Philemon, the 2nd of three studies

23 Oct

Outline for Session 2

– introduction

Design for relationship, a study with Philemon’

Purpose: the purpose of this relationship study is to deepen the understanding and character of each participant by providing an enriching experience with a biblical perspective.


This relationship study #2 is built on a core idea: questioning a text. In study #2 (two) participants will a bible text (Philemon) and then applying understandings from this process to some of life’s practical issues. By questioning a group, or an individual; partners or a community then explore the biblical text or passage through their questions. With application, understanding from this process is placed into practical life situations. Study questions fall into two categories, essential questions and informational questions. These two question sets work not in separate silos, but together. Answer one informational question, and that question and its answer will point you to an essence, to an essential question. How do these questions work together? Informational questions fall into the following cycle: who, what when, where. The 4 Basic W’s. An example: Where is Paul a prisoner? Who is he a physical prisoner of? Whom does Paul identify as his prisoner? What was his prison like?


Paul is writing from a Roman prison. During his time in chains he has shared the Gospel of Jesus with a runaway slave whom he probably had some knowledge of from Colossi, Onesimus. Philemon was the owner of this household slave and had a church meeting in his house. Undoubtedly, Onesimus took something from the house and travelled a great distance to escape being a slave. Paul has convinced him to go back and be received as a Christian brother in Philemon’s household.

Addition background here,


-essential question

An essential question is constructed from this information to ask an open response, a multiple response question. For example, why does Paul call himself ‘a prisoner of Christ Jesus?’ (v.1) there should be multiple responses to this question; and, where there are multiple possible responses; there can be no one ‘right’ answer. Diversity in response is part of the richness of a good essential question.

All essential questions must be carefully constructed with chosen language that illustrates two “essences.” First, an essential question reflects the essence of a person’s desire. Second, the language of the questions reveals the essence of a person’s character. By their nature, there is no ‘right or wrong’ answer to an essential question.

The essential question for our Philemon relationship study session #2 is,

eq: What is Paul calling Philemon to do? And how is Philemon to do it?

A possible one word answer to this question is ‘restoration.’ Paul wants restoration of relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, his servant slave; Onesimus and the God; Philemon and his house church/community. A definition of restoration is,

“The action of returning something to a former owner, place, or condition”

Example, “the restoration of Andrew’s sight” from Oxford English Dictionary

Another possible answer could be ‘new beginnings’. Philemon and Onesimus are starting over in a new relationship. ‘Love’ can be another answer; ‘Forgiveness’ yet a fourth response. Each of these words/phrases can be traced back to a specific verse in the passage. I then can be asked or ask myself: why do I (or another) choose this word or phrase? The point in both framing and answering an essential question is to use the scripture to develop multiple responses as both an individual and in a small group. How is this done? Let’s consider two core steps in each session.

-unpacking the Bible passage

identify a key verse– how is this done this? There are many ways.

  • Look for phrases or words that repeat in a passage
  • Underscore each and every time a ‘but’ is used. This indicates a transition or change.
  • Pray over a passage and go with your instinct as you read for what verse(s) really strike you.
  • Use different translations and check for a word that is difficult to translate. Verse 12 in Philemon has such a word and this is the method we are using in this study to ‘unpack’ the scripture. Here is this verse in the three translations.

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. NIV 12

While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to. 12-14 the Message

Whom I did send again, and thou him (that is, my own bowels) receive, 1:13 whom I did wish to retain to myself, that in thy behalf he might minister to me in the bonds of the good news, 1:12 Young’s Literal Translation

Now back to the essential question, what is Paul calling Philemon to do? And how is Philemon to do it?

Note that the above possible sample responses shared in eq section of this study (‘restoration’; ‘new beginnings’; ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’) are stated in one or two words. To review: asking participants to choose a short one or two word response to the essential question is a strategy to get:

  • everyone to focus their thoughts/ideas on a very specific word/phrase
  • trace that word back to a specific verse from the passage that inspired this word choice
  • explain why this verse explains the word choice to the essential question, eq: What is Paul calling Philemon to do? And how is Philemon to do it?


-closing connection: Paul is calling Philemon and Onesimus to both do what he is doing: to give his heart, his right arm and his bowels. In other words, his whole self. Restoration is total in the Christian faith; Why? Because God forgives us totally, no matter what we have done.

-personal connection- Whom are you in this narrative? Philemon, Paul, a member of the house church, Onesimus? Whom do you need to forgive, receive, restore? Or maybe you need to ask for one or more of the above from someone you hurt. Pray for His word to lead your next steps.











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