Bible Study Guides

Philemon

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will

have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

Philemon 1:6

Paul’s letter to Philemon addresses the issue of a ‘runaway’ slave called Onesimus. Onesimus, who became a follower of Christ in Rome, had become a close companion and co-worker to Paul while he was in prison there. Paul appeals to Philemon in the letter to accept Onesimus back into his household as a Christian brother, and to forgive his past wrongdoings.

We have provided this resource to facilitate small group discussion. There are questions for two sessions. You can download these questions in an A5 booklet or A4 format or you can view them online by clicking on the links below. We encourage everyone in the group to read Philemon before the first session. The short letter to Philemon takes about 3 minutes to read.

 
Philemon A5 Booklet.png
Philemon - Bible Study Guide - A4 format

Resources provided by Bibleworld Museum & Discovery Centre, Rotorua, New Zealand

Introduction to the

Book of Philemon

This short letter was addressed to Philemon, Apphia and Archippus, all of whom were members of the church at Colosse. Philemon was converted through Paul’s ministry (v 19) and Apphia is understood to be the wife of Philemon, and Archippus a family member. This letter is one of the most private books of the New Testament in which Paul pleads for the life of one runaway slave.

 

Slavery in the Roman world:  Slavery was very common in the Roman world with at least 50% of the population being slaves. A master could have anything from 2 to 200 slaves or a very wealthy person may have had 20,000 slaves. Unlike the Old Testament law, Roman law gave no protection to slaves. Masters were able to crucify their slaves if they ran away from home or for other reasons. If a runaway slave was not killed, he or she could have branded on their forehead ‘CF’ for ‘Cave Furem’ – ‘Beware the thief’ or ‘FF’ for ‘fugitilus’ or ‘Fugitive’.

 

Occasion of Writing:  Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away from his master. Onesimus had ended up in Rome where he heard the preaching of Paul and became a convert of Christ. Onesimus became a dear son and fellow worker of Paul’s. However Paul recognised that it was illegal and unethical for him to harbour a runaway slave, and he realised that it was important for Onesimus to be returned to Philemon. This return was difficult for Paul, for Philemon and for Onesimus. Paul had to write with great tact and diplomacy, pleading for a fair outcome for Onesimus. Paul requested forgiveness, acknowledging that Onesimus has done wrong in the past, but testifying to a changed character. Paul offered to take personal responsibility for any debts of Onesimus. Onesimus’s name means ‘useful’ and the slave who was ‘useless’ has now become useful not only to Paul and Philemon, but also to God. Paul begs Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a brother as well as a slave.

 

Outcome of Paul’s letter: We are not told in this letter what happened to Onesimus. Ignatius was a church father who wrote in the 2nd century A.D. about a man called Onesimus. He describes Onesimus as a leader of the Ephesian church and said he was a ‘man of inexpressible love’ and ‘an excellent bishop’. If Onesimus did later fulfil such a role, it could explain why this little letter made it into our Bibles.

 
 

Discussion Questions

for the Book of Philemon

Session One: Treating Others with Respect 

What particularly stood out to you as you read this letter?

 

What do we learn in this letter about the character of Paul, Onesimus and Philemon? What words would you use to describe each one?

 

Imagine yourself as one of the characters in this letter. Would you prefer to have been Paul, Onesimus or Philemon? Explain to the group the reasons for your choice. 

 

One of the great themes of the Bible is the command to care for the poor and marginalised (including widows, orphans, foreigners, and prisoners). As a slave, Onesimus was one the disadvantaged people in society. However Paul, an educated Jew, called the Gentile slave Onesimus, his son, and treated him with real respect as a brother in Christ. What might have helped Paul empathise with Onesimus?

 

Paul urges Philemon to adopt a different mind-set toward Onesimus (slave to fellow brother).  What advantage is there in changing the way we think about people? How might this affect the way we approach our relationships with others?  In what way does Paul’s treatment of Onesimus reflect Christ’s treatment of us as believers?

 

Who are the disadvantaged people in society today that tend to get overlooked or mistreated or distrusted?  Can you identify a person you know who has treated with real respect the disadvantaged people in society? 

