Around the year 58 Paul was arrested in Jerusalem for spreading the Christian message and imprisoned for two years in Caesarea.  The political and social implications of the Christian message were considered highly subversive.  Paul was on trial for treason against the Empire because he was preaching about this new king, Jesus.  The penalty for treason was death but as a Roman citizen Paul could appeal to be tried by the Emperor, so he did.  Therefore he was taken as a prisoner to Rome.  Paul stayed in prison in Rome c. 60-62 while he awaited trial on capital charges under Nero.  Paul is being tried on capital charges of sedition, for teaching and preaching about this other king, this other ruler, this other emperor, Jesus, as Ac 17 (17 ???) puts it.  God told Paul to spread this message, and Nero said no.

Paul writes this letter from prison, and so as places of origin we must consider Ephesus, Caesarea, Rome (Brown).  Ware dates the letter to 62 from Rome.  See Ac 20  7 – 28  31 for the full story.


Around this same time in southwest Asia Minor near Colossae there was a Christian slave owner, Philemon  Filh,mwn , who had a slave named Onesimus  Vonh,simoj  – pronounced    [Symbol]  n[Symbol]´ s[Symbol]  m[Symbol]s.  Onesimus had run away from his owner and had gone to Rome as runaway slaves often did because it was one of the better places to hide out.

In the life of the early church Philemon had some prominence in a particular congregation around Colossae but the details are fuzzy.  Philemon’s home, however, did serve as the meeting place of a housechurch.

Philemon was a friend of Paul’s and was associated with Paul’s mission for he’s described as our dear friend and coworker in v 1 and had, in fact, been converted by Paul v 19, possibly at Ephesus.

In fact, the evangelizing of the area in which Philemon lived was probably the fruit of Paul’s mission, perhaps even through Pauline fellowworkers.


While imprisoned in Rome Paul stumbled upon Onesimus, a runaway slave of Philemon’s, and Paul converted Onesimus to the Christian faith.


Since Philemon was able to host a congregation v 2 and prepare a guest room for Paul v 22, it is assumed that he was an individual of substance.

Paul observes that Philemon was recognized as a person of faith and love toward Christ and the Church vv 4-7.


Though the letter doesn’t tell us the exact location of Philemon’s church, Colossae would be a reasonable guess.

At least some of the people mentioned here are associated with the city.

See Co 1  7; 4  10-14; Pm 23-24.

7  This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf,

10  Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructionsif he comes to you, welcome him.  11  And Jesus who is called Justus greets you. These are the only ones of the circumcision among my coworkers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.  12  Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills.  13  For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.  14  Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you.

23  Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24  and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.


Note:  The usual approach to Pm is to read it in conjunction with Co in order to attain illumination concerning places and date.  Both scholars who accept and those who do not accept Co as an authentic Pauline letter practice this interpretive approach.  Those who accept Co as genuinely Pauline suggest the two letters were written at about the same time while those who do not accept Pauline authorship for Co still use Co 4  9 – which mentions Onesimus – in order to locate the church in Philemon’s house at Colossae.

9  he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.

There’s much more to this but not for now.



Paul learns about Onesimus’ servant status and exhorts Onesimus to go back to his master Philemon bearing a letter, this letter.  There was an ancient post service like ours but most didn’t use it because it was so cumbersome and slow.  Paul’s letter, hand-carried by Onesimus to Philemon, is an extremely carefully-crafted appeal on behalf of Onesimus who has wronged his master Philemon in some way as we see in v 18.  At some point in the late 50’s or early 60’s the slave, Onesimus, ran away from Philemon and also apparently absconded with some, if not much, of the money and/or property of his master, Philemon.  So Philemon and Onesimus were from a human perspective enemies.

Note:  Not every scholar buys into this money/property thing.  Earlier interpreters explicated this situation between Onesimus and Philemon according to certain legal assumptions of the time.


The fugitive slave Onesimus either:

1.had run away, been arrested, and just happened to have been imprisoned in the same jail as Paul – where he was then converted to Christianity by Paul, or – the more recent theory is that Onesimus

2.had fled Philemon and deliberately sought out Paul.  Under this scenario Onesimus either sought out Paul for asylum or sought him out as someone who would intercede on his behalf with Philemon.  That is, without being imprisoned, Onesimus may have purposely hooked up with Paul in Rome.  Onesimus may not have been seeking freedom but instead may have been hoping to find Paul who he knew had converted Philemon.

For instance, from what we read in vv 11, 18, 19 Onesimus may have caused Philemon to lose money at one time.  Onesimus may have been hoping to get Paul to serve as an intermediary for him in relationship to his master Philemon.  And then lo and behold while Onesimus is with Paul, Onesimus himself is converted to Christianity by Paul.  Some scholars debate whether Paul converted Onesimus before or ran away from Philemon or after he ran away.  However, that both Philemon and Onesimus became Christians through Paul seems to be clear in the letter.


In any event, Onesimus left Philemon, and either by accident or design he somehow linked up with Paul in Rome.  We don’t know how or why he made his way to Paul; we just know he did.  Further, once there in Rome with Paul, and now as a Christian, Onesimus in some way or other was helpful to Paul during Paul’s prison stay v 11 and a close relationship has developed between the two.  So, in the end, Paul was responsible for the new life shared by both Philemon and Onesimus – a life in Christ.

The reality of that new life in Christ is what underlies Paul’s message in this letter which is designed to work out the effects of the theological reality of this new “Christian family.”  


Ultimately, Paul told Onesimus that he had to go back to his master, Philemon.  Paul is telling Onesimus, ‘You need to go back.’  This epistle of Pm is the letter which Paul sent with Onesimus on his return trip to Colossae.  This letter provides us with insight into Paul’s understanding of grace and ministry.  Onesimus’ story – his failure, return, release and ministry – mirrors the Christian experience.  The story implied in Pm is one of freedom and partnership within a new community.


The basis of Paul’s appeal is his own relation with the slave owner, Philemon, whom he had converted.  Philemon is addressed as a dear friend and co-worker v 1.

As a convert Philemon owes Paul his own self v 19 so that Paul could have commanded Philemon’s compliance v 8.

Paul, however, wishes to appeal on the basis of love v 9 so that Philemon’s compliance might be voluntary and not something forced v 14.

Earlier Paul had commended Philemon for his love for the saints and his faith toward the Lord Jesus.  v 5

Since the church is included in Paul’s address, additional weight is given to Paul’s appeal.

See additional notes v 2.


Why freedom for Onesimus?  


Knox contends that Paul was seeking Onesimus’ freedom so that he could join Paul in his mission.  This is a possible argument because the letter never does say what Philemon should do.

Instead, Paul writes by implication and indirection and with some humor.  Philemon may have had to read the letter several times to figure out what it was that Paul wanted – and so should we.  This short letter is filled with puns, word plays, ironic statements, double entendre and metaphors .



Puns, word plays, ironic statements, double entente and metaphors 


In many ways Pm is a very subtle, wonderful and clever letter.

He’s serious about that which he writes but at the same time he does it with a sense of humor that would have brought levity to a very grave situation.

A slave who had run away from a master was liable to a death sentence.

According to Roman law Philemon has every right to put Onesimus to death.

This is literally a deadly situation and yet Paul keeps the letter within the scope of Christian faith and practice.

He keeps it in the context of the church; he discusses the situation cleverly with Philemon; and he lets Philemon do what he would have him do.


Paul  uses a series of puns and word plays in vv 11, 20 and the best pun of all comes in relation to the idea of a heart in v 7, 12 and 20.  See notes there.

v 13 ff has a wonderful double entente and in v 18 Paul broaches the legal side of the issue.  See notes there.


Letter characteristics 


This letter is most interesting from the perspective of giving insights into the world of first century slavery, into Paul’s ethics and into Paul’s humor.

This is the shortest of the Pauline letters (335 words) and in format, closest to the pattern of ordinary Hellenistic letters, especially to those making intercession.

By comparison there are 245 words in Jn and 219 in 3 Jn.  Their shorter length is generally thought to have been dictated by the size of a sheet of papyrus.

Pm is a personal and not a private letter because, although it’s written primarily to Philemon, it is also addressed to Apphia (who is possibly Philemon’s wife), Archippus and to the congregation that meets in Philemon’s house vv 1-2, a congregation which is probably in Colossae  Co 4  9, 17.


Pm is an astute letter designed to persuade, with almost every verse hinting at something more than is stated.

However, we should be careful not to evaluate Pm simply as a letter from one individual to another asking for a favor.  As one who has lived a long life and suffered much in the service of Christ, Paul is writing to the head of a Christian housechurch, or even to a church in the person of its host (since Paul anticipates communal pressure on Philemon).  He writes as a prisoner, that is, one who has sacrificed his freedom for Christ, to ask for another’s freedom.  Just beneath the surface in every line of the letter is the basic challenge to the societal rank of master and slave offered by the changed relationship introduced by the gospel.


The fact that Pm was preserved and included in the early collections of Pauline letters implies that Philemon ultimately complied with Paul’s request.

It’s also possible that Onesimus, now freed for service in the Pauline mission, became and important leader in the church.

Co 4  9  he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.

See further discussion of this aspect below.


Historical comparisons of Paul’s letter to Philemon with other ancient letters      


This letter to Philemon is quite striking in that you have the chutzpah of Paul appealing to an upper class person on behalf of a slave.  That just wasn’t done in antiquity.  The upper class had the  right to do what they wanted to do in that society.  It was out-of-line for someone like Paul to tell another person who was wealthy and a big member of the community to do something like Paul is doing with Philemon.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is unique in that there is nothing exactly like this letter in the ancient world.  The closest letter we have to Pm is a letter of Pliny, the Roman governor in Pontus, Asia Minor, who is writing to a friend of his, Sabinianus, on behalf of his friend’s freedman – not a slave but someone who has been emancipated from slavery but who was still working for his former slaveowner.


Pm is comparable to the shorter letter of Pliny the Younger appealing to Sabinianus for a young freedman who sought refuge in Pliny’s home.


Often freedmen remained working for their former masters but just on a wage basis.  This freedman had done something bad toward his former master so the former master, Pliny’s friend, severed all of their business relationships.  Pliny wrote a letter on behalf of the freedman to his friend asking him to be gentle with this freedman.  “I know as a Roman gentleman that it’s not necessary that you do this and if you don’t, it will be OK, but I’m asking you to do this for my sake.”  The basis of Pliny’s appeal here is:  “I know you are such a wonderful person that I know you will want to add to your glory by doing something wonderful here.”  The nature of the appeal is very clear:  “This is only a request.”  Obviously, as one upper class citizen to another, says Pliny, I cannot tell you what to do so this is a request only.  “It would be nice if you would do it but if not, fine.”


So we have some parallels between Pm and Pliny’s letter but, still, Paul is writing on behalf of a slave who had possibly taken his master’s property, not just to a freedman who had run away.  Also, the basis for Paul’s appeal to Philemon is based the new identity Philemon and Onesimus have in Christ.  They are brothers within the same family because of their relationship with God and Christ and one another.  Ultimately Paul is asking him to set him free.  Paul is stressing their relationship within the family of God in order to appeal to Philemon on the basis of their relationship as brothers in Christ.

So we have some parallels between the two but our classical scholars tell us there is nothing else just like Pm in antiquity.


First century slavery  / Slavery and the epistle to Philemon / The Bible and slavery in light of what we see in Pm 


In Pm we see the rich, complex message Paul is sending in Pm about slavery in the ancient world.  Slavery was a big part of the ancient world.  At the heart of Pm is Paul dealing with the ancient institution of slavery.  Roman law required that runaway slaves slaves (Onesimus) be returned to their masters (Philemon).  Note:  There are ancient examples of “wanted posters” offering money for the apprehension of runaway slaves.  Still, it’s not clear that Onesimus was being legally pursued, something that perhaps serves as an indication of a Christian sensibility on the part of his master.

Those not reporting runaway slaves might then be liable for any expense the owner might incur.  Therefore, in strict compliance with that law Paul is sending Onesimus back to his master along with this letter.  In this letter from prison v 1 Paul intercedes with Philemon in Onesimus’ behalf.


