3052.) Philemon

A hundred years after Christ, the bishop of Ephesus was a man named Onesimus. Ancient tradition says he is the same Onesimus as in this letter.

Philemon  (English Standard Version)

As we enter the New Year, we are looking at the five books in the Bible that have only one chapter. 

The Bible Project produces short videos that “help people experience the Bible as a unified story that leads to Jesus.” It is entertaining and informative to watch and learn! 
HERE  is their 6.5-minute presentation on Philemon.


1Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus,

General agreement is that Paul wrote this personal letter during his first imprisonment in Rome, a house arrest as described in Acts 28:30-31. He does not, however, describe himself as a prisoner of Rome. He sees himself as a prisoner in obedience to the call of the Lord Jesus Christ.

and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:

Map of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) showing the town of Colosse. Smyrna is present-day Izmir.

Philemon was a Greek landowner living in Colosse. He had been converted under Paul’s ministry and now his house serves as the meeting place for the church there. (Perhaps Apphia was his wife and Archippus his son — but that is speculation.)

One scholar has written:  

“Up to the third century we have no certain evidence of the existence of church buildings for the purpose of worship; all references point to private houses for this. In Rome several of the oldest churches appear to have been built on the sites of houses used for Christian worship.”

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

Philemon’s Love and Faith

4 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, 6and 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. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

Philemon had been a blessing to Paul. He had opened his heart and his home to the followers of Jesus.

Paul’s Plea for Onesimus

8Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.

Now we get to the point of this letter. Onesimus was a domestic slave who belonged to Philemon. Onesimus had run away from Philemon to Rome, where he had run into Paul (a close friend of Philemon — cue the music “It’s a Small World After All” . . .) and been brought to Christ, or as Paul says, he “became my son.” A master in the Roman Empire had the legal right to kill a runaway slave. Paul wants to show Philemon a better way.

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

This is a cute play on words from Paul — the name “Onesimus” means “useful” or “profitable.”

12I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13I 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, 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.

Clearly, Paul wanted Onesimus to stay, because he had become a big help. Paul sweetened his appeal in three ways.

First, if Onesimus stayed he could serve Paul on your behalf. “Philemon, if you leave Onesimus with me, it’s like you serving me, because Onesimus is your rightful servant.”

Secondly, if Onesimus stayed he helped a man in chains. “Philemon, I know Onesimus might be of some use to you. Yet I am in chains, and need all the help I can get.”

Thirdly, if Onesimus stayed he helped man in chains for the gospel. “Philemon, please don’t forget why I am here in chains. Remember that it is for the sake of the gospel.

Paul made his appeal and made it strong and skillfully. At the same time, he really did leave the decision to Philemon. He would appeal in love, but he would not trample over the rights of Philemon.

–David Guzik

15For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while,

Again we see Paul’s diplomacy and facility with language. How much nicer it sounds to say “he was parted from you” than “your slave ran away from you.”

that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Paul is asking no small thing — that Philemon see his runaway slave now as his own brother, his equal in Christ!

Colossians 3:1, 11

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

17So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

What an encouragement this must have been to Onesimus! Paul’s genuine love for him surely strengthened his new faith!

19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

Final Greetings

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

Each of these names is also mentioned in the conclusion of the letter to the Colossians (Colossians 4:10-17)

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


Martin Luther liked this short book. “This epistle,” he wrote, “shows a right noble lovely example of Christian love…. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also does St. Paul for Onesimus with Philemon… We are all his Onesimi, to my thinking.”


Did Onesimus go back? Did Philemon welcome him as a brother? We do not know. Yet — who could refuse Paul’s heartfelt request?

The letter to Philemon is all about reconciliation. Our world, like Paul’s, is filled with barriers between people — race, social class, age, political leaning, ethnicity, language, gender, and so on. Other separations come from disagreements and quarrels and misunderstandings. This letter proclaims the good news that Christ can transform even seemingly hopelessly broken relationships into deep and loving friendships. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ in our spirits allow these transformations to happen in us and through us, to the glory of God!



HERE  is a beautiful song — “Song of Reconciliation”  sung by Susan Ashton, Margaret Becker, and Christine Dente.  Lyrics follow.

Where there is love there is a peace
And in the cages that bind the bitter heart it is release
Hold it close to your chest, let it move and let it rest
For it is here to set your mind at ease
Where there is love there is a peace

Where there is hope there is a dream
To rise above, to remit and to redeem
To go back, to go where there’s no hurt or anger there
To find the song that you once could sing
Where there is hope there is a dream

Where there is faith there is a chance
To alter the course and fight the winds of circumstance
Not to scar, but mend, not to break, but to bend
And not to know but to understand
Where there is faith there is a chance
Where there is hope there is a dream
Where there is love there is a peace


English Standard Version (ESV)   The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Images courtesy of:
Onesimus.   https://akroasis.org/2019/02/15/science-of-the-saints-15-february/
map.     http://oneyearbibleimages.com/colossae.jpg
heart and home.     https://dwellingintheword.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/homeiswheretheheartis.jpg
if you please.    https://dwellingintheword.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/if-you-please.jpg
clasped hands.    http://www.britsattheirbest.com/images/h_alban_hands_220w.jpg
“Philemon: Forgiveness that leads to Reconciliation.”     https://dwellingintheword.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/philemon-title-slide-slide01.jpg
Paul, signature.   http://www.rowforhope.com/html/images/Paul%20-%20Signature.GIF

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