandered through the wilderness. That is, the historical events recorded in the Bible are written with the intention that they would be looked at as parables. It is the honor of a believer to discover the spiritual truths that are found in these true stories (Prov. 25:2).
The view that Philemon is a parable is strengthened by the fact that the Bible has many stories of intercession that are a picture of the work of Christ. One is Abraham's intercession for the people of the city of Sodom (Gen. 18:23-33). Another is Abraham's intercession for Abimelech (Gen. 20:7,17). Judah's plea on behalf of Benjamin is a particularly beautiful intercession (Gen. 44:18-34). Still others are Moses' intercession for the Israelites (Exod. 34:8,9, Num. 14:13-20), Samuel's intercession found in I Samuel 12:19-23 and Job's plea for his friends in Job 42:8.
It is important to notice that we do not find in Philemon a Christian mandate for social emancipation. It would seem most appropriate that if God wanted to call men to abolish slavery, He would do it in this letter. Yet, we find no words that address that issue. The Bible has a more spiritual and eternally effective answer to the terrible social injustice that comes from the presumption that one man can own another man. If a man finds that in the course of the affairs of history he happens to be a slave, or even a prisoner confined to a cell, he can still serve his Lord (Gen. 39:1,2 Acts 16:25-32) No physical circumstances can separate him from God's love (Rom. 8:38,39), or keep him from doing His will (I Cor. 7:21-24, Phil 4:11,13). From the Bible's point of view, the bondage that ought to be a person's greatest concern is the bondage to the law, to Satan and to sin (Luke 4:18, 13:16, John 8:34, Rom. 6:16, Gal. 5:1, Heb. 2:15). The key issue is that a person must be right with God.
We must keep in mind that the letter portrays Philemon, the slave owner, as a kind man who was much loved. It was Onesimus who was the naughty one, not Philemon. This does not in any way mean that the Bible endorses human slavery. Rather, it presents the situation to help us bring into sharp focus the spiritual priorities that must dominate our thinking at all times. The social relationship, however unfair, is so inconsequential in comparison to the spiritual situation, that it is not even an issue. Who is most blessed, a slave owner who is unsaved, or his slave who is saved? Not only that, who is in such a situation that they cannot do what God wants them to do? How do we know whether or not God has allowed one of His elect to be a slave for such a purpose as the salvation of others in bondage, or of the master who rules over him?
The Bible does not advocate that we crusade for the correction of social problems, rather it demands that we love and serve God (Micah 6:8, Matt. 22:37, I Pet. 3:14,15). This is God's world and He knows all that is going on. But more importantly He knows all who are His and will guide them through the life that He has assigned to them, with the goal that they all will be able to shine for him as lights in a dark world and rejoice with Him forever in heaven as His child as well as inherit all things with Christ. The physical and social ills that are a result of sin so impress men that believers must make an effort not to be persuaded by people who zealously spend their time and energy to correct the evils in the world. Believers' focus and concern must be concentrated upon maintaining a faithful walk with God, seeking the salvation of the precious eternal souls of men who are only a breath away from eternity.
From what little that we know about the historical situation, we can surmise that Philemon was a member of the Colossian church, since that is where Onesimus was sent (Col. 4:8,9). It may be that Philemon 19 hints that Paul brought the gospel to Philemon personally. Paul had a high regard for Philemon, for it seems that Philemon's concern for the saints determined how he used his wealth for their benefit (Philemon 2,22). It could have been that Paul was in prison at the time that He wrote this letter and considered keeping Onesimus to minister to his needs (verse 9,10,13). However, Paul esteemed Philemon and wanted his agreement in any decision that would concern his former slave (verse 14). It was not hollow flattery that caused Paul to express his confidence that Philemon would not only understand his request but also go beyond the minimum expectation of Christian mercy (Philemon 21). Paul knew that he could leave Onesimus in Philemon's hands and that Onesimus would be treated as a believer ought to be treated.
5. Observations on Specific Verses
We shall look at particular verses in Philemon differently than we have for the other books of the New Testament. We shall examine a verse only as it relates to our development of each character in the letter. Other verses may be found to expand the development of each character, as long as any statement based upon those verses are supported by at least one cross reference, as they are here.
a) Philemon can be considered as a figure of God the Father, to whom Jesus intercedes.
