Paul writes that Onesimus became his son (v. 10). It doesn't make sense that Paul became his literal father. This intimate language more likely means Onesimus began following Christ because of Paul's teaching. More evidence for this is in verse 16, where Paul says he is a brother in the Lord instead of a slave.
It is important to note that Onesimus probably delivered this letter. Onesimus was the only person we know of who was sent back from where Paul was living (v. 12).
Step 5: Establish the Situation
Now that you've established the characters, you can finally get to the why questions. This is the meat of the study. Every sentence, story, and statement is there for a reason. Our ability to interpret the text and gather application hinges on this step. Discuss the possibilities with your small group.
- Seek out the underlying thesis for the passage. What's the main point or focus?
- Is it meant to teach a concept?
- Is there a call to action?
- Is it meant to encourage or inspire?
- Ask the why question as much as you can:
- Why did the author include this sentence, word, theme, etc.?
- Why is it structured the way it is?
- Why was this written?
- Use this information to help you interpret the text.
- Test your theory against each verse. Does it hold up?
The first point of focus is verse 9, where Paul makes a strong appeal for Onesimus' sake. We learn that Onesimus has been a great help to Paul while in prison (vv. 11, 13). Paul even mentions that he "would have liked to keep him" there to help. But instead, Paul sees fit to return Onesimus to Philemon. But why?
It is possible that Paul subtly hints for Philemon to legally free Onesimus and send him back (vv. 14, 20-21). This could be the reason for the appeal.
The more important issue, however, seems to be reconciliation between two people that have a profound change in relationship. Paul does not send Onesimus back as a slave, but "better than a slave, as a dear brother" and even "as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord" (v. 16). Paul tells Philemon to "welcome him as you would welcome me."
Furthermore, Paul goes to great lengths to see this reconciliation through. Not only does he deprive himself of Onesimus's help, but he also says if Onesimus "has done you any wrong or owes you anything, [then] charge it to me" (v. 18). Reconciliation is so important that Paul is willing to see it happen at any cost.
All of this evidence leads me to a possible interpretation. Perhaps Paul's purpose is to teach Philemon and the other members of his Church about the transformative power of Christ. The point is to say that Christ transforms relationships—even if that relationship was previously governed by slavery and debt. To illustrate the power of the Gospel, Paul urges Philemon to view his runaway slave as a dear brother in Christ.
Step 6: Apply the Text
The last step is application. Now that your small group has discussed and interpreted the details, it will be an easy transition to talk about how it might apply to their lives. Prepare a few questions ahead of time to help guide your small group in the application process.
- Choose open ended questions. Avoid anything that could be answered with "yes" or "no."
- Make it personal. Ask people to share an experience to relate to the text.