Next, at a popular level, and even with very educated people, there is this erroneous impression among some that the Bible is racist because they say “Paul supported racism” because they hear that Paul did not tell slaves to rebel and assumed the Bible’s slavery was race-based slavery which it was not.  While this is a misunderstanding with some at the popular level, on the other hand, one thing that’s clear to all educated readers of the Bible is that on the basis of something like Paul’s letter to Philemon, or on the basis of the Bible itself for that matter, one cannot seriously say that either the letter Pm or the Bible itself promotes racism or dehumanization or oppression.  No Pauline scholar would support that view.  None!


Sometimes you will hear that on a popular level because Paul does not seek to overthrow slavery.  But when one reads the letter closely, that does not work as we see in Pm.  No serious scholar talks about Paul as promoting racism, dehumanization or oppression.  That some may see Paul in the vein, therefore, is untenable and indefensible.  It’s simply not true!

First, the slavery of the Bible was not race-based.

Second, Paul was not an enthusiastic supporter of the institution of slavery as it existed.

Third, Paul’s treatment of the master/slave relationship, especially with the way he sided with Onesimus in Pm in what was going on between Paul and Philemon points out clearly that Paul is not racist.

This applies both here in Pm as well as in Paul’s other letters where he gives general advice to slaves such as in Co.  In fact, here in Pm Paul is seeking to help, support and free Onesimus.



As such, even if Paul had wanted to, he could not have abolished ancient slavery because he didn’t have the power to do so.  Instead, Paul clearly sought to transform slavery from within through faith in Christ.  He sent Onesimus back with this letter in which he told Philemon to treat Onesimus as a beloved brother.  He sent Onesimus back but he told Philemon to set him free.  He was clearly seeking a transformed slavery from within through the power of Christ – one person’s heart at a time.


The transformation from within that Paul was preaching was varied.  Most of the time Paul simply sought to transform the relationship from within.  For example, in Cor 7 Paul he tells slaves, 20  Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.  21  Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.  22  For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ.  23  You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.  24  In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.

So Paul encourages them that if they can be made free, to be free.


And in this one situation with Philemon – it’s a complex message – Paul tells Philemon, a particular slave owner, that he needs to set Onesimus, this particular slave, free.  Obviously, the situation in Pm revolves around these people who are part of this institution of ancient world slavery.

Thus, Pm is the one place in which Paul addresses the relationship of slaves to masters directly.  It’s the only place where he’s actually dealing with both master and slave in their relationship.

Elsewhere in the Paul’s letters – for example, in Co – we see that Paul urges slaves to obey their masters.

So in other settings he does address the issue generally with slaves and here he addresses it specifically.


All of this leads to the important ethical question, “Is the method Paul uses a fatal compromise?”  Is it a compromise that shows that the ethics of the Bible are not useable today and, therefore, we need to seek another source for our ethical norms?  Seeking another source is, of course, the post-Enlightenment hermeneutical paradigm’s position.

Those who hold to this view say that Paul should have said “this institution of slavery is wrong.  Let’s all revolt against it.”  Because Paul in his other letters such as Co did not do that and instead exhorted slaves to obey their masters, these post-Enlightenment types contend Paul colluded with the evil institution of slavery, thereby making this fatal compromise.  Therefore, those of the post-Enlightenment paradigm persuasion contend that they cannot get their ethics from the Bible because it supports slavery.  They will ask, “How can you follow Paul’s ethical teaching on anything because he got it wrong with slavery?”


In fact, for many within the post-Enlightenment paradigm this issue of biblical slavery is the big, key issue that leads them to say they cannot do this traditional Christian theological paradigm but must go to the post-Enlightenment paradigm because Paul seems to be supporting this institution of slavery, an institution which cannot be supported.  These people therefore contend that Paul’s instructions here were deficient ethically.  So the question becomes, is Paul being himself oppressive?  Racist?


On the other hand, those within the Christian theological paradigm contend that what Paul embraces here instead represents the highest ethic one could ever envision and the only true solution to human evils such as slavery and so on.  It’s this high ethic that offers the only true solution to evil.  These people take Paul’s letters and scripture at authoritative within the Christian theological paradigm.  These people agree with the Christian theological paradigm in which scripture is a fully trustworthy and authoritative ethical guide, the very Word of God for how you should live your lives both personally and socially.  They believe this approach presents the only solution to all ethical problems in relationships, this transformation of the human heart in the new covenant in Christ.


In summary, is this a foolish compromise that Paul makes with an unjust system, or is this not only a morally defensible approach in dealing with a human institution, such as slavery, but also and even the best of all approaches seeking to transform hearts through Christ?  …  One theologian has said Paul is not overthrowing ancient slavery but he’s putting a time bomb in the middle of it because if you change the heart, social structures will change and so on.


As one reflects on Paul’s letter to Philemon and his instructions and ethics regarding slavery, as one continues to reflect on the proper approach to and the authority of the Bible – the Christian theological paradigm vs. the post-Enlightenment paradigm – one must decide for themselves which paradigm most accurately assesses biblical slavery.  But in doing so for Paul one must put together all of the Pauline teaching on slavery as found in Pm, Co, 1 Cor and Ep in order to get the full picture of Paul.


Here in Pm, however, in this one letter in which Paul actually deals with a particular slave and master, Paul actually commands the master to set the slave free!  You cannot say that Paul said slaves should never be set free as those of the post-Enlightenment paradigm contend because here in the one place he directly addresses a specific situation, he tells the master to set the slave free.  So there!!!


human divisions abolished   not sure to put this here or elsewhere April 11, 2013

this section looks to be a condensation of stuff just above and stuff just below

edit later April 11, 2013


When reading in the Synopsis section 56 we see that according to Paul’s gospel, because of this new identity in Christ that believers share, this idea as members of the family of God, human divisions have now been abolished in Christ – divisions between slave and master, male and female, etc.  Co 3 11  where there is neither Jew nor gentile, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither barbarian, Scythian, slave, free person; but Christ is all things and in all!  Everyone was now one in Christ Jesus.  Old things have passed away.  These divisions between slave and master are now radically relativized.  For example, Cor 7 20-22.  The old divisions don’t matter anymore.  If you are called as a freed person, you are really a slave of Christ.  If you are a slave, you are a free participation in Christ.  We also see this concept in Ga 3 26-29 and Co 3 9-11.  Because you are a member of the family of God, all these human divisions are abolished.


So we might imagine that Paul with this liberating, breathing gospel, that all human beings have been made one in Christ that human divisions were abolished …  we might expect that Paul would command these slaves to rebel against this system of slavery, that he would command slave owners to free their slaves.  But we don’t find that.


Instead, Paul tells slaves to be obedient to their masters, to serve them as if to the Lord and not to a human being.  Further, Paul tells masters to treat their slaves justly and fairly.  Here we see a controversial point between the Christian theological paradigm and the post-Enlightenment paradigm.


For Christian theologians within the historic Christian theological paradigm where Scripture is of highest authority what Paul says here is a freeing, liberating ethic which answers the deepest desires and needs of the human heart.  So Paul if proffering the true and right approach to all social situations, including the ancient social situation of slave and masters.


For those within the post-Enlightenment paradigm the way that Paul treats this issue of slaves and masters in general in his letters including here in Pm is perhaps the major reason why post-Enlightenment paradigm types deny Scripture as their source of authority.  They see Paul here countenancing evil.  They see Paul here as oppressive.  Paul is not on the side of liberation but of the oppressor.  Paul is a racist.  Instead of telling slaves to rebel he tells them to obey their masters.  Therefore, to the post-Enlightenment paradigm types you cannot go to the Bible for your ethics because the Bible has it wrong on ancient slavery.


So, who got it right?  The Christian theological paradigm types or the post-Enlightenment paradigm types?


The Bible and Slavery


There are generally two views debated among scholars concerning one’s perspective on biblical slavery.  That is, we have two different paradigms for how to approach the Bible and its authority – those of the post-Enlightenment hermeneutical paradigm and the Christian theological paradigm.


Slavery in Pm is one of the top three central, hot-button issues between these two paradigms.  The fact of the matter is that this whole issue of slavery in Paul’s letters is crucial for those who follow the post-Enlightenment hermeneutical paradigm.  If you were to ask these people what is the issue that most leads you to say that you can’t use the canonical NT as your ethical authority but must go to other authorities, it would be this issue of slavery.  They would say that in this slavery we clearly have a subhuman ethic in which Paul is endorsing racism and this dehumanizing practice of slavery.



Adherents of the post-Enlightenment paradigm do not believe the Bible can be your ultimate authority; the Bible cannot always be trusted to give good, ethical instruction which is why you give priority to reason or experience.  For many of these people it’s very troubling that the Bible here seems to be being racist, exploitive and oppressive while it supports and embraces this heinous institution of slavery.  So the big issue theologically and hermeneutically for people is whether or not the Bible can be the authority when it supports an oppressive institution like this?


Therefore, the post-Enlightenment hermeneutical paradigm looks to authority outside of scripture and outside of the apostolic teaching for one’s theological authority, for one’s ethical authority.  That’s how the adherents of the post-Enlightenment hermeneutical paradigm see slavery with Paul.  Because of how he addresses slavery in his letters, they write him off.


  1. According to the post-Enlightenment hermeneutical paradigm,

because Paul urges Onesimus to go back to Philemon and

because Paul urges slaves in general to obey their masters,

therefore, to people of this persuasion Paul’s letters are therefore racist, oppressive and wrong.  

As such, for them, Paul’s letters and the rest of the NT can’t be followed as our ethical guide today.

Those of this post-Enlightenment hermeneutical paradigm persuasion believe that Paul’s approach to slavery, seeking to transform it from within through the power of Christ, is a failed compromise within the institution, and therefore that impairs the validity of Paul’s ethics and of NT ethics.


  1. On the other hand, according to another view – the Christian theological paradigm- Paul’s approach in Pm is of a high and wonderful character and is perfectly applicable today.  Adherents of this paradigm say that Paul sought to transform the institution of slavery through the power of Christ.  Therefore, Paul’s ethic represented the only true solution and was the highest and best of all ethical approaches to the institution of slavery and other evil institutions.

For these people only Paul’s approach shows the necessity and grandeur of Pauline and biblical ethics.

The question we would ask is, “In Paul’s letter to Philemon, is Paul’s approach to slavery good or bad?”  If bad, of course, it impairs the authority of Paul’s letters for our ethics today.  If good, of course, it reveals the importance and necessity of the NT ethic we see in Paul’s letters for Christian living today.

Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann puts it this way:  “Dozens of people think that necessary change comes only from outside, from revolutions and change and external conditions.  It is for us Christians to prove that in reality everything comes from inside, from faith and life according to faith.  The church, when she entered the Graeco-Roman world, did not denounce slavery, did not call for a revolution.  It was her faith, her new vision of human beings and life that progressively made slavery impossible.  One saint, and by saint I here mean very simply a man or a woman taking his or her faith seriously all the time, will do more for changing the world than a thousand printed programs.  The saint is the only true revolutionary in this world.”

Another theologian describes Paul’s approach to slavery in general was not to seek to abolish it outright or say that it should be abolished but in his teaching on it, he put a time bomb in the middle of it so that eventually it would break apart.


The decision that one makes on that score is very important as to whether people will gravitate toward the post-Enlightenment hermeneutical paradigm in which your ethical norms come from something outside of scripture or a Christian theological paradigm in which your ethical norms come fully from within scripture.


In the end it is up to each of us to decide for oneself whether or not Paul’s teaching on ancient slavery is the only true solution or a failed compromise.


Slavery in the ancient world 


In order to understand what Paul is exhorting Philemon to do and why, we have to understand the institution of biblical slavery.

What is this institution in which Philemon, Onesimus and Paul all find themselves involved?  What is this slavery institution in the context of which Paul gives his advice, commands and instructions to both Onesimus and Philemon?



In fact, slavery in the ancient world was far different and more complicated from the slavery which flourished with blacks in various places in America these past 3-4 hundred years.


  1. Society in the provinces of the Roman Empire where Paul conducted missionary activity was highly stratified.  At the upper level would have been the Romans appointed by the Senate or the emperor to administer the province politically, fiscally, and militarily.  Next would come the local privileged class (through heredity or money).  Then would come the small landowners, shop owners, and crafts people.  These would have been followed in social rank by the freedmen and freed women who had been released from slavery through the action of their masters or by their own purchase of freedom.  Finally at the bottom would have been the immense number of slaves with whose existence the economic welfare of the Empire was intimately involved.


  1. Slavery then was very widespread.  The general consensus is that about 1/4 of the population within the Roman Empire were slaves, ie, not a free person.  That percentage was much higher among the earliest Christians, the majority of whom were probably slaves.  Most of the time, you would not be able to differentiate a slave from a freed person.

