Sunday School Bible Survey:      PHILEMON

Theme: Forgiveness and reconciliation

Key verse: "If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account" (vs. 18).

From the Scofield Study Bible:

WRITER: The Apostle Paul (1:1)

DATE: Probably A.D. 64. It is one of the Prison Epistles. See Introductions to Ephesians and Colossians.

THEME: Onesimus ("profitable"), a slave of Philemon, a Christian of Colosse, had robbed his master and fled to Rome. There he became a convert through Paul, who sent him back to Philemon with this letter. It is of priceless value as a teaching
      (1) in practical righteousness;
      (2) in Christian brotherhood;
      (3) in Christian courtesy;
      (4) in the law of love.

The divisions are four:

  1. Greeting (1-3).
  2. The character of Philemon (4-7).
  3. Intercession for Onesimus (8-21).
  4. Salutations and conclusion (22-25).


  1. One of the cities mentioned several times in the New Testament is the ancient city of Colosse. Today it no longer exists. Today it is just a pile of ruins in modern day Turkey. But it was a great city in Paul's day.
  2. And in Colosse there dwelt a wealthy Christian gentleman by the name of Philemon. Sometime around AD 64, the apostle Paul wrote a personal letter to this man and ever since then he has become famous because this letter is part of the Bible.
  3. Philemon, like many others in that day, had a number of slaves working in his household. This surprises many modern readers but we should understand the context and we should know a little bit of history. H.A. Ironside wrote: "Christianity did not immediately overturn the evil custom of slavery, although eventually it was the means of practically driving it out of the whole civilized world."
  4. This man Philemon was apparently saved through the ministry of Paul. Paul thought highly of him and prayed for him regularly (vss. 4-7).
  5. Some years had gone by, and a slave by the name of Onesimus had run away from Philemon's house. Apparently, he had robbed Philemon before running away and fleeing to Rome (vs. 18).
  6. How he arrived in Rome we do not know, but somehow, in the providence of God he met the apostle Paul, the man who led his master to the Lord.
  7. Paul was imprisoned in Rome at this time and you will recall that it was from Rome that he wrote his four "Prison Epistles" — Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon.
  8. Possibly Onesimus was arrested for some further criminal behaviour, and was perhaps thrown into jail next to Paul. Or maybe he just took it upon himself to visit Paul in prison. We cannot know for sure how they met.
  9. At any rate, it was the hand of God that brought Onesimus face to face with the great apostle Paul. Paul led Onesimus to the Lord and considered him as a son (vs. 10).
  10. And this is the background to this wonderful little epistle.
  11. J. Vernon McGee said, "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" (Thru the Bible). Certainly, this is true about the epistle of the apostle Paul to Philemon.
  12. McGee said, "There were approximately 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire, where the total population did not exceed 120 million. A slave was a chattel...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" (Thru the Bible).
  13. The epistle to Philemon is a beautiful illustration of substitution: "If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee anything, put that on mine account" (vss. 17, 18).
  14. Paul asked that Onesimus (his name means "Profitable"), an unprofitable runaway slave, would be received as the beloved apostle Paul would have been received.
  15. Onesimus had been "unprofitable" but after his conversion had become "profitable" (vs. 11).

Outline from J. Vernon McGee:

  1. Genial greeting to Philemon and his family (vss. 1-3)
  2. Good reputation of Philemon (vss. 4-7)
  3. Gracious plea for Onesimus (vss. 8-16)
  4. Guiltless substitutes for guilty (vs. 17)
  5. Glorious illustration of imputation (vs. 18)
  6. General and personal items and requests (vss. 19-25)

These are simple Sunday School survey notes. They are not for sale. The author used many outlines from popular Bible teachers such as C.I. Scofield and J. Vernon McGee, and he has tried to give credit when using their material.

—  Pastor James J. Barker  —