PHILEMON Chapter 1 (Only 1 Chapter)
Although neither Paul nor Timothy had visited the church in Colosse, they had, during their earlier travels, met individual Colossians such as Epaphras, Philemon, Archippus, and Apphia who, after their conversion, had returned with the Gospel to their native city. So Philemon was a friend and fellow believer. But this letter does not present doctrine or give commands; instead, it is a request on behalf of another believer. Paul chose to introduce himself in this letter as being in prison for preaching the Good News about our Lord Christ Jesus. This is the only one of Paul’s letters where he used such an introduction.
Timothy visited Paul frequently during his imprisonment (see also Colossians 1:1) and was with Paul in Rome when he wrote this letter. Timothy was not imprisoned with Paul, but he had stayed in Rome to encourage Paul and to help with ministry needs. Although mentioned in the salutation, Timothy is not considered a coauthor. Paul wrote in the first person throughout this letter (the same is true for the letter to the Philippians).
Philemon was a wealthy Greek landowner living in Colosse. He had been converted under Paul’s ministry (1:19), perhaps in Ephesus or some other city where he had met and talked with Paul. During Paul’s years of ministry in nearby Ephesus, Philemon had been building up the Colossian church, which would meet in his home (1:2). Thus Paul considered him a much loved coworker. Like most wealthy landowners of ancient times, Philemon owned slaves. Onesimus, the subject of this letter, was one of those slaves.
Apphia probably was Philemon’s wife or another close relative who helped manage his household; otherwise, she would not have been greeted with Philemon in a letter concerning a domestic matter. At this time, women handled the day-to-day responsibilities of the slaves. Thus, the final decision about Onesimus would have been as much her choice as Philemon’s. Paul greeted Apphia as our sister, that is, a sister in the Christian faith. Archippus may have been Philemon’s son, or perhaps an elder in the Colossian church (at the end of the letter to the Colossians, Paul had given special encouragement to a man named Archippus; see Colossians 4:17). In either case, Paul included him as a recipient of the letter, possibly so that Archippus would read the letter with Philemon and encourage him to take Paul’s advice.
The early churches always met in people’s homes. Because of sporadic persecutions and the great expense involved, church buildings were not constructed at this time (church buildings were not built until the third century). Many congregations were small enough that the entire church could meet in one home. Because Philemon was one of those who had worked to begin the church at Colosse, it was natural that believers would meet in his house. The church could refer to the entire body of believers, although it seems unlikely because Paul had been writing a letter to the entire Colossian church at this same time. It may have been that, as in any large city even today, smaller groups of believers met regularly in various private homes. One group met in Philemon’s home; some met in other believers’ homes, such as Nympha’s. Paul had greeted Nympha and the church in her house in Colossians 4:15. (For references to other house churches, see Romans 16:5 and 1 Corinthians 16:19-20.)
Because of the personal nature of this letter, Paul apparently chose not to include his instructions to Philemon in his general letter to the Colossians. Paul greeted the believers who met in Philemon’s home because Paul knew that not only would this group know about the runaway slave, but they would also become Onesimus’s “family” upon his return as a new believer. The church would need to understand Paul’s request and Philemon’s response to it. Then there would be no gossip, and they could immediately and lovingly accept Onesimus into their fellowship.
Paul used grace and peace as a standard greeting in all his letters. “Grace” is God’s undeserved favor—His loving-kindness shown to sinners whereby He saves them and gives them strength to live for Him; “peace” refers to the peace that Christ made between sinners and God through His death on the cross. Peace refers to that inner assurance and tranquility that God places in a person, producing confidence and contentment in Christ. Only God can grant such wonderful gifts.
The phrase God our Father focuses on the family relationship among all believers as God’s children. In the context of this letter, Paul was emphasizing the family relationship that the master, Philemon, and the slave, Onesimus, had because both were believers. By using the phrase, Lord Jesus Christ, Paul was pointing to our Lord Jesus Christ as a full person of the Godhead and was recognizing Lord Jesus’ full deity. God the Father and Christ the Lord are coequal in providing grace and peace.
