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Philemon 1:1  Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother

This brief letter was written by the Apostle Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome, around AD 61. The New Testament contains thirteen letters from Paul, arranged from longest to shortest. Philemon is last, with a mere twenty-five verses. Timothy was with Paul at this time, and is mentioned as a courtesy, or because he wrote down Paul’s words.

Philemon 1:1b-2 To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home

Philemon was Paul’s friend and the owner of a home where the church in Colossae met. He may have been wealthy since his home was large enough for a church, and because he had at least one slave. 

We cannot be certain who Apphia and Archippus were, but they may have been Philemon’s wife and their son. Archippus is also mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Tell Archippus: See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord (Colossians 4:17). 

Since the church is also mentioned, this letter was to be read to the congregation, even though it is the most personal of all Paul’s letters. The primary purpose of this letter was to reconcile Philemon to his runaway slave, Onesimus. The situation was sensitive, and Paul displayed exceptional wisdom and pastoral skill. 

Philemon 1:6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ

Paul began his letter by reminding Philemon of the benefit he received from Paul’s ministry. The nature of the partnership is not specified, but it likely included financial support for Paul. This was helpful to Paul, but it was even better for Philemon. 

Apart from Paul, Philemon would be lost to history. But because of Paul, there is a book in the Bible that bears his name. Paul benefitted from Philemon’s partnership, but Philemon benefitted even more. Giving financial support to ministries that do the work of Christ benefits those who give, more than those who receive (Matthew 6:19-21).

Philemon 1:8-9 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love

Paul could have used his apostolic authority to command Philemon’s obedience, but he chose to use diplomacy instead. Paul wanted Philemon to receive back his runaway slave, without punishment, and he likely secured it through this letter. 

A careful reading will show that Paul used the following diplomatic measures. By addressing the letter to the church (Philemon 1:2), Paul insured that Philemon’s behavior would be judged by the Christian community. By recalling Philemon’s love (Philemon 1:5), he encouraged him to love Onesimus. By calling Onesimus a brother in the Lord (Philemon 1:16), he invoked the witness of Jesus Christ. By offering to pay any debt (Philemon 1:18), he removed the demand for justice. By requesting a room (Philemon 1:22), he revealed his intention to see how things turned out. This letter is remarkably diplomatic, and shows that asking a favor can be more effective than making a demand. 

Philemon 1:10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains

We do not know why Onesimus ran away from his master, but he may have reached his breaking point. Slave owners could be harsh, and Onesimus may have felt desperate. But getting to Rome would not be not cheap, so Philemon likely took some cash or goods. Then he fled to the most populated city in the empire, where he would be difficult to find.

The Bible does not tell us how Onesimus met up with Paul, but since Paul was under house arrest, it seems that Onesimus sought him out. Onesimus was not a Christian when he left home, but he knew about Paul from the church that met in Philemon’s house. Life as a fugitive slave would not have been easy, and perhaps Onesimus turned to Paul for help.

The first thing Paul did was to lead Onesimus to Christ. From this we learn that coming to Christ is more important than anything else. It is better to have a hundred problems with Christ, than no problems at all without him. After Philemon believed, Paul wrote this letter on his behalf.

Philemon 1:12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you

Paul used a word for heart that means internal organs, and carries the ideas of love and affection. He also called Onesimus my son (Philemon 1:10), and said He is very dear to me (Philemon 1:16). Paul was a brilliant theologian with the heart of a pastor. He did more than evangelize and teach people—he loved them. And people loved him back.

After serving a couple years in Ephesus, Paul said goodbye to the leadership. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again (Acts 20:37-38). When you have a pastor who loves the church, and a church that loves their pastor, you have a slice of heaven on earth. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35), said Jesus.

Philemon 1:15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever

Paul seemed to think that everything happens for a reason. He did not pretend to know the mind of God, but said perhaps this is why it happened. Christians reason this way because God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1:11), wrote Paul. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28), wrote Paul again. Therefore, whenever something bad happens, Christians tend to think that something good will come out of it. This is the reasoning of a healthy Christian mind. 

Philemon 1:16 . . . no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother

Because Onesimus had become a Christian, Philemon was not receiving back a slave, but a brother in Christ. This kind of language was strikingly subversive to the institution of slavery, and probably struck a nerve with Philemon. About forty percent of the Roman empire were slaves, so slavery was fundamental to both the economy and society. 

Now imagine you owned several slaves, and then became a Christian. Then you started a church in your house, and some of your slaves became Christians. Then the Apostle Paul stopped by and said, There is neither . . . slave nor free . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Then instead of calling you master, your slaves started calling you brother. This is how Christianity undermines slavery. 

But Paul also had instructions for slaves. All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves (1 Timothy 6:1-2). Christianity does not obliterate social distinctions, but creates a culture of respect and mutual concern.

Philemon 1:18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me

Onesimus may have stolen from his master and lacked the ability to pay him back. By offering to make the payment for him, Paul reminds us of Christ who paid the debt for our sins. By reconciling Philemon and Onesimus, Paul reminds us of Jesus’ work of mediation. Paul was the only person on earth who could reconcile Philemon and Onesimus. And there is also one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5), wrote Paul. If Onesimus was thankful to Paul, we should be even more thankful to Jesus Christ.

Reflection and Review
How do financial supporters benefit from giving to Christian ministries?
Why is coming to Christ more important than anything else?
How does Christianity undermine slavery?