These small group studies of Philemon contain outlines, cross-references, Bible study discussion questions, and applications.  Visit our library of inductive Bible studies for more in depth inductive studies on this and other books of the Bible you can use in your small group.

Philemon Inductive Bible Study

Outline: Forgiveness

I. Opening Greetings (1-3).
II. Words of encouragement for Philemon (4-7)
III. The appeal (8-10)
A. Paul’s authority (8)
B. Paul’s bond of love (9)
C. The appeal for Onesimus (10)
IV. Onesimus’ value to Paul and Philemon (11-16)
V. Philemon strongly exhorted to follow through (17-22)
VI. Closing greetings (23-25)

MacArthur divides it like this:

I. Greeting
II. The Character of One Who Forgives 4-7
III. The Actions of One Who Forgives 8-18
IV. The Motives of One Who Forgives (19-25)


Why does Paul refer to himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus”?
What does verse 2 show us about the early NT church?
Why would Paul want this letter read to the entire church?

What do verses 4-7 show about Paul’s attitude toward Philemon?
What kind of person was Philemon?
How did Philemon give Paul joy?
What was the content of Paul’s prayers for Philemon?
What do you think is Paul’s purpose in sharing these high words of praise with Philemon?
Does your testimony shine brightly like Philemon’s? What might someone say about you?

Why could Paul give orders to Philemon?
What did Paul decide to do instead of ordering Philemon?
What does this teach us about using authority (having authority doesn’t mean you always have to use it)?
Who is Onesimus? What is his relationship to Philemon? What is his relationship to Paul? What does it mean “begotten in my imprisonment”?
Why was Onesimus now so much more useful than before?
Why did Paul send him back (Onesimus had broken the law by running away and stealing. These issues had to be resolved.)
If you could summarize Paul’s request into one word, what is he asking Philemon to do? (Forgive)
Did Philemon deserve forgiveness?
What does this tell us about the nature of forgiveness?
What would an unbelieving master do to Onesimus?
Was Paul clear in his request? What else can we learn about communication between believers from Paul?

What is Paul offering to do in 17-19? Is this similar to any other situations in the Bible?
What does the phrase “not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well” tell us about about why we should forgive (Philemon owed his spiritual salvation to Paul’s grace and work in his life. We sin as well and owe our situation completely to the grace of God.)

Cross-references –

Php 1:27 – Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel… so that I may know you are standing firm.
1 Thess 3:2, 4:18, 5:11, 5:14 – Encourage each other.
Hebrews 3:13, 10:25 – Encourage one another.
2 Cor 7:13, 2 Timothy 1:16 – Refreshment.
Romans 12:1, 2 Cor 5:20, 2 Cor 6:1, Eph 4:1, Heb 13:19, 1 Peter 2:11 – Examples of “urging” taking place by the apostles.
Romans 3:12, Matthew 25:30 – Unbelievers are spiritually “worthless”.
2 Cor 9:7 – Not giving under compulsion. God loves a cheerful giver.
Matthew 6:14-15 – If you do not forgive others, God will not forgive you.
Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgive seventy times seven times.
Luke 23:34 – Jesus forgave the ones who put him on the cross.
Colossians 3:13 – Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Verse by Verse Commentary –

1. Background. Paul. Paul was in prison in Rome. This is one of the prison epistles along with Eph, Php, Col. He didn’t invoke his apostolic authority here like in many of his other gospels. This is only one of three individuals who received a divinely inspired letter from Paul (Titus and Timothy being the others). Timothy was apparently with Paul at the time he wrote this letter.

2. There was a church meeting in Philemon’s home. This tells us something about him. He was hospitable and willing to face the persecution that would come by identifying so openly as a believer. He was also somewhat wealthy, having a home large enough for a meeting to take place in. At this time in history, local bodies of believers met in homes. This practice encourages volunteers to help with the various activities as well as warm, close relationships between the believers. The size of homes would naturally limit the size of congregations keeping fellowship close while also encouraging rapid reproduction.

3. Philemon’s testimony. It is evident from what Paul said of Philemon that he thought very highly of him. Philemon had a shining testimony, the kind Paul often encouraged other believers to have with commands such as walk in a manner worthy of the gospel (Php 1:27) and the one about shining as stars in the universe. His testimony of love, faith, and refreshing the other believers around him brought joy to the heart of Paul and joy to the heart of God. This letter is such a stark difference to one like 1 Cor, in which Paul has to hammer home rebuke after rebuke because they didn’t have a good testimony. We consider what kind of things Paul would say about us. Would he express joy at our lives and testimonies or sadness at our lack of commitment or obedience? Hopefully it is the first.