Philemon had been converted under Paul’s ministry and then had returned to Colosse. Although Paul had never visited Colosse, he had heard (perhaps from Onesimus or Epaphras) about Philemon’s continued trust in the Lord Jesus and love for all of God’s people. Paul was saying that if Philemon truly loved all the believers, then he certainly would be willing to include another believer—Onesimus—in that love.
This verse describes Paul’s prayer and introduces the request that Paul will make to Philemon in this letter. The word you is singular (as in 1:4)—this was what Paul prayed for Philemon himself. The Greek word koinonia is rendered in these verses as generous. Koinonia is a difficult word to translate, but it incorporates the true outworking of Christian love in the body of Christ. The word focused on Philemon’s relationship with other Christians. Paul prayed that Philemon’s faith would show itself in koinonia among the believers. Paul prayed that Philemon would put his generosity to work. Paul will soon ask Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul, and that Philemon should charge any of Onesimus’s debts to Paul (1:17-19). This is true koinonia, Christians giving to one another and caring for one another because they belong to one another.
The love that Philemon showed to all the believers (1:5) had also given Paul much joy and comfort. Philemon probably had acted out his faith among the believers in many ways beyond sharing his home for church meetings. But Paul was concerned less about Philemon’s actions than about the spirit in which he was performing them. Paul hoped that Philemon’s loving spirit—which had given others joy, encouragement, and refreshment—would also show itself in his dealings with Onesimus.
Carrying on the thought from verse 7—the love Philemon had shown to the believer and to Paul ought to be extended to include another. This was indeed boldly asking a favor—in the Roman Empire, a master had the right to kill a disobedient slave. In any other situation, Onesimus’s action of running away would have signed his death warrant. But Onesimus had met Paul, and Paul knew Philemon, so Paul mediated because of their common brotherhood in Christ.
Paul first described his right to make this appeal to Philemon. Paul was Philemon’s friend and spiritual father (1:19), but Paul was also an elder and an apostle with authority in the name of Christ. Paul was subtly reminding Philemon of his authority. Paul could have demanded how Philemon should act because it was the right thing to do, but Paul based his request not on his own authority, but on his friendship with Philemon and Philemon’s Christian commitment. Paul wanted Philemon’s heartfelt, not grudging, obedience, so he preferred just to ask the favor of Philemon.
In the Greek text, Onesimus’s name is the last word in this verse, exhibiting Paul’s skillful crafting of this letter. After the introduction and sincere compliments to Philemon, he began to state his appeal. He gave Onesimus’s name at the last possible moment, not broaching the actual appeal until verse 17. Paul approached Philemon with tact and humility.
Philemon probably had been angered that his slave had disappeared (in Roman times, it was like losing a piece of valuable property). Thus, Paul first explained that his appeal was on behalf of someone who had become his son during Paul’s imprisonment—that is, someone Paul had led to Christ from prison. Philemon would be dealing with a fellow believer.
Onesimus’s name in Greek means “useful.” The name was a common name for slaves and is found in many ancient inscriptions. A nameless slave might be given this name with the hope that he would live up to it in serving his master.
Paul used a play on words, saying that Onesimus had formerly had not been of much use to Philemon in the past, but had become very useful both to Paul and, potentially, to Philemon. Under Philemon’s service, Onesimus had failed to live up to his name. Paul was confident, however, that this new man with his new life in Christ would live up to his name if Philemon would take him back. In Colossians 4:9, Paul called Onesimus a “faithful and much loved brother.” Onesimus had become known for his faithfulness.
Although Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus with him, he was sending Onesimus back to Philemon along with Paul’s own heart. Paul asked that Philemon accept Onesimus not only as a forgiven runaway servant, but also as a brother in Christ. This verse suggests that Onesimus himself would deliver this letter to Philemon, so Philemon would need to make his decision as he stood face-to-face with his slave.
