Session 1

Philemon 1-7 – Building Up Others


1.      It is an amazing story. 

·         It could easily be made into a movie or it could be the basis for a television mini-series.

·         The story has all the elements of a good drama—betrayal, dishonesty, failure, mystery, intrigue, anger, irony, revenge, grace, and redemption. 

·         We are not told how the story ends.  Instead, we are left to imagine how it all came out. 

·         And the most amazing thing about this story is that you will find it on the pages of the New Testament.

2.      There are three main characters in the story—the Apostle Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.  Each plays a crucial role.

·         Paul was responsible for beginning churches throughout the 1st century world.  Many of the churches he began personally and many others were begun through his influence.  For several years Paul lived in and taught in the great city of Ephesus which is located in what is now modern day Turkey but what was then the Roman Province of Asia.  Some of the people Paul taught in Ephesus went out into the surrounding countryside of Asia to begin churches.  One of the those people was a man named Epaphras, who was a native a Colossae, a small town located on the Lycus River about 100 miles east of Ephesus.  After being discipled by Paul, Epaphras returned to his hometown of Colossae and started a church.

·         Philemon, the second major character in the story, was a member of the church at Colossae.  How and when he became a believer we do not know.  More than likely he was led to faith in Christ either by Paul in Ephesus or by Epaphras.  Either way, Paul would have been either directly or indirectly involved in Philemon becoming a Christian.  There is some indication that the church in Colossae actually met in Philemon’s home.

·         Onesimus is another major character in this story.  Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon in Colossae.  At some point in time, for reasons we do not know, Onesimus ran away from his master.  In the ancient world, for a slave to run away was a capital offense, almost always punished by death.  To make matters worse, there is some indication that Onesimus stole some money from Philemon as he left.  Onesimus made his way to Rome and somehow became acquainted with Paul.  Through Paul’s influence, Onesimus—the run-a-way slave—became a Christian.  When Onesimus became a believer, Paul sent him back to face Philemon, the man from who he had stolen money and run away.  And with Onesimus, Paul sent a letter to Philemon which became part of the New Testament.

3.      You will find the letter to Philemon toward the back of your Bible, just after the book of Titus and just before Hebrews.  It is one of the shortest books in the Bible, just one chapter and twenty-five verses in length.   And because it is so short, we are likely to overlook it.  However, in my opinion, Philemon is the greatest case study in human relationships ever written.   I don’t know of a more important skill a person can learn that the skill of getting along with people.  According to the Carnegie Technical Institute, 90% of people who fail in their life’s vocation fail because of poor human relations skills.  [Gettin the Church on Target, Lloyd Perry, Moody, 1977] 

4.      For the next few weeks we are going to explore this little letter to Philemon.  There is much for us to learn from this letter about getting along with others. In this session we are going to focus on the first seven verses of the letter.  These verses remind us that one key to getting along with others is to be an encourager rather than a discourager. (text)


T.S. – Mark Twain, the famous American literary figure and philosopher, once said, “I can live for two months on one good compliment!” [The Art of Connecting, Hawkins, p.67] One of the basic principles of building better relationships with the people in our lives is simply learning to affirm them, to build them up, to make them feel better about themselves.  We are just naturally attracted to those who build us up and we naturally shy way from those who tear us down.  From the first part of Philemon I want to share with you some characteristics of people who affirm.


I.    Affirming people look for the best in others

1.      More than likely Paul had heard some negative things about Philemon.  Remember, when Paul wrote this letter, he had only heard Onesimus’ side of the story.  There was probably some reason Onesimus chose to put his life at risk by running away.  Perhaps we get a little glimpse of that reason in the letter Paul wrote to the Colossians, which was sent along with the letter to Philemon.  In Colossians, Paul instructed those who had slaves to treat them with justice and fairness.  Perhaps he had heard from Onesimus that Philemon was overly harsh, unjust, and unfair toward him.  Maybe it was out of frustration at the bad treatment that Onesimus finally broke and ran.

2.      But as you read Paul’s letter to Philemon, you would never know that Paul had heard anything negative about him.  Instead of focusing on the bad he may have heard, Paul focused on the good.  I want you to notice some of the very positive things Paul said about Philemon. 

·         “beloved” (v.1) – While the NASB inserts the word “brother” after beloved, in the Greek text there is only one is from the same word family as the most basic word for love...the word used here carries the idea of “dear friend” effect Paul says, “When I think of you Philemon, I think of a much loved friend.”

