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13. The Letter to Philemon

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Through Paul’s letters, we have learned many truths about Christ. Today’s lesson builds on each of these truths.

  • In Romans, Christ is our righteousness. Every believer is equally right with God and has equal righteousness from God.
  • In 1 Corinthians, Christ is the wisdom of God, greater than any human wisdom or strength.
  • In 2 Corinthians, Christ is our comforter when we hurt.
  • In Galatians, Christ is our freedom from the law of works to earn God’s acceptance.
  • In Ephesians, Christ is the powerful head of the church. Christ’s power works in us to help us live God’s way and for us to protect us from anything evil.
  • In Philippians, Christ is the supplier of every need of yours so that you can help others.
  • In Colossians, Christ is Lord over everything. He is Lord over the universe, the earth, the angels, and our behavior.
  • In 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Christ is our returning Lord. When He comes, we will receive new bodies and live forever with Him.
  • In 1 Timothy, Christ is our mediator. As mediator, Jesus understands our needs and the best way for God to take care of our needs.
  • In 2 Timothy, Christ is the giver of crowns. He rewards those who are faithful to Him.
  • In Titus, Christ is our blessed hope. We can look at life as an adventure with God because the best is yet to come for us.

Lesson 13 covers the very short but personal letter from Paul to his dear friend, Philemon. It is a letter of forgiveness and renewal.

“Renew my heart. We know that Christ is the one who really renews it.” (Philemon 20b NIRV)

The Key Question

Think about a time when someone wronged you. How long did you stay wounded? What did it take (or would it take) to bring about reconciliation? How hard was it to forgive that person?

The key word for our lesson today is forgiveness. The question to ask is, “How do I really forgive someone who has wronged me?” Some of Paul’s friends needed to know the answer to that question.

The People and Their Need

Paul looked across the room of his Roman prison at the young man, Onesimus. How dear he was to Paul! The young slave had stolen some money from his master in Colossae and run away. Somehow, he ended up in Rome and met Paul. Though Paul was chained to a Roman guard, people could come and visit him, even stay with him.

Somehow Onesimus found his way to Paul, Paul told the runaway slave about Jesus, and Onesimus trusted Christ to take away his sins. Paul became his spiritual father, teaching him and loving him as a Christian son. Onesimus learned to love Christ Jesus and received a renewed heart.

As much as Paul wanted this young man to stay near him, he knew that Onesimus should return to Philemon, his owner, and seek forgiveness for stealing the money and for running away. Philemon was a fairly rich man who owned slaves. It was common for people to have slaves. One of every two persons in the Roman Empire was a slave. Every large Roman household had them. Slaves were not free to do whatever they wanted but had to do whatever their owner said. And, any slave who ran away could be killed. Paul certainly didn’t want that to happen to his son Onesimus. Paul had to trust Jesus with Onesimus’ safety.

We don’t know if Paul ever met Philemon though Paul seemed to know of him well enough to appreciate him as a Christian brother and a leader of the church in Colossae. Christ had renewed Philemon’s heart from being a sinner separated from God to being completely forgiven.

Now, Philemon the slave owner and Onesimus the runaway slave were Christian brothers. Would Onesimus have the courage to return to his master, or would he run away again? Would Philemon forgive Onesimus for stealing money and running away, or would he have Onesimus killed?

Well, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. It was the right thing to do. And, he sent a letter along with Onesimus. We have that letter called Philemon. It is a gift from God to us. Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s letters, more like a postcard. It’s also the most personal.

In his letter, Paul reminded Philemon and us that Christ is the renewer of hearts. Christ had renewed Paul’s heart many years before. He had renewed Philemon’s heart when he heard the gospel message and believed. Christ had renewed Onesimus’ heart. A renewed heart is grateful for the forgiveness received through God’s grace and wants to be a “grace giver” to others. Let’s find out how that works.

The Answer: Christ Is The Renewer of Hearts

Philemon has only 1 chapter so we just use verse numbers. Since it is so short, we’ll read most of it to get the whole story.

