Lesson 134: Philemon

“Lesson 134: Philemon,” New Testament Seminary Teacher Manual (2016)

“Lesson 134,” New Testament Seminary Teacher Manual

Lesson 134



Paul commended Philemon for his faith and his love for the Savior and fellow Church members. Paul counseled Philemon to receive his runaway slave Onesimus back as a brother in the gospel.

Suggestions for Teaching

Philemon 1

Paul counsels Philemon to receive his runaway slave Onesimus back as a brother in the gospel

Ask students to visualize the youth in their ward or branch. Point out that as members of the Church we have the opportunity to interact closely with people who are different from us.

  • How are the youth in your ward or branch different from each other? (Remind students to speak respectfully of one another.)

Point out that as members of the Church we also often encounter new people. Ask students to imagine that someone new joins their ward or branch.

  • What social challenges might someone experience when joining the Church or moving into a new ward or branch? (If any students have joined the Church or moved into a new ward or branch in recent years, invite them to describe any social challenges they experienced.)

Ask students to ponder the following questions:

  • How do you treat Church members who behave differently, have different interests, or belong to different social groups than you do?

  • How do you treat new members of your ward or branch?

Invite students to look for a truth as they study Paul’s Epistle to Philemon that can guide them in their interactions with fellow Church members.

Explain that Paul was in prison when he wrote to Philemon, who was probably a Greek convert to the Church. Summarize Philemon 1:1–3 by explaining that Paul began his epistle by greeting Philemon and others, including the congregation that met in Philemon’s home.

Invite a student to read Philemon 1:4–7 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for why Paul praised Philemon. Explain that in this context the word communication refers to participation and fellowship (see verse 6, footnote a) and the phrase “become effectual” means to become active or take effect (see verse 6, footnote b).

  • Why did Paul praise Philemon? (Because of Philemon’s faith and his love for the Savior and his fellow Church members. You may need to explain that when Paul said that “the bowels of the Saints [had been] refreshed” [verse 7], he meant that their hearts had been enlivened by Philemon.)

Invite a student to read aloud the following information about a situation that Paul addressed in this epistle:

Philemon had a servant, or slave, named Onesimus who had run away and may have stolen something from Philemon (see Philemon 1:18). Slavery was not viewed as evil within the New Testament Judeo-Christian culture and was supported by Roman law. Punishments for runaway slaves included being severely beaten, branded on the forehead, or even killed. After running away, Onesimus had encountered the Apostle Paul.

Invite a student to read Philemon 1:8–12 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what Paul beseeched, or petitioned, Philemon to do. If needed, explain that in verse 8 the word enjoin means to command and convenient means proper or fitting.

  • What did Paul ask Philemon to do?

  • If you had been in Philemon’s position, what might you have thought or felt when you received Paul’s request?

Point out the phrase “whom I have begotten in my bonds” (verse 10). Explain that one meaning of the verb beget is to give life to someone.

  • What do you think Paul meant by this phrase? (While Paul was in prison, he had helped Onesimus begin a new life as a follower of Jesus Christ.)

Summarize Philemon 1:13–14 by explaining that Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him so that Onesimus could assist him, but Paul did not want to do so without Philemon’s consent.

Invite a student to read Philemon 1:15–16 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for how Paul encouraged Philemon to view his relationship with the newly converted Onesimus.

  • According to verse 16, how was Philemon to view Onesimus?

  • Why might viewing Onesimus as a “brother beloved” have been difficult for Philemon? (Possible answers might include that they belonged to different social and economic classes and that Onesimus may have wronged Philemon according to the customs of the day.)

  • What truth can we learn from verse 16 about our relationships with each other because of the gospel? (Help students identify a truth similar to the following: We are brothers and sisters in the gospel. Write this truth on the board.)

  • What makes us brothers and sisters in the gospel?

If necessary, explain that we are all spirit children of Heavenly Father (see Hebrews 12:9) and thus are all brothers and sisters. In addition, through the ordinances of baptism and confirmation, the continual exercise of faith in Jesus Christ, obedience, and consistent repentance, we are spiritually reborn. In this way we become sons and daughters of Jesus Christ (see Mosiah 5:7) and therefore brothers and sisters in His covenant family. Regardless of our gender, age, background, or social status, we become equal in God’s kingdom.

Invite a student to read aloud the following statement by President Spencer W. Kimball. Ask the class to listen for how the truth they just identified can influence the way we treat one another, particularly new members of the Church.

Kimball, Spencer W.

“I have always been uplifted by reading the short epistle of Paul to Philemon; it teaches us a principle and a spirit concerning gospel brotherhood. …

“It is an inspiration and joy to see this same spirit at work throughout the Church, to see the Saints embrace and help and assist and pray for those who daily enter the kingdom of our Lord. Continue to reach out to each other—and the many more who will enter the Church. Welcome them and love and fellowship them.

“Sadly, there have been occasional incidents where some among us have not done so, accounts of some who have rejected those whom the Lord has accepted by baptism. If the Lord was ‘not ashamed to call them brethren’ (Heb. 2:11), let us, therefore, … take our brothers and sisters by the hand and lift them up into our circles of concern and love” (“Always a Convert Church: Some Lessons to Learn and Apply This Year,” Ensign, Sept. 1975, 4).