·         “fellow worker” (v.1) – That is a special term Paul reserved for those people who were the closest to him—people like Timothy, Titus, the husband/wife team Aquila and Priscalla, and Epaphroditus.  In using this phrase to describe Philemon, Paul put Philemon is some elite company.  He was saying, “When I think of you Philemon, I think of someone who stands beside me in the work of the gospel.”

·         “I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers…” – What a blessing it must have been to Philemon to hear that the great Apostle prayed for him personally.

·         “...I hear of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints...” (v.5) – That must have been an especially encouraging statement to Philemon.  After all, he knew that Onesimus had been with Paul.  He was probably concerned about what Paul was hearing about him from Onesimus.  I suspect Philemon was greatly relieved when Paul said in effect, “Here is what I hear about you.  I hear that you love people and that you are faithful to Jesus.” 

3.      And the point of all that is while Paul could have easily found something negative to say about Philemon, he did not do that.  He focused on that which was good and encouraging and positive.


1.      That is one key to having good relationships in any arena of life—home, school, work, neighborhood, or wherever.  When you deal with another person, you always have two choices.  You can

·         Approach that person looking for that which is good or bad...

·         Focus on strengths or weaknesses...

·         Look for the positive in that person or the negative...

And you will find that for which you look.  If you look for good, you will find it.  If you look for the bad, you will find that.  And those who are affirming are the ones who have developed the ability of maximizing the good in others and minimizing the bad in them.

2.      The Wharton School of Finance of the University of Pennsylvania conducted an extensive 20 year study of human relations techniques.  From the study a list was developed of 12 essential elements in dealing with people that result in successful business and social relationships.  I don’t have time to share all 12 with you, but I want to share the first and last things on this list because they speak specifically to looking for the good in people rather than the bad.

·          #1 – “Do not criticize, condemn, or complain.”

·          #12 – “Look for the best in people with whom you deal, expect the best from them, ask for good things to come out of your relationship with them, and a high percentage of good works will be the end result.” [Indispensable Habits, Doc Blakely]

3.      Affirming people look for the best in others.  But not only do they look for the best in others…


II.  Affirming people bring out the best in others

1.      Paul says a very interesting thing to Philemon in verse 6.  He says, “As I pray for you, one thing I ask is that ‘your faith may become effective.’  It is not that Philemon’s faith was ineffective.  In the verses before and after this statement Paul expresses appreciation for Philemon’s effective faith.  In verse 7 Paul says a very lovely thing about the effectiveness of Philemon’s life in relation to others.  He said, “… the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”  And that word translated “refreshed” is rich in meaning.  It means to lift a burden or to ease someone’s pain.  Philemon had done a lot of good for a lot of people.

2.      But the point of the phrase in verse 6 about Philemon’s faith becoming effective is that Paul believes Philemon can do more, can become even more effective.

3.      Affirming people are always telling others, ”You can be better.  You can do more.  I have confidence in you.  I believe in you.  Do not sell yourself short.”

4.      In the movie As Good As It Gets staring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt is a moving scene.  Jack Nicholson, plays a character named Melvin Udall.  The character is obnoxious, arrogant, self-centered, and generally disagreeable person.  Helen Hunt plays a waitress named Carol Connelly.  Carol Connelly is a single mom to whom Melvin Udall is attracted.  In one scene they are having dinner and Carol Connelly finally has all of Udall’s critical attitude she can stand.  She asks him something like, “Could you tell me one good thing about me?”  After thinking for a while, Udall replies, “You make me want to be a better man.”

5.      That is what affirming people do.  They make us want to be better people.  They bring out the best in us.


1.   The most effective affirmer who ever lived was Jesus, Himself.  When you read about His life in the Scripture, it becomes clear that He spent His life going around affirming people, giving them a pat on the back, and offering them a word of encouragement.  Whether it was a woman caught in the act of adultery, a despised tax-collector like Matthew or Zacheaus, an immoral Samaritan woman shunned by other people, Simon Peter who seemed to have a tendency to promise more than he could deliver, to the thief who died on a cross next to Him, to scores of other people, Jesus always looked for the best in others and always brought out the best in others.

2.   And that is precisely how He calls those of us who follow Him to relate to people.  Do you want to have good, healthy, fulfilling relationships in your life?  Then do what Jesus did and what Paul did in relation to Philemon.  Be affirming.