1. Philemon's name means "loving." This matches the attribute of God described in I John 4:8. In Philemon's case, as in God's, this means both he is loved (verse 1) and he loves others (verse 5).
2. Philemon and Paul are fellow laborers, workers on the same task for the same purpose (verse 1). This compares with the working relationship which God has with His people (I Cor. 3:9), and especially which the Father has with the Son (John 5:17).
3. The church is in Philemon's house (verse 2). Notice that this is similar to the fact that the true church is God's house (Heb. 3:6).
4. Philemon loves the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 5). This reminds us of how the Father loves the Son (Matt. 3:17 and John 17:24,26).
5. Philemon loves all the saints (verse 5). Notice, by comparison, how God loves the believers (John 16:27; 17:23; Eph. 1:4, 2:4).
6. Philemon's faith is communicated to others (verse 6). The word translated as "communication" often appears as "fellowship." This gives a better idea of its meaning. Notice that this is similar to the "fellowship" that the Father has with His people and with His Son (John 17:21, I John 1:3). But the emphasis is the fellowship "of thy faith." This matches with the fact that faith is really an attribute of God which He distributes as He wills and so the believer's faith comes from God as a gift and is shared with Him (John 6:29, Eph. 2:8,9, Phil. 1:29).
7. Philemon's love was a source of great comfort (verse 7). This is similar to the comfort the Father's love provides (Isa. 40:1,2, II Cor. 1:3,4).
8. Philemon refreshes the bowels of the saints (verse 7). The word" refresh" is a translation of a form of the word anapauo which means "down" + "cease or stop." It is translated as "will give ... rest" in Matthew 11:28, and "resteth" in I Peter 4:14, referring to the rest of salvation. The word "bowels" refers to a person's innermost self, whether physical as in Acts 1:18 or spiritual as in II Corinthians 7:15, from which his deepest devotion comes (Matt. 22:37). Altogether the idea is that Philemon gives the saints the rest that they need in their deepest part, their hearts and souls. This means that Philemon was one of the men who preached the gospel to the people in Colossae and after they believed, way down in their inner most self, they found that they did not have to work to please God. They left their destiny in the hands of God and rested in His everlasting arms, because Jesus did all the work for them that was necessary. In comparison, God refreshes the lives of the saints by the power of His gospel, giving them rest from the tyranny of the Law (Gal 3:10), the pursuit of an angry God (Heb. 10:30,31) and the slavery from the sinful desires of their body (John 8:34).
9. The words "thou owest unto me even thine own self besides" (verse 19) do not seem to fit into the parable that we have developed. Are we wrong in pursuing our spiritual analogy? Must we set it aside or can we say that the Father, here represented by Philemon, does owe something to the Son, here represented by Paul?
As it turns out, this verse fits the parable quite well. The Father gave people to His Son before creation, so that they would have eternal life (John 17:2,24). Jesus Christ reminds the Father of the promise that was made before the world began concerning the elect. Jesus, through His sacrifice, made them worthy of inheriting the promise (John 17:19). The point of Jesus' intercession is to plead with the Father to make good on His promise, in as much as Jesus kept His part of the covenant agreement. Intercession is not a harangue designed to change God's mind and hopefully dissuade Him from carrying out a decision that He had made, or to make an exception in the code of justice for the sake of a sinner. Intercession is not meant to and cannot change God's mind from doing what is right and just. Instead, intercession is based upon what the Father has already said that He would do based upon the work of the Son, namely give eternal life to those whom He gave to His Son.
Additional support to the idea that God obligated or owed Himself to save people comes from many places in the Bible (Genesis 12:2, Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:13-19). The strength of Jesus' intercession is based upon a commitment God had made before the world was made, the same obligation which was announced to Abraham. When Jesus intercedes, He is recalling with the Father what had been promised and had been secured by His own sacrifice on the cross.
b) Onesimus can be considered as a figure of those who will be saved, those for whom Paul, as a figure of Jesus Christ, intercedes.
1. Onesimus, the slave, is owned by Philemon (verse 16). This correlates with the fact that all mankind was made by God (Isaiah 64:8) and so all men are owned by God their Creator (Ezek. 18:4). In a redemptive sense too, believers are owned by God (Rom. 14:8, I Cor. 3:23; 6:19, 20).
