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The Blue Letter Bible

Dr. J. Vernon McGee :: Outline for Philemon

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I. Genial greeting to Philemon and his family, vv. 1-3

II. Good reputation of Philemon, vv. 4-7

III. Gracious plea for Onesimus, vv. 8-16

IV. Guiltless substitutes for guilty, v. 17

V. Glorious illustration of imputation, v. 18

VI. General and personal items and requests, vv. 19-25


I. Genial greeting to Philemon and his family, vv. 1-3

v. 1 — “A prisoner of Jesus Christ” — later, Paul makes his plea on the basis that he is a prisoner (v. 9). He was not in prison because of the cleverness of the Jerusalem religious leaders or the power of Roman officials. He was in prison because Jesus Christ willed it. Note that Timothy is with Paul. “Philemon” (see BACKGROUND).
“Fellow-worker” — Philemon is not only dearly beloved, but is associated with Paul and Timothy in proclaiming the gospel.

v. 2 — “Apphia” is the wife of Philemon. “Archippus” is the son of Philemon. He is a young man who is a fellow soldier, enduring hardness for the gospel. “Church in thy house” — there were no church buildings in the apostolic period. The church assembled in homes.

v. 3 — This is the usual greeting of Paul (see other Prison Epistles).

II. Good reputation of Philemon, vv. 4-7

v. 4 — Paul had made Philemon a subject of prayer. This would seem to denote a special and close relationship between them.

v. 5 — Philemon had a good reputation as a believer. His “love” was toward the Lord Jesus and toward the other believers. His “faith” was toward the Lord Jesus, and he was faithful to other believers.

v. 6 — The life of Philemon was a testimony. “Every good thing” was the result of the fact that “it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

v. 7 — Paul had joy and consolation in the love of Philemon for other believers. “Bowels,” or heart, implies the entire psychological nature. It means that by him the inner life of the believers had great satisfaction.

III. Gracious plea for Onesimus, vv. 8-16

v. 8 — Paul now comes to the purpose of the letter and approaches his subject diplomatically and cautiously.

v. 9 — Paul gives three reasons as the basis for his plea:

1. “For love’s sake” — probably Philemon’s love for Paul.

2. “Paul, the aged” — though Paul is not too old in years, his suffering and persecution as a missionary for Christ have aged him.

3. He is a prisoner of Jesus Christ, in bonds in Rome, and could not come in person (see v. 1).

v. 10 — “Onesimus” means profitable.

v. 11 — “Unprofitable” — Paul is making a play upon words. “Profitable” (v. 10) was unprofitable; but now that he is a believer, he is profitable. He is now truly Onesimus — profitable to both Philemon and Paul. This is a subtle suggestion that while in prison Paul could use him.

v. 12 — But Paul is returning him to Philemon.

v. 13 — Paul very candidly speaks his mind. This is very personal. Perhaps Paul did not intend us to read it.

v. 14 — Again he makes a subtle suggestion: Philemon could return Onesimus to him to minister to him in prison. Did Philemon send him back to Paul? I don’t know, but I think he did.

vv. 15, 16 — Since Onesimus has become a believer, his status and relationship to Philemon are different. He is still a slave according to the Roman law, but he is more than that — he is a beloved brother. He is now really profitable. He can live up to his name for the first time.

IV. Guiltless substitutes for guilty, v. 17

This is one of the grandest illustrations of plenary substitution and imputation. Behind Paul’s plea is Christ’s plea to the Father on behalf of the sinner who trusts Christ as the Savior. That sinner is received on the same standing that Christ is received. In other words, the saved sinner has as much right in heaven as Christ has, for he has His right — “accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6).

V. Glorious illustration of imputation, v. 18

The reason the saved sinner is accepted in heaven is that Christ took his place down here. The sins of the sinner were put on Christ, and He paid the penalty.

VI. General and personal items and requests, vv. 19-25

v. 19 — Paul agrees to pay the entire debt of Onesimus. Philemon is to receive him as he would receive Paul. “I will repay it” (see Hebrews 10:5-10).

v. 20 — Paul pleads for Onesimus.

v. 21 — Paul feels that Philemon will do more than he requests.

v. 22 — Paul expects to be released from prison. He requests prayer in that direction.

vv. 23-25 — These are personal greetings to mutual friends.

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