The Letter to Philemon

Jari Rankinen
Taisto Sokka

Read or listen The Letter to Philemon online (ESV, Bible Gateway)


Apostle Paul’s letter the Philemon is a private letter. He wrote it to Philemon, his friend and brother in Christ. The letter is short, and it deals with only one main question. When Apostle Paul was in prison accused of preaching the Gospel, Onesimus came to him, a slave who belonged to Paul’s friend Philemon. Onesimus had gone on a journey without permission from his master. He had possibly escaped his masters house to free himself. It is also possible that Onesimus had caused harm to his master Philemon and then fled from him because of it.

The position of a slave wandering away from his master without permission in the Roman Empire was very insecure. He might be captured and returned to his master at any time. He could punish the slave any way he wanted. The slave might be sold, or worse, even killed as a warning to any others who might plan their escape. Onesimus came to visit Paul with the request of receiving a letter of recommendation to his master Philemon. With it Onesimus hoped to return safely to him. It was common that a slave did this way in the Roman Empire. A slave who had escaped or caused harm to his master might go to a friend of the master and ask him to calm down the master and recommend him to take back his servant. With the recommendation letter the slave might return to his master and hope to avoid punishment.

We do not know why Onesimus got the idea of visiting Paul. Apparently, he had learnt about this apostle from his master and knew that Philemon respected Paul greatly. Perhaps Onesimus thought that Paul’s recommendation letter would have the best influence on Philemon and help him to avoid being punished.

Paul was not willing to help Onesimus only in earthly needs. He saw his true need: Onesimus was an unbeliever and on the way to eternal punishment. This is much worse than an angry master. Paul speaks to the slave about Jesus. The Holy Spirit was active in that prison cell: He produced faith in Onesimus and made him a Christian. Then Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. The letter to Philemon is a recommendation letter on behalf of Onesimus for a safe return. In the letter Paul pleads for Philemon to treat Onesimus as a dear brother in Christ.

It is known that Paul wrote the letter to Philemon from prison. But it is not sure in which city the letter was written. Paul had been in prison at least in Ephesus, Caesarea, and Rome. Traditionally the location of writing was thought to be Rome. On the contrary, Ephesus is the more likely candidate. The reason to this will be explained below.

We cannot know for sure in which city Philemon lived in, but it is most likely Colossae. This is defended by the fact that St. Paul’s Letter to Colossians mentions a man called Onesimus (Col 4:9). He is said to be from Colossae. This would imply that Philemon, the master of Onesimus, lived also in Colossae. This is not certain, because Onesimus was a common name during that time. It is also possible that this Onesimus in the Letter to Colossians is not the same man that Paul is now speaking of. If Philemon lived in Colossae it would be likely that Paul wrote to him from Ephesus. It would be unlikely that Onesimus had reached as far as Rome. He could reach Ephesus on foot but reaching Rome would have required a long journey by sailboat. It would have been hard to succeed in such a journey as a runaway slave.

We find a man named Onesimus also from later Christian writings. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, wrote in a letter around 100 AD that the bishop of Ephesus had the name Onesimus. It is possible that this is the same slave who turned into Christianity in the prison cell of St. Paul, but we cannot be certain. Timewise it would be possible that this runaway slave would become the leader of the Church. St. Paul wrote the Letter to Philemon about 60 AD when Onesimus could have been roughly 20 years old. At the year 100 AD he would be about 60 years old and perfectly fit to be a bishop according to his age.

Even though the Letter to Philemon is a private letter it is also directed to the local church. It is also intended for us to read – it is included in the Bible. The letter includes many things which God wants to speak to us.

Greetings – verses 1-3

The Letter to Philemon begins like other Letters of Paul with a trifold greeting. The senders of the letter are listed as Paul and Timothy, but the main writer of the letter is Paul. This becomes clear by reading further. Nevertheless, Apostle Paul wanted to name Timothy as his companion. This is an indication of Timothy being Paul’s beloved fellow worker whom he respected greatly. Also, his name alongside Paul’s tells us that Timothy was present when the letter was written. Timothy confirms what Paul had written.

In all his letters St. Paul describes his mission and his position already in his greetings. At times this also includes information about his current situation in life. Also, it reveals something about the relationship between Apostle Paul and the recipient. Now Paul mentions only being a prisoner of Jesus Christ. This expression refers to him being in prison for Jesus Christ’s sake. It also reveals that all is well between Paul and Philemon. Paul does not need to underline his authority as an Apostle. He knows that Philemon is obedient to him anyway.

The recipient of the letter is primarily Philemon. We do not know much about him, but he seems to be quite a wealthy Christian. He owned slaves and the house where Christians came together. Paul calls Philemon his fellow worker. Therefore, it is clear that Philemon served in a special position in that house church. Alongside him two others are also mentioned. Apphia might be Philemon’s wife and Archippus his son. Apparently, the same Archippus is mentioned also in the Letter to Colossians (Col 4:17), where he is referred to as a minister of the church. Paul calls Archippus a fellow soldier of Timothy and himself. This also implies that Archippus served the church in a special position.

These three people are not the only recipients of the letter, but also the church that gathers in Philemon’s house. Therefore, the letter is not only private, but intended to be read for the whole church.

