NT Sunday School Lesson 40: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon

MsThere is even more to cover than usual in this lesson. The result is 12 pages of study material.

Because it usually helps to understand the context in which the verses one studies occur, I will supply some background information about each book, as well as an outline of the text of each. Then I will follow those with a few study questions.

Remember as you read these materials that they are to help you study the letters assigned for the lesson. They are not suggestions for teaching the lesson. Of course a person could use these to help her prepare her lesson, but that would mean judiciously picking and choosing what would help her do so.

If you are reading these to prepare a lesson, may I suggest that you consider using Philemon and Philippians 2:5-15 as the verses for your lesson’s focus?


1. Background

a. Traditionally the letter was written from Rome, but nothing internal to the letter confirms that tradition. Perhaps a majority of contemporary scholars believe it was written from Ephesus rather than Rome, though the question remains open. Origen (a 2nd century Alexandrian Christian) said “Only God knows where Philippians was really written,” and that remains true today.

b. If written from Ephesus, this was probably written in 45-55. If written from Rome, it was probably written in 60-61.

c. Philippi was a Roman commercial center in what was then called Macedonia, presently in northeastern Greece.

d. Though the inhabitants almost certainly speak Greek, the lingua franca of 1st century AD world, the official language of Philippi was Latin.

e. Acts 16:11-40 tells of the violent beginning of the Christian community there.

f. The letter to the Philippians differs from other Pauline letters in that it addresses not only the saints of Philippi, but the bishops and deacons in particular (Philippians 1:1). Why?

g. The purpose of this letter may be to oppose some in Philippi who were “Judaizers,” Christian converts from Judaism who believed that pagan converts had to begin submitting to the law of Moses. Whether those or someone else are the false teachers he opposes, Paul is concerned about the spiritual welfare of the congregation in Philippi, afraid that their faith may be undermined.

2. Outline

a. Introduction (1:1-2)

b. Thanksgiving and a description of Paul’s prayer for the church in Philippi (1:3-11)

c. News about Paul (1:12-26)

d. Instructions for the church at Philippi (1:27-2:18)

i. Remain stable in the faith (1:27-30)

ii. Live in harmony and humility (2:1-4)

iv. Have the same attitude as Jesus Christ, the supreme model of humility (2:5-11)

(1) Jesus Christ was like the Father.

(2) But he condescended to be with us as a mortal man and died on the cross

(3) The Father has exalted him.

(4) Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is the Master.

e. News about Timothy and Epaphroditus, who are also models of obedience (2:19-30)

f. So, rejoice in the Lord! (3:1)

g. Warning against false teachings (3:2-21)

i. Warning against false teachings about circumcision (3:2-3)

ii. Paul’s life as a testimony against false teachings (3:4-11)

iii. Warning against expecting immediate perfection (3:12-16)

iv. Paul as a positive example; others as negative examples (3:17-19)

v. Paul’s hope for the future (3:20-21)

h. So, stand firm! (4:1)

i. Exhortations to various individuals and to the church (4:1-9)

i. To individuals (4:2-7)

ii. To the church (4:8-9)

j. Gratitude for the generosity to Paul of those at Philippi (4:10-20)

k. Conclusion (4:21-23)

3. Study Questions—Philippians 2:5-15.

Verse 5: The word you is plural rather than singular. Does this mean “each of you should have the mind that Christ had” or does it mean “as a church you should have the mind that he had”? When we use the word church here, are we referring to a congregation, in contemporary terms, to a ward, or are we referring to the Church as a whole? What does it mean to have the same mind or attitude that Christ had as an individual? as a ward? as the Church?

Verses 6-11: Many scholars believe that Paul is quoting from an early Christian hymn in these verses. Here are the verses arranged as part of a hymn. Of course the rhythm of the original doesn’t come through in translation:

6 Who, being in the form of God, 9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted
thought it not robbery him, and given him a name
to be equal with God: which is above every name:
7 But made himself of no reputation, 10 That at the name of Jesus every
and took upon him the form of a servant, knee should bow,
and was made in the likeness of men: of things in heaven, and things in earth, and          things under the earth;
8 And being found in fashion as a man, 11 And that every tongue should confess
he humbled himself, that Jesus Christ is Lord,
and became obedient unto death, to the glory of God the Father.
[even the death of the cross.]

To understand the hymn better, try writing it in your own words using modern English or look at a modern translation of these verses.

Verses 6-8: The Greek word used for form (verse 6) is only used to refer to outward appearance, not to refer to things such as a mind. In what sense was Christ in the form, in other words the shape, of God before his incarnation?