2. Onesimus ran away from Philemon (verse 15). Similarly, sinners try to flee from God (Isa. 17:13, Hosea 7:13) and end up lost (Psalm 119:176). This is illustrated in the situation of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:13,32. Also notice Eph. 2:13.
3. Onesimus ran away for a "season" (a finite time as in II Corinthians 7:8, "season," or as in Galatians 2:5, "hour") but Paul asks that he be received "forever" (verse 15). Similarly, the wonder and joy of the gospel is that God eventually pulls sinners out of their sins and gives them eternal life (Psalm 30:5, 103:8,9, I John 5:11).
4. Onesimus was unprofitable to Philemon (verse 11). From Romans 3:12 we learn that unsaved man is unprofitable to God, and as it turns out, is unprofitable to himself (Rom. 6:21).
5. Onesimus has now become profitable (verse 11). Onesimus' name means "useful." A saved man is useful to God as we read in many places, such as Matthew 5:16, Titus 2:14, and I Peter 2:9.
6. Onesimus is now a brother "especially to me (Paul)" (verse 16). Notice in Romans 8:15, 17 that a saved man is a joint heir with Christ, a brother of the Lord Jesus (Heb. 2:11).
7. Onesimus is received back forever (verse 15). This corresponds to the fact that a saved man is received by God (see Rom. 14:3) and is restored forever, as we read in John 10:28.
c) Paul can be considered as a figure of Jesus Christ, the Advocate and Intercessor, who pleads for Onesimus, a representative of all men.
1. Paul, who was an apostle, put himself on the level of Philemon (verse 1). Paul had the authority to command Philemon's obedience. However, Paul cares for and respects the qualities in Philemon. Paul's appeal is designed to show how Philemon can act willingly, out of love. Similarly, Jesus' appeal is as an equal to the Father. Also, His appeal is meant to glorify the Father whom He entreats, knowing that His Father's mercy displays His willing love too (John 17:4,23,24, I Peter 3:9).
2. Paul's appeal on behalf of Onesimus is based not on works of the law but on love (verse 9). The Law is no help before God (Rom. 3:20). Our only hope is in the unmerited love and grace of God for which Jesus Christ pleads to the Father (John 3:16, 17:23, Rom. 5:8).
3. Paul begat Onesimus in his bonds (verse 10). Paul is referring to the personal sacrifices he made as he brought the Gospel (I Cor. 4:11-15). This is similar to Christ's big task of bringing salvation (Luke 4:18), which was accomplished in bonds (John 18:24). However, in Jesus' case, His bonds included His experience of enduring Hell (Jonah 2:5,6) so that sinners might be born again. He was the Salvation that He proclaimed.
4. Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as if he were Paul himself (verses 12,17). Compare this with Jesus' prayer in John 17:21 and I John 1:3. Notice the close identification of the Christ, the Intercessor, with those for whom He intercedes (Heb. 2:17). This identification also matches the basis for expecting God to accept the sinner for whom Jesus pleads, namely as Jesus standing in the place of His own people (II Cor. 5:21).
5. Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus willingly (verse 14). This is the same as the God's willingness to save those for whom Jesus died (James 1:18).
6. Paul willingly bears the cost of any wrong done by Onesimus (verse 18). This is similar to the substitutionary burden laid upon Jesus Christ (I Peter 2:24). The Intercessor does not say, "I'm such a nice guy that you ought to heed my appeal." Nor does He say, "The sinners obeyed sometimes in some things so remember those times." The cost for sin is mandatory death (Rom. 6:23). That was the required price Jesus willingly paid.
7. Paul seals his appeal in writing (verse 19). This is a picture of the fact that the guarantee of salvation is based upon the written word of God (I Cor. 15:3,4). The assurance of salvation is based upon the promised word of God (Titus 1:2, Heb. 6:18). The power of salvation is found in the proclaimed word of God (Rom. 1:16, 10:17).
8. Paul is confident of Philemon's mercy (verse 21). The words "thou wilt also do more than I say" are an echo of the measure of God's grace expressed in Ephesians 3:20. Christ knows that His intercessions will succeed. (Compare Heb. 7:22,25)
9. The words "prepare for me a lodging" in verse 22 are, in parable form, a statement that Jesus' final place is with the Father (John 16:28).
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