People became slaves in various ways.  Slavery could happen to anyone.

War and indebtedness accounted for most slaves.  Many were prisoners taken in war; others were enslaved through debt; but war accounted for most slaves.  You were a slave until you could buy your freedom.  Instead of filing claims against bankrupt assets, creditors had the right to sell the debtor to regain their investment.  Still others were kidnaped by slave hunters;  and, of course, there were the children born to slaves who remained slaves, and there were free children sold into slavery.


  1. Slavery involved all occupations – domestics, bakers, teachers, professors, nurses, doctors, factory workers, farmers, miners, house philosophers, etc.  No occupation was immune; every occupation had both free persons as well as slaves within it.  Slaves worked side-by-side alongside free persons.  Free persons usually outnumbered the slaves in these various occupations.

The two most common forms of slavery were [Symbol]  domestic service – people helping out in the household, and [Symbol]  the majority of miners were slaves.

Within the general category of slavery the most burdensome form of slave life was endured by those who did heavy manual labor, e.g., in the mines, building construction, agriculture and the rowing banks on ships.


  1. By contrast many who worked in households for understanding masters would not have been much worse off than servants in wealthy British homes at the end of the last century.  Slaves in antiquity were considered part of the larger family with which they worked and were listed as such in official documents.  It was a relatively close relationship in most contexts.

A good example of this level of slavery can be seen in the TV program called “Upstairs, Downstairs.”  On a particularly high level were the very welleducated slaves who administered their master’s estates or businesses, instructed the children, and even earned their own money. These would have been the group from which many emerged by gaining or being given freedom.


  1. Slavery in the ancient world was not usually a life-long situation.  Slavery was usually for a set term – 7 years seems to have been the average, and slaves received a stipend (wage).

Manumission [the setting free of a slave] occurred when the slave had saved/raised enough money in order to buy their freedom.  In fact, manumission was possible and was widely practiced.  The majority of slaves were not life-long slaves but were slaves for a temporary part of their life and then they were set free – manumitted, often in young adulthood.  You could buy yourself out of slavery.  You could go in and out of slavery.

Slavery was an economic proposition in the ancient world.  Slaves helped you out on the farm or worked in your factory at a lower rate than someone else you had to pay.

The class of freedmen consisted of former slaves who did not have full rights as citizens but who were often economically better off than many citizens.  Still, some persons chose to return to slavery because of the increased security.



  1. Slave revolts did occur but were rare and, in fact, if they did occur, most often occurred in the two areas of work which were the most difficult:  agriculture and mining.  The conditions for most other slaves were much better.  The dire results of the revolt of the slaves in Italy led by Spartacus in 7371 BC show that any proposal of the abolition of slavery would have had Empireshaking potentialities.


  1. The biggest difference between slavery in the ancient world and the slavery most recently in our history is that slavery of the ancient world was not based on race or skin color in the ancient world.

It did not involve the scourge of racism.  In fact, racism or the absurdity of prejudice based on the color of someone’s skin did not exist in the ancient world.  Racism was nonexistent.  Racism is a modern invention.


When we read our texts, there was a time when scholars expected to find racism because they were so imbued with it in our modern world.  But scholars are unanimous in acknowledging that racism did not exist in the ancient world.  Racism is a modern day invention.  That’s why you don’t have Paul inveighing against racism because it didn’t exist.

In fact, in the technical sense the whole concept or race as opposed to nationality is a modern invention by science which has since been dispelled by science.  Science now tells us it’s a modern myth which didn’t afflict the ancients.  The ancients weren’t racists because they didn’t believe in the myth of race.  True, they distinguished various nationalities but they didn’t have the idea of these overarching races into which human beings could be categorized.  Prejudice might have involved a people group and their culture but it’s not this horrendous thing of believing that someone is lesser than you because of their skin color or because of their race.

For example, the Jews would look askance at how gentiles lived their lives – as immoral, ungodly, idolatrous, and so on but by crossing the great divide of circumcision, purity laws and Sabbath-keeping you could become a Jew and become part of that nation.  So it had nothing to do with your skin color or race but everything to do with the cultural people group to which you belonged.

So it’s important to see that the institution into which Onesimus, Philemon and Paul were involved was not the one we know from our history of race-based slavery but it was the slavery we discussed just above.


  1. The specific slavery situation dealt with in Pm is well-known to Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.  Unfortunately presuppositions are not spelled out, and the sequence of events has to be reconstructed from hints.  To judge the situation we must pay attention not only to the personal names used to identify the characters but the titles given them that indicate their roles as Christians.

So how then did Paul navigate within this social structures of slavery?  Paul and the other early Christians, of course, had no control over this social institution.  The church of the first century had no such political control.  So Paul, Onesimus and Philemon are involved in a system that they could not change the next day if they simply wanted to.  So how does Paul address this social institution when addressing these two believers, Onesimus and Philemon, both Christians, one a master and the other his slave?


Social Import of Paul’s View of Slavery 


Jesus himself had a strong apocalyptic view.  The kingdom/rule of God was present in his ministry, and decision was imperative in the face of a divine invitation that would not be repeated.  In the tradition Jesus avoided spelling out a timetable of the endtimes.  But even if the precise moment could not be known, the dominant impression was one that the end was coming soon.


Paul also had an apocalyptic approach in which the death and resurrection of Christ marked the changing of the times.  As you can imagine, strong apocalypticism did not encourage longrange social planning.  Yet, the gospel was foremost, and the structures in society that prevented the proclamation of the gospel had to be neutralized.  Yet, precisely because Christ was coming back soon, other structures that did not represent gospel values could be allowed to stand – provided they could be bypassed to enable Christ to be preached.  It would not be for long.


The implications of the gospel for slavery were clear to Paul.  Paul tells us in Ga 3  28 that in Christ Jesus there is neither slave nor free.  All are of equal value.  All were baptized into the one body (Cor 12  13) and all were to treat one another with love.  The only true slavery that would remain after the change of the eons would be slavery to Christ (Cor 7  22).  Yet to overturn the massive Roman societal institution of slavery was not a feasible accomplishment in the very limited time before Christ was to come.



Obviously on the worldly level slaves would seek to gain freedom; but if one was a slave at the time of being called and physical freedom was unobtainable, that situation was not of essential importance.  In whatever state each was called, there let that person remain with God (Cor 7  2122).


To some interpreters Pm reflects a welcome, stronger Pauline position on slavery, one that would eventually move sensitive Christians as a whole to reject it.  Here we see that when Paul can hope for cooperation, he challenges a Christian slave owner to defy the conventions in order:

to forgive and receive back into the household a runaway slave;

to refuse financial reparation when it is offered, mindful of what one owes to Christ as proclaimed by Paul;

to go farther in generosity by freeing the servant;

and most important of all from a theological viewpoint to recognize in Onesimus a beloved brother and thus acknowledge his Christian transformation.

Many today in evaluating Pm may not appreciate the lastmentioned dimension, but for Paul that was the key demand.   Taking such a gracious stance might have deleterious social implications in the eyes of outsiders and even of less daring Christians.  It might make one who acts thus look like a troubler of the social order and a revolutionary; but that is a price worth paying out of loyalty to the gospel.


To other interpreters, Pm represents a lack of nerve.  On the bottom line, despite his implicit encouragement to release Onesimus, Paul does not tell Philemon explicitly that keeping another human being as a slave factually denies that Christ has changed values.  Tolerating a social evil while gently protesting in the name of Christianity is tantamount to condoning it and ensuring its survival.  And indeed through the centuries Paul’s failure to condemn slavery was used by some Bible readers as proof that the institution was not evil in itself.  The question was not asked whether Paul’s partial toleration was not so fundamentally determined by his apocalyptic outlook that it could not serve as a guide once the expectation of the second coming was moved to the indefinite future.  As we shall see below, the socialmorality questions that surround this issue can be extended to other issues as well.


So all of this begs the question, “Why didn’t Paul simply tell Philemon that owning slaves was wrong?”  Slavery was an accepted social convention in Paul’s world.  As we have seen, Paul had a peculiar view of that world.  He thought society was passing away and that soon it would be gone.  Therefore, he did not attempt to reform society.


Instead, Paul revitalized it, advocating that Christians be primarily concerned with the edification of the church, not their social status.  That is to say, denouncing slavery was no more a concern of Paul’s than was building himself a nice home and founding a Bible college!  Paul was trying to transform ancient slavery from within through the power of Christ.


When Paul did not seek to begin a rebellion to abolish ancient slavery, was that, as most post-Enlightenment paradigm theologians argue, a fatal compromise which showed that the Bible is ethically deficient and can’t be used as our ultimate authority for ethics?  Or, was Paul pointing to the only true solution, this ethical transformation of the heart, this solution to the problem from within, through Christ?  And, in the view of the Christian theological paradigm, does Paul’s solution all the more wonderfully show the power and beauty of NT ethics and therefore also their authority and power?




The rhetorical center of Pm revolves around the concept of debt which includes:


1.the debt of Onesimus to Philemon

Onesimus has

either cost his master money by the mere act of running away ( he is something that the master owns so by disappearing, he is costing his master) and/or

he has stolen from his master, Philemon.

See v 18 notes


2.the debt of Philemon to Paul because Paul was his converting missionary when Philemon became a Christian.

see v 19 notes


3.the debt of Philemon to be a brother


But there is a third debt or as Norman Petersen calls it “the obligation that Philemon has to be a brother to the brothers and sisters in the LORD.”

Upon conversion and entry into the sibling relationship that is realized among the children of God, one becomes a brother or a sister, and behaving as such becomes a responsibility.  Now that Onesimus the slave has become a Christian, Philemon has a new relationship with Onesimus.  And it is a more complicated relationship – to say the least – for not only is Philemon the owner/master of Onesimus, but Philemon is also now a brother in Christ to Onesimus.  So the next question is how is Philemon going to fulfill that obligation, that debt to the entire Christian community?


A letter comparison by structure 


As one of my instructors used to say, “it is instructive to” compare Paul’s briefest letter, Philemon, as an example of Paul’s letter writing style, with an example of another Hellenistic letter from antiquity, that of Irenaeus’.

see charts subdirectory for letterfo.mat file

One readily recognizes that the letters are remarkably similar in structure.

Indeed, Paul’s letter to Philemon has the same five parts found in a standard letter.

Still, as similar as the letters of Paul and Irenaeus are, one should notice how Paul subtly altered the style of the standard Hellenistic letter for his own purposes.

These alterations reflect the peculiarly Christian character of Paul’s letters and reveal how thoroughly his relationship with Jesus Christ affected him.

Indeed, God’s revelation of the risen Christ gave Paul a new emphasis and left its stamp on everything he did, even the writing of letters.

When one really studies Pm, they will see how rich a communication this deceptively simple-seeming letter really is.

To understand Paul’s new emphasis it is helpful to view the anatomy of some of Paul’s changes of the form of a standard letter.




1-3  Paul’s salutation names the sender, recipient and greeting.

Notice how Paul expands salutation compared to other ancient letters such as that of Irenaeus’.

Sender(s): “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy our brother”

Recipient(s): “to Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier and the church in your house”

Greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”


4-7  thanksgiving and buttering Philemon up

Thanksgiving serving as an thanksgiving to gain Philemon’s good will by praise

816  Appeal offering motives to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus (confirmation)

8-22  body:  Paul begins his appeal

1722  Reiteration and expansion of appeal (peroration)

2122  can be considered a BodyClosing or part of the Conclusion

2325 Concluding Formula  – greetings, blessing


the basis for Paul’s appeal to Philemon  /  Paul’s family language in Pm = family of God motif 


Paul is always calling believers “brothers and sisters,” so much so that translators sometimes get tired of translating it as “brothers and sisters,” thinking it’s too much, and therefore sometimes translators actually just omit it unfortunately!  It piles up because Paul is trying to send a message that these people to whom he’s writing have a new family, the family of God.  Paul is using this family language to talk about what for Paul is this reality of the family of God.  Paul wants Philemon to treat Onesimus in light of Onesimus’ new identity in Christ as part of the family of God.  By baptism into Christ Onesimus has become a new person; he’s now part of this family of God just as is Philemon.  Paul is saying here is the basis on which you want to treat Onesimus as a member of the family of God with this new identity in Christ, this new identity as a brother in Christ.