Paul was willing to give away his very heart, a part of himself, in order to return Onesimus permanently to Philemon. Onesimus had become part of Paul’s ministry team. This was a sacrifice on Paul’s part, for Onesimus apparently could have helped Paul on Philemon’s behalf. Paul knew that if Philemon were available to be with Paul, he would have helped him in any way he could; therefore, if Paul had kept Onesimus, Philemon would have been helping Paul vicariously. Paul implied that he trusted Onesimus so much that Onesimus’s service could be considered in place of Philemon’s; therefore, Philemon should be able to trust him as well. Paul, imprisoned for preaching the Good News, longed for his friends; how difficult it was for him to send away this man. Yet Paul knew it was his duty to do so—Roman law demanded that a deserting slave be returned to his legal owner (although Deuteronomy 23:15-16 states the opposite). Because Onesimus belonged to Philemon, Paul chose to send him back.
Paul would have liked to have kept Onesimus with him (1:13). However, he decided not to try to talk Philemon into allowing Onesimus to return to Rome to serve Paul; Paul might have felt that this was taking undue advantage of his relationship with Philemon. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, preferring that Philemon make the final decision in the matter. The help probably did not refer to allowing Onesimus to return to Paul, but that Philemon would pardon his slave from severe punishment since Onesimus had become a new person in Christ. Philemon had to think of Onesimus not as a piece of property, but as a brother in the fellowship.
Paul considered that all that had happened—Onesimus’s desertion and subsequent conversion to Christ—had been part of God’s providence. God can overrule and bring good out of human sin and folly. Onesimus had caused trouble and heartache, but he had become a new person, and Philemon would soon have him back. The little while of Onesimus’s absence would be overshadowed by the devotion that would bind him to his master forever. They would be together for eternity, but Paul also wanted Philemon to take Onesimus back into his service permanently now.
For Philemon to accept Onesimus back, he would have to do so with the understanding that Onesimus had a new status—he was a person (that is, not merely a slave), and he was also a beloved brother. Paul knew how difficult it might be for Philemon to deal with Onesimus as a “brother” after the trouble he had caused. Paul made it clear that he not only trusted Onesimus (1:13) but that he considered Onesimus a brother in Christ. With these words, Paul deftly placed himself, Philemon, and Onesimus all at the same level. While this prisoner, landowner, and slave had very different social positions, they were equals in Christ. While Onesimus had become very dear to Paul, he would mean much more to Philemon because Onesimus’s former relationship with Philemon had laid the groundwork for a lasting relationship between them.
In this verse Paul stated his request: give him the same welcome you would give me. Like the father of the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11-32), Philemon should open his arms to welcome Onesimus back to his household and, as a new believer, to the church. God had welcomed Onesimus; so should Philemon. The word partner is koinonon from the word koinonia, translated as generosity. Philemon and Paul shared the koinonia described in verse 6. Paul wanted Philemon’s attitude toward Onesimus to be based on his attitude toward Paul.
Onesimus may have confessed some such act to Paul. The only way Onesimus could have financed his flight was to have stolen from his master money or possessions that he could sell. Even if not, he still would be in debt for the work that had not been performed in his absence. This would cause Onesimus to be extremely afraid to return to his master. It was bad enough that he had run away, but if he had also stolen money or possessions or had harmed his master in any other way, he would be in deep trouble. Thus Paul’s letter served as a buffer—giving Onesimus courage to return and giving Philemon the entire picture so that he might deal kindly with his slave.
Any money or possessions that Onesimus had taken certainly were long gone. Onesimus had no means to repay. Paul asked that any money stolen be charged to his own account; in other words, Onesimus no longer would owe Philemon anything, but Paul would. Paul was not suggesting to Philemon that he simply forgive Onesimus’s debt; the wrong needed to be righted. Instead, Paul took on that debt on Onesimus’s behalf. Onesimus would never know whether the debt was actually demanded and repaid. All he knew was that a debt needed to be paid because of his wrong actions—but that someone else was going to pay it for him. Onesimus got a dose of true Christian love through Paul’s action.
