New Testament Overview: Philemon

The Pauline Epistles

The Pauline Epistles
The Pastoral Epistles
  arrow {414} Introduction  
  arrow {415} First Timothy  
  arrow {416} Second Timothy  
  arrow {417} Titus  
  arrow Philemon  
    @ by J. Hampton Keathley, III {original source}  


As with the other prison epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians), Philemon was written by Paul during his first confinement in Rome. That Paul is the author is supported by both the external and internal evidence.

First, “among the church fathers, Ignatiusdb01, Tertulliandb02, Origendb03, and Eusebiusdb04 give evidence of the canonicity of this brief book. It was also included in the canon of Marciondb05 and in the Muratorian fragmentdb06.”fn70 As to the internal evidence, Paul refers to himself as the author in verses 1, 9, and 19.

The letter is written to Philemondb07, the owner of Onesimusdb08, one of the millions of slaves in the Roman Empire, who had stolen from his master and run away. Onesimus had made his way to Rome, where, in the providence of God, he came in contact with the apostle Paul, who led him to trust in Christ (v. 10). So now both Onesimus and Philemon were faced with doing their Christian duty toward one another. Onesimus was to return to his master and Philemon was to receive him with forgiveness as a Christian brother. Death was the normal punishment for a runaway slave, but Paul intercedes on behalf of Onesimus.

Thus, the book is titled Pros Philemona, “To Philemon.

DATE: A.D. 61

Since it was written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, it was written around A.D. 61.


Primary purpose:

Of this letter, the most personal of all Paul’s letters, was to ask Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back as a beloved brother and fellow servant in the gospel (see vv. 10-17). In the process of this, Paul asks Philemon to charge this to his own account. As such, this epistle is a fitting illustration of Christ who took our place as our substitute (see v. 18).

Secondary purpose:

Is to teach the practicality of Christian love as we seek to express the life-changing effects of Christ’s life in ours as it transforms our relationships with others whether in the home or in the master/slave or employer/employee relationships. In the other prison epistles, Paul spoke of this new relationship (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22; 4:1). In this letter we have a wonderful example. A final purpose was to express Paul’s thanksgiving for Philemon and to request preparation for lodging for him when he was released from prison (vv. 4-7 and 22).

The theme, then, is the life-changing power of the gospel to reach into the varied social conditions of society and change our relationships from bondage to brotherhood.

Philemon was not the only slave holder in the Colossian church (see Col. 4:1), so this letter gave guidelines for other Christian masters in their relationships to their slave-brothers. Paul did not deny the rights of Philemon over his slave, but he asked Philemon to relate the principle of Christian brotherhood to the situation with Onesimus (v. 16). At the same time, Paul offered to pay personally whatever Onesimus owed.

This letter is not an attack against slavery as such, but a suggestion as to how Christian masters and slaves could live their faith within that evil system. It is possible that Philemon did free Onesimus and send him back to Paul (v. 14). It has also been suggested that Onesimus became a minister and later bishop of the church at Ephesus (Ignatius, To the Ephesians, 1).fn71


Key words or concepts are,

  • Oneness,” and
  • forgiveness in Christ.


15-1815 For perhaps it was for this reason that he was separated from you for a little while, so that you would have him back eternally, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a dear brother. He is especially so to me, and even more so to you now, both humanly speaking and in the Lord. 17 Therefore if you regard me as a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 Now if he has defrauded you of anything or owes you anything, charge what he owes to me.


The forgiveness that the believer finds in Christ is beautifully portrayed by analogy in Philemon.

Onesimus, guilty of a great offense (vv. 11, 18),is motivated by Paul’s love to intercede on his behalf (vv. 10-17). Paul lays aside his rights (v. 8) and becomes Onesimus’ substitute by assuming his debt (vv. 15-19). By Philemon’s gracious act, Onesimus is restored and placed in a new relationship (vv. 15-16).

In this analogy:

  • We are as Onesimus.
  • Paul’s advocacy before Philemon is parallel to Christ’s work of mediation before the Father.
  • Onesimus was condemned by law but saved by grace.fn72


  • I. Prayer of Thanksgiving for Philemon (vv. 1-7)

  • II. Petition of Paul for Onesimus (vv. 8-18)

  • III. Promise of Paul to Philemon (vv. 19-21)

  • IV. Personal Matters (vv. 22-25)
Pauline Epsitles Menu
70 Walvoord/Zuck, electronic media.
71 Ryrie, p. 1939.
72 Wilkinson/Boa, p. 444.
db* = Content added by to assist the reader
db01 Ignatius: Ignatius of Antioch also known as Ignatius Theophorus (Ιγνάτιος ὁ Θεοφόρος, Ignátios ho Theophóros, lit. "the God-bearing"), was a student of John the Apostle, and was the third bishop of Antioch. [From Wikipedia
db02 Tertullian: was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa [From Wikipedia]
db03 Origen: was a scholar and early Christian theologian Some of his reputed teachings, such as the pre-existence of souls, the final reconciliation of all creatures, including perhaps even the devil (the apokatastasis), and the subordination of the Son of God to God the Father, later became controversial among Christian theologians. [From Wikipedia]
db04 Eusebius: Eusebius (/juːˈsiːbiəs/; Greek: Εὐσέβιος; 260/265 – 339/340 AD; also called Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius Pamphili), was a Roman historian, of Greek descent, exegete and Christian polemicist. He became the Bishop of Early centers of Caesarea about the year 314 A.D. [From Wikipedia]
db05 Marcion: Marcion of Sinope (/ˈmɑrʃən, -ʃiən, -siən/; Greek: Μαρκίων Σινώπης; c. 85 – c. 160) was an important leader in early Christianity. Hippolytus records that Marcion was the son of the bishop of Sinope, in Pontus. His near-contemporaries Rhodo and Tertullian described him as a wealthy ship owner, and he is said to have made a donation of 200,000 sesterces to the church in Rome. Conflicts with the elders of the church of Rome arose and he was eventually excommunicated, his donation being returned to him. After his excommunication, he returned to Asia Minor where he continued to lead his many church congregations and teach the Christian gospel in its Marcionite version. [From Wikipedia]
db06 Muratorian fragment: The Muratorian fragment is a copy of perhaps the oldest known list of the books of the New Testament. The fragment, consisting of 85 lines, is a 7th-century Latin manuscript bound in a 7th or 8th century codex from the library of Columban's monastery at Bobbio; it contains features suggesting it is a translation from a Greek original written about 170 or as late as the 4th century. [From Wikipedia]
db07 Philemon: Philemon (/fɪˈliːmən, faɪ-/; Greek: Φιλήμων) was an early Christian in Asia Minor who was the recipient of a private letter from Paul of Tarsus. Philemon was a wealthy Christian and a minister (possibly a bishop of the house church that met in his home. [From Wikipedia]
db08 Onesimus: Onesimus (Greek: Ὀνήσιμος Onēsimos, meaning "useful"; died c. 68 AD), also called Onesimus of Byzantium and The Holy Apostle Onesimus in some Eastern Orthodox churches, was a slave to Philemon of Colossae, a man of Christian faith. [From Wikipedia]
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