They are now children of God; God is their Father.  Jesus is their brother and they are brothers and sisters of one another.  They are this family of God.  So this new kingdom of God and this inclusion of the gentiles has brought about this one people of God who are not only one people of God but they are God’s very family.  That’s what Paul means to express with his “brothers and sisters language.”  So with translations which just have the word brothers, it should read brothers and sisters because the Greek word being used here is gender neutral.  See  avdelfoi, adelphoi in glossary file.


Notice that when Paul appeals to Philemon for what he wants him to do for Onesimus, he uses what scholars call Paul’s family language.  In this letter Paul creates the most contorted group of metaphors you’ve ever seen, and they are all on the basis of the family.  Paul’s basis for appeal to Philemon is their shared identity in Christ, this new relationship they have with God as members of the family of God.

Pm lays out relationships between Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.  In doing so Paul uses family language to describe believers as members of this family of God.  In fact, in Pm Paul really lays his family language on thick, it oozes out of every pore of the letter.  Paul’s family language is everywhere!


There is so much family language in the letter that it can get confusing.

Philemon, who is Paul’s fellow worker, is Paul’s brother.

Their relationship with one another is no longer just as slave and master but now their relationship is one of brother and brother.  Paul wants Philemon to treat Onesimus like a brother in the Lord and to forget about the past.  [note:  this bracketed later add-in might be better suited elsewhere.  June 3, 2011  Master and slave are now both on the same level.  There are both one in Christ.  They should even call one another brother and sister.  We should not miss how radical this was in the ancient world.  In the ancient world the ancients hated this; this is one of the reasons why the Christians were the most hated.  When you read the anti-Christian tracts of someone like Celsus during this time when in a later period Christians would be put to death for their faith on a widespread basis, this was one of the things that most-repulsed Christian haters.  Haters contended Christians had perpetrated this social upheaval in which slaves and masters were on the same level, and the thing they hated most was that “they call one another brother and sister.”  That was very revolutionary and not at all popular.]


Onesimus, who is Philemon’s slave, is Paul’s child, and Paul is Onesimus’ father.

Paul is both Onesimus’ father v 10 and his brother v 16.

Therefore, Onesimus is now Philemon’s brother.

While Philemon is Paul’s partner, he is actually Paul’s child in the faith.

So Philemon and Onesimus are equals as Paul and Philemon are!

It’s contorted but in the end Paul sets Onesimus and Philemon on a more equal footing than any master and slave would have ever been.


Further, Paul asks Philemon to act now in relationship to Onesimus in a way that would be appropriate given the reality of their new relationship based on the conversion of Onesimus to Christ.


The fact that the early church kept the letter in the Bible at least implies that they understood Paul’s contorted presentation and that Philemon came through for Onesimus.


Norman Petersen had some fun with this family language aspect of all of Paul’s letters in his book Rediscovering Paul.  Petersen retells the story we read of in Pm in his The Three Little …  Family Members 


“Once upon a time there was a slave named Onesimus who became a brother to his master (Philemon) and a servant to his father (Paul), who was also his brother (as well as a prisoner and ambassador or old man).  Onesimus’s father, Paul, on the other hand, was both a free man who was nevertheless a slave to a master, Jesus, who had himself been a slave, and a father to and partner with his child Onesimus’s master, Philemon, who, like Onesimus, was also Paul’s brother.  Now one day the father / brother / slave / prisoner /  ambassador / partner [Paul] decided to send Onesimus, his child / brother/ servant, back to his master / brother Philemon, who was, it will be recalled, the father’s (Paul’s) child / brother / partner.  It seems, however, that the father / brother / slave / prisoner / ambassador / partner (Paul) was concerned that the child / brother / master / partner (Philemon) might not properly welcome the return of his slave / brother (Onesimus), for before becoming Paul’s child and his master’s (Philemon’s) brother the slave had run away from the master (Philemon), and possibly with the family jewels or the like.  So it was, then, that the father / brother / slave / prisoner / ambassador / partner (Paul) wrote a letter to his child / brother / partner (Philemon) on behalf of the slave / child / brother / servant (Onesimus) in the names of their common master, the slave / son Jesus Christ, and of their common father, God, a slave / brother / son of nobody, appealing to him to receive his slave / brother (Onesimus) as he would receive Paul himself, and asking him to prepare a room for him because he would soon be coming to visit.”

Norman Petersen, Rediscovering Paul, pp. 2 3.


Petersen is not making this up.  He is simply retelling Paul’s letter to Philemon in terms Paul uses.  Paul uses this family language which for him is not confusing at all – just true.


Paul uses his family language in all of his letters but he uses it so strikingly here in his letter to Philemon because he’s trying to get across to Philemon how he and Onesimus have this new identity in Christ, this new relationship in Christ that transcends the old relationship and that they, therefore, have a new identity with one another in the family of God.  They are now brothers in the Lord, brothers in Christ.  Onesimus is no longer just a slave; he is now Philemon’s brother!  He is now Philemon’s family member.  They all have one Father, God.  They are all children of God through the Son of God, Jesus.  Since they are both members of this family of God, Paul will now appeal to Philemon on the basis of Onesimus’ new identity in Christ.


Philemon and Onesimus once had an old identity but now they have a new identity as brothers in Christ.  They had an old relationship but now they have a new relationship as brothers in Christ.  Thus, the basis of Paul’s appeal goes to the new identity in Christ of both Philemon and Onesimus.  They are all one because they are all members of the this family of God.  Old distinctions are relativized and they have a new identity as brothers in the Lord.

v 10-11 see notes there.


The purpose / nature of Paul’s appeal :   request or command ?


The nature of Paul’s appeal is couched in the form of an appeal or a request but it’s actually a loving but veiled command to do what is right.  [See Pliny notes just above for comparison.]  Outwardly Paul puts it as a request but underneath it all, it’s a veiled command.  Paul wants Philemon to do the right thing from Christian motivation but it is a command nonetheless.

Paul brings various sorts of “encouragement” or “pressure” – social, personal, theological – in order to encourage Philemon to do what Paul says is right.


Let’s do a brief overview of this topic here, and then we’ll conduct a more complete discussion when we go through the letter verse by verse.  vv 8-9  See notes there.   Paul is going to beseech him v 9 out of love.  Paul wants Philemon to do what is correct out of the motive of Christian love.  Then see vv 17-25 notes.


What is the power arrangement between these three characters in the letter?  


Philemon has power over Onesimus, both socially and political.  Paul, on one level, respects this aspect because, after all, he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.

Philemon could even put Onesimus to death on the spot when Onesimus turns up.  That was on the books and, though rare, he could have done that.  He certainly could have treated Onesimus very harshly and forced him to pay his debt in very severe ways.

So all the power here is with Philemon.


Even in the three-way relationship of Paul, Philemon and Onesimus, Philemon had the social power.

Paul is this Christian apostle who happens to be in prison for his supposed subversive activities against Rome in preaching about this other king, one named Jesus.  So Paul has no social capital or power to play on.  Philemon is really the one in the driver’s seat.  Still, Paul is banking on Philemon’s Christian faith to do the right thing even though Philemon has the social power.  Therefore, Paul pulls out all the stops because a lot is at stake for Onesimus, this powerless slave.


What exactly does Paul want Philemon to do? 



Pm is Paul’s letter where Paul interacts with ancient slavery the most directly.  We see in Co 3-4 Paul directs masters to treat their slaves with kindness and fairness, and he directs slaves to be obedient and serve the Lord and so on, saying both master and slave are both equal before God.  There is no partiality.  Paul does not require that masters give up their slaves or that slaves run away from their masters.

Here in Pm Paul is addressing a specific situation.


* Treat Onesimus as a beloved brother, not as a slave.  

v 16  no longer as a slave but far beyond (more than) a slave, a beloved brother – especially (most of all) to me but by how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  


In his letter to Philemon something new has come about and we no longer have the old master/slave relationship.  There is a new relationship that supervenes on that.  They are no longer simply master and slave but they are now brothers of one another because they have one Father who is God.  In other words, on the one hand, Paul does not deny that Onesimus is still Philemon’s slave.  There is still this master/slave relationship going on as well.  On the other hand, however, Paul says there is a new, transformed relationship.  Because God is in the picture, they are brother and brother; they are beloved brothers in themselves Lord.   This new spiritual relationship transcends the old, earthly, worldly distinctions.  As such, Onesimus is now more than just a slave; he’s a beloved brother.  And yet, while the new identity transcends the old earthly distinctions of master and slave, those distinctions are still there.


Further, Philemon cannot say that his relationship with Onesimus is somewhere in the ideal, Platonic realm – “Yes, we are brother and brother but that doesn’t really affect how I treat Onesimus.”  Philemon can’t say that.  Notice that Paul constantly stresses that this new identity in Christ is more important than the social relationship of master and slave while at the same time not doing away with that master/slave aspect.  Hence, as a result of this new relationship in Christ Philemon is no longer to treat Onesimus as a slave but as something far more than a slave – as a beloved brother.  So Paul is saying one’s new identity in Christ supervenes all other relationships including the master/slave relationship.


Additionally, one’s new identity in Christ must impact how Philemon treats Onesimus; it has to impact on the social reality of the master/slave relationship.  In other words, when Paul says he’s now a beloved brother and a member of this family of God and that you must treat Onesimus as you would me, Paul, Paul is saying that this new identity in Christ needs to totally permeate and revolutionize this social relationship we had previously – while not doing away with it.  That is, when Onesimus shows up on Philemon’s doorstep, Philemon cannot say, “Oh, yes, Onesimus.  There is this wonderful new spiritual relationship we have.  That’s just great.  Now get down into the basement and get my food!!!”  Philemon cannot do that.  The idea here is that the new identity on Christ has to impact the whole relationship.  Philemon’s behavior toward Onesimus has to correspond to this transformed relationship he now has with Onesimus.


* Forgive Onesimus’ debt.  

vv 18-19   18  If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, reckon this to my account.  19  I, Paul, writing with my own hand, I will repay.  I say this so that I don’t have to mention that in addition to everything else, you owe me your very self.  See notes there.

Paul wants Philemon to forgive Onesimus’ debt.  It’s not just ‘treat Onesimus right’ but it’s as if Paul tells Philemon specifically to ‘forgive his debt.  I will pay it.’  Paul’s constant stress is that this new identity in Christ, which is the identity here, here’s the social structure that’s in place.


* Free Onesimus so he can become Paul’s coworker again. 

v 13-14 addresses Paul’s attitude toward ancient slavery.

13  I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel;  14  but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.  See notes there.

This is the one place where Paul gives counsel to a master and slave individually and specifically.  Paul is telling Philemon that in obedience he must set Onesimus free and to make Onesimus one of his coworkers.  This is sometimes missed but clear in the letter.  Paul has many coworkers:  Ti, Titus, Silas, Lk, Mk, etc.  The technical language Paul is using – he might serve me in my chains on behalf of the gospel – indicates he wants to make Onesimus one of these coworkers



* Do more than even what Paul asks.  

v 21  Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. See notes there.

knowing that you will do beyond what I say  acknowledges that Philemon will do what he needs to in order to be obedient.  Paul is charging Philemon to engage in Christian ethical reflection concerning further acts of love to Onesimus, about how much more he could do even beyond these three things so far!  Paul may be thinking of Philemon giving funds to Onesimus for his missionary labors as Paul’s coworker or supporting Onesimus in other ways.  There are all sorts of possibilities but we don’t know because Paul simply wants Philemon to think about all the various ways he could help and Paul knows he’s going to.  Paul leaves it unspecified so it’s up to Philemon to think of what more he should do.


So we see in Pm a rich, nuanced teaching of Paul on slavery.  He doesn’t counsel slaves to rebel.  He tells slaves to obey their masters.  He sends Onesimus back to Philemon.  He tells Philemon to set his slave Onesimus free.  He tells Philemon he should even do more things beyond that.  He’s calling Philemon to a whole new approach to slavery and to Christian ethical reflection on what he should do in this particular case.  He purposely does not make the letter a private one to Philemon and purposely has it read before the whole church calling other slave masters to similar Christian ethical reflection for their own situations.  Then, when the letter Pm is brought into the canon, it calls slave masters and those in analogous positions in all times and places to similarly reflect on their own situations.


Who are the recipients of Philemon?  Who is being called out to do this Christian ethical reflection here?    


Notice also what Paul is saying about ancient slavery.