  • According to President Kimball, how should brothers and sisters in the gospel treat each other?

Remind students of the questions they were invited to ponder earlier in the lesson regarding how they treat Church members who are different from them or who are new to their ward or branch.

  • Why do you think it is important to understand that we are brothers and sisters in the gospel?

  • When have you seen someone treat others as brothers and sisters in the gospel?

To prepare students to identify an additional truth illustrated in Paul’s epistle to Philemon, ask them to think about a time when someone offended or wronged them. Invite a student to read Philemon 1:17 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what Paul counseled Philemon to do.

  • What did Paul counsel Philemon to do?

Explain that Paul was asking Philemon to receive Onesimus in the same way that Philemon would receive Paul. In following this instruction, Philemon would forgo the severe punishments that runaway slaves normally received.

  • As illustrated in Paul’s instruction to Philemon, what responsibility do all disciples of Jesus Christ have toward those who offend or wrong them? (Help students identify the following truth: Disciples of Jesus Christ extend mercy and forgiveness to others. Write this truth on the board.)

  • Why can it sometimes be difficult to extend mercy and forgiveness to others?

Point out that extending mercy and forgiveness to those who have wronged us does not necessarily mean allowing them to avoid the consequences of their actions, nor does it mean immediately restoring our trust in them. Instead, it means that we show compassion toward others and let go of any resentment, anger, or hurt we may be harboring. When appropriate, we may also allow those who have wronged us to regain our trust. Although forgiving others may be difficult, we can pray to Heavenly Father for help, and He will help us.

Invite a student to read Philemon 1:18–21 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what Paul offered to do on Onesimus’s behalf.

  • What did Paul offer to do on Onesimus’s behalf? (Repay Philemon for any financial loss Philemon had suffered as a result of Onesimus’s actions.)

  • How are Paul’s efforts on Onesimus’s behalf similar to the Savior’s actions on our behalf? (Just as Paul interceded on Onesimus’s behalf, Jesus Christ intercedes on our behalf and pleads our cause before Heavenly Father [see D&C 45:3–5]. Jesus Christ has also paid the spiritual debt we owe for our sins.)

  • How can remembering what Jesus Christ has done on our behalf help us extend mercy and forgiveness to others?

Divide students into groups of three or four (or complete this activity as a class if you do not have enough students to divide into groups). Give each group a copy of the following instructions as a handout:

New Testament Seminary Teacher Manual

Philemon 1

New Testament Seminary Teacher Manual—Lesson 134

Discuss the following questions together in your group. In your responses, be sure to not share anything that is too personal or private.

  • When have you, like Philemon, needed to extend mercy and forgiveness to someone else? How were you able to extend mercy to and forgive this person? How were you blessed in doing so?

  • When have you, like Onesimus, hoped to receive mercy and forgiveness from another person? How did you seek this person’s mercy and forgiveness? How were you blessed by doing so?

  • When have you, like Paul, served as a mediator between someone who was seeking forgiveness and the person who needed to extend forgiveness and mercy? How were you able to help the wrongdoer receive forgiveness and the injured person forgive the wrongdoer?

After students have discussed these questions in their groups, invite a student from each group to share with the class his or her own experience in one of these situations or the experience of one of the members of their group (with the group member’s consent). (An alternative approach is to provide each student with a copy of the questions or display the questions on the board and invite students to answer one of the questions in their class notebooks or scripture study journals. After sufficient time, invite several students who are willing to do so to share with the class what they wrote.)

Invite students to write in their class notebooks or scripture study journals what they can do to extend mercy and forgiveness to others. Encourage students to apply what they wrote.

Commentary and Background Information

Philemon 1. Slavery

In writing to Philemon to receive back the runaway slave Onesimus, Paul did not directly comment on the institution of slavery, which was widely accepted in the society in which they lived. However, the Lord has stated in modern revelation that “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another” (D&C 101:79).

Paul’s request that Philemon receive Onesimus “not now as a servant” (Philemon 1:16) may mean that Paul wished Philemon to free Onesimus and then send him back to help Paul in the ministry (see verses 13–14).

Philemon 1:7, 12, 20. “The bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee”

The Greek word translated as bowels refers to one’s inner parts. It is a figurative reference to a person’s center of feelings, affections, and sympathy. The word heart is sometimes similarly used.

Philemon 1:11. “Unprofitable” and “profitable”

The name Onesimus means useful or “profitable” (verse 11) (see Arthur A. Rupprecht, “Philemon,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, 12 vols. [1976–1992], 11:461). Onesimus may have been “unprofitable” (verse 11) to Philemon because Onesimus had run away and couldn’t perform his duties or because he may have stolen something from Philemon when he fled (see verse 18). However, Paul said that Onesimus had since become “profitable” to both Philemon and Paul (verse 11). In Paul’s case, Onesimus may have been profitable because he could assist Paul while Paul was in prison (see verse 13).