Philemon — A Runaway Returns a Brother in Christ

With a mere 334 words in the Greek manuscripts (25 verses in our English Bibles), this is the Apostle Paul’s shortest, most personal epistle. Written during his first Roman imprisonment (circa A.D. 60-61), this letter was sent from Paul to a believer in Colossae by the name of Philemon. The occasion of the missive was that Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away and somehow came into contact with Paul in Rome. Paul converted and discipled the slave, and then sent him back to be reconciled with his master. Paul’s letter was an attempt to bring about the restoration of master and slave and to urge that Philemon release his new brother in Christ, so that he could serve as a minister of the Gospel. He sent the letter with Onesimus and Tychicus—along with his epistle to the Colossian church—to Philemon and his fellow believers. [p. 442, Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts, © 1996, Thomas Nelson Publishers]

Catholic and Orthodox tradition says that Onesimus the slave eventually became Onesimus the Bishop of Ephesus. That man is credited with collecting the letters of Paul, which were ultimately included in the canon of New Testament scriptures. If this is, indeed, the case, then it would explain why such a brief, personal message would wind up in our modern Bibles.

The Text
The letter is addressed from “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker” (Phile. 1:1). Paul also mentions a woman named Apphia (perhaps Philemon’s wife?), Archippus—referred to by Paul as “our fellow soldier”—and the church that met in Philemon’s house (v. 2). Archippus was also mentioned in Colossians 4:17, and was quite possibly some sort of leader in the church there, as well.

Following Paul’s customary greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul remarked that he always thanked God whenever he prayed for Philemon, “because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints” (Phile. 1:3-5). Although we never read in the book of Acts or elsewhere that Paul had visited Colossae, it is no stretch to believe that converts from Ephesus went there and ministered to the inhabitants of that city. Philemon himself may have been one of the individuals who heard Paul preach in that nearby city, since Paul intimated in verse 19 that Philemon owed him his very self.

Paul went on to share that he prayed for Philemon to actively share his faith and have a complete understanding of every good thing available to us in Christ (v. 6). He said Philemon’s love had given him great joy and encouragement, because Philemon had “refreshed the hearts of the saints” (7).

Having administered his usual ‘spoonful of sugar’ with which he always prefaced any correction or instruction, Paul then proceeded to the real reason for his letter. The apostle reminded Philemon that, with his leadership status in the Church, he “could be bold and order” Philemon to do as he asked; nevertheless, he preferred to appeal to him in love, instead (8-9). “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,” Paul said, “who became my son while I was in chains” (10). Just as he considered Timothy and Titus to be his “true son[s] in the faith,” (1 Tim. 1:2 & 18, 2 Tim. 1:2 & 2:1, Tit. 1:4), so Paul considered Onesimus to be his spiritual offspring.

Paul made a play on Onesimus’ name when he said, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me” (11). Onesimus is Greek for profitable, or useful. Paul said that, while he would have liked to keep Onesimus with him to serve in his master’s place as his assistant, he didn’t want to do so without Philemon’s voluntary consent (13-14). For that reason Paul was returning Onesimus, whom he said “is my very heart,” back to his master (12).

Paul speculated that “the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but…as a dear brother” (15-16a). Not only was Onesimus “very dear” to Paul, but he hoped he would be “even dearer” to Philemon, “both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (16b).

Paul urged Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would the apostle—as a partner and friend (17). He said that whatever the slave may have taken from Philemon or done to offend him, he could charge it to Paul’s account, and he would repay the debt (18-19). Paul said he was writing to make this request, because he was confident of Philemon’s willingness to obey, knowing that he would exceed Paul’s expectations; he also trusted that he would “have some benefit” and refreshment from Philemon in the Lord (20-21). Anticipating his soon release from prison in answer to the prayers of Philemon and other believers, Paul went one step further in his requests: “Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you” (22).

The letter concludes with greetings from several of Paul’s companions and “fellow workers”:

  • “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus,” described in Colossians 4:12 as one of them (Phile. 1:23)
  • Mark—most likely John Mark, whom Paul formerly rejected (Acts 15:36-40), but eventually admitted was “helpful” to him in his ministry (2 Timothy 4:11) (Phile. 1:24)
  • Aristarchus, “a Macedonian from Thessalonica” and one of Paul’s early traveling companions (Acts 19:29, 20:4 & 27:2)
  • Demas, who according to a later epistle to Timothy, deserted Paul and went home to Thessalonica (2 Tim. 4:10)
  • Luke, Paul’s personal physician (Col. 4:14).

Paul’s closing sentiment is: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (Phile. 1:25).

While this bit of personal correspondence may seem insignificant to some, it was important enough to Paul for him to dictate and have hand-delivered to Philemon by his slave, Onesimus. If early Church history is to be believed, then it was also significant—not only to the slave who was eventually freed to serve Christ, but also to all of us who get to read Paul’s letters because of his efforts to preserve them. Finally, the book of Philemon was influential in the justification of future abolitionist movements. It shows that all men truly are valuable in God’s eyes and deserve the chance to serve Christ without impediment.

All scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version
© 1984, International Bible Society/Zondervan Bible Publishers