This letter is written – not just to Philemon – but to the whole church.  v 2  Therefore, the Christian ethical reflection that Paul is enjoining upon Philemon appears to be something he wants for the whole church, something he wants for all masters within the church, for all of those involved in social relationships of superior to inferior, of more powerful to less powerful.

Notice how once again this puts a whole new light on passages like Co; there is another dimension.  This agrees with Co in its emphasis on this new relationship in Christ where in this one individual situation that Paul addresses, this new relationship in Christ actually here involves the command that the master set the slave free and there is much more he wants him to do.  He wants him to reflect on that by not specifying.  But Paul is confidant that Philemon is going to do far beyond what Paul says.  Pm and Co would have been written about the same time.  So it’s a very rich, nuanced message Paul sends to the Christians living in Colossae.  There is the command to do such and such, and there is the Christian ethical reflection that he calls on Philemon to do where he tells him to free his slave and do more besides.  So you have this Christian ethical reflection which involves not only Philemon but the whole church at Colossae and, since it’s addressed to Philemon, it especially it involves masters and those in positions of social power.


Notice. also, that this very short letter to Philemon was included in the canon of scripture for the Church.  This means that those who are to engage in such Christian ethical reflection is not only Philemon or the whole church at Colossae, but it’s also the whole church in all times and places.  That is, Paul’s approach becomes something that Christians in all times and places are to reflect upon.  

This was a radical thing when this little letter of Paul to a Christian slave owner was brought into the canon because the same Christian ethical reflection the letter calls on Philemon and Philemon’s church to do is calling on all Christians to do just that in the very fact that it was received into the canon of scripture.  It’s inclusion in the canon means it’s a book sent to the church.


And in the case of Pm the people would have heard Paul saying that in this case the master Philemon needed to set Onesimus free.  By extension in the whole of the NT that would, in turn, mean that slave owners were to free their slaves and reflect on what more they could do.  They were to support this sort of Christian ethical reflection in the whole church – not just this individual church at Colossae but the church of all times and all places.


question    add this answer in above later June 3, 2011


The historic teaching of the church follows this general outline that we read about in Paul in which we never have the blanket statement that any kind of slavery in any kind context must be contrary to God’s will.  Instead, there is always the emphasis on ameliorating the master/slave relationship.  There is the emphasis that this master/slave relationship must be in the Christian context.  Just as in Paul and the rest of the NT the church never says in any era that the master/slave relationship by and in and of itself is always morally wrong.  The church does say it must be done in a Christian context but never in the churches moral teachings through the centuries does the church condemn the master/slave relationship per se.  However, there is this idea of amelioration, and, through the centuries, we do have constant condemnation of the slave trade, of slave traders and of race-based slavery.  So the church follows Paul’s teaching very well only Paul may emphasize with Philemon a little more than you might have imagined, not just the changed relationship, but even that fact that changed relationship may well involve, even if you could justify the master/slave relationship on some level and even if you wanted to make it a good relationship of master and slave, Paul definitely counts on Philemon to set Onesimus free.  That seems to be something that the masters at Collosae in Co are to keep in mind when this letter Pm is accepted into canon that all masters are to keep in mind, and in this particular instance Paul says to set Onesimus free.


That leads us into Paul’s approach to slavery and the whole issue of the Bible and slavery.


What did Philemon do?  / Subsequent Career of Onesimus 


It’s quite striking that Pm was brought into the canon because it’s this very short letter written to address a personal issue.  It’s almost surprising in a way that it was included among Paul’s letters but it is.


The letter tells us what Paul wanted Philemon to do but we don’t know what he did – or what happened to Onesimus.  Still, there is a fascinating scholarly conjecture.  In line with this conjecture there is the presumption that Paul wrote a large number of personal letters to individual Christians so one has to ask, “Why was Pm preserved in the canon and not these others?”  The usual and more likely answer is that Pm was more ecclesial than personal, having important pastoral/ theological implications, even if, as we have seen, Paul did not determine the future of slavery.


We cannot know for sure whether Philemon listened to Paul’s pleas and freed Onesimus or not.  But in order to explain preservation of the letter, a more romantic proposal, associated with the names of Goodspeed and Knox, has been made.  According to these two scholars, Onesimus was released by Philemon and returned to work with Paul in Ephesus, remaining there as a principal Christian figure once Paul had left.  He was still there more than a halfcentury later when another early Christian leader, Ignatius of Antioch, using more developed churchstructure language, addressed the Christians in the Ephesian church in the year 108.  The following is a portion of that letter written by Ignatius (Ignatius to the Ephesians, 1.23.), who was being taken by Roman soldiers to Rome to be thrown to the beasts in the amphitheater because of his confession of Christ.  [This is happening about forty-six years or so after Paul wrote to his letter to Philemon – at a time when the Roman persecutions of Christians had become much worse.  They were persecuted in NT times as we saw in 1-2 Th and Ac, but they are persecuted to the death – martyrdom – beginning about 108.]


“For when you heard that I had been taken in chains from Syria because of the Name [That’s Christ.] and hope we share, hoping through your prayers to obtain strength to contend with the beasts at Rome [He wants strength because he does not want to deny his faith in Christ; he wants to remain firm and faithful to God even though it means he’s going to be put to death.  The way it worked was that at any point Ignatius could have said, “I’m only kidding; I don’t believe in this Christ fellow.  I recant my faith.” and he would have been set free.], so that by doing so I may truly be a disciple of Christ, you were eager to visit me. I welcomed all of you in the name of God in the person of the one you sent, Onesimus, a person of inexpressible love, and your leader [Onesimus was actually their bishop!].  I pray in the name of Jesus Christ that all of you love him and that all of you model your lives after his.”


In a famous study, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul, the Pauline scholar John Knox argued that the Onesimus in Ignatius’ letter is the same Onesimus we meet in Paul’s letter to Philemon.  Knox’s study sees Ignatius’ letter as evidence that Onesimus was freed by Philemon, became Paul’s coworker, and afterward the leader (bishop) of the Christians at Ephesus.  Knox further hypothesized that in that capacity, and out of an esteemed memory of the man who was his father in Christ, that Onesimus was well-placed enough to – for the first time – collect the scattered letters of Paul into a collection, Paul being now long-since dead.


With understandable pride Onesimus included among the great writings that the apostle had addressed to churches a small missive treasured all these years since it involved Onesimus himself and made his whole subsequent career possible.  Knox argues that this would explain the preservation of this brief and personal letter within the NT canon.


It is impossible either to prove or disprove Knox’s theory because others had the name Onesimus in antiquity.  The Onesimus at Ephesus in 110 CE may have taken that name to honor the slave who was converted there by the imprisoned Paul long before.  There is no way to decide; but to adapt an Italian saying, Se non è  vero, è  ben trovatoEven if it is not true, it was still worth being proposed.  But if the runaway slave Onesimus did become the bishop of Ephesus and the one who gathered Paul’s letters together, it would be a fitting climax to Onesimus’ story, which William Barclay called “one of the great romances of grace in the early Church.”  Whatever the outcome, Paul’s letter to Philemon makes clear how the gospel which Paul preached, telling of the fulfillment of the Biblical story in the person of Jesus Christ, had transformed the individual stories of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon.




1  Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and coworker,

1 Pau/loj de,smioj Cristou/ VIhsou/ kai. Timo,qeoj o` avdelfo.j Filh,moni tw/| avgaphtw/| kai. sunergw/| h`mw/n


At the beginning of his letters Paul identifies himself and those to whom he writes in terms of their roles as Christians, that is, in relation to God and Christ.  

The basis for the relationship is their relation to God, in and through Christ in the service and the method of service they are giving in those relationships.

Ie, Paul speaks about Christian identity by identifying all the people in the letter in terms of their participation in the life of the church – their Christian identity.


As he sometimes does, Paul doesn’t use a title for himself when addressing Philemon; he just cleverly states his status of being in jail.

Paul does not claim the title of apostle and, in fact, he refrains from exercising such authority in this communication.

Instead, he addresses Philemon as a beloved friend and fellow worker / coworker which puts the two of them on an equal footing.

coworker is a term used by Paul mostly to refer to people who had personally been with him.

This is interesting because Paul is writing this letter to Philemon to recommend something that he wants Philemon to do but he wants Philemon to do it as an equal.

There is no over/under stuff going at all;   he doesn’t trot out any orders and instead presents his appeal on an equitable basis.

For example, he does not write Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ to Philemon, member of a church somewhere.  

When he writes to Philemon he doesn’t give him an order, nor does he make a request.

Paul tells Philemon what he would have done had he been in his place and puts in the form of a recommendation.


Paul himself is a prisoner of Christ Jesus which shows us something about Paul’s sense of humor because “Paul is in jail.”

On the surface, he’s a prisoner of the Romans but Paul says he’s “a prisoner of Christ Jesus,”  recognizing that it’s not the Romans who really are in charge of his life but actually it’s Christ Jesus himself who’s in charge of his life.

This was once incorrectly translated as a prisoner for Christ Jesus.  

Though the Romans have him in captivity, he is truly not captive of government authorities but of the Lord.

Thus, the final control over his life rests with God, not humans.

In sort of a clever way Paul is saying that the Romans may have me in jail but Christ Jesus has control of my life – “Paul, jailbird for Jesus.”  WT

So in this way that Paul names himself at the beginning of the letter, Christ’s own lordship is being recognized.


Timothy is called our brother because he is himself a Christian believer who has labored alongside Paul in the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In this letter Paul writes to an individual, Philemon, about a sensitive personal issue.

But it’s not written as a private letter, both

as to recipients as we see in vv 1-2 where Apphia …  Archippus …  and …  the church are also included, and

as to writers as we see in v 1 because Timothy is included in authorship.


In antiquity, and with the exception of Paul’s letters, we know of only one letter that was co-authored.

On the other hand,  co-authorship was the dominant way that Paul wrote his letters as he does here in Pm, for example, with Timothy.

See letter format file under ‘charts’ folder for additional information on co-authorship and the royal we.  


Filh,moni noun dative masculine singular proper from Filh,mwn, onoj m Philemon (Pm 1)



2  to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

2  kai. VApfi,a| th/| avdelfh/| kai. VArci,ppw| tw/| sustratiw,th| h`mw/n kai. th/| katV oi=ko,n sou evkklhsi,a|(

JW:   …  And the church which meets in your home:



To whom does Paul write this letter?  


Paul has placed his beloved fellow worker Philemon in the life of an early Christian congregation and alongside Philemon are Apphia our sister and  Archippus our fellow soldier

Paul calls Timothy our brother (in Christ) and Apphia our sister which means she is has a status equal to that of Timothy in the life of the church.  sister language here is that Christian speak of brother or sister in the Lord.  

From just above, since Timothy is called our brother because he is himself a Christian believer who has labored alongside Paul in the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then the logical deduction for why Paul calls Apphia sister would be for the same reason – that she has labored alongside Paul in the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ and because she is herself a Christian believer.

Thus, Paul calls her a sister because he sees Apphia in the same kind of relationship he has with Timothy.

our sister means that she’s a sister in the Lord.  It’s Christian speak for fellow believer.


Apphia and Archippus are probably the two overseers of the congregation.  Knox thinks Philemon was the pastor and that Archippus was the wealthy patron.

Some commentaries used to point out that the head of the household was Philemon, that his wife was Apphia and their son was Archippus.  Some speculate that those older commentators did that because they wanted to get Apphia into some second class position as the wife of someone and not as a person in her own right in the life of this particular congregation.  The variety of proposals regarding ‘who is who’ illustrates how little is spelled out in Pm.  Still, she’s listed right after Philemon but before Archippus which puts her ahead of Archippus in terms of importance.


Paul seems to be addressing the leadership of the congregation.

Archippus our fellow soldier implies recognition that he had stuck his neck out for Christ.  Language about soldiering is always about situations wherein there is conflict and peril.  Archippus has probably labored alongside Paul in some difficult situation.


church in your house implies that Paul anticipated the letter being read in the context of the assembled congregation – or, at least, that he wanted Philemon to understand that was his (Paul’s) intention.  church would include all of the people there and the your sou is singular here.  So Paul finally greets the whole church which is in your (Philemon’s) house according to the grammar here.

Most of the members were probably slaves.  Philemon seems to be one of those with more since he has a house and so that’s where this group of Christians associated with Philemon would have met.


