1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, 2 and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

4 I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints; 6 and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake.

7 For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. 8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do that which is proper, 9 yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you -- since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus -- 10 I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus, 11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.

12 And I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that in your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will.

15 For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (lest I should mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well).

20 Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. 22 And at the same time also prepare me a lodging; for I hope that through your prayers I shall be given to you.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24 as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.  Version: NAS



  • Introduction
    • Philemon, the fourth Prison Epistle, was written by Paul in the early 60s.
    • In this short letter we will learn several things:
      • About the document itself (background, context)
      • How to handle a sensitive issue (Philemon & Onesimus)
      • How early Christians addressed a social issue (slavery)
      • How to motivate people to do the right thing.
    • About slavery:
      • Slave owning was never explicitly condemned as a sin in Bible, though the slave trade was condemned strongly (1 Timothy 1, Revelation 18).
      • In the OT, after serving 6 years, a slave (servant) would go free or, if he preferred, remain with his master (Exodus 21:5). This suggests humane and fair treatment.
      • In a sense, there is still "slavery" today, in form of employer/employee relationships. (Not to mention real slavery still ongoing in some parts of Africa.)
      • Had the early church attacked institution of slavery head-on, it would have been destroyed.
        • This was not Jesus' approach, to enter politics or become a social activist. (Not that these courses are necessarily sinful.) Christianity's oblique approach to slavery in time led to its abolition.
        • There is a lesson in here for us, when it comes to social issues. (Abortion, euthanasia, politics, "just war," bioengineering...)
    • For those who love alliteration, here are a few 'p's: Paul, in prison, penning an epistle to Philemon, trying to persuade him to pardon pilfering Onesimus.
  • Text
    • Verse 1: Prisoner, probably in Rome. Timothy coauthor (as in Colossians -- same authors and cluster of personalities)
    • Verse 2: Apphia and Archippus and Philemon are apparently leaders in the church (in Laodicea?). Paul gets the church involved in this sensitive issue. (The truth is, they probably would have learned all about it anyway!) A true house church.
    • Verse 3: Letter begins with grace. It ends this way, too.
    • Verses 4-7: Paul is very positive about Philemon, who is a strong spiritual man. Philemon is also a Christian slave owner.
    • Verse 9: Appeal on the basis of love. Paul is an old man now. He is also the one who converted Philemon (19). One cannot help but side with Paul. There is an emotional pull here.
    • Verse 10: Onesimus means "useful." This was a typical slave name. Onesimus is a runaway.
    • Verse 14: Paul trusts the noble motives of Philemon's heart; he's not down on him. Key verse for biblical leadership!
    • Verse 16: Onesimus has become a Christian in Rome, through his relationship with Paul.
    • Verse 18: He had stolen from his master—perhaps this is why Paul is sending him back. Paul offers to repay whatever Onesimus has stolen. (How can Philemon give the bill to Paul?) In Roman law one who harbored a runaway was held accountable for the slave's loss of labor. Perhaps this informs the text.
    • Verse 20: Here is the third place where Paul uses the word heart. Philemon refreshes the hearts of fellow believers (v.7). Onesimus is Paul's very heart (v.12). And Paul asks his friend to "refresh his heart" (v.20) -- to release Onesimus from his obligations to that he may continue to minister to Paul.
    • Verse 21: Paul has confidence Philemon will comply. He states this in the hearing of the church, getting others involved.
    • Verse 22: The request for a guest room (lodging) shows that Paul has a relationship with Philemon. Hospitality was important in the early church, as it is today.
    • Verse 25: "Grace" suggests kindness. I.e., "Philemon, why don't you be gracious to Onesimus and set him free?"
  • For an ancient parallel to the letter of Philemon, see the letter of Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus (Epistles 9.21).
  • Conclusion
    • This short epistle is power packed. Lessons on dealing with social issues, leadership style, sensitive situations.
    • Paul's approach in trying to win Philemon over:
      • Begins (and remains) very positive.
      • Is gentle (no coercion); gets others involved.
      • Emphasizes their relationship (preparing a guest room). This also exerts a subtle pressure on Philemon to "do the right thing."
      • And yet this is not an entirely gentle approach. Paul writes to Philemon not privately, but in clear view of the entire congregation. All eyes are on him, whether he will do the right thing.
    • This was an important issue and an important letter:
      • For the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon.
      • For the unity of the local church.
      • For us all today -- that we might read and learn from the record!


  • Verse 6 has been mistranslated in the NIV.
  • Paul considers Onesimus to be his very heart (v.12). The Greek splangchna means the nobler organs of the body—the heart, liver, and lungs—not the intestines (entera), and figuratively, one's heart, affection, inmost self. Latin: viscera.
  • Paul takes over from his scribe in v.19. The following section of the letter is called the autograph. Although it is likely that Paul signed up in this manner in every one of his letters, there are only five where this is explicitly indicated: 1 Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; Col 4:18; 2 Thess 3:17; Phm 19.
  • Despite Deuteronomy 23:15, Paul is sending Onesimus back (v.12). The purposes may be several: reconciliation with his master Philemon; showing good will after his theft; obtaining his freedom, willingly ceded by Philemon; as a sign that Paul will not take advantage of his old friend. At any rate, the OT law does not govern the NT church.
  • For more on the thorny issue of slavery, be sure to listen to the premium podcast, Slavery & the Bible.

Thought questions:

  • If I were a slave and had run away to Rome, and been converted, how would I feel if the one who led me to the Lord asked me to return to my former master?
  • If you were Philemon, hearing the letter read in the presence of the church that met in his home, how would you feel? What parts of Paul's note would persuade you to accede to his request?
  • How do I tend to handle sensitive issues? Am I often entrusted with arbitration in complicated relational situations?