Category Archives: Philemon

What Are You Studying?

Pastors, teachers, and other students of God’s Word, you might enjoy supplementing your studies with some unique and accessible commentary.  My Bible Journal posts have followed the haphazard course of my own studies recently, largely focused on the New Testament.  Here’s an attempt to organize my offerings for you.  Please pass these links on to others if you think they would be helpful!

Remember, you can follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo, or sign up for email notifications (see the button below).

Bible Journal entries are listed below under the relevant books or sections of the Bible.  Find a match with what you are studying, and read along!


Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology



Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT


Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)


General Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

Mapping the Parables

On the Unforgivable Sin

Prompted Parables

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

Samaritan Stories

“Shhh – don’t tell!”


Mark is Longer


Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt


Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names


Paul the Governed (see also Romans)

Prison Diary (Acts 16)

Greek Gods in the NT (Acts 16-19)

Take-Aways from Philippi (Acts 16)

Rome Meets Paul

Before Speaking, Listen (Acts 17)


Mutual Autobiography

What Paul Said About Jesus (Comprehensive Chart)

Paul on Jesus, Part 1 (The Lord of Time)

Paul on Jesus, Part 2 (History, Salvation, Obedience)

Paul on Jesus, Part 3 (Benefits & Realities)


Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Galatians)

Paul the Governed (see also Acts)

The Metaphysical Situation (see also 1-2 Corinthians)

1-2 Corinthians

Fortune Cookies

Pickup Theology

Riff on 1 Cor. 13

The Metaphysical Situation (see also Romans)


Examining Ourselves


A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit


Military Mnemonics


Providing Perspective


The Mouse that Roared



Chronology and Meaning (see also Galatians & Romans)

A Topical Concordance of James (includes link to pdf resource)

1 Peter

Providing Perspective

123 John

Euphemistic Faith


Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

Leave a comment

Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, 123 John, Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Galatians, Gospel of John, Hebrews, Instructing the Body, James, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Old Testament, Parables, Paul, Peter, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans, Synoptic Gospels, The Revelation

Paul on Jesus: Part Three

[Texts:  Paul’s life and letters]

To wrap up my summaries of Paul’s teaching on Jesus (Part One and Part Two having covered History, Salvation, and Obedience), I’d like to focus on the Benefits delivered to believers in Christ and the new Realities of our spiritual location “in Christ.”  My comprehensive chart of what Paul had to say about Jesus can be accessed here, if you’d like to see these ideas in more detail.

On my chart, I am calling “Benefits” those things that are presently in our possession through faith in Jesus, as well as those things that are promised to us in the future (but are no less certainly ours!).* For the most part, these are intangibles; yet even as the bread and drink of Communion are physical reminders of a real but untouchably distant historical event, so are our physical bodies reminders of the real, material future blessings of resurrected life in the New Heavens and New Earth.  In other words, all that we are unable to experience with our senses now will one day be thoroughly realized in our bodies, relationships, and world.

Some of the invisible Benefits belonging to believers are improvements on the old order of things, as set out in the Hebrew Scriptures:  freedom from the law of sin and death; inclusion, if we are Gentiles, in the promises and family of the great patriarch Abraham; access to God in the first place.*  Other Benefits trump the oldest enemy of every human being, Death itself: for in Christ, Paul assures us, we have already died and been made alive with never-ending life; and though we will die physically, we shall yet hope to live again in our resurrected bodies.

Still other Benefits explain our present situation, however contrary to evidence these truths may seem:  we are adopted children of God; we are gifted by God for service and with the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit; and we have the blessings of comfort, joy and encouragement in Christ.  Truly, as Paul says himself, we by Christ’s poverty have become rich.

Finally, the Benefits of life in Christ include our salvation from judgment and extend to the formation of our characters into his likeness.  Righteousness and holiness, flowing from our deliverance from the power of sin, law, and death, will increasingly mark the people of God.  And in all of our challenges and changes, we are guaranteed to find ourselves safe in the love of our Father God.

Knowing these Benefits is the key to bearing the Realities of the Christian life, which, Paul does not hesitate to admit, will often be painful and sorrowful in our broken world.  Those believers whose political and social settings most closely resemble Paul’s own will best be able to appreciate the power of these truths for the shouldering of suffering.

While some of the Realities that I have listed on my chart rather cross over into the Benefits category (e.g., belonging to Christ, having already been buried and raised with him, being members together of his body), other Realities do not feel like Benefits at all.  Our close identification with our Lord, both individually and collectively, opens for us the possibility of suffering, an experience that Paul knew only too well.  He recognized in his imprisonment, maltreatment and hardships the fulfillment of a prophecy once made about him by the Lord himself:  “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name,” and he identified the same in the lives of his friends:  “For the sake of Christ you not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

It’s the phrase “for his sake” that puts the Realities in perspective.  Since for our sake Jesus was condemned, bringing into being the Benefits that Paul celebrates, our temporary sufferings for his sake can be borne in grateful response and the confident hope of receiving unshakeable life at the end of our story.  Without this perspective, no believer over the whole course of Christian history could have withstood the cruel persecutions devised by the world. By God’s grace, Paul’s life and letters provide us with a verbal picture of the noble soldier who bears all for the sake of his Commander in Chief.  Let’s learn from him, and keep on standing firm.


*It would actually make just as much sense to call these Benefits “Realities” of the Christian life; but here I’ve used the “Reality” category to collect those things that we experience in this life because we are believers, as well as for a few more invisible and intangible implications of belonging to Christ.