1. Read Philemon 1-2. What information is given about Philemon?

2. Read Philemon 4-7. In Verses 4-5: What kind of Christian was Philemon?

3. In verse 7: Referring to what Philemon has done for God’s people, Paul says that he has “renewed their hearts.” [NOTE: the NIV says “refreshed the hearts of the saints.”] What do you think that means to renew or refresh their hearts?

4. Read Philemon 8-11. What did Paul do instead of ordering Philemon to forgive Onesimus?

Paul calls Philemon a dear friend who was working for the gospel. A church met in his home. Apphia and Archippus are probably his wife and son who are fellow believers. Philemon was faithful and loving as he took care of the needs of the church there in Colossae, encouraging the people and giving them hope. Notice how Paul says he was in prison and that Onesimus was his spiritual son and a fellow believer. By not ordering Philemon to forgive Onesimus, Paul made him think about it and appealed to him on the basis of love.

5. What would be the advantage to both of them if Philemon forgave Onesimus out of love and respect for Christ and Paul rather than doing so just because he felt forced to do it?

6. Read Philemon 12-16. In verses 12-14, how does Paul show respect for Philemon’s authority as a slave owner?

7. According to verses 15-16, how has the slave-master relationship changed?

Paul knows Philemon has the right to make all decisions regarding Onesimus. So, he sends Onesimus back rather than assuming it’s okay for him to stay with Paul. But, now Onesimus is more than a slave. He’s a Christian brother. That changes everything in his relationship with Philemon.

8. Read Philemon 17-22.

  • In verse 17, Paul asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus back. What might be the opposite of welcoming him?
  • In verses 18-19, Paul offered to pay anything Onesimus owed to Philemon. Hmmm. Did Paul steal the money?
  • Who else do you know took the consequences for someone else’s bad behavior?

Jesus died on the cross for our sins, not for his own. Paul repeated Jesus’ example of someone who substitutes himself for another. Paul didn’t have to pay what Onesimus owes, but he offered to do it to help heal the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon. Christ healed our relationship with God when He died on the cross for our sins even though He never sinned.

In Philemon, Christ is the renewer of hearts. In verse 20, Paul says,

“Renew my heart. We know that Christ is the one who really renews it (NIRV).”

9. What does it mean to renew something?

Renewing may involve restoring a relationship or repairing something broken so that it works well again. Making something like new again.

10. How does Christ renew our hearts?

11. Read Philemon 23-25. In verse 25, Paul writes, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” What does Paul want Philemon to remember about his own life?

Notice that Paul calls Jesus Lord 5 times in this short letter. Jesus is Philemon’s king and master as He is our king and master. Paul is reminding Philemon that he has received forgiveness through grace overflowing to him from Jesus who is his Lord. Because Philemon has received grace from his Lord Jesus, Philemon should, therefore, be a “grace giver” to Onesimus.

Christ calls us to be grace givers to others as we have received grace from Him.

12. What do you think it means to be a “grace giver”?

13. Read Ephesians 4:32. How can you be a “grace giver” in your life?

A grace-giver is kind and tenderhearted, forgiving others as Christ has forgiven us. A grace-giver does not hold grudges and works at renewing relationships rather than being continually angry with someone.

14. What relationships in your life need renewing?

In Philemon, Christ is the renewer of hearts, making us right with God so our relationship with God is no longer broken. He forgives us completely, gives us new hearts and fills our hearts with joy. Christ gives us His grace so that we can then give grace to others, following His own example. A renewed heart is grateful for the forgiveness received through God’s grace and wants to be a “grace giver” to others.

Living Dependently on Christ

1) Bible verse to learn:

“Renew my heart. We know that Christ is the one who really renews it.” (Philemon 20b NIRV)

2) Response in prayer & praise:

Ask Jesus, as the renewer of your heart, to help you be a grace-giver to your friends and family members.

3) Getting to know Him more:

Spend a few minutes reading this wonderful letter and reflecting on how God’s marvelous grace offers you a life of freedom and joy.

  • Read all of Philemon again. Reflect on what you read.

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