Reading 0,03 - 1 Chapter - 25 verses - 445 words


Vital Statistics

 Purpose:  To convince Philemon to forgive his runaway slave Onesimus, and to accept him as a brother in the faith  
 Author:  Paul 
 Original audience:  Philemon, who was probably a wealthy member of the Colossian church 
 Date written:  Approximately A.D. 60 during Paul's first imprisonment in Rome, at about the same time Ephesians and Colossians were written    
 Setting:  Slavery was very common in the Roman Empire, and evidently some Christians had slaves. Paul does not condemn the institution of slavery in this writing, but he makes a radical statement by calling this slave Philemon's brother in Christ 
 Key verses:  Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. (1:15, 16)
 Key people:  Paul, Philemon, Onesimus 
 Key places:  Colosse, Rome
 Special features:  This is a private, personal letter to a friend

Author, Date and Place of Writing

    Paul wrote this short letter (1,9,19) probably at the same time as Colossians (c. A.D. 60) and sent it to Colosee with the same travelers, Onesimus and Tychicus. He apparently wrote both letters from prison in Rome, though possibly from Ephesus.

Recipient, Background and Purpose

    Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, a believer in Colosse who, along with others, was a slave owner (Col 4:1). One of his slaves, Onesimus, had apparently stolen from him (18) and then run away, which under Roman law was punishable by death. But Onesimus met Paul and through his ministry became a Christian (10). Now he was willing to return to his master, and Paul writes this personal appeal to ask that he be accepted as a Christian brother (16).  

Approach and Structure

    To win Philemon's willing acceptance of Onesimus, Paul writes very tactfully and in a lighthearted tone, which he creates with a wordplay. The appeal (vv 4-21) is organized in a way prescribed by ancient Greek and Roman teachers: to build rapport (vv. 4-10), to persuade the mind (vv. 11-19) and to move the emotions (vv. 20-21). The name Onesimus is not mentioned until the rapport has been built (v. 10), and the appeal itself is stated only near the end of the section to persuade the mind (v. 17). 

How to read Philemon

    Forgiveness is often tough. C.S. Lewis said, “Everyone says that forgiveness is a wonderful idea, until he has something to forgive.” Someone has to swallow the pain of having been hurt. Philemon is a letter that showcases the cost of asking for and of granting forgiveness.

    Through Paul’s ministry Onesimus had come to faith in Jesus while a runaway slave. In that day, most runaway slaves, if caught, faced harsh punishment and sometimes even death. Philemon, Onesimus’ master, was also a Christian and Paul’s close friend. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter in hand in order that their broken relationship might be repaired—for they were now brothers in Christ.

This is the briefest of all of Paul’s writings, and one of the most magnificent illustrations of grace and forgiveness in the Bible. Paul’s deep concern for reconciliation calls us to apply these same principles of love and compassion to our own relationships. As we also stand in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, it’s a welcome declaration of the cleansing available to us all through Jesus, our mediator who has come to set us free with his offer of forgiveness!

Philemon Interpretive Challenges

There are no significant interpretive challenges in this personal letter from Paul to his friend Philemon.

Philemon Horizontal

1:1 - Paul, prisoner for Christ

1:1b - To Philemon, fellow worker

1:3 - Grace to you


1:4 - I thank my God

1:8 - I appeal to you

1:15 - Receive him as me

1:21 - Confident of your obedience

1:23 - Epaphras sends greetings


1:25 - Grace with your spirit

God's character in Philemon

  1. God is forgiving - verses 16, 17
  2. God is impartial - verse 16

Christ in Philemon

    The relationship between Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon presents a beautiful illustrations of Christ's mediation between the Father and humanity. Paul freely accepted Onesimus's penalty in order to renew the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon. his former master. Paul's work of forgiveness also portrays the strength given to Christians by God to show compassion and mercy.