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The Blue Letter Bible

Dr. J. Vernon McGee :: Notes for Philemon

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DATE: Probably A.D. 62 (See outline of Ephesians and the Prison Epistles introduction.)

FORM: The Epistles present a different style in revelation. God used law, history, poetry, prophecy, and the Gospels heretofore, but in the Epistles He adopted a more personal and direct method. In this intimate way, He looks back to the Cross and talks about the church. Someone has said that the Epistles are the love letters of Christ to us. Dr. Deissmann divided them into two classifications: Epistles and letters. The Epistles are general, while the letters are more personal and individual. Under this division, the Epistle of Philemon would be classified as a letter, for it is individual and intimate. There is reason to believe that Paul did not expect its contents to be divulged (at other times he knew that he was writing Scripture). This does not detract from the inspiration and value of Philemon, but rather enhances its value and message.

BACKGROUND: The story behind the Epistle to Philemon was enacted on the black background of slavery. There were approximately 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire, where the total population did not exceed 120 million. A slave was a chattel. He was treated worse than an enemy and was subject to the whim of his master.
The story can be briefly reconstructed. Onesimus was a slave belonging to Philemon, a Christian of Colosse. This slave had opportunity to run away and seized on it. He made his way to Rome where he expected his identity and past life to be swallowed up by the great metropolis. One day he chanced upon a gathering where Paul was preaching. There he heard the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit regenerated him, making him a new creature in Christ. He told his story to Paul, and Paul sent him back to Philemon with this accompanying letter.

PURPOSE: The primary purpose of this epistle is to reveal Christ’s love for us in what He did for us before God in pleading our case. This is the finest illustration of substitution: “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee anything, put that on mine account” (Philemon 18). We can hear Christ agreeing to take our place and to have all our sin imputed to Him — “For he hath made him…to be sin for us…” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He took our place in death, but He gives us His place in life: “If thou count me, therefore, a partner, receive him as myself” (Philemon 17). We have the standing of Christ before God, or we have none at all. He took our hell, and He gives us His heaven “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Onesimus, an unprofitable runaway slave, was to be received as Paul, the great apostle, would have been received in the home of Philemon.
The practical purpose is to teach brotherly love. Paul spoke of the new relationship between master and servant in the other Prison Epistles. Here he demonstrates how it should work. These men, belonging to two different classes in the Roman Empire, hating each other and hurting each other, are now brothers in Christ — and they are to act like it. This is the only solution to the problem of capital and labor.

Outline for Titus ← Prior Section
Outline for Philemon Next Section →
Notes for Titus ← Prior Book
Notes for Hebrews Next Book →
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