Journey Through Philemon


Author: Paul

Date: Sometime during Paul’s first imprisonment. Circa AD 60-62.

Summary: Paul is writing a personal letter to Philemon, a leader of the church in Colosse. Paul is urging Philemon, a man who was of some means, to forgive Onesimus, a slave who had run away from Philemon’s household.

Excursus: Slavery In New Testament Times:

Although time does not permit a comprehensive overview of the subject. It is pertinent to gain some understanding of slavery at the time of Paul’s writing, even though we’re painting with a broad brush. In New Testament times, slavery was very widespread and an accepted societal norm (researchers suggest around 30% of the population would’ve been slaves at this time, if population estimates of the time are accurate, that would total to roughly 15 million people). However the institution of NT era slavery proves to be a very diverse practice. Slaves could be by capture, purchase, birth, restitution, defaulting on debt, abduction, or selling of oneself. Slaves could be owned by the state or by various persons. It was not altogether uncommon for slaves to own slaves themselves. Slaves could experience great hierarchy among themselves. Some slaves experienced prominent roles in society and within their households and others gained protection and prosperity from their owners. Others experienced harsh environments and were treated harshly and abused by their owners. In many instances slaves were, as we would call them, indentured servants, and their position was not a permanent one. Others remained as slaves throughout the entirety of their lives.

One a side note, today’s research suggest that circa 50 million people are currently enslaved around the world today.

Exetical Notes:

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker

  • “prisioner” – The reasons are practical and diplomatic. Rather than confront Philemon with heavy authority, (I.e. Referring to himself as an apostle) Paul preferred to entreat him as a fellow sufferer. With this purpose, Paul identified with Onesimus the slave and appealed to Philemon’s compassion rather than his sense of duty. Paul’s service to Christ had cost him his freedom. Philemon might suffer in regards to his pride or desire for vengeance.
    APP: Following Jesus should cost us something.
  • “Philemon” – We know nothing more of Philemon than what this letter contains. From it we can deduce that Philemon was moderately wealthy. He owned a home large enough to accommodate the congregation of Colossian believers Paul and Timothy considered him a dear friend, a man expressive of Christ’s love, committed to the missionary work, and devoted to other believers.
  • APP: note this letter is written to one individual directly, along with others who may be involved. Confession should occur within the circle of offense, and it should remain there (v. 1-3).

and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:

  • “Apphia” – Most scholars believe Apphia was Philemon’s wife. Beyond that, she also was a Christian; she cared for the Christian fellowship, extended hospitality and love, and responded to God’s mission to extend the gospel. In addition, Paul also recognized that Onesimus would return not only to Philemon, but to the household, including Apphia. She also needed to understand the necessity of Christian forgiveness and love.
  • “Archippus” – Probably Philemon’s son. Many interpreters believe Archippus served at the church in Laodicea which was close to the city of Colosse. Both he and the church are mentioned in Colossians 4, with Paul asking the church to remind Archippus to “complete the work you have received in the Lord” (Col. 4:17).
  • “church in your house” – In urban centers, groups most often met in the home of a wealthy patron. The church followed this same pattern. Paul addressed this letter to this group of believers because when Onesimus returned, they would need to welcome him into their fellowship. They must receive this slave as a Christian brother.

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

  • As believers, we are to display the grace and peace from God to others. The context of this letter puts both Christian virtues: grace and peace, to the test. Will Philemon extend these when the prideful and easier way would say not to? Or, one a more personal note, do we extend grace and peace to others when they may have personally wronged us?
  • “grace” – As a reminder, it is important that we remember no-one deserves grace. It is given despite our transgressions.
  • “peace” – Peace exists on three fronts: 1) externally through reconciliation and 2) internally as personal tranquillity of the soul and 3) spiritually through the justification found in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the behalf of sinners (Rom. 5.1). Absence of the third produces an absence of the first two. Absence of the first often does and should produce absence of the second.

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers,

because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,

  • 3 Reasons To Forgive: 1) The love of Jesus and His church.
  • “hear” – Present tense. Philemon was continually and actively pursuing Jesus.
  • “your love and of the faith that you have” – 2 admirable qualities of Philemon. Expressed horizontally (love) and vertically (faith). The word for love here, agape—self-sacrificing love which sought the welfare and benefit of others. If Philemon genuinely possesed faith and love, these would certainly soon bear on his decision to forgive Onesimus.
  • “for all the saints” – If he loves all the saints, certainly Onesimus would be included in that group.

and 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.

  • 3 Reasons To Forgive: 2) Unforgiveness can hinder our spiritual experiences with Christ and our participation in God’s Kingdom.
  • “that the sharing of your faith may become effective” – The Gk word translated as ‘sharing’ is actually koinonia, or fellowship. This is most likely, not referring to evangelistic efforts, but referring to Philemon’s living out of his faith among his fellow believers, specifically that Paul desired Philemon to have an effective influence of Christian living and love in the church at Colosse.  For this to be true in Philemon’s life, he would need to extend forgiveness to Onesimus. The word ‘effective’ can be translated active. Paul’s desire is for Philemon to put feet on his faith.
  • APP: It is a shame to preach forgiveness and not practice it.
  • Those who neglect Christian development, who never do good acts on behalf of others, who never exercise their spiritual muscles will experience spiritual atrophy. They waste away, incapable of knowing the riches of Christ on the power of his Spirit through life’s daily encounters.
  • “for the full knowledge of every good thing” –full understanding of God’s goodness refers not to book knowledge but to experiential comprehension. It happens when, appropriating God’s truth into life, we see its good results and power. This deepens our faith and trust.
  • APP: theology is meaningless when we separate it from everyday life.