“Thought it not robbery” is an odd translation. Literally the verse says that, having the form of the Father, Jesus “thought it not something to be clutched at [or ‘clung to’].” In other words, he was equal to God, but he didn’t cling to that equality. What does Paul have in mind here? What would it have meant for Christ to have clung to his equality with God?

The beginning of verse 7 is also translated oddly: “emptied himself” is the literal meaning. Of what did Christ empty himself by becoming a human being?

The phrases, “took upon him the form of a servant [literally ‘a slave’]” and “was made in the likeness of men” are parallel. Hebrew poetry uses parallelism to show that two things are the same. (Though the hymn was written in Greek, the heavy Jewish influence in the early Church resulted in many Hebraisms, such as this, in early hymns.) What do these two phrases tell us about human beings and why is that important for us to know?

For Christ, why was taking death on himself humbling himself (verse 8)?

Assuming that Paul inserted the last line of verse 8 into the hymn as he used it for his letter, why do you think he added it? Why does the line begin with “even”?

Verse 5 told us that we should have the same mind or attitude as did Christ. Then verses 6-8 describe that mind. How do these verses about Christ tell us how we should live our lives? Do we have the form of God? Are there any ways in which we cling to that form? What would it mean for us to empty ourselves in imitation of the Savior? Do we understand that to be a human being is to be servant of God? If so, how do we show that understanding? What does Jesus’ death on the cross teach us about our own lives? Does it teach us anything about what genuine humility requires?

Verses 9-11: The word wherefore (verse 9) is the same as the modern word therefore. It tells us that what came before explains what follows. So what is the hymn saying about how verses 6-8 explain verses 9-11?

Verse 8 spoke of the Savior’s humiliation. How is that related to his exaltation?

What does it mean to say that Jesus’ name is above every other name?

What is the significance of bowing the knee (verse 10)?

What does the phrase “of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” (italics added) refer to?

The word translated profess in verse 11 can also be translated “acknowledge” or “consent.” How might each of these translations help us understand what this hymn says?

What does the word lord mean? What does it mean to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord? How do we acknowledge that?

“To the glory of the Father” tells us why every knee will bow to Christ and every tongue will confess him. So, what does it mean that they will do those things to the Father’s glory?

Verses 12-13: We could paraphrase what Paul says in verse 12 this way: “So, since you have always obeyed, whether I was there or not, work out your salvation in fear and trembling.”

Paul is going to use the contents of the hymn to preach obedience. What in the hymn gives him the material he needs to do that? (A simple way to ask the same question is to ask, “Why does Paul begin with the word “wherefore”?)

“Fear and trembling” is an Old Testament phrase. (For example, see Exodus 15:16, Isaiah 19:16, and Psalms 2:11.) Does this phrase mean that we should dread God’s presence? That we should be afraid that he will treat us unjustly, change his plan, or go back on his promises? As we work out our salvation, what should we fear?

The Greek word translated “work out” could also be translated “accomplish” or “move in the direction of.” Do those alternate translations give you any ideas about what Paul might mean?

What does it mean to say that God is at work in us (verse 13)? Do you think that in the phrase “it is God which worketh in you” the word you means “you individuals” or “you, the Church”?

Note that the Greek word translated “good pleasure” means “a state of being kindly disposed” or “contentment.” Does that shed any light on the meaning of verse 13?

Verses 14-15: What does verse 14 mean about how we should act? Verse 15 tells us why we should act that way. How does doing what we do without grumbling make us blameless and harmless (sincere may be a better translation)?

Paul makes “sons of God” parallel to “blameless and harmless.” Why?

Does the beginning of verse 15 have anything to do with having the same attitude or mind in us that Christ had?

“Without blemish” is a better translation than “without rebuke.” Paul seems to be explicitly comparing us to Christ. What permits that comparison? What does it mean for us to be lights or lamps in the world?


1. Background:

a. Colossae was a small city about 100 miles southeast of Ephesus in what is now Turkey.

b. The Church in Colossae seems to have been founded by a missionary named Epaphras (1:7).

c. The letter was probably written between 60 and 65, from Rome.

d. Some members at Colossae seem to have added elements from pagan religions to their understanding of the gospel (or they may have misunderstood genuine Christian teaching). At any rate, they accorded worshipful status to angels and various primeval elements and spirits which supposedly also have divine power (“principalities and powers”—2:8, 10, 15 and 18).

e. The primary purpose of the letter is to explain Christ to the Saints in Colossae so they will repent of these false doctrines and practices.

i. Christ is the sole mediator (eg. 1:13-20).

ii. Unity comes through Christ (eg. 2:20-3:11).

iii. Being a follower of Christ brings certain obligations upon one (e.g. 3:12-25).