Often, Paul would use a secretary to write his letters as he dictated them (see Romans 16:22). But sometimes at the end of the letters, he would take the pen and write a few words in his own handwriting to authenticate the letters (see, for example, Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18). For Paul to write the words I will repay it emphasized that he was placing himself under legal obligation to do so. Paul was not “just saying” this to placate Philemon; he meant to do so by putting it in writing. If Philemon had demanded repayment, Paul would have had to do it. But it seems that Paul knew his friend well enough to know that he would not demand repayment. While Paul told Philemon to put Onesimus’s charge on Paul’s “page” in the accounting book, Paul also reminded Philemon that he (Paul) had a huge credit already, in that Philemon owed his very soul (his conversion and eternal security) to Paul. Once Onesimus’s debt was put on Paul’s page, it would be canceled. As Philemon’s spiritual father, Paul was hoping that Philemon would feel a debt of gratitude that would cause him to accept Onesimus with a spirit of forgiveness.
In the matters of ledgers and debts, once Onesimus’s debt was repaid, Paul would still have a credit, for who can ever repay someone for bringing him or her to eternal life? Thus Paul asked that the balance be paid in kindness to Onesimus as a favor to Paul. Onesimus had been useful to Paul (1:11); Paul hoped that Philemon would find the same. And as Philemon had refreshed the hearts of the saints (1:7), he could hardly do other than refresh Paul’s heart as well.
Paul was not only confident that Philemon would welcome Onesimus back, but that Philemon would also do even more than Paul asked. This may have been a hint that Philemon would willingly free Onesimus so that he could return to Paul or be freed when Paul got to Colosse. We can be sure that Philemon welcomed Onesimus, but the “even more” is left unknown.
That Paul would ask Philemon to keep a guest room ready in his home indicates that Paul expected to be released (see also Philippians 2:23-24). Some feel that this was Paul’s way of reminding Philemon of his apostolic authority. Or it may have been a tongue-in-cheek way of securing a kindly reception for Onesimus because Paul hoped to eventually arrive to check up on what had occurred. It is more likely that Paul was simply hoping to eventually visit these friends who had been praying for him.
His freedom would be secured through these prayers. The words your and you are plural, focusing on Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church in Philemon’s house. Paul had never been to Colosse; the word return in Greek simply means “granted” or “given as a gift” (the root of the word is charis, “grace”). For Philemon and the church in his home to have their prayers answered with a visit from Paul would indeed be a gift of grace. Paul was released from prison soon after writing this letter, but the Bible doesn’t say whether he went to Colosse.
The you in this verse is singular. These are personal greetings to Philemon. Epaphras was well known to the Colossians because he had founded the church there (Colossians 1:7), perhaps while Paul was living in Ephesus (Acts 19:10). Epaphras may have been converted in Ephesus and then had returned to Colosse, his hometown. He was a hero to this church, helping to hold it together in spite of growing persecution and struggles with false doctrine. His report to Paul about the problems in Colosse had prompted Paul to write his letter to the Colossians. Epaphras’s greetings to and prayers for the Colossian Christians reveal his deep love for them (Colossians 4:12-13).
It is unclear whether Epaphras was actually in prison with Paul. Paul’s words fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus may have been a metaphor of warfare or “captivity to Christ.” It is more likely that Epaphras was with Paul voluntarily and would return to Colosse.
Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke are also mentioned in Colossians 4:10, 14. Mark had accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 12:25ff.) and eventually wrote the Gospel of Mark. Luke had accompanied Paul on his third missionary journey and was the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Demas had been faithful to Paul for a while but then had deserted him (see 2 Timothy 4:10). Paul had sent greetings from these same people in the letter to the Colossians. But in that letter, a man “Jesus who is called Justus” also had sent greetings to Colosse. Much speculation has been done as to why his greetings were not included here, but it may simply have been that he was absent on the day Paul wrote this letter to Philemon.
The word your is plural, indicating that Paul sent this final blessing not to Philemon only, but to the entire church that regularly met in his home (1:2). As Paul had begun his letter with grace (1:3), so he ended it with the benediction that the believers would continue to experience God’s unmerited favor. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is with Christians’ spirits because the Spirit of Jesus Christ indwells the spirits (the inner selves) of believers (see Romans 8:9-11).