  • For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
  • 3 Reasons To Forgive: 3) Unforgiveness can tear down mutual fellowship and limit edification.
  • “refreshed” – this word is used 2x in the letter. Here and verse 20, where Paul asks Philemon to “refresh” him. The term can mean to cause someone to have rest. Evidently Philemon provided encouragement and motivation to the church in his home.

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required,

  • “Accordingly” – In other words, because “Paul knew what kind of man Philemon was”. Based off of his character, Paul felt he would honor his request.
  • “what is required” – God’s economy functions differently than the world’s system of fairness. Here Paul reminds Philemon that this is one of those instances. We must be forgivers, because God has forgiven us.
  • APP: For the believer, forgiveness is not an option. However, it cannot be forced upon someone, it is a work of the Spirit within them, see v. 14.
  • APP: Forgiveness isn’t fair.

yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—

  • “for love’s sake” – Paul appealed to agape love, that force and power from God which sets aside personal rights and safeguards, acting instead for Christ’s glory and the welfare of others. Paul always pointed people to Christ’s higher ethic, a morality which superseded the morality of culture. A respectable person might well respond to duty, carrying out his obligation, but the higher standard of Christian virtue springs from love.
  • Here, he hoped for Philemon to respond out of generosity. “Generosity ought to be spontaneous, not forced, and Paul does not want to interfere with the workings of Providence.”
  • The foundation of forgiveness stems from the love of Christ in dwelling the individual. It can be encouraged, but not coerced.

10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.

  • “my child” – There are family bonds behind these faults. Deeper roots exist beyond these external circumstances.
  • For good, bad, and worse. Our church is our family.
  • “Onesimus” – As a runaway slave, Onesimus could have been executed, tortured, or sold again.
  • “whose father I became in my imprisonment” – Paul was used by the Spirit and converted him to Christ. The Greek text actually says, “I begat in my bonds.”
  • APP: What maybe a violation of your personhood, or a preceived act of wickedness, God can use for your (and their) good. See also v. 15.

11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)

  • “useful” – The name Onesimus actually means “helpful” or “profitable.” Paul admitted in his letter what Philemon was probably thinking: Onesimus is worthless—look at his past. But Paul asserted that a transformation had already occurred. Admittedly, this slave used to be “useless,” but he had changed—he has become useful both to you and to me. Now his name reflected his character.

12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.

  • Onesimus had become a true friend to Paul. Paul’s words convey a note of intensity. He sent him even though it was like sending Philemon his heart. Literally “bowels”. We might translate it roughly as “my object of affection.”

13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel,

  • Onesimus must fulfill his duty, however difficult, and return to his master. Unlike the common perception that Christianity is an escape from life’s difficulties, true faith confronts the harsh realities of this word. Onesimus’s faith led to action as he submitted to the necessity of Christian responsibility returning willingly to his master.
  • Philemon isn’t the only one that was being asked to take a leap of faith in this letter.

14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.

  • Paul had no right to keep Onesimus; Onesimus needed to make restitution for his own sake; and the church needed the opportunity to see such an evidence of Christianity at work.
  • APP: Verses 12-14, Do what is right. In verse 13 Paul wishes to keep Onesimus, but in verse 14 he chooses to send him back.
  • Tychicus carried another letter besides this one to Philemon. This letter was addressed to the church of Colosse. In it, Paul wrote to slaves (was he thinking of Onesimus?): “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord … since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:22–24). He then turned to slave owners (was he thinking of Philemon?) and wrote, “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1)
  • When Christian ethics and cultural practices conflict, the Christian response is reformation of the heart and mind rather than revolution over social institutions. Society doesn’t change unless the heart changes.

15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,

  • In issuing forgiveness when we’ve been wronged, remember, God may be doing more behind the scenes than we realize. The lawless acts of Onesimus were used of God to bring about his salvation and the maturity of Philemon.
  • Paul looked to the redemptive element. God constructed his plans in spite of, through, and above human events and circumstances.
  • Many commentators point out the parallel between this statement by Paul and Joseph’s comment in Gen 50:20 (“you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”).
  • “forever” – We should grant forgiveness now, because we will live together, forever, in heaven. We are part of a forever family (v. 15-16).

16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

  • Paul did not seek emancipation for Onesimus, nor did he assume it would be forthcoming. Paul looked beyond this earth and its relationships to other more important relationships. Onesimus was family—a brother. Before, his position as a slave meant that he was in the household, but he did not enjoy the privilege of sons. Now Paul introduced him as a brother—a full member of the Christian household. In doing this, he spoke to the spiritual realities that transcend earthly physical/economic situations. According to Paul’s instructions, slaves and masters can coexist as Christians even in undesirable economic arrangements.

17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.

  • Paul refused to allow Christian ideals to collapse under difficult circumstances.
  • “partner” – Those who partner for God’s glory will develop a camaraderie in which personal identity rests upon identification with Jesus Christ. Few people experience this closeness. Yet Paul appealed to it.

18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

  • As we promote reconciliation, there may be times where we become involved in helping it happen.
  • “charge that to my account” – APP: encourage forgiveness however and whenever you can.

19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.

20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

  • “refresh my heart” – Just as Philemon had so often done to those within his church, Paul states that Philemon’s expression of forgiveness would provide rest and motivation for his continued ministry.

21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

  • Just in case Philemon might consider prideful judgment for Onesimus, Paul says, that he plans to personally visit to see how things are.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you,

24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

  • “Mark” – the gospel writer. Mark’s presence with Paul suggests that Paul was a man who practiced what he preached regarding the issue of forgiveness.
  • “Luke” – the gospel writer.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

  • Paul leaves us in the same place he began, the much needed state of grace.