2. Outline

a. Greetings (1:1-2)

b. Thanksgiving and prayer for the Saints that they might have wisdom and be worthy (1:2-12)

c. Christ is the sole mediator.

i. His is the kingdom and redemption is through him (1:13-14).

ii. He is the Firstborn of all creatures and the Creator of all things, including any principalities or powers (1:15-17).

iii. He is the head of the Church, the beginning of the world, the firstfruits of resurrection—a demonstration of his preeminence (1:18)

iv. In him all fullness dwells (1:19)

v. Through his atonement, he makes those who live by faith on him holy and blameless (1:22-23).

vi. Paul’s ministry is to preach that atonement in order to about bring unity, understanding, and faith (1:24-2:8).

d. Beware of doctrines contrary to the gospel (2:8).

1. Christ has a fullness and we become complete in him who is the head of any other power (2:9-10).

ii. The Saints are to receive the spiritual circumcision of Christ through baptism and forgiveness of sins (2:11).

iii. Christ’s authority (2:14-23).

(1) His power over death showed his authority over all other powers, including angels and the Law of Moses (2:14-15).

(2) Therefore, we have no right to discriminate among the members on the basis of whether they observe the customs and feasts of the Jews or those of some other other religious group.

(3) These are, at best, only a shadow of what we find in Christ, and we should not be tricked by someone’s insistence that we must serve angels or some other power than Christ, the head which holds the body together (2:16-17).

(4) If we have died through Christ to other powers, then we are not bound by those powers any more, even though they advocate a certain kind of piety (though a piety which results in pride) (2:18-23).

e. The Saints are exhorted to be holy (3:1-25).

i. If we have “risen with Christ” we must set our affection on things above (3:1-4).

ii. From the world’s point of view we must “kill” our bodies in order to put off fornication, uncleanness, inordinate passion, evil desires, covetousness (which is a kind of idolatry), anger, quick temperedness, malice, insults, foul language, and lying.

(a) From a worldly point of view, these things are natural—unavoidable—as long as we are living humans.

(b) Therefore, anyone who says we must get rid of them, as Christ says we must, is saying that we must die.) (3:5-9.)

iii. Live in the bonds of charity, not making distinction among the members and living as the chosen people of God: be holy, merciful, kind, humble, gentle, and patient; putt up with and forgive one another. The bond of charity is the bond of perfection (3:11-14).

iv. Have peace in your hearts; be grateful.

v. Let the word of Christ dwell in you to make you wise and teach one another with that word, especially with music. (3:15-16)

vi. Do everything in Jesus’ name, giving thanks (3:17).

vii. Family relations (3:18-21)

(1) Wives should submit to their husbands as the Lord requires (3:18—cf. Ephesians 5:22-24).

(2) Husbands must love their wives (3:19—cf. Ephesians 5: 25-33).

(3) Children should obey their parents (3:20).

(4) Fathers must not provoke their children to anger (3:21).

viii. Relations to others (3:22-25).

(1) Servants—those who work for another, almost always slaves—should do so diligently (3:22).

(2) All work should be done as if it were being done for the Lord rather than other people. This is because, having taken on us the name of Christ, we are his (our earthly master is not really our master), and we should acknowledge that in everything we do. (3:23-24).

(3) Anyone who does wrong, no matter what his or her position in life, will be repaid for that wrong (3:24).

(4) Masters must treat their servants (i.e., their slaves) justly (4:1).

ix. Pray always, and especially pray for Paul’s mission (4:2-4).

x. We must conduct ourselves wisely in regard to those outside the Church, making the most of every opportunity to preach the gospel (4:5).

xi. Speak graciously and with good taste, and respond to every person as is proper (4:6).

f. Concluding remarks (including, it seems, a reference to the epistle to the Ephesians in verse 16). (4:7-18).

3. Study Questions

3:1: What does Paul mean when he says “If ye be risen with Christ”? (Romans 8:8-11 may be helpful.) What does he mean when he admonishes to seek for “those things which are above,” the things found where Christ is found?

3:2: Notice the footnote for affection in the LDS edition.

3:3: What does Paul mean when he says that the saints in Colossae are dead? What does he mean when he says that because they are dead their lives are “hid with Christ in God”?

