This commentary is based on the NIV Bible, 1994 edition. Chapter
titles found in this commentary correspond to the chapter titles found in
the NIV Bible which makes for easier comparison.
Philemon appears to be a good friend of Paulís, who was most
likely fairly wealthy, having slaves, of which Onesimus was one. This
letter is a personal letter from Paul to Philemon, concerning Onesimus.
Apparently Onesimus ran away from his master Philemon. Somehow he
ended up in Rome and visited Paul in jail. It might be possible that Paul
had met Onesimus before because of his friendship with Philemon. Whatever
the case, Paul led Onesimus to Jesus and kept him for a while in the
service of the Lord.
Now in this letter Paul tells Philemon that he is returning Onesimus
to him. Though Onesimus was a slave, Paul calls him a "a dear
brother" in Col. 4:9, shedding a little light on Paulís thinking
about slavery. Paul still honours the practice of having slaves, yet
insists that they be treated fairly, as brothers in the Lord. He does list
the practice of slave trading as a sin in 1 Tim. 1:10.
Because Paul says that he was sending Onesimus "back" to
Colossae (Col. 4:9) this might suggest that Philemon lived in or near that
Most likely this letter was written around 61 AD while Paul was
imprisoned in Rome.
In verse 4 Paul says, "I always thank my God when I remember
you in my prayers". This is something else that Paul says many times
in his writings. He is very thankful to the Lord for those who serve with
him in the Lordís service. He "remembers" them in prayer.
Whether these prayers are of an intercessory nature, or more of a casual
remembrance to the Lord might not be known for sure. Nevertheless we know
that Paul is always praying for those to whom he ministers to and works
with. This is a part of his daily routine.
Why is Paul so thankful for these people? He continues by saying
that it is their "faith and love", something else that Paul
always links together in the same breathe. These people trusted in Jesus,
resulting in a love that can only be found from such trust. If we want to
love more, then we need to learn how to trust Jesus more. Such trust
implies a relationship with Him.
One thing that Paul prays for concerning these people is that they
"would be active in sharing their faith". Paul was a preacher of
the gospel. All of the Christians that met in Philemonís house were not
necessarily preachers, but they could be sharers of the faith.
If these people were to be active in sharing their faith, their
trust that they have found in Jesus, then they would have "an
understanding of every good thing we have in Christ". (ch. 1:6)
Knowing things about our faith is one thing, yet when we share our faith,
we know it better than ever. Some have said over the years concerning
their faith, that "they know that they know that they know".
That is , they simply know for sure that they have found true faith in
Jesus, and the sharing of this faith only serves them to know it better.
If you read Paulís writings carefully you will note that he is a
man of emotion. Sometimes he feels great. Sometimes he feels not so great,
even to the point of great despair.. Concerning Philemon, he has great joy
because Philemon has "refreshed the hearts of the saints".
Philemon must have had some type of caring ministry to these people.
Perhaps he was an elder. This is only conjecture. We donít know for
sure. We do know that he had a spiritual impact on his brothers in the
In verse 8 Paul reminds Philemon of his apostolic authority that he
has in Christ. He is about to ask something of Philemon, but heíd rather
ask based on the loving relationship they have, rather than his apostolic
calling. This is how Paul lives. If he has to use his authority, he will,
but heíd rather not.
The request that Paul is making is that he wishes to send Onesimus
back to Philemon. Yet since Onesimus was Philemonís slave and had ran
away from Philemon, Paul is asking that Onesimus be welcomed back as a
brother in Christ, without any penalty because of his actions.
Paul is appealing to Philemon based on their relationship as I have
just said. In verse 6 he actually says, "I appeal to you on the basis
of love". So in one sense, this is more than a request. It is a
strong appeal to Philemon, something Paul expects Philemon to respond to.
Paul follows this up with another basis for his appeal. He says that
he is now "an old man" and a "prisoner" for the Lord.
Some suggest that Paul was between 50 and 60 years of age, but whatever
age he was, I am sure Paul was feeling like an old man as he knew his life
was coming to an end. The wear and tear of preaching the gospel, with all
of the resulting hardships involved had taken a great toll on Paulís
The appeal continues in verse 10. He says, "I appeal for my son
Onesimus". Like Timothy and Titus, to name a few, Onesimus became a
Christian because of Paul and therefore Paul viewed him as a dear son in
the Lord, and wanted the best for him.
Paul says that Onesimus became his son while he was "in
chains", in prison. Somehow Onesimus found himself visiting Paul in
jail and Paul won him to Jesus. From that point on he was of great service
Prior to Onesimusí conversion Paul says that he "was
useless" to himself and to Philemon. This might say something of
Onesimusí character before meeting Jesus. If as a slave he was useless
to Philemon, his master, then possibly he was not a good slave. Or, on the
other hand, maybe he was a decent slave, but now as Christian he would be
so much more useful that it would make his earlier life look useless in
Nevertheless, Onesimus is a changed man and Paul is "sending
him - who is my very heart, back to" Philemon. Once again, as in many
of Paulís letters, you see his strong feelings for those he cares for in
the Lord. He has given his whole heart to Onesimus, thus he wants the best
for him and he certainly does not want Philemon to punish Onesimus for any
wrong that he might have committed.
Really, Paul would have rather kept Onesimus with him so he could
continue to serve him in prison, thus relieving Philemon of doing this
service. In verse 13 Paul says that he would like Onesimus to stay and
"take your (Philemonís) place". So it is evident that though
Philemon was very far from Paul in a geographical sense, he still was
serving him to some degree.
