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Why is Philemon in the Bible?

Word Cloud of Philemon. Can you see what Paul had his focus on?

Here at the Summit Church we are Reading through the New Testament in a Year. If you don’t have a discipline of reading through the bible, you should join us. We’ve got some great resources and a daily update on twitter.

Today we are in Philemon, a short one-chapter book of the New Testament that I don’t think I’ve ever really studied in depth. #pastorfail. As I sat there reading it I thought to myself: Why is this in the bible? Before you call me a heretic let me explain why I asked and then what I think God taught me today. Warning i didn’t read any commentaries or anything. Just me & the bible. organic bible reading. no supplements.

Why is it in the bible? I mean its a pretty simple, clear letter from Paul to Philemon. Philemon is a christian who used to have a slave named Onesimus. Paul meets him in prison, Onesimus comes to faith, and Paul is telling Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, not a slave, when Paul sends him back. That’s pretty much the purpose. Take Back Onesimus. Seems like such a tertiary subject matter, hardly worthy of canonical status. Out of all the letters Paul sent, this is one that made it? It’s practically a telegram. Philemon (STOP) take back Onesimus (STOP) Grace & Peace (STOP). Didn’t Paul have some better material we could’ve used? Outside of it’s connection to Colossians, Why in the world did God, via the church fathers, put this in the bible?

What I think God taught me today. I confess I need more time in here so these are big picture thoughts. verse 6 is a little confusing to me & verse 20 a little odd in my ESV reading. 

  1. Love is a more powerful motivator than fear. Paul reminds Philemon that he could “Command” him, but instead chooses to “appeal” to him “for love’s sake” (v.9).  This isn’t veiled language. This is Paul reminding Philemon that charity (in this case receiving Onesiums) must not be done by compulsion but by one’s own accord (v.14). He’s recalling Jesus’ “least of these” teaching (Matt 25.40). Paul probably gives more commands than any other bible author. And it would be easy to turn our faith into a “Do this” religion. But right here we catch Paul choosing the harder task of asking (it would have been easier to just command philemon) Philemon to remember Christ and respond out of the love he has for Christ. And he knows that by appealing to love, Philemon will not just obey, but will go above and beyond to serve his brother. Because love is more powerful than fear.
  2. This letter is a clear picture of discipleship. The other reason I think it is here, is to teach us how we are to go about a discipleship relationship. Look at the structure.
    1. Paul first encourages Philemon in his love & faith. He sees the grace of God in Philemon & points it out. “Look at God’s grace on your life! I’m so encouraged to see it!”
    2. He acknowledges his role as an influence (maybe even a spiritual father) in Philemon’s life. We don’t have to shy away from being voices of influence in the lives of those who seek such a voice out.
    3. He connects the Love of Christ to Philemon’s life. He APPEALS to the love of Christ and shows Philemon a way he can put it to work. He shows him a path, but he doesn’t command Philemon to go down it. I think this is a great example of exhortation.
    4. He finishes with the grace of Christ. Paul never gets far from the grace of Christ in his letters. Nor should we in our conversations and relationships. Saturate discipleship in the grace of christ.

There is some learning from this AM. What do you think? Why is Philemon in the bible?

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