Philemon had opened his house for the use of the church. In the first centuries local churches often gathered in Christians’ homes. Church buildings were built only in the fourth century after the severe persecutions of the Roman Empire ended. In the end-part of his greetings Paul announced grace and peace to them. Father God and Jesus are the endless source of grace and peace.

Prayer of Thanks – verses 4-7

After the greetings follows a prayer of thanks. St. Paul thanks God for all the goodness that has happened through Philemon. Philemon’s love and faith are exemplary. The credit of this does not belong primarily to Philemon but to God, because God has gifted Philemon the faith in Jesus.

The Lord has also granted him love. Paul says that Philemon loves Jesus. Love toward Jesus is demonstrated appropriately in the life of Philemon: he shows love to other Christians. Paul and Philemon share a common faith and a common confession.

The end of verse 6 is not entirely clear. Apparently, Paul prays for Philemon to understand more deeply what Jesus has done for us. When Philemon understands even better how Jesus has loved him, he can love his neighbors even more.

In verse 7 Paul speaks to his friend quite personally. Philemon has done a lot of good for his brothers and sisters in Christ. Many Christians had received from him comfort and restoration of their strength. This had become known to Paul and it caused him much delight. It is not clear to us what Philemon had done, but it was certainly known by him and the local church.

St. Paul writes about Philemon’s love to his fellow Christians in many beautiful words. We have no reason to doubt these words about Philemon’s love. Still, it is noteworthy that Paul has a certain goal in mind. By speaking about brotherly love Paul prepares Philemon to fulfil the request he is about to make.

The Case of Onesimus – verses 8-22

St. Paul is an apostle of Christ. Therefore, he would have the right to command Philemon by the authority given to him. Instead of doing so Paul asks humbly for his friend Philemon to fulfil his request. Paul refrains to command Philemon so that their relationship would not rely on forcing but on Christian love. In verse 9 Paul calls himself a grayhead in prison rather than a great leader. Surely this humble request from the old apostle Paul worked better than an absolute command.

The slave called Onesimus had run off from the house of Philemon. He had come to St. Paul and there turned into Christianity. Paul admits that Onesimus had been an unworthy slave. Running away from his master was enough to verify this. But now there was a change in Onesimus because he had become a Christian. Now he is Paul’s dear brother in Christ.

Paul is sending Onesimus back to his friend. He asks Philemon to receive his slave back as he would receive Paul himself. Onesimus is the representative of his sender and therefore he deserves as warm a welcome as Paul would.

Onesimus had served the imprisoned Paul. Now the Apostle appeals cleverly to Philemon. Onesimus had helped Paul in a way Philemon could not. Onesimus would be very helpful for Paul, but he does not want Philemon’s slave to stay with him. He does not have the approval of the master. Again, we see the humble attitude of Paul: he does not want to demand for help by forcing Philemon. Verse 11 should not be interpreted so that Paul is gently asking Philemon to return Onesimus to his service. Paul simply wants to point out how dear and helpful Onesimus had been to him. He is a good servant of Christ whom Paul would gladly have with him.

God’s ways are miraculous. Verse 15 is a beautiful example of this. Onesimus had to leave the house of Philemon to turn into Christianity. If he had stayed home, he might have eventually died as an enemy of God. Verse 16 reminds of what Onesimus has become. Before he was an unworthy slave. Now he is a brother in Christ and an heir of eternal life just like his master. In verse 17 Paul once more requests Philemon to receive Onesimus like he would receive Paul himself.

In the introduction we brought up two possible reasons why Onesimus had fled from Philemon. Perhaps he wanted to become free and escaped. Or he had done something why he was afraid to face his master.

If Onesimus escaped, he undoubtedly stole money from Philemon to use on his journey. If he was trying to avoid his master, it might be because he had caused a serious financial loss to Philemon. Either way, Paul know that Onesimus did not have money to repay his master. Paul is asking for Philemon to charge it to Paul’s account. Paul’s intention was not to pay this by money, for where would he get enough either? Instead, Philemon was so much indebted to Paul that it could not be evaluated in money. Philemon had become a child of God and an heir of Heaven by the Gospel that Paul had preached. Philemon had received a gift so great that the financial loss done by Onesimus was nothing compared to it. Paul calls Philemon to compare his own debt to his slave’s debt. When he does so he can only forget the debt of Onesimus.

In the beginning of the letter St. Paul said that Philemon had refreshed the hearts of many fellow Christians. Now he hopes for Philemon to do the same to him. The refreshment that Paul needs while in prison is that Philemon would receive his slave without giving punishment. Paul does not give detailed instructions on how to treat Onesimus. He trusts Philemon to decide what is best.

St. Paul believes to get out from prison soon. We can easily believe that he wanted to come and see if Philemon had done as he requested. Paul would also want to meet Onesimus and make sure that he is still following the faith he received from God through Paul’s preaching.

Final Greetings – verses 23-25

All who are with St. Paul are sending their greetings to the church gathering in Philemon’s house. They are almost the same as who are mentioned in the Letter to Colossians (Col 4:10–14). It is not clear whether Epaphras is also imprisoned like Paul. Apparently, he is. The expression “fellow prisoner” can also mean that he is a close Christian brother to Paul and a fellow soldier. The letter ends with blessings. St. Paul blesses all the readers of the letter with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.