So while Paul may be writing the bulk of the letter to Philemon, Paul’s salutation of these other people in v 2 is a clear indication that Paul’s intent that the letter will be read to them as well.  Even  though he’s writing to Philemon, he writes the letter in a context that is larger than the personal context of a letter to Philemon.  Because of to whom this letter was addressed, this was not a letter Paul could just put in the round file if he so desired.

So this is a personal letter to Philemon, but it’s not a private letter because it’s written with Timothy and it greets ApphiaArchippus and the entire church in Philemon’s house.  


This letter would have been read in the context of worship when the entire church was gathered together for worship.  Everyone would have heard what Paul was saying to Philemon which would have added all the more pressure to Philemon to do the right thing out of his Christian love.

This comes out even more clear in the Greek text in v 25 where Paul says the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.  The your is in the plural and refers to the whole church at Philemon’s house.  Thus, it’s clear that Paul is writing to the whole congregation.


3  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3  ca,rij u`mi/n kai. eivrh,nh avpo. qeou/ patro.j h`mw/n kai. kuri,ou VIhsou/ Cristou/Å


See discussion of this v at “Salutation” in the Lecture Paul JW file in the Ware – Paul folder.


grace to you is in the plural here so he’s addressing the whole group again.

Paul here begins framing his letter in plurals but in between he focuses on the singular.

In other words, in opening this letter Paul addresses Philemon in the context of a Christian community, the very same community he is also addressing in v 2.

So it’s about a very personal issue but it’s not a private matter; it’s very personal but it’s not a private letter.


4-7 are the thanksgiving section of Paul’s letter.  He gives thanks for God’s activity in the lives of the Christians to whom he’s writing.

In 4-7 Paul uses a well-known rhetorical technique known as a captatio benevolentiae  =  capturing by praise 

In English we call this ‘buttering up’ or ‘brown-nosing.’

Paul flatters (not necessarily insincerely) by reporting what he has heard about Philemon’s Christian love and faith  heard from Epaphras and/or from Onesimus.  [or because everybody in the Pauline circle knows about such an outstanding figure?]


4  When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God

4  Euvcaristw/ tw/| qew/| mou pa,ntote mnei,an sou poiou,menoj evpi. tw/n proseucw/n mou(

JW:  I give thanks to my God always when I remember you before God in my prayers




Here in the thanksgiving Paul is thanking God for this life of grace which God has made effective in Philemon’s life, that Christ is at work in Philemon’s life.


In a way Paul is buttering Philemon up saying, ‘I see God really at work in your life’, and Paul is going to tell him how he wants God to be at work in his life even more fully which he goes into fuller detail starting in v 8.



you is in the singular again here so he’s speaking to Philemon.

Starting here in v 4 Paul writes in the singular form all the way to v 25 where he returns to the plural.


5  because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.

5  avkou,wn sou th.n avga,phn kai. th.n pi,stin( h]n e;ceij pro.j to.n ku,rion VIhsou/n kai. eivj pa,ntaj tou.j a`gi,ouj(

JW:  since I hear of your love and your faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints.




Paul is thankful that Philemon is living this fruitful life of faith and refreshing the hearts of the saints and so on.


6  I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.

6  o[pwj h` koinwni,a th/j pi,stew,j sou evnergh.j ge,nhtai evn evpignw,sei panto.j avgaqou/ tou/ evn h`mi/n eivj Cristo,nÅ

JW:  I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective through a full knowledge of all the good which is in us for the sake of Christ.


7  I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

7  cara.n ga.r pollh.n e;scon kai. para,klhsin evpi. th/| avga,ph| sou( o[ti ta. spla,gcna tw/n a`gi,wn avnape,pautai dia. sou/( avdelfe,Å

JW:  for I received much joy and comfort because of your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.




We know how Paul in his thanksgivings previewed the major themes of the letter.  Here he asked Philemon to do something for Onesimus so he’s already addressing that.

In v 6 he talked about the sharing of his faith, about the fellowship that comes from his faith.

In v 7 he talked about the joy and comfort because of his love that he had.  And he talked about how his love had refreshed the hearts of the saints.

Paul is preparing for what he’s going to ask Philemon to do which he begins to do beginning in v 8.


JW: below?  April 23, 2014

In vv 7, 12 and 20 Paul works out a play on words using the word heart and in doing so makes clear what he thinks Philemon should do.

v 7  Paul praises Philemon for past actions by acknowledging that the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through (Philemon).

v 12 Then Paul will say that his very heart is Onesimus.

v 20Finally, Paul will declare what benefit he desires from Onesimus, namely that he (Philemon) refresh my (Paul’s) heart in Christ.  

Thus, Paul calls on Philemon, the Christian heart-refresher, to refresh his (Paul’s) heart in Christ, and Paul’s heart is none other than Onesimus the slave, himself who is now in Christ!!!

So without ever telling Philemon what to do, Paul is indicating to Philemon what he needs to do.

Talk about being gently placed between a rock and a hard place!


spla,gcna noun nominative neuter plural common from  spla,gcnon, ou n one’s inmost self or feelings, heart; affection, love ( dia. jÅ evle,ouj qeou/  because of God’s tender mercy Lk 1.78); ta. jÅ entrails (Ac 1.18)




The force of Paul’s appeal in the body of the letter is lost to all but the readers of the Greek text because the letter is full of puns and word plays which for the most part function only in the Greek.

For example, in two places Paul forms words plays on the name Onesimus – transliterated as On[Symbol]simos – in the Greek.

  1. Paul puns the meaning of the Greek name Onesimusin v 11.  See notes there.
  2. Paul tells Philemon in v 20 that he wants some benefit ovnai,mhn  onaim[Symbol]n.    See notes there.

While Onesimus and benefit in the English are not similar, in the Greek  On[Symbol]simos and onaim[Symbol]n look and sound alike.

Thus, by using paronomasia [punning =  playing on words that sound alike] Paul implies, without saying it, that he desires Onesimus from Philemon!!!

Paul is one tricky dude when it comes to using the Greek.


8  For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,

8  Dio. pollh.n evn Cristw/| parrhsi,an e;cwn evpita,ssein soi to. avnh/kon

JW:  for this reason (therefore), although I have much boldness [in speech] in Christ to command you to do what is right



vv 8-9 – the opening (introduction) of the body of the letter gets into the key theme, the nature of Paul’s appeal.  The introduction to the body to the letter in Ro was as Ro 1 13-17 which concluded with the great theme of the letter of the righteousness of God.  Paul does the same here in vv 8-14.

Is it a request or command?  What here in vv 8-9 make it more one than the other?  For instance, what here makes what Paul is saying more forceful than just a request?


Paul obliquely reminds Philemon of his apostolic authority to command and yet – by Paul’s preference – this letter is an appeal – see v 10 – about the fate of Onesimus.  This letter is all about Onesimus; Paul is concerned about Onesimus.

v 8 is a very loaded statement in which Paul makes clear that he has this apostolic authority, this big stick that he could use, this big apostolic stick that he has the right to use, but he’s not going to use it.  It’s as if Paul is saying, “Oh, and, by the way, what I’m asking you to do is what is right, what is proper.  I have the authority in Christ to command you to do what is right.  I could command you because it’s right.”  Instead, Paul teaches Philemon that it’s not because that matter itself is up for grabs but it’s because Paul wants Philemon to do it because of his own free will.  So it’s not a command but a request, an appeal; Paul is not going to command him but he’s going to beseech Philemon in v 9 out of love.


Still, although Paul frames it as a request, it’s  a very loaded request because Paul is at the same time making it clear that he wants Philemon to do it of his own free will because it’s the right thing to do.  If this is confusing to you, be assured that Paul purposely used this specific language so that Philemon would have to think twice, and three times, and so on.  This letter to Philemon is an incredibly sophisticatedly crafted letter.


Paul wants Philemon to do the right thing.  Paul is saying to Philemon that what he is beseeching Philemon to do is the right thing to do, the proper thing.  This is what Philemon must do if he is to do God’s will, if he to act according to love v 9.  Paul leaves no doubt which we would have had if Paul had instead said something like, “Well, it would be a great thing if you did this, Philemon, but it’s not necessary.  It would be above and beyond if you did this.  I wish you would but, of course, you would be right in not doing it.”  No, Paul does not leave Philemon that option.  This is what Philemon must do unless Philemon wants Paul, maybe, to come back at a later time and use that big apostolic stick and command Philemon to do what is right.


Further, if Paul wanted to, he could have commanded him but because of love he’s going to beseech him v 9.



9  yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of loveand I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

9  dia. th.n avga,phn ma/llon parakalw/( toiou/toj w’n w`j Pau/loj presbu,thj nuni. de. kai. de,smioj Cristou/ VIhsou/\

JW:  yet, on account of love I rather (instead) beseech (encourage, exhort) you – being such a one as Paul an older man (or Paul an ambassador) and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus




In this v Paul would have Philemon doing the right thing 1. out of Christian love and 2. drawing on his relationship with Paul.

Paul could command Philemon to do what he should do, however, v 9 frames what Paul wants to convey to Philemon as a beseeching.

parakalw  verb indicative present active 1st person singular from parakale,w (pf. pass. parake,klhmai ; aor. pass. pareklh,qhn, subj. paraklhqw/ ; fut. pass.  paraklhqh,somai) beg, urge; encourage, beseech, speak words of encouragement; request, ask, appeal to; console,  comfort, cheer up; invite, summon

This verb is used normally of an inferior of a superior

So Paul very humble says I beseech you to Philemon.

Start here    2200

We can paraphrase vv 8-9 as “I could order you to do it but I’m going to beseech you out of love.”

Notice that it’s a request but a request about doing what is right.

Paul is making no bones that the nature of this appeal is framed in the nature of a request, but Paul is clearly saying, ‘What I’m asking you to do is the only right thing to do in this situation.’

From v 8 we have although I have much boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right  See JW notes there.

But because of love Paul therefore beseeches Philemon to do the right thing voluntarily out of Christian love and not be forced to do it.  In other words, this is what love demands and within the Christian ethical context, love is at the center of everything.  So Paul is saying this is what love demands which is a way of making it a command.

Paul further clarifies this aspect in vv 17-25.

In v 21 Paul will say I am confident of your obedience which makes it crystal clear that this is not an option, a request, but it’s a matter of Philemon obeying the right thing to do.  It’s about obedience to God.

So Paul does not issue an order but he does recommend a course of action to Philemon.


Notice also here in 9b that Paul bringing pressure on Philemon to do the right thing by Onesimus based on his relationship with Paul.  Apparently Paul’s relationship with Philemon is of such a nature that it’s like a bank account that he can draw on.  Philemon loves Paul.  So Paul draws on that to do the right thing by Onesimus.  Paul brings the weight of his relationship with Philemon to bear.

presbu,thj presbyt[Symbol]s  noun nominative masculine singular common from presbu,thj, ou m old man or elderly man

presbu,thj is found in all manuscripts but some substitute a variant spelling of this word   presbeuthj presbeut[Symbol]s  meaning ambassador.  You see there is just a one letter difference between the two words.  Some scholars believe that the original text read ambassador or that the reading in the manuscripts was a spelling variant for ambassador.  In other words, there was even a variant spelling for the word ambassador in which it was spelled exactly the same as the Greek word for old man  presbu,thj !!!


So, based on the Greek and the Greek variants, this word could be either old man or ambassador.  So Paul is:

[Symbol]  either engaging Philemon’s sympathies as an elderly man by saying ‘you should have sympathy for me as the aged Paul’  OR

[Symbol]  or he’s playing his trump card as Christ’s apostle as ambassador for the Lord by saying ‘I’m writing to you as an ambassador of Christ, as an apostolic ambassador for the Lord’




10  I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.

10  parakalw/ se peri. tou/ evmou/ te,knou( o]n evge,nnhsa evn toi/j desmoi/j( VOnh,simon(

JW:  I beseech you concerning (about) my child to whom I gave birth in my chains, Onesimus




The language of begetting in of whose father I have become suggests that Paul had (recently) converted Onesimus.  This is technical-speak for being born again in Christ, becoming a child of God.  Paul is the one who led/brought Philemon to the faith.  Philemon believed and therefore he became a child of God.  So in saying I gave birth to him in my chains Paul sees himself giving birth to Philemon.  We have this idea of new birth in the NT – you have been born again – such as Peter says to a living hope Pe 1 3  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,


This v reminds us that Paul is literally in prison, in my chains, when he brought Onesimus to faith.