*I’m not going to give you the verse references in this post!  If I did, your eyes would skim these paragraphs and you wouldn’t really read these amazing statements.  (Am I not right?)  You see if you can remember the specific verses that I’m referring to.  If you can’t, look up these ideas under the Benefits and Realities categories on my chart “What Paul Said About Jesus.”

Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!



Leave a comment

Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Acts, Biblical Theology, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Eschatology, Historical Context, Jesus, Paul, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans

The Mouse that Roared

[Text: Philemon]

In the NT epistles, what’s assumed, communicated, and considered important about Christian faith typically falls into three categories. Given first priority is usually the correct content of faith, what ought to be believed – redemptive history, the character of God, the work of Christ, the promised inheritance, etc. Then there is the reality of faith, those things that are true for the saints because of belief in Christ’s gospel – things like adoption, eternal life, forgiveness, belonging to one another. And finally there is the fruit of faith, those behaviors that are expected because these other things are true. In all but one of the epistles, you will find each of these three aspects of faith expressed at one point or another.*

The exception is Philemon. This little letter (which scholar N. T. Wright has likened to Reepicheep standing beside the talking bears and elephants*) stands out from the rest in that Paul never once pauses to rehearse the content of the Christian faith – that is, the historical events and promises that make up the gospel. Instead, he is entirely concerned with the reality of faith and the fruit of faith, emphasizing the former in order to elicit the latter in his friend Philemon.

This is not to say that Jesus is absent from the letter; far from it, as this brief missive is saturated with references to the Lord. But it’s worth noting that every reference assumes a historical gospel already known and absorbed. There is not a single mention of what Jesus has done or will do, nor even one of Paul’s characteristic descriptive phrases tacked onto the Name of names.* The letter to Philemon offers us instead a distilled example of the implications of the gospel, when it has been embraced wholeheartedly.

So in his appeal to Philemon for the sake of the runaway slave Onesimus, Paul rests his case on things that are true because of a shared faith. He doesn’t need to rehearse the content of the gospel that gave rise to that faith, because he’s confident that his friend knows the basics already. Now he’s calling Philemon on to the next level of maturity. If he really believes what he has been taught in the Lord, will he live like it is true? This isn’t just an abstract question anymore: suddenly the question has legs and arms and a heart and a name.

Philemon and Paul have enjoyed this shared faith for some time already, and it just so happens that Onesimus, through Paul’s instruction, has also recently entered into the circle of believers, a development that causes Paul much rejoicing. But there’s a problem. Onesimus, slave of Philemon, has gravely disobeyed his master in running away, probably also stealing some cash to finance his journey Paulward. There’s going to have to be a reunion of master and slave, and a confrontation. Legally speaking, Philemon has every right to punish and even execute the runaway thief. Paul hopes he will respond instead to a higher law.

Here’s how he puts it, more or less:* “Philemon, my good friend, I know you love Jesus, and we are members of each other in Christ. Guess what. Your slave Onesimus is now in Christ, too. Think about this a minute. There are huge implications for this ‘fellowship of faith,’ and I want you to have — alive and in person – the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.

“Onesimus is so dear to me that it is gut-wrenching to let him go, but I know this is the right thing to do, since you ought to have some say in what happens next. And I know that you will do the right thing, too. Do you see the implications of his conversion? You’ll be receiving him back no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

“A brother, Philemon – get it? That’s what you are to me, and I am to you in Christ. So—” (and here the universe itself braces for an immense tectonic paradigm shift) “—so welcome this slave of yours as you would welcome me, your partner, to whom you owe your very self (though I shouldn’t need to mention it!).”

As Paul sent Onesimus off to Colosse with the letter-bearer Tychicus, he knew he was taking a risk. It was possible that Philemon would resent his involvement in the master-slave relationship, and that his new friend and son wouldn’t be recognized as a brother for whom Christ died, but only still as a piece of personal property. But I think we can conclude that his hopes were not unfounded and that his prayers were answered. The very preservation of this seedling of a letter, and its planting in the canon of Scripture, indicates a happy ending to the story.

For the rest of us reading (and speculating!) about Onesimus today, there’s more to the inclusion of Philemon among the epistles than just the passing on of a snapshot of the gospel lived out. Even though there’s no direct instruction to the general church in this persuasive piece of writing, we shouldn’t overlook the significance of the mouse that roared. Perhaps little Philemon, much like a pen-and-ink Zacchaeus, plays a part in the canon that the “wee little man” played in person in his home town of Jericho after the love of Jesus got hold of him.

Philemon, as a letter and also as an individual, represents the next stage in the development of the Church and the maturing of the believer, after the apostolic revelation has ceased and the elementary lessons have been learned. The world is truly turned upside-down when slaves become brothers and are as welcomed into the family circle as Paul himself would be (did Philemon prepare a guest room for both, I wonder?). But this is what happens when salvation comes to a house, to a relationship, to a mind. When believers walk in obedience to the implications of the gospel, the results are often unexpectedly huge.



*And yep, they overlap. Sometimes in the epistles the reality of what is now true for believers in Christ needs to be taught to the readers, so it ends up just being further content. But I’ve decided to distinguish between the gospel’s time-related events and promises (data about God’s actions in the past, present, and future) on the one hand, and the implications of those events for believers and the world on the other – hence the distinction here between the content and the reality of Christian faith.

*See Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Fortress Press (2013), p.16.

*For example, from Titus 2:13:14 – “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession. . . .”

*The biblical citations come from the ESV, though mostly I’ve just paraphrased.

Follow the Library on Twitter!  @GrassRootsTheo 

Leave a comment

Filed under Biblical Genres, Biblical Theology, Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Paul, Philemon, Redemptive History