Introduction to Philemon
The one-chapter epistle of Paul to Philemon is unique among Paul’s epistles in that it was addressed to neither a church nor a pastor but to a prominent layman living in or near Colosse. Philemon was a friend and convert of Paul’s (Philemon 19), who at this time even was using his own house as a meeting place for a local church (Philemon 2).
Paul was writing on behalf of Onesimus, who had been a slave of Philemon’s, but had run away to Rome. Onesimus had met Paul in Rome, who had led him to Christ (Philemon 10). Paul was now sending him back to his master as a Christian brother (Philemon 16), with the inference that he should be set free, possibly to help Paul in the ministry (Philemon 13).
This is one of three “prison epistles” (the others being Ephesians and Colossians) written by Paul during his house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:30), and delivered by Tychicus. Evidently Onesimus accompanied Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7-9) as he carried the three letters to Asia.
The act of sending Onesimus back to Philemon with the request that he be received as a brother beloved, with the offer to repay any debt incurred by the flight of Onesimus, gives a unique insight into the character of Paul. It was not politically expedient in that day to argue for the abolition of slavery, but a brotherly relation between master and slave would render it almost meaningless. In fact, this little epistle was widely used centuries later for the very purpose of promoting the abolition of slavery in Christian countries.
Perhaps this is one reason why the Holy Spirit inspired such a short and personal letter and led to its incorporation in the canon of Scripture. In any case, the epistle of Philemon has always been accepted both as Pauline and as canonical by all scholars, even by liberal critics.
1 prisoner. The letter to Philemon, like that to Ephesus and Colosse, was written during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. Timothy was with him, though not himself a prisoner. See note on Colossians 1:1. All three letters were probably carried by the same messenger, probably Tychicus (Colossians 4:7-8), along with Onesimus (Colossians 4:9; Philemon 10).
1 Philemon. “Philemon” (meaning “friendly one”) evidently lived in Colosse, though his name is not mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. He was evidently well-to-do, with Onesimus having been his slave, and with the ability to provide lodging for Paul (Philemon 10,16,22).
2 Apphia. “Apphia” was a common woman’s name. She probably was the wife of Philemon and mother of Archippus. Archippus was also a pastor; however, it is not certain whether he pastored in Laodicea or Colosse or both (Colossians 4:16-17). It is possible he simply pastored a congregation meeting in Philemon’s home.
2 church in thy house. Philemon had a church meeting in his house in Colosse, and so did Nymphas (Colossians 4:15), probably at Laodicea. Perhaps there were others.
6 the communication. The Greek word for “communication” here is koinonia, meaning “fellowship.” The word for “effectual” is energes, meaning “energizing.” Thus true Christian fellowship becomes powerful when it is not mere socializing, but rather a time of thankfulness and sharing. In context here, it might cost Onesimus his freedom, Paul his helper and Philemon his property.
7 bowels of the saints. See note on Philippians 2:1 on this usage of “bowels.” See also Philemon 12 and 20.
9 Paul the aged. Paul could hardly have been older than in his early sixties by this time, but the vicissitudes of his travels and many persecutions may well have aged him prematurely. No doubt he would like to have retained Onesimus as a helper (Philemon 13), but would not do it because of the greater need to maintain a strong testimony of being void of any real or imagined offense to others, especially Philemon (note Acts 24:16).
10 my son Onesimus. Paul called Onesimus “my son” because he had led him to Christ, just as he had Timothy (II Timothy 1:2), Titus (Titus 1:4), and even Philemon (Philemon 19). Before that, Onesimus had been one of Philemon’s servants (actually “bondservant” or “slave”), and had run away, apparently stealing from his master as he did (Philemon 18). As a born-again Christian now, however, Onesimus wished to return to his master and make amends, and Paul encouraged him. Every new Christian, to the extent it is possible, should similarly seek to redress any wrongs of which he had been guilty before his conversion.
11 unprofitable. Onesimus actually means “profitable,” so Paul is making an effective play on words here.
16 above a servant. The Scriptures did not condemn slavery as such, but rather taught a new relationship between masters and servants (e.g., Colossians 3:22–4:1; Ephesians 6:5-9), considering both as brothers and fellowservants of Christ. The institution of slavery, therefore, gradually became more of an employer-employee relationship, with its compulsory aspects eventually being displaced altogether.
17 partner. Paul thus placed himself on the same plane with both Philemon and Onesimus, that of “partners,” a term implying full fellowship. Here he requests Philemon also to accept Onesimus on that basis.
18 on mine account. Paul, by his own signature, offers to repay anything Onesimus owed Philemon (Philemon 19). This is a striking human application of the divine principles of imputation (Romans 4:4-8), and substitution (II Corinthians 5:21). Onesimus was unable to pay his debt, just as we are unable to satisfy our own debt of sin against our Maker. Paul, however, was willing to pay the price because of his love for his young convert, just as the Lord Jesus Christ “loved me, and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
23 Epaphras. Epaphras was evidently from Colosse (Colossians 4:12), but had been serving with Paul, possibly even in prison himself.
24 Marcus. Mark had once left Paul (Acts 13:13), but apparently was now back with him at Rome. Aristarchus was a Macedonian convert from Thessalonica (Acts 27:2) who later worked with Paul.
24 Demas. Demas and Luke, especially the latter, were often with Paul in his earlier ministries. Demas, however, later defected and went back into the world (II Timothy 4:10), while Luke, the beloved physician, stayed with Paul to the end (Colossians 4:14; II Timothy 4:11). Whether any of these men knew Philemon personally is not certain, but at least they wanted to join Paul in his greetings to him.