Our translations of this v let us down a bit by mentioning Onesimus early on in the translation when, in fact, Onesimus is not mentioned until the very last word of the verse in the Greek NT text  VOnh,simon.  Paul delayed the saying of the name Onesimus until he first described Onesimus’ new identity in Christ.  It’s almost certain that before reading this letter, Onesimus would probably have been the least liked name that Philemon would have wanted to hear.

VOnh,simon noun accusative masculine singular proper from VOnh,simoj, ou m Onesimus (Co 4  9; Pm 10)

Onesimus was a common slave name that would have been given to someone at birth if they were born into a slave class.

Paul puts VOnh,simon at the end because, as you might well imagine, he anticipates that Philemon is probably still angry with Onesimus and would not be someone Philemon would want to hear about.

Paul begins his sentence by first informing Philemon of Onesimus’ new identity in Christ with the phrases my child and to whom I gave birth in my chains.  Only then does Paul bring Onesimus’ name into the conversation at the end.  If Philemon heard Onesimus’ name right off the bat, he might have stopped listening.  Paul wants Philemon to hear first who this person is – a brother in the Lord – and only then hear Onesimus’ actual name.  Philemon is supposed to hear, and on hearing know, that Onesimus is now a brother with him, Philemon, in Christ and that he is to treat Onesimus accordingly, as a brother in Christ.  “Oh.  He’s a Christian.  He’s become a believer.  He’s a member of the family of God, and I have to treat him in a way that corresponds with that.”




11  Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.

11  to,n pote, soi a;crhston nuni. de. Îkai.Рsoi. kai. evmoi. eu;crhston(

JW:  who one time was useless to / for you but now is very useful, both for me and for you.




Paul recognizes Onesimus’ transformation and the nature of that change, and in this letter he uses a charming and humorous series of puns and word plays to register the remarkable fact that Onesimus has been transformed in Christ.  While this letter is a striking example of Paul’s theological wit and wisdom, we lose a lot of Paul’s artistry when we read the text in other than the Greek. For example, as we all know some English names clearly have a meaning such as Joy, Grace, Charity, Faith, etc.  Actually, all of our English names have meaning but those meanings are hidden in some Anglo-Saxon or French root or whatever that we sometimes don’t know.


That now said, in antiquity every name that came from your native language had a meaning that was clear to everyone.  For example, everyone in antiquity would have known that the Greek name Onesimus meant useful / beneficial / profitable / helpful.  This word Onesimus is actually an adjective  in Greek that means useful or beneficial.  You might think that Paul would just use the same adjective [Onesimus meaning useful]  here in v 11, but it’s much more sophisticated than that.


Instead, here in v 11 Paul uses a different adjective –  crhstoj chr[Symbol]stos which is another adjective that means good, useful, serviceable or beneficial. and in doing so Paul creates a double-layered pun, a play-on-words.  In other words, here in v 11 Paul slightly modifies that base adjective  crhstoj chr[Symbol]stos  and ends up with two adjectives 1.   useless  a;crhstoj  achr[Symbol]stos and 2.   useful  eu;crhstoj euchr[Symbol]stos that he uses here pronounced [Symbol][Symbol] chr[Symbol]stos.

a;crhston adjective normal accusative masculine singular no degree from a;crhstoj, on of little use, useless, not useful

eu;crhston adjective normal accusative masculine singular no degree from eu;crhstoj, on very useful, very beneficial  

Thus,  eu;crhston is an intensified form of crhstoj



Obviously, in the Greek one can see that both of these adjectives come from the same adjective root  crhstoj chr[Symbol]stos, which is another adjective that means good, useful, serviceable or beneficial.  The only difference between the 2 adjectives cited just above is what letters  – or eu – preface the base word chr[Symbol]stos.  Then, when added at the beginning of a word, these two letters change the meaning of that word as follows:

a means without 

eu means good, or well 

So, if you have the word useful crhstoj and you want to change that to a word meaning useless,  you just add an privative] in front of the word used for useful.  

privative grammatically means expressing deprivation or denial of something 

We have the same thing in English – some words that start with an a negates the rest of the word.  For example, asymmetrical means not symmetrical. 

So  a;crhstoj means not useful, or said another way,  it means useless because it begins with the  privative.

On the other hand, if you want a word that means really useful or truly useful or indeed useful or wonderfully useful, you add eu at the front of the word – eu;crhstoj


So why does Paul change the adjective from Onesimus to crhstoj?  Notice the point that Paul is making with his use of these adjectives.

These two adjectives are not commonly-used words in the Greek language but are words that Paul uses to construct a word play on Onesimus’ name.

Paul is saying in effect,

Useful was useless  before useful became really useful” which comes from Onesimus was useless  before Onesimus became really useful.  

When useful was without Christ, useful was useless but useful’s – Onesimus’ – conversion changed everything.

Now that useful is Christian, useful is truly useful.  

Chesterton once summed up the fall this way.  How can I sum up what happened in the fall to my humanity?  Whoever I am, I am not that now.  Redemption is all about not becoming uncreated but becoming the created being you were always meant to be but that’s what redemption is all about – redeeming what is created, not scrapping it.  Onesimus, in becoming a child of God he’s become what he was really created to be.  That comes out here.


That is, Paul is saying that Onesimus’ running away was a turn for the good.  [Philemon may not have, at first, seen it this way!  ]

So why the use of once (one time) and but now?  Why the change with Onesimus?  Why has useless become useful because of his new relationship with the family of God.  When believers come to faith, they are forgiven Ro 3 [God is faithful; no one is righteous; God gives us his righteousness through faith.] which results in this transformation through the Holy Spirit Ro 6 [We are made dead to sin an alive to Christ.  Instead of being slaves to sin, we are made slaves to righteousness.]  Paul is saying that is what has taken place with Onesimus.  Paul is saying that since Onesimus was brought to the faith, he – Onesimus – is now living up to what his name really means.  Onesimus is a totally new person; he’s been transformed; he is now a member of the family of God.

That is, importantly, for Paul, and for us, at the root of it all is that the only thing that changed with Onesimus was his conversion experience.


Next, there is still another word play at work here in v 11.

As we’ve been saying in v 11 Paul uses words based the same adjective stem crhstoj chr[Symbol]stos  another word that means good, useful or beneficial.

chr[Symbol]stos was itself a name frequently given to slaves but in this verse this stem probably plays on the name of title Christ ( Greek = Christos).

Notice also that chrestos is similar to christos in that there is just a one letter change in the Greek but, importantly, they both sound alike in the Greek pronunciation which is why Paul uses them.  So this is another play-on-words that Paul uses.


Also, by using chrestos here, Paul probably means to imply that prior to being a Christian [ ie, without Christ christos ], Onesimus [ useful] was useless achr[Symbol]stos ] , but now as a good Christian [ euchristos ] the formerly useless Onesimus is really useful euchr[Symbol]stos ].

Paul says that before Onesimus ran away and before he was converted, he was useless but having run away and having been converted, he now is indeed useful.


The pronunciation of chrestos and christos in the dialect – especially of Asia Minor where Philemon lived – would have sounded in pronunciation very much alike.

But while chrestos means useful, christos means Christ so Paul gives us another very wonderful play on words.  By using chrestos Paul is even playing on the title Christ  which means Messiah.  Paul is saying ‘at one time he was useless, he was without Christ.  Now he is good, useful – you might say a good Christian.  In other words, Useless was without Christ  before useful became really with Christ


By changing the adjective here in v 11 and using this adjective chrestos – an adjective that sounds just like the title Christ [ christos], Paul is putting the emphasis on Onesimus’ new identity in Christ.

Why was he useless before?  because he didn’t know Christ.  Why is he useful now?  because he knows Christ.  He is no longer without Christ but he’s with Christ.  He’s now a good Christian, and now  you need to treat him like that based on his new identity in Christ which you share with him!  Paul is pointing to this new relationship and identity as brothers in Christ.  This is not the Onesimus that Philemon once knew and now Philemon and Onesimus have this brand new relationship in the Lord; they are brothers in the Lord.  That’s the basis of Paul’s appeal.  It’s all very Christ-centered, very theological, very God-centered.  Paul does not appeal to Philemon on some humanitarian or secular basis but on the basis that Onesimus is now a new creation in Christ just as Philemon is a new creation in Christ.  This is the basis of Paul’s appeal.  He wants Philemon to treat Onesimus like a brother in the Lord and to forget about the past.



The old, worldly reality is that the former relationship of Philemon and Onesimus is one of master – slave, that is, a merely horizontal relationship.  Philemon can treat Onesimus any way he wants because they have a purely horizontal relationship.  But there is something which has now entered the picture which supercedes this horizontal relationship, their new identity in Christ.  Their new spiritual identity in Christ which supersedes the old, worldly reality.  It’s no longer a two-way relationship but a three-way relationship with God at the center and top.  Also, in this family of God in which they both are, they are no longer master – slave but they are now brother – brothermembers of the one family of God the Father.   So this new spiritual identity in Christ is there.


This new spiritual reality does not do away with their old relationship but transcends it because you will notice that Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon.  So the old relationship is still there – socially in some way – but it’s transformed v 16 by this new identity in Christ where there are brother and brother.  So they have this relationship in the flesh, that is, the human life untouched by the grace of God, but far more important they have this relationship in the Lord, that is, human life touched and transformed by the Lord.  So there is this new spiritual, heavenly reality.  Here’s Paul’s point.  It’s not that this new spiritual reality does away with this old, worldly reality, but the new reality must impact the old reality.  Paul will say this new spiritual reality must impact their relationship as master and slave.  The new spiritual reality simply supersedes, transcends and encompasses the old reality and must be what frames the way that Philemon acts toward Onesimus.  Philemon must start treating Onesimus through the lenses of this new identity in Christ.

Paul is saying to Philemon that the way he treats Onesimus must be governed not by the old reality but by Philemon’s – and Onesimus’ – new spiritual identity in Christ.  Their new identity in Christ has to control / impact their relationship as slave – master.  This is why Paul writes this letter to Philemon.  He calls attention to the family of God language because he’s saying to Philemon, ‘This means you have to treat Onesimus a certain way.’




12  I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.

12  o]n avne,pemya, soi( auvto,n( tou/tV e;stin ta. evma. spla,gcna\

JW:  whom I am sending back to you, him, that is, my very heart.


After having read this in the Greek up to this point, one might think that Paul has covered all his bases and can now start to take his foot off the pedal of Philemon.  Not so fast.  Paul has more to say.

This affirms that Onesimus is the one carrying the letter.

In v 12 Paul says that he is sending his very heart, Onesimus.  Oh, oh, Philemon!  You heard about this one already back in v 7.  The hits just keep coming!


In vv 7, 12 and 20 Paul works out a play on words using the word heart and in doing so makes clear what he thinks Philemon should do.

v 7  Paul praised Philemon for past actions by acknowledging that the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through (Philemon).

v 12 Now here Paul says that his very heart is Onesimus.  [This could not have been heard by Philemon as just another one of Paul’s subtle hints!]

v 20Finally, Paul will declare what benefit he desires from Onesimus, namely that he (Philemon) refresh my (Paul’s) heart in Christ.  

Of course, Philemon has already been praised as one who refreshes the hearts of the saints in v 7.

This sets up Paul’s next move, a direct appeal to Philemon that we see in v 20.

That is, without ever telling Philemon what to do, Paul is indicating to Philemon what he needs to do.

The rock on the one side of Philemon and the hard place on the other side are getting closer and closer.


13  I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel;

13  }On evgw. evboulo,mhn pro.j evmauto.n kate,cein( i[na u`pe.r sou/ moi diakonh/| evn toi/j desmoi/j tou/ euvaggeli,ou(

JW:  whom I was wishing to keep with myself (me) so that on your behalf he might serve me in my chains on behalf of the gospel

MLS:   I would have been glad to keep him with me in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel.


13-14 address Paul’s attitude toward ancient slavery.  Here is Paul’s core request because he says v 14 that he doesn’t want to do anything without Philemon’s decision.  Here’s what I want to do so you have to decide.

In other words, in Paul’s letters elsewhere as in Co – when he gets to the point that he instructs Christian masters, he does not say that ‘OK, you are Christians now and this means you must set all your slaves free.’  No, Paul tells these masters to treat their slaves a certain way, to treat them as Christian brothers and sisters, to treat them fairly and with love.