Discussion Questions

for the Book of Philemon

Session Two:  Being a Peacemaker

In this situation Paul acted as a peacemaker between Onesimus and Philemon. What did Paul do well in this situation?

 

The letter is addressed not just to Philemon but to other people, including the church that meets at Philemon’s home.  How might the church have been able to help both Philemon and Onesimus in this reconciliation process?

 

Do you tend to be a conflict avoider or a peacemaker? Have you ever been involved in seeking to bring peace or restore relationships between other people? What have you learnt from doing so?

 

Jesus taught: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9. In life we often encounter people with strongly divisive views about race, religion and politics. How might we be peacemakers when we encounter this type of divisiveness?

 

We also encounter conflict within families, friendships, churches, clubs and work places. How might we be peacemakers in these situations?

 

Is there a situation you know of today where you could help to bring peace and reconciliation? 

 

Suggestions for leading a small group Bible study

We believe there is great value in studying a book of the Bible as a whole, within a small group setting. If you are new to this we encourage you to begin with a shorter book such as Colossians, James or Ruth. We have put together these study guides based on the following five guidelines.

 

1. Encourage everyone in the group to read the book repeatedly.

2. Trust God to help you understand and apply his Word.

3. Focus on what the book reveals about God/Jesus.

4. Focus on what it clearly reveals about how God wants us to live.

5. Don't get bogged down on minor, uncertain or controversial issues. 

 

1. Encourage everyone in the group to read the book repeatedly.

We enjoy a Bible study group when everyone has read the Biblical text and comes along ready to discuss it. It makes for a much more interesting evening than a leader providing a monologue about the Bible! For that reason, we also like to hand out questions to everyone ahead of time, so everyone can come prepared to contribute in a thoughtful way. As a leader we encourage you to try and get everyone in the group to participate if they wish to.

 

There can be a temptation to read books or commentaries about the Bible rather than reading the Bible itself. Books about the Bible can be helpful, but we encourage everyone to spend the majority of their time becoming familiar with the Bible text itself. It may sound like a huge commitment to read through a book of the Bible ten times, but for a 15 minute book like James, this only takes about 2 ½ hours in total.

 

We have used the term ‘read the Bible’ however we are increasingly becoming fans of the practice of ‘listening to the Bible’. We highly recommend that everyone tries out an audio Bible to see how they find it. We suggest checking out the Bibleis app. An audio bible on your phone provides the opportunity to listen to the Bible while waiting, doing housework, commuting or while exercising.

 

2. Trust God to help you understand and apply his Word.

We need to trust that God wants to help us understand his Word. We encourage you to pray for wisdom as individuals and to pray when you come together as a group.

 

'If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.' James 1:5.

 

3. Focus on what the book reveals about God/Jesus.

God reveals so much about himself through the Bible. We have tried to come up with questions that focus on God - his abilities, his activity in our world and his character.  How does God work in people’s lives? What is important to God? For New Testament books, we are also interested in what we can learn about Jesus? What mattered to him?

 

4. Focus on what it clearly reveals about how God wants us to live.

Try to focus on how the members of your group can apply the message of the Biblical book to their lives. What does this book clearly reveal about how God wants us to live? What can we specifically do? What are the particular challenges that people are facing? What hope does this book provide?

 

5. Don't get bogged down on minor, uncertain or controversial issues. 

Accept that there are things in the Bible that we don't understand. We can waste a lot of time in a small groups on unhelpful discussion. Paul sums this up well in his letter to Timothy: Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments because you know they produce quarrels. (2 Timothy 2:23). There is however a difference between a robust healthy discussion and petty quarrelling. We encourage you to aim for the former and seek to avoid the latter.

 

There is a sense in which the Bible is both easy to understand and hard to understand. It covers over 4000 years of history. It is set in locations on three different continents (Africa, Asia and Europe). It is written in a range of literary styles (history, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, letters, gospels and apocalyptic). Some of the customs and practices of the people are quite foreign to us. However despite these difficulties there is a sense it which the Bible is easy to understand. We have a loving God who has sent his son Jesus so that we can enjoy life to the full and spend eternity with him. If you would like some further help with Bible study, we recommend the book ‘How to Read the Bible for all its worth’ by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.