Gerald Peterman


Author. Without doubt, this letter comes from the apostle Paul, who wrote at least a portion with his own hand (19; i.e., not using a scribe). There is debate, however, regarding the occasion. It is at least clear that Philemon was a slave owner, living in Colossae. He owned Onesimus, who had wronged Philemon in some way (see the commentary on 18). Beyond this, one of two situations seems possible. Perhaps Onesimus ran away from Colossae and met Paul in Rome accidentally. With this letter in hand, Paul sent the slave back. Alternatively, perhaps the slave was estranged from his master and sought out Paul to act as a mediator.

Recipients. Uniquely in Philemon, Paul alternated between the second-person singular (e.g., 2, 4–8, 10, 12–14) and the second-person plural (3, 22 twice, 25). Further, although the letter is addressed to Philemon, it is also addressed to his church (2). Thus, the letter is both personal and public. This is not surprising in light of Philemon’s probable position as a leader in the congregation. As a leader, his relationships were a matter of public importance (cf. 1Ti 3:1–7).

This letter is closely related to Colossians. Most of the people mentioned in its greeting (Col 4:10–14) also appear in Philemon (23–24).

Date. Traditionally, since the letter mentions Paul’s imprisonment (v. 10), the letter to Philemon has been understood as written from Rome while Paul was under house arrest (Ac 28:16). If so, then the letter was probably written around AD 60–62. For alternative location(s), see the Introduction to Colossians.

Contribution. Philemon makes three closely related contributions to the NT. First, although other letters refer to tension or estrangement between members of a congregation (e.g., Php 4:2–3), this one spends the most time attempting to bring about reconciliation. Paul does not, however, command specific action. He leaves it to Philemon, the congregation, and the Spirit to decide the best course of action. Much practical application can be found here. Second, the gospel has power to change people and society. Onesimus—formerly useless but now useful (11)—goes from being a mere slave to being a brother in Christ. His new status entails being welcomed (17). This is radical social change. Third, the letter gives us a model of tact and compassion as we see Paul using all the respect he has earned in order to give it to one who is helpless.

Background. Slavery was a basic and accepted element of first-century society. While the practice strikes many of us as perverse and barbaric, we should keep in mind that ancient Greco-Roman slavery was different from American slavery in at least four ways: First, it was not associated with ethnicity. Slaves could come from any nation and race. Second, slavery was rarely permanent; many gained freedom within a decade. Some were able to save money and buy their own freedom. Others even gained Roman citizenship when freed. Third, for many, slavery acted as bankruptcy. If unable to pay debts, selling oneself as a slave ended obligations to creditors (in a sense gaining oneself a kind of freedom). Fourth, many slaves, whether owned by the government or by the wealthy, lived much more comfortably than freemen who were poor.


I. Paul’s Greeting: "From Paul to Philemon" (1–3)

II. Paul’s Thanksgiving: "I Thank God for Your Love and Faith" (4–7)

III. Paul’s Plea: "Do Not Punish Onesimus" (8–16)

IV. Paul’s Request: "Let Me Cover Your Losses" (17–20)

V. Paul’s Conclusion and Farewell: "I Am Confident in Your Obedience" (21–25)


I. Paul’s Greeting: "From Paul to Philemon" (1–3)

1. Unlike in other letters, Paul did not refer to himself as an apostle (1Co 1:1; Rm 1:1) nor as a slave of Christ (Php 1:1). He is a prisoner—one socially weak and dependent just as the slave Onesimus. Further, although Timothy is mentioned in this greeting, he is not a co-author; Paul used the first person singular throughout.

2–3. Although Philemon is the primary recipient, Apphia (perhaps Philemon’s wife), Archippus (otherwise unknown), and the church that met in Philemon’s house (cf. Rm 16:3, 5; 1Co 16:19; Ac 16:15) were also greeted. Philemon was not Paul’s assistant. As coworkers, he and Paul both served God (see Rm 16:3; 2Co 1:24; Php 2:25; Col 4:11).

II. Paul’s Thanksgiving: "I Thank God for Your Love and Faith" (4–7)

4–5. Thanksgiving and prayer are common in Paul (cf. Eph 1:15–16; Php 1:3–4), with the thanks grounded in some work of God in people. Here thanks result from Philemon’s love and faith (5). Verse 5 might seem odd until we realize that it is chiastic—that is, it has an a-b-b’-a’ pattern. Love (a) is directed to the saints (a’); faith (b) is directed toward Jesus (b’).

