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Paul is the author of Philemon. He claims authorship in the first verse. “From Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our dear friend and colaborer” (v. 1). Timothy was with Paul when he wrote the letter, but Timothy was not a co-author. Throughout the epistle, Paul used the word, “I,” which further establishes him as the sole author. For example, Philemon 1:4-5 says, “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” Further evidence for Pauline authorship is that he is also mentioned as the author in verses 9 and 19.

Philemon is actually Paul’s shortest letter. It is one of the prison epistles, along with Philippians, Ephesians, and Colossians. Of them, it is the only one addressed to an individual. Paul wrote these during his first Roman imprisonment around AD 60-62.1


Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, who was a wealthy slave owner in Colosse. Philemon 1:1-2 says,

From Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our dear friend and colaborer, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your house.

The letter was also addressed to Apphia, Archippus, and the church that met in Philemon’s house. Since the letter concerns a domestic issue about a runaway slave, many believe that Apphia and Archippus were part of Philemon’s family—his wife and son. They would have had a say in whether to accept Onesimus back as well. Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be a clear reason to address Apphia and Archippus separately from the church. Archippus was also probably an elder in the Colossian church. At the end of the Colossian epistle, Paul said this to him: “See to it that you complete the ministry you received in the Lord” (4:17). If Archippus was not Philemon’s son and just a pastor at his church, then him being mentioned would have been an extra form of accountability for Philemon. Though the letter addresses multiple recipients, it is clear that Philemon was the primary one. The pattern of ancient letters was to address the primary recipient first, which was Philemon.2 In addition, throughout the letter, Paul uses singular pronouns to address him (v. 4–22a, 23–24).3 Philemon was obviously a very godly servant in the Colossian church. He had opened his house weekly (or even daily) so the church could meet there, and the witness of his hospitality in caring for saints had gotten back to Paul. In Philemon 1:7, Paul said this about him: “I have had great joy and encouragement because of your love, for the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.”

Even though Philemon was a very godly saint, apparently, there was conflict between him and his slave, Onesimus. Onesimus, whose name means “helpful, “useful,” or “profitable,” ran away from Philemon. Ancient Rome’s workforce was primarily slaves. There were around sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire.4 In fact, one commentator said Italy’s inhabitants consisted of eighty-five to ninety percent slaves.5 Because of how great their population was and how needed they were for the workforce, the empire had strict rules to punish runaway slaves. At the discretion of the landowner, they could be crucified for running away or branded with an “F” for fugitive, among other punishments. When Onesimus ran away, it is likely that he also stole money from Philemon to fund his trip to Rome. Paul hints at this possibly by telling Philemon that if Onesimus stole something, to charge it to Paul’s account. He would pay it in full (v. 18-19). While Onesimus was in Rome, somehow, he ran into Paul, heard the gospel, and became a follower of Christ and a faithful ministry assistant to Paul. At this time, Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years awaiting sentencing. Apparently, he wrote the letter towards the end of his imprisonment because he tells Philemon to prepare a room for him since he hoped to be released soon in answer to Philemon’s prayers (v. 22). Most likely, Paul’s companion, Tychicus, delivered this epistle to Philemon while also delivering the Colossian letter to the church. Colossians 4:7-9 says,

Tychicus, a dear brother, faithful minister, and fellow slave in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me. I sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are doing and that he may encourage your hearts. I sent him with Onesimus, the faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.


This short letter has three primary themes. (1) It demonstrates the transforming power of the gospel on a sinner’s life. Onesimus, who was not useful and possibly even dishonest as a slave, became tremendously useful after his conversion. He became useful to Paul as a gospel partner in Rome. Also, the transforming power of the gospel is seen in how Onesimus was willing to return to his master to reconcile and potentially face punishment, including the possibility of death. Honoring Christ was more important than his life. To add to this magnificent conversion story, some speculate that after Onesimus returned, Philemon at some point released him from slavery, and eventually, Onesimus became the bishop in Ephesus some fifty years later, as the bishop there bore the same name.6 We can’t be certain that the Onesimus in Ephesus is the same person; however, the slave was Paul’s close ministry associate (cf. v. 11-13), and as such, they were commonly left to oversee various churches, even as Timothy and Titus were (cf. 1 Tim 1:3, Tit 1:5). If it is the same Onesimus, it would give credence (at least humanly speaking) to why this small personal letter was included in the Canon. It would have been a powerful testimony to the early church who knew Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus who eventually became a well-known bishop over the important church in Ephesus. (2) The removal of social barriers because of the gospel is also a major theme. In the ancient world, there was a tremendous social distance between a slave and a free person. However, because of the gospel, Philemon was encouraged to accept Onesimus back as more than a slave, but as a dear brother instead (v. 15-16). The gospel made people from different socio-economic backgrounds family. Though slavery is a tremendous travesty against humanity, Christianity never tried to overthrow social institutions. If it did try to with slavery, it would have ended in a bloody mess. However, Christianity taught the principles that eventually led to the overthrow of slavery in every nation the gospel has reached. It taught slaves to obey their masters as unto the Lord (Col 3:22-24). It taught masters to treat their slaves “with justice and fairness” since they also had a Master in heaven (Col 4:1). It also teaches, as mentioned, that all people, including slaves and free persons, are equal in Christ. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Therefore, Christianity does not seek to change institutions; it seeks to change the hearts of individuals in those institutions. As a consequence, the corrupt institutions often eventually dissolve. Philemon demonstrates the removal of social barriers as a slave master is urged to receive his runaway slave as a Christian brother—as family (cf. Mk 3:35). (3) The final theme of the letter is reconciliation. Paul writes the letter to reconcile a runaway slave with his master. He asked Philemon to refresh him by accepting Onesimus back (v. 20). He also commits to pay any losses that Onesimus caused (v. 18-19). Certainly, when considering Paul’s efforts to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus, it’s hard not to see how it reflects Christ and how he reconciled us to God by paying the debt for our sins on the cross. Martin Luther said this, “We are all His Onesimi, to my thinking.”7 As we study this letter, may God reconcile our relationships and equip us to help others reconcile. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Copyright © 2023 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

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1 Paul D. Weaver, ed., Surveying the Pauline Epistles, Second Edition., Surveying the New Testament (Learn the Word Publishing, 2019), Phm.

2 Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 362.

3 Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 362.

4 William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 3rd ed. fully rev. and updated., The New Daily Study Bible (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 304.

5 Bruce Barton, Philip Comfort, et al., Life Application New Testament Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001), 996.

6 William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 3rd ed. fully rev. and updated., The New Daily Study Bible (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 310.

7 William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2147.

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