4. Looking at this from Paul’s side, we can see that he is really an encourager. Undoubtedly he could have found areas to rebuke Philemon about, but he focused on the positive things. I was listening to a sermon about 1 Corinthians 13 and love looks at others with a positive light. Consider the person you love the most. We are likely to gloss over their problems and instead highlight their good areas. But imagine that you really dislike someone. You are likely to magnify their shortcomings and get irritated at every little thing they do. But I think that like Paul, we need to be optimistic about others and do our best to encourage them. That doesn’t mean we can never point at wrongs (Paul often did), but if you look at the books he wrote, in almost all of them he often talks about the good points of those he writes to. We also need to be encouragers. When others succeed, this should bring us joy and satisfaction. Highlight their virtues and don’t take into account a wrong suffered. Every one likes it when people say positive words to us. This is one way we can serve one another.

Also notice again Paul’s prayer for them. You can tell that Paul was a person of prayer. He often prayed for those he ministered to. His prayers were primarily for spiritual growth. He also let them know he was praying for them as this too would encourage them. We also need to be people of prayer and pray continually for one another, especially for spiritual growth.

5. Paul was an apostle and had the authority to command Philemon to set Onesimus free and forgive his debts, but he didn’t do it this way. Instead he appealed to him out of love. Why? I’ll give an example. Caleb is 5 years old and gets some hong bao. I want to teach Caleb that he needs to give from what he has gotten to the Lord. So I just command him to do it. Maybe he doesn’t understand why. Or maybe he becomes upset and angry that I am making him give some of his money away. This probably isn’t the best way. A better way would be to talk with Caleb about what God has given us and show him some simple commands from God about giving. I should gently encourage him to give. If he comes to this decision more or less on his own and is giving voluntarily, he will be much more blessed by it (and learn more from it), then if I just command him to do it.

The basic point is that if you have authority you don’t always have to use it. The husband has authority over the wife, but that doesn’t mean he should go around giving her commands all day “Wash the dishes! Bring me my food! Take care of the baby! Clean the floor!” If it is necessary, he can, but don’t overuse your authority like the whistle blowers at water parks. Those whistles are only to be blown in emergencies/serious situations and the same is true for the husband’s authority or Paul’s authority. The same is true for teachers or any other area of life where we have authority over someone.

6. Describe Onesimus’ situation. Why did Paul send him back. Although Paul wants Philemon to forgive, that doesn’t mean One can just say “He should forgive me. I’m not going back.” Forgiveness is not something we should consider as our right. It is mercy. Onesimus had broken the law in more ways than one. He needed to face up to his wrong and take responsibility. This is part of true repentance. That meant returning physically and facing the one he had wronged. So don’t think that others forgiving you is a right and you don’t need to truly repent.

7. Describe Bible’s take on slavery. Basically the Bible doesn’t attack it directly as this would cause insurrections and make it extremely difficult for the gospel to spread. Rather it undermines slavery by addressing the evils of it on both sides and teaching the principles of life.

8. Forgiveness. The main point of this letter is Paul asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus. He didn’t deserve forgiveness. He could be punished legally. According to the law, Philemon had no reason to be merciful. The vast majority of unbelievers at that time would have been very harsh to Onesimus. But this is what forgiveness is all about. It is about forgiving those who don’t deserve it, forgiving those who should be punished, forgiving those who have wronged us severely, forgiving them completely without any bitterness, malice, or revenge. We have to forgive of our own free will, no one can force us. This forgiveness comes at a cost (for Philemon it would cost him a great amount of money probably. But forgiveness will strengthen the bond between two people and bring reconciliation. Cross-references.

We all face situations where it is hard for us to forgive. We often think those situations are unique and therefore much harder to forgive than the wrongs done to others. Any examples? What is your fleshly reaction when people do wrong to you? What happens if you keep dwelling on it? We make up scores of reasons not to forgive while dwelling on the wrongs and thinking of how we can “get back” at the person who did it to us. But God forgave us ALL our sins, while Jesus sacrificed His very life to pay our debt for us (much like Paul offered to pay Onesimus’ debt to Philemon). Jesus forgave the people who nailed him to the cross. Stephen did much the same. It is possible. It is liberating. And it is a requirement if we want God to forgive us. No one is perfect. We all need forgiving at one time or another.

9. Paul offered to pay the debt himself, much like Jesus did for us. He also reminded Philemon of the spiritual life that was given to him through Paul’s work in his life. In other words, look at what God has done for you and how much has been forgiven to you. So much had been done for Philemon, he should then be willing to bless others even if they didn’t deserve it.

Study Philemon 1:1-7
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