Introduction to the Epistle of Paul to Philemon

“Introduction to the Epistle of Paul to Philemon,” New Testament Seminary Teacher Manual (2016)


Why study this book?

The Epistle to Philemon contains personal counsel from Paul regarding a situation with Philemon’s slave Onesimus. As students study this epistle, they can learn that when people join the Church of Jesus Christ, they become brothers and sisters in the gospel (see Philemon 1:16). Students can also come to feel the importance of the duty that disciples of Jesus Christ have to extend mercy and forgiveness to others (see Philemon 1:16–17).

Who wrote this book?

Paul wrote the Epistle to Philemon (see Philemon 1:1).

When and where was it written?

The Epistle to Philemon was prepared by Paul during the Apostle’s first imprisonment in Rome, around A.D. 60–62 (see Philemon 1:1, 9; Guide to the Scriptures, “Pauline Epistles,” scriptures.lds.org).

To whom was it written and why?

“This epistle is a private letter about Onesimus, a slave who had robbed his master, Philemon, and run away to Rome” (Bible Dictionary, “Pauline Epistles”). Philemon was probably a Greek convert and was a resident of Colossae (see Colossians 4:9). He allowed a Church congregation to meet in his home (see Philemon 1:2, 5). After running away, Onesimus joined the Church and became “a brother beloved … in the Lord” (Philemon 1:16; see Philemon 1:10–12).

Paul wrote to Philemon to encourage him to receive Onesimus back as a brother in the gospel without the severe punishments that would usually be inflicted on runaway slaves (see Philemon 1:17). Paul even offered to make up any financial loss Onesimus had caused Philemon to suffer (see Philemon 1:18–19).

What are some distinctive features of this book?

Philemon is the shortest and perhaps the most personal of Paul’s epistles. It is a letter addressed to a private individual; as such, it does not include much doctrinal content. Nevertheless, Paul’s plea for Philemon to reconcile with the slave Onesimus illustrates how the doctrines of the gospel apply to daily life—in this case, showing that our relationship with Jesus Christ brings us into a familial relationship with all other followers of Christ and highlighting the importance of mercy and forgiveness.

Outline

Philemon 1 Paul commends Philemon for the love he has shown to the Saints. Paul tells Philemon that his runaway slave, Onesimus, has converted to the gospel. Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother in the Lord. Paul offers to repay Philemon for any financial loss Onesimus has caused him to suffer.