AUTHOR AND TITLE

Paul and Timothy are explicitly named as the authors in verse 1. It becomes apparent, however, that the apostle Paul is the principal author when the first person singular (“I”) is used from verse 4 throughout the rest of the letter. The title indicates that it is a personal letter to a man named Philemon. Nevertheless, Paul intends it to be read to the entire church that meets in Philemon’s home (v. 2).

DATE

The letter was probably written c. a.d. 62. Paul may have written it at roughly the same time that he wrote Colossians and Ephesians. All three letters were sent with Tychicus and Onesimus. This date assumes that the imprisonment Paul refers to (see vv. 1, 9, 10, 13, 23) is his imprisonment in Rome (Acts 27–28).

THEME

The theme of Philemon is the power of the gospel to transform lives (“formerly he was useless” but “now he is indeed useful,” v. 11) and to impact human relationships (receive him “no longer as a bondservant [or slave] but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother,” v. 16). On the Gk. worddoulos, see the esv Preface.

PURPOSE, OCCASION, AND BACKGROUND

Philemon was a wealthy Christian who lived in the city of Colossae, about 100 miles (161 km) inland from Ephesus (see map). Apparently during Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus (a.d. 52–55), Philemon heard the gospel and was saved. He began serving the cause of Christ in the Colossian community, opening his home for a group of Christians to meet there regularly.

At some point, Onesimus, one of Philemon’s bondservants, fled to Rome. Possibly having stolen money (or property) from Philemon and now a fugitive, Onesimus was living in the most populated city of the Roman Empire, hoping to escape detection. In a rather remarkable set of circumstances—not recounted in the letter but certainly reflective of God’s sovereignty—Onesimus somehow came into contact with the apostle Paul and became a Christian. As he grew in Christ, he spent much time and effort helping Paul, who was severely constrained by his imprisonment.

As much as Paul would like to have retained the services of Onesimus, Paul knew that Onesimus’s fugitive status, severed relationship, and wrongdoing against his master needed to be addressed. Paul thus wrote this letter as an appeal to Philemon to appreciate the transformation that has occurred in Onesimus’s life and to receive him back not merely as a bondservant but as a “beloved brother” (v. 16).

It is difficult to know if Paul was seeking Onesimus’s full emancipation and freedom (see notes on vv. 16and 21). It is clear, however, that he was seeking a transformed relationship between bondservant and master—a new relationship that would defy all of the ingrained status distinctions of the surrounding Greek and Roman culture. There is no doubt that it would have been difficult for this kind of servitude to survive in the atmosphere of love created by the letter, and in fact the elements of Paul’s appeal found in this letter helped lay the foundation for the abolition of such servitude.

TIMELINE

Timeline

HISTORY OF SALVATION SUMMARY

Christians’ treatment of one another in Christ is to be transformed in the light of his grace toward them. (For an explanation of the “History of Salvation,” see the Overview of the Bible.)

LITERARY FEATURES

This simplified letter approximates the letters that people ordinarily write, in contrast to the more stylized and literary five-part format that characterizes most NT epistles. The letter is a masterpiece of persuasion and can be analyzed in terms of how Paul seeks a favorable reception for the returning bondservant, where the normal response of the master would be vindictive. Paul’s strategy follows that prescribed by Greek and Roman rhetoricians of the day: begin by building rapport and goodwill with an audience (vv. 4–10), then lay out the facts in a way that will convince the mind or intellect (vv. 11–19), and finally appeal to the emotions of the audience (vv. 20–21).

KEY THEMES

1. At the heart of this letter is the theme of reconciliation. Onesimus is reconciled to God, and now he is in the process of being reconciled to a fellow believer.
2. The basis for Paul’s appeal to Philemon is the supreme Christian virtue of love (not Roman social convention). Paul commends Philemon for the love he has shown not only to him but also to all of the believers in that area.

OUTLINE

  1. Greetings (vv. 1–3)
  2. Thanksgiving and Prayer (vv. 4–7)
  3. Paul’s Appeal to Philemon for Onesimus (vv. 8–20)
  4. Personal Remarks and Greetings (vv. 21–25)

THE EPISTLE OF PAUL TO PHILEMON

CHAPTER 1

1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer, 2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:

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

4 I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,

5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;

6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

7 For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.

8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,

9 Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:

11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:

14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.

15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;

16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.

18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;

19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.

20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.

21 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.

23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;

24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.

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

¶ Written from Rome to Philemon, by Onesimus, a servant.

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