How to Read Philemon

The Book of Philemon


Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application. 

Philemon shows us the message of the cross and the importance of reconciliation. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of the book. The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the structure of Philemon, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use these questions as a guide as you watch this video.  



Now that you have an overview of Philemon in mind, you can apply what you know to interpret specific passages in Philemon. Read Philemon 1–7. Utilize observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application to dissect the meaning of this passage. Use the ideas from the videos to inform your answers to the following questions about Philemon 1–7. 

Philemon 1:1-7 (ESV)

Greeting

1Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our beloved fellow worker2and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Philemon’s Love and Faith

4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers,5because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,6and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.7For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the passage at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 

Example: Paul prays for Philemon and the believers in his church.

Observe: As you read the passage, what observations did you make about Philemon 1–7? (Consider the major characters, locations, time period, background information, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters. Also, take note of any information offered in the video.)
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 Where an observation determines what the passage says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what the passage means. We’ve asked what the passage says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) Paul prays for Philemon and the believers in his church. (Interpretation) Part of Christian prayer is praying for other believers.

Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of Philemon 1–7? How does its message connect with the main message of all of Philemon? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes. Consider insights from the video as well.)
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Contextualization looks at how the passage fits into the rest of the book and into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book fits into the biblical narrative. 

Example: God's people intercede for each other throughout Scripture. Moses intercedes for all of Israel when they sin against God. Jesus prays for His disciples before going to the cross. And Paul regularly mentions his prayers for the churches he writes to.

Contextualize: What themes does Philemon 1–7 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the book of Philemon? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the Old Testament?
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 Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of this passage applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example: My prayers should include prayers for other believers. For my prayers to be more intentional, I can ask my Christian friends for requests throughout the week. I could form a prayer group or text out prayers at the beginning of the week or set aside a time each day to pray for other Christians in my life. 

Apply: How does the truth from Philemon 1–7 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week? If you're having trouble coming up with an application of this particular passage, how could you apply the main message of Philemon to your life this week?
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 The last step in reading the Bible helps wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video.  

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about Philemon, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through Philemon this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice. 


To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.