Paul wanted to return Onesimus to Philemon but did not want to
"do anything without consent, so that any favour that you (Philemon)
do would be spontaneous and not forced". The idea of spontaneity was
important to Paul, and I would dare say, important to God as well. The
whole point that Paul is making in this letter is that he wishes Philemon
to do something, but Paul does not want to "make" him do it. He
wants Philemon to do this out of the goodness of his heart. This is what
true love is all about. If someone claims to love you, and yet only shows
love when you ask for it, then it isnít love. Love is spontaneous and
from the heart. If love has to be asked for, or pleaded, then it is not
love and not worth the asking.
The same is true with God. That is why He has given us free will. He
wants us to love Him out of a pure heart. He does not force us to love
Him. He did not make us robots that were programmed to love. If love is
not freely given from the heart, what is given is not love.
We donít know why Onesimus left, or ran away from Philemon, but in
verse 15 Paul suggests that in the long run it might be for the best,
since he has come to the Lord and now is a brother in Christ. Therefore
Paul urges Philemon to receive him back as a brother, and not just a
slave, which is far better for both of them.
Paul says that Onesimus was dear to him, but even "dearer"
to Philemon. By this I believe we can surmise that even though Philemon
had slaves, he treated them well. A slave owner who did not care for his
slaves would not count his slaves dear to him, as Philemon did. In this
case Paul would not have problems with the idea of having slaves.
Paul takes this welcoming of Onesimus one step further when he says,
"if you consider me a partner (partner in the service of the Lord),
welcome him as you would welcome me". Paul is telling Philemon that
he needs to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, but even more so, as
As was the case with runaway slaves, when they left they often would
steel from their master. Just in case this was the case with Onesimus,
Paul tells Philemon to charge him for what was owed. Paul himself would
pay any debt that Onesimus might have owed Philemon. This shows us the
heart of Paul in action. He was always thinking of those he cared for. As
in receiving financial support from his church, which he didnít, for the
sake of the church, so he wants Onesimus to be free from having to pay
back any debt. He would do that for his new brother in Christ.
Paul may be doing a little subtle arm twisting in this letter.
Perhaps when Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus is dearer to Philemon than
he is to him might be a subtle way to tell Philemon that this should be
the case, even if it is not. Also here in verse 19 Paul reminds Philemon
that he owes Paul "his very life". What Paul is referring to , I
am not sure. Possibly Paul led Philemon to Jesus and for this reason
Philemon would owe his life to Paul. Maybe in some way Paul actually saved
the life of Philemon from danger and in this way he owed his life to Paul.
Whatever the case, Paul believed that Philemon owed his life to Paul.
Since this was the case, Philemon should respond to Paulís request
In the Christian brotherhood there should be some mutual caring for
one another. That is to say that there should be a mutual and equal
exchange of loving deeds one to another. Love should not be lop-sided, or
always going in one direction. This is what Paul is telling Philemon here.
Paul says that he "should have some benefit from Philemon in the
Lord". The benefit, due to their Christian brotherhood is that
Philemon should "refresh" Paulís heart by responding
positively to his request. Paul continues by telling Philemon that he is
sure that he will obey him in this request. Paul uses the word
"obey" partially because this is a command. Earlier he said that
he could use his apostolic authority in making this request, which would
suggest a command to obey. Rather, Paul based this request, or command on
their mutual love in Christ.
Paul says he had confidence in Philemon, or at least said that he
did in order to encourage him to do as he suggests. Paul believed that
Philemon would respond in a positive way to his request, "and even do
more than what he asks".
Paul closes his letter by asking Philemon to "prepare a guest
room" for him since he hopes to be restored to freedom so he could
visit Philemon once again.
Paul closes this letter similar to the way he closes all of his
letters by saying "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your
Around the year 110 AD, Ignatius, one of our important church
fathers in the second generation church wrote a letter to the Ephesians.
In this letter he comments on the fact that the leader of the Ephesian
church was named Onesimus. Now we donít have conclusive evidence, but
there is strong evidence, held by many Bible scholars that this Onesimus
is the freed slave spoken of in the letter to Philemon. If this is indeed
the case, how ironic, and what an amazing story; from being a slave to
being a leader. Onesimus, once a slave to man, becomes a bond servant, a
servant by choice, to the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is interesting to note that during this same period of time that
all of Paulís known letters that could be found were published into one
book. This publication was compiled in the city of Ephesus, where Onesimus
was living and was the churchís leader. If the Onesimus of the letter to
Philemon was the Onesimus, leader of the Ephesian church, then this might
be how such a little letter ended up in our Canon of Scripture. For
indeed, Onesimus might have well kept Paulís letter to Philemon as a
memorial to his freedom, thus putting it into this publication.
One other thing to note on a different subject. Onesimus was called
Bishop of Ephesus. Around the turn of the century, 100 AD, church
structure changed. Paulís concept of leadership was that a number of
elders would be co-equal, and care for the church. Yet by the turn of the
century, one of these elders became "head elder", or
"bishop", having more authority than the other elders. As time
went on the authority of this bishop increased. The question that should
be asked at this point is, was this a diversion from Paulís concept the
way it should be, or was this a natural evolution, or was it simply Godís
will? This is an important question, and even the most important
underlying question when we discuss church structure in our modern church.
This may be a hard question to answer, and I am sure there are varying
opinions, but it is important to talk about.