3:4: Why does he say that Christ is our life?

3:5: To mortify something is, literally, to kill it. What does he mean when he tells us to “mortify our members which are upon the earth,” i.e. to put to death the parts of us which are on the earth? Does the list which follows help answer the question? Why does he say that covetousness is idolatry?

3:9-10: Paul says that we shouldn’t lie to one another because we have put off the old man and put on the new man. First, what does it mean to put off the old man and put on the new man? (See Romans 8:8-11 as well as Ephesians 2:15 and 4:24, and Colossians 3:10.) Second, why is lying particularly to be avoided because of this?

3:11: What does it mean to say that there are no distinctions within the Church when we live the gospel? What does it mean to say that Christ is all? What does it mean to say he is in all?

3:13: What does it mean to say that we should forgive as Christ forgave? What conditions, if any, does he put on his forgiveness?

3:14: Perfectness means “completeness” or “purpose.” Why is charity—love—the bond or chain of perfectness?

3:15: Paul says we should let the peace of God rule in our hearts? What is God’s peace? Notice that Paul says if we don’t have that peace, it is because we resist it. We don’t need to find it, we just need to quit refusing it, to allow it to enter our lives. What does that mean?

3:16: What is Christ’s word? How do we allow it to dwell in or inhabit us? Another translation of the phrase “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching . . .” is “Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, inhabit you; and teach in all wisdom . . . .” The King James punctuation is probably mistaken.

3:17: Notice how we should work: doing everything in the Lord’s name and giving thanks to the Father at the same time. It’s fairly simple to see what this has to do with Church work, but how might this apply to seemingly secular concerns, to things like our jobs? Paul addresses this question in verses 22-24 and in 4:1.

3:23: The King James translation says that we should do whatever we do heartily. Another translation would be “from the soul.” What does it mean to do everything heartily or from the soul?

3:24: Is Paul saying that all our work is for the Lord? In what sense?

3:22 and 4:1: Paul admonishes both servants and masters. If we apply this to ourselves, it could refer to employees and employers: Servants are to work for their masters as if their masters were the Lord—obedient to them, but to please the Lord, not other people. What does this mean to us in our jobs? Masters should give their servants “that which is just and equal,” and they should do so remembering that they themselves have a master. What does this mean to those of us who have employees or who supervise others at work?


1. Background

a. This is the only personal rather than congregational letter we have from Paul.

b. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away, taking money with him. Paul returns Onesimus to his master, Philemon, but urges Philemon to accept him back, not as a runaway slave, but as a brother in Christ.

2. Outline

a. Greeting (1-3).

b. Paul commends Philemon (4-7).

c. He urges Philemon to forgive his runaway slave (8-21).

i. It would be convenient for Paul to keep Onesimus with him (he has been a strength to Paul in prison), but instead Paul will return him, intervening on his behalf, for Paul doesn’t wish to act against the desires of Philemon. That way Philemon can choose whether to act kindly or not, rather than having it forced on him (8-14).

ii. Perhaps Onesimus was separated from Philemon for a while so that Philemon could receive him back, not as a slave but as a beloved brother in Christ (15-16).

d. Philemon should receive Onesimus as if it were Paul himself, and Paul will make good anything Onesimus owes Philemon (17-19).

e. Paul asks this with confidence that Philemon will do not only this much, but even more (20-22).

f. A request that Philemon prepare a place for Paul to stay in the event he is released from prison (23).

g. Closing (24-25).

3. Study Questions

Paul has urged Philemon to accept Onesimus’s new status as a Christian. We don’t know whether he did, but what kinds of things might bear on how Philemon responded to Paul’s request?

Are we still related to one another as masters and slaves, as those with authority and those without? (This is a social question at least as much as a church question: who do we recognize as having authority? Why do they have it? Should they have the authority we recognize in them?)

In Christian terms, the question is “Do we accept the new status of brothers and sisters that the gospel gives us? Or do we bring in the authority of the world and allow it to operate within the sphere of the Church?

Paul’s call for Philemon to free Onesimus, if applied to us, is a call for us to free any over whom we exercise unrighteous authority. (And D&C 121 tells us that almost all of us do that!) What examples might there be of such unrighteous authority in what we do? How do we free those over whom we exercise unrighteous authority?

Jesus tells us that we must be “the servant of all” (Mark 9:35, 10:44: D&C 50:26). Suppose that is not a metaphor? How is being the master of some different than being the servant of all? How do we accomplish that?

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