6. Against the NIV ("active in sharing your faith"), this verse is not about evangelism. The challenges in 6 entail defining the word koinonia (fellowship in NASB; cf. 2Co 8:4; Php 1:5; Heb 13:16), discerning the relation between koinonia and faith, and defining energes, an adjective that has to do with accomplishing work (effective in NASB; "put into action" in NLT; elsewhere only at 1Co 16:9; Heb 4:12). In the NT both fellowship and faith are active. Thus the NLT probably comes closest: "And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ."

7. Philemon’s love and faith (6) and his previous good works (7) grounded the request coming in 8 and following. As he refreshed others (7), so he should refresh Paul (20) by welcoming Onesimus (see 17).

III. Paul’s Plea: "Do Not Punish Onesimus" (8–16)

8–12. Paul rarely commanded; rather, as in 7–8a, he reasoned with believers and appealed to the best in them (here the appeal is to Philemon’s love). Next, Paul described the situation. Three features stand out: First, reference to his age and imprisonment should draw out Philemon’s respect and compassion, respectively (9). Second, he mentioned Onesimus’s conversion (whom I have begotten, 10). This detail becomes important later (16). Paul elsewhere talked about "fathering" his converts (1Co 4:15). With a play on words (useless to useful, 11), Paul clarified that this conversion was transformative. Third, over probably a brief period, Paul developed a strong godly affection for Onesimus (cf. 1Th 2:8); such affection made it painful to send the slave away (12).

13–14. Serving prisoners is a Christian virtue (Mt 25:36). On imprisonment for the gospel see Php 1:13 and 2Tm 2:8–9. Further, since a slave serves as a master’s representative, Paul viewed Onesimus’s work as Philemon’s work. As elsewhere in Paul (cf. 2Co 9:7; Rm 12:8b), he did not command good works (here your goodness means "your act of goodness") to be done out of duty (compulsion); rather they should be done eagerly and freely.

15–16. Betraying his strong view of God’s sovereignty, Paul proposed that divine providence was the reason for Onesimus’s flight and then gave two sharp contrasts. First, the slave’s short absence should not matter since it hardly compares with having him back eternally (that is, with eternal life). Second, in all spheres of life (in the flesh and in the Lord, 16), Onesimus is now not primarily a slave but a beloved brother (the same title given Philemon, 7).

IV. Paul’s Request: "Let Me Cover Your Losses" (17–20)

17. Although Paul mentioned his request in v. 10, the specifics finally appear here—namely, whatever respect and reception Philemon would give to Paul, he should give to Onesimus when he arrives. The request is based on partnership. Partner is the equivalent of co-worker (v. 1)—one who both receives and also spreads the gospel.

18–20. Paul’s wording assumes that, for the sake of discussion, Onesimus wronged his master. How he did so, however, cannot be determined. In any case, by drawing attention to his own handwriting (cf. 1Co 16:21), Paul solemnly promised to make good (18b–19a). But it is a debt Paul should not need to pay because he led Philemon to Christ. Therefore, Philemon already owed Paul a larger debt: redemption of his very life. Because these three are family in Christ (20), brotherly love shown to Onesimus not only refreshes the slave but Paul as well (cf. 7; 1Co 12:26).

V. Paul’s Conclusion and Farewell: "I Am Confident in Your Obedience" (21–25)

21–22. Since Philemon’s track record has shown obedience to God (e.g., 5–7), Paul made his request with confidence. Perhaps when Paul says that Philemon will obey even more than what I say (21) it is a veiled reference to Philemon freeing Onesimus the slave; but it is uncertain. The words might refer, instead, to Paul’s desire to have Philemon return the slave to him to serve with him once again. As an itinerant church planter, Paul was dependent on Christian hospitality (22a). He was confident that Philemon’s congregation (your, 22, is plural) was praying for him.

23–25. On the greetings here, see Col 4:10–14. Paul closed with his prayer that the greatest treasure—Christ’s grace—would remain with them (your is plural; cf. Gl 6:18).


Bruce, F. F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.

Garland, David E. Colossians, Philemon. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.

Hughes, R. Kent. Colossians and Philemon: The Supremacy of Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 1989.

Lightfoot, J. B. Colossians and Philemon. Edited by Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer. Wheaton: Crossway, 1997.

MacArthur, John. Colossians and Philemon. New Testament Commentary. Chicago: Moody, 1992.

Moo, Douglas J. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

O’Brien, Peter T. Colossians–Philemon. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982.

Still, Todd D. "Colossians." Vol. 12 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by T. Longman III and D. E. Garland. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.


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