3 Reasons to Preach through Philemon
When we consider our next exegetical preaching series, our minds seldom think of the tinier books—the minor prophets, or “the postcard epistles” (a.k.a. 2 John, 3 John, and Jude). But I want to challenge you to consider a relatively unpopular New Testament text. Here are three reasons why you should preach through Philemon.
1. Philemon models Christian forgiveness.
The primary theme of Philemon is forgiveness. While imprisoned in Rome, Paul was visited by a distressed Colossian pastor named Epaphras. The churches of the Lycus Valley are under attack by those who want to distort the gospel and dethrone the Lord Jesus Christ. In response, Paul pens a masterful letter, eviscerating false religion and exalting the King of kings. He sends a letter back to Colossae, carried in the hands of two men, Tychicus and Onesimus. But there’s a problem: Onesimus is a since-converted runaway slave of one of the Colossian members, Philemon, whom Paul knows personally. So, in writing to the churches, he is moved to write to his friend, Philemon, asking that he forgive Onesimus. This letter is Paul’s attempt at facilitating reconciliation through forgiveness.
After a standard greeting, Paul praises Philemon for his faithfulness in the Lord. It’s clear that Philemon is a godly man, having “faith . . . toward the Lord Jesus, and [love] toward all the saints” (v. 5). Paul’s love and appreciation for Philemon is evident. Having reminded Philemon of their close relationship, Paul appeals to him on behalf of Onesimus “who was formerly useless” to Philemon “but now is useful” (v. 11). He pleads with his friend, telling him of Onesimus’ recent conversion. And Paul, in sending Onesimus back to Philemon, says that he is “sending [his] very heart” (v. 12). He asks that Onesimus would be received back “no longer as a slave, but . . . as a beloved brother” (v. 16). Paul is so adamant to foster their reconciliation, he even offers to cover whatever losses suffered at the hands of Onesimus (v. 18), but reminds Philemon of even his own spiritual debt to Paul (v. 19). Confident that Philemon will do the right thing and accept Onesimus back (v. 21), Paul closes the letter with a warm greeting to their mutual friends (vv. 22–25).
While the word “forgiveness” never appears in the letter itself, every verse drips with the principles of Christian forgiveness. As Philemon is exposited and applied, the principles of reception, reconciliation, restoration, and restitution can be teased out. After preaching just three sermons on this text, the Spirit brought forth abundant fruit in the life of our church. I heard about conversations being had, people examining themselves, and even broken relationships being mended. This tiny, seemingly obscure letter produced a blessed harvest!
2. Philemon connects the biblical narrative.
After spending nearly a year teaching through Colossians, I had toyed with the idea of jumping next into Philemon. In my naivety, I hadn’t fully grasped how connected the two letters were. Nearly every commentary in print contains expositions of both letter together, but my working through them both back-to-back, I quickly began to see how valuable and complementary they are.
Philemon provides the much-needed context for the background of Colossians. In fact, when we see Onesimus’ name in Colossians 4:9, we’re reminded that he is a flesh-and-blood person with a story. His inclusion in Paul’s letter is even more earth-shattering when one considers the tremendous personal cost to Onesimus in daring to even show his face in Colossae.
How important it is to teach these low-visibility texts. While the Bible is ultimately the story of God saving his own people for his glory, there are so many small pieces that comprise that story. Like a 10,000-piece puzzle, we ought seek to to assemble a full picture, line upon line, precept upon precept.
3. Philemon serves as a testing ground for newer expositors.
Every budding expositor dreams of preaching through Romans for a decade, but as experience proves, long series are not for the faint of heart. It takes work to labor in a single book week after week, month after month, year after year. However, preaching through shorter books accomplishes several ends.
First, in tackling a short book, the preacher is able to hone his skills. I always chuckle and groan when I hear Derek Thomas tell the story of how he began his preaching ministry—by bringing his new congregation through Jeremiah! While there may have been much good that resulted from an extended expository series on the weeping prophet, it’s no doubt a miracle that the young Thomas survived to preach another day. For the rest of us who aren’t as gifted as Dr. Thomas, approaching smaller books develops exegetical skills and fosters the confidence to tackle a larger book later on
Second, preaching through a shorter book helps create a congregational appetite for expository preaching. For those who aren’t used to verse-by-verse expository preaching, sitting under an elongated series may prove too much. But demonstrating the benefit and beauty of expository preaching in a short series will no doubt prepare a church for that marathon Romans series you’re gunning for.
According to tradition, Paul’s venture was successful. Philemon accepted Onesimus back as a brother—and Onesimus even became a pastor with a long ministry! In his letter, Paul demonstrates tact and precision as he encourages forgiveness and restoration. While we certainly cannot boil Paul’s practice down to a series of “steps,” there’s certainly wisdom in appealing to at-odds believers in meekness and love. In the end, we love and forgive others because the Lord Jesus has first loved and forgiven us (Eph. 4:32). This is the heart and soul of the gospel, portrayed in the book of Philemon.
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John MacArthur, Colossians & Philemon. MNTC. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992. As a pastor, I always benefit from the faithful work of other pastors. In our generation, John MacArthur is an expositor par excellence. His commentaries have the perfect blend of exegetical observations and practical applications. I never tackle a text without my “Johnny Mac” nearby.
Douglas Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. PNTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008. The Pillar Commentary Series is a staple of my regular weekly preparation, but I found this volume to be particularly helpful. Douglas Moo is a careful, insightful, and meticulous commentator, and his work on this letter is very helpful.
William Hendriksen, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. NTC. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. For me, Hendriksen is always a faithful friend. This volume is up to par. In addition to his keen commentary on Philemon, the volume also includes an appendix covering early Roman slavery, which I found to be very helpful.
Bonus: Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004. At one point, I considered making Sande’s book required reading for church membership; it’s that good. The book is able to help believers flesh out how confrontation, forgiveness, and restoration can be accomplished in real life.