The podcast (12 mins) explores the interesting relationship between Philemon (master) and Onesimus (slave).

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  • This study is not primarily about Paul. (For that, please watch the iFaith video sermon on Philemon, or listen to the Philemon unit in The Prison Epistles, or read the NT Chapter Study notes on Philemon, all at this website.) Rather, we will explore the interplay between Philemon and Onesimus.
  • This is a personal letter, and to some extent a private letter, but what has happened is most likely public knowledge, and the whatever the result of Paul’s letter, everyone—all those mentioned in the introduction—will know.

Philemon 1-22

  • A church meets in Philemon’s home.
  • Apphia is likely Philemon’s wife.
  • Philemon is introduced as dear friend and collaborer. Paul is not writing to a stranger. He’s not even just writing to an acquaintance. Philemon is a friend—a dear friend.
  • Philemon is known outside his immediate home and clearly respected.
    • He has good relationships.
    • He has not only helped many; Philemon is a loving person.
  • Onesimus has become Paul’s spiritual son.
    • After running away from Philemon, Paul met him and Onesimus became a Christian.
    • “Useful” (v.11)—a word play.
    • Paul is sending him back, as there are unresolved issues—and feelings.
  • Paul is hinting that Philemon should grant Onesimus his freedom, that he may continue to serve the apostle. He expects that Philemon will accede to this request—not under duress, but in keeping with his good heart and character.
  • Onesimus has stolen from Philemon.
  • Paul hopes that Philemon will remit the debt.
    • I think of the bishop Myriel in Les Miserables (Victor Hugo, 1862). The priest showed kindness to the recently freed prisoner Jean Valjean, who then steals away in the night—after stealing Myriel’s silverware. The bishop not only pardons him—he gives him even more silverware. It is one of many truly touching scenes in this masterpiece.
    • Paul not only hopes for this outcome; he expects it.
  • So, what was the outcome? We are not told.
  • Philemon is mentioned nowhere else in the NT. This is not, however, the case for Onesimus.

Colossians 4:7-9

  • If this is the same Onesimus—I see no reason to doubt it—Paul is as fond of him as ever, and he praises Onesimus for his faith and service to the apostle in his ministry.
  • Is Onesimus free?
    • It’s possible Onesimus accompanied Tychicus, delivering the letters of Colossians and Philemon (which some scholars think were written and delivered at the same time). In this case he may not yet have returned to Philemon—unless Philemon’s house church is in Colosse.
    • Or perhaps Colossians is written soon after the liberation of Philemon.


  • If Paul’s prediction is correct, Philemon did the right thing. He set Onesimus free.
  • His debt to Philemon was canceled.
  • The watching church were all edified.
  • According to one tradition, Philemon and Onesimus were martyred in the persecution under Nero (64 AD). But Ignatius (107) also mentions an Onesimus (“a man of inexpressible love, and your overseer in the flesh”), which would indicate martyrdom during the persecution under Domitian (95).
  • Perhaps a true friendship between equals developed. Philemon and Onesimus were both in Christ, in whom there is neither slave nor free.