But here in the one place where Paul actually counsels and deals with a master and slave directly, he clearly commands Philemon to set Onesimus free.  This would have been simply amazing social hubris for Paul’s day.  From the larger social perspective this powerless apostle, though within this Christian context very powerful apostle because he’s esteemed and loved by Philemon and these other Christians, this powerless apostle is saying “here’s the right thing for you to do.  I know you are going to do the right thing.  I want you to set Onesimus free to be my coworker.”

Again, here in the one instance where Paul directly addresses an individual master, his counsel or command is to set the slave free.


This is the one place where Paul gives counsel to a master and slave, both individually and specifically.  Paul tells Philemon that in Christian obedience Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free so that Onesimus can become Paul’s coworker.  This is sometimes missed even though it is clear in the letter.  Paul has many coworkers:  Ti, Titus, Silas, Lk, Mk, etc.  These people are pastoring churches, going out as missionaries, assisting Paul to spread the word.  The technical language Paul is using – he might serve me in my chains on behalf of the gospel – indicates he wants to make Onesimus one of these coworkers.  Sure, Paul wants Philemon to greet Onesimus as a beloved brother, to forgive any debts but, sooner, rather than later, Paul wants Philemon send Onesimus to Paul to be his coworker.  To send Onesimus to be Paul’s coworker Philemon must set Onesimus free!


The phrase in my chains on behalf of the gospel is the idea that not only is Paul in prison for the gospel (He’s in prison for spreading the gospel.)  But also as in his other letters such as Pp there’s the idea that his imprisonment is God’s means to have the gospel spread even further.


Paul tells Philemon what he, Paul, would have done – he would have kept Onesimus.  Paul clearly states his preference:  he would have kept Onesimus not in the bonds of slavery or prison but in the bonds of the gospel.  Instead, he sent him – my own heart – back in v 12.


Paul demands nothing, but he leaves it to Philemon to decide what to do.  He trusts Philemon to do the right thing.  In fact, Paul is content in knowing that Philemon will do even more than he says v 21.  Paul certainly has dropped enough hints up to this point that Philemon would have a hard time missing the point.  But there’s still more …


14  but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

14  cwri.j de. th/j sh/j gnw,mhj ouvde.n hvqe,lhsa poih/sai( i[na mh. w`j kata. avna,gkhn to. avgaqo,n sou h=| avlla. kata. e`kou,sionÅ

JW:  but apart from your decision I decided to do nothing in order that the good what you do may not be forced but be by your own free will

MLS:    but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your goodness might not be from compulsion but of your own   ~ekou,sion disposition (I want you to be disposed to do it.)


Onesimus, as Paul’s child in Christ, is extremely useful to his Christian father in prison.  Certainly Paul would have liked to keep him as a coworker.  Still, Paul will do nothing without Philemon’s consent (and probably the approval of the housechurch).

Again, it’s the good that you do; it’s the right thing to do.  But he wants him to do it our of Christian love.  It’s important that it be done for the right reason.  ‘Out of Christian love I want you to do what is right because it’s what’s right and done by your own free will.’


but of your own disposition 

~ekou,sion disposition (I want you to be disposed to do it.)


15  Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever,

15  Ta,ca ga.r dia. tou/to evcwri,sqh pro.j w[ran( i[na aivw,nion auvto.n avpe,ch|j(

JW:  for perhaps on account of (for) this reason he was separated from you for an hour [for a short time] that you may have him back forever


This v has a nice poetic ring to it.


the divine passive


Paul uses a beautiful divine passive verb “was separated” (which refers to when Onesimus ran away) here in order to talk in a very nuanced and sophisticated way about the person behind all of what is happening, God, and to point Philemon in the direction of looking anew at his relationship with Onesimus.  With the divine passive you talk about God’s activity in a very subtle way by not saying “God did this” or “God did that.”  Instead, you use a passive verb in which it’s understood that God is the actor.  God is the understood agent in the action.

evcwri,sqh verb indicative aorist passive 3rd person singular from cwri,zw separate; pass. separate oneself, be separated (of divorce); leave, depart; be taken  away, be away (Pm 15); kecwrisme,noj avpo, set apart from (He 7.26)

Note:  There are many divine passives used in the Bible.  For instance, in the Lord’s Prayer we have God, hallow your name, bring your kingdom …  It’s means that God is the one who is going to do it when you put it in the passive.


Notice that Paul is retelling this whole story; he’s revising / rescripting  the whole  past.  Paul wants Philemon to rewrite the whole past.  Talk about putting the best construction on things!!!  He wants Philemon to look at the past in a whole new way.  The way Philemon would have told it is “this no good thief Onesimus took my money and left,”  but Paul changes that, putting a whole new spin on what happened, by saying he was separated from you for an hour ( or poetically, for a time).  In other words, by using this divine passive, Paul is telling the story from a divine perspective, saying that it was actually God who was at work in all of this.  He wants Philemon to look at all of what has happened as being, in fact, God’s will that Onesimus could become a brother in the Lord with Philemon and they could be united in this one family of God.  Paul wants Philemon to be able to say, “Oh!  I get it!  The reason this happened is that God was at work so that Onesimus might come to the faith!”  Paul doesn’t demand that Philemon look at it this way but invites him to look at it this way.  In other words, all of these events were providentially ordered by God so that Philemon might have Onesimus back forever.

Paul wants Philemon to re-imagine and revise his whole understanding of it, and part of that is to have God being the actor with he was separated.  

Paul is telling Philemon that not only do you have this new identity in Christ but all of those old things that happened in the past were part of God’s plan to bring Onesimus to Christ and to bring you together as brothers in the Lord.  There are no coincidences!

So Paul wants Philemon to revise his whole way of thinking about his relationship with Onesimus because what had happened was God’s work and therefore part of God’s plan.  God was at work to bring Onesimus to the Lord.

Paul certainly admits that back then Onesimus was useless but he points out to Philemon that that uselessness was because Onesimus was without Christ.

Now Onesimus is with Christ and is a good Christian – so all should be forgiven and forgotten.

Philemon is to revise the whole past in light of the present reality that this is God’s work.


Therefore, Paul continues to point out that the basis for their relationship with each other is as members in this family of God.

In light of that, Philemon is to rewrite the whole script of their lives together.

The sacred story is all encompassing and includes the story behind the Story which is in turn, climaxed by the story of Christ.


Paul says this has caught up both Onesimus and Philemon, and Philemon’s attitude toward Onesimus should reflect this fact that they have now been brought into this family of God.


that you may have him back forever refers to the Christian hope of the resurrection and the renewal / restoration of all creation.




16  no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brotherespecially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

16  ouvke,ti w`j dou/lon avllV u`pe.r dou/lon( avdelfo.n avgaphto,n( ma,lista evmoi,( po,sw| de. ma/llon soi. kai. evn sarki. kai. evn kuri,w|Å

JW:  no longer as a slave but far beyond (more than) a slave – as a beloved brother – especially (most of all) to me but (by) how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.



This is almost humorous.  Paul has what some scholars call the tautology of earnestness.  [tautology = a statement, classification or accounting that overlooks and excludes no possibility.]  Paul is so emotional, so excited, that he sometimes says things that grammatically would not pass the muster of your high school English teacher.  He here actually says he’s more than a slave, a beloved brother, most of all to me but by how much more to you.  The question is “how can you get more than most of all/”  That’s the way Paul is when he’s very much emphasizing his point.  He can’t be even more of brother than he is to me but he’s even more of a brother to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord!  


As Paul writes to Philemon he intercedes on behalf of Onesimus in a variety of ways.  Consequent to everything he has just been telling Philemon, here in this v Paul is sending Onesimus back with the appeal that Philemon will accept Onesimus no longer as slave but as a beloved brother, that is, to accept Philemon into the church.  So what exactly does Paul want Philemon to do? See discussion above.


as a slave 

Paul does not do away with the slave/master relationship but he wants Philemon to treat Onesimus as a beloved brother.  That doesn’t mean that he’s no longer his slave but he must no longer treat him as a slave but as a beloved brother because of the new relationship they have.  In that they are now brother and brother, that new relationship must completely transform and renew their old relationship.  That’s because their relationship has been transformed.  They still have this old master / slave relationship but they now have this new identity in Christ in which they are brothers with one Father – God.  That is their new spiritual reality which has to impact the old relationship; the new relationship has to be the controlling feature in the old relationship.  This new reality is not this hypothetical thing but Philemon must treat Onesimus as a beloved brother.


especially (most of all) to me but (by) how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  

Notice here that Paul is very emotionally effusive with the superlative most of all to me – you can’t do more than a superlative – but then on top of that he heaps but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  

The flesh is their human relationship and the Lord is now this human relationship transformed by God.


Well, Philemon may have found it a lot easier to accept Onesimus as his brother in the LORD, in the more abstract way, than receiving him as his brother in the flesh.  Now we’re getting down to brass tacks because with this Paul is apparently asking Philemon for Onesimus’ manumission.

How are you going to deal with this one who is indeed your slave but who is also your brother?  That dramatically raises the stakes for Philemon.

If Philemon refuses to accept a brother as a brother, then Philemon’s status in the brotherhood is at stake for he has not shown himself to be a brother.  Philemon then has a debt, our third debt, and that is a debt of obligation to the entire Christian brotherhood / sisterhood to receive Onesimus for what he has become rather than for what he had been.

That is, the rhetorical center of Pm revolves around the concept of three debts:  

1.the debt of Onesimus to Philemon

2.the debt of Philemon to Paul

3.the debt of Philemon to be a brother

See discussion of “rhetorical center” above.

Further, Onesimus is taking this letter to Philemon not knowing what Philemon is going to do!

Philemon actually has the authority to have Onesimus killed under the circumstances of owner-slave in that day-and-age.  

So on what basis does Paul exhort Philemon?

In v 9 he exhorts Philemon on the basis of agape.  9  yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love …

So once again love becomes the basis for an ethical decision.

So in this short letter Paul lays out the theological issues that apply to this very practical situation.

Yes, the runaway slave Onesimus owes Philemon but Philemon also owes Paul.

And Philemon owes it to Onesimus and to the entire Christian fellowship to receive Onesimus as a brother not just in the LORD in an abstract way but in the flesh in every day reality just as God calls us to serve others not in the abstract but in the concrete realities of life.

So in v 8 Paul indicates to Philemon that Paul has the authority to order Philemon what to do but in v 9 Paul says that on account of love, he would rather appeal to Philemon than to order him.



17  So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

17  eiv ou=n me e;ceij koinwno,n( proslabou/ auvto.n w`j evme,Å

JW:  if you hold me as your partner, receive him (welcome him) as you would me.


Paul is saying, ‘Onesimus is on the same level as I am.’  If you have love and regard for me, show the same love and regard for Onesimus.

To Paul’s If you hold me as your partner  Philemon would say, ‘Well, of course, I do!’


Paul is bringing pressure on Philemon to do the right thing based on his relationship with Paul.

One thing that oozes out of Pm throughout the letter is that Philemon loves Paul and that Paul is very concerned that Philemon is not going to treat Onesimus correctly.

So for the sake of Onesimus Paul is going to trade on this relationship he has with  Philemon and he’s going to bring pressure on Philemon on the basis of that relationship.


See how Paul puts what he considers the needed incentive and pressure on Philemon to do the right think that he should do, presumably out of concern for Onesimus.


Notice how much is being asked of Philemon:

  1. notsimply that Onesimus escape the punishment that could legally be imposed,

This could often be severe including being branded with the letter “F” for fugitive.  ???

(This is according to Barr.  Somehow this letter might not pass the language test.  Mike)

  1. notsimply that Onesimus be freed (which we might have expected as a more noble gesture),
  2. butthat Onesimus be moved to the plane of the Christian relationship:  Receive him as you would receive me  – ie, as an equal.

The request is a dramatic example of Paul’s way of thinking in faithfulness to the change of values brought about by Christ.

The antinomy is not simply between slave and free, but between slave and new creation in Christ.

antinomy is the opposition of one law, rule or principle to another.


18  If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

18  eiv de, ti hvdi,khse,n se h’ ovfei,lei( tou/to evmoi. evllo,gaÅ

WT:   if he has wronged you in any way, or owes ( ovfei,lei ) you anything, charge that to my account.

JW:  if he wronged you in any way or owes you anything, reckon this to my account


The way Paul puts the question here with if assumes that Paul knows that Onesimus did owe Philemon.  In other words, the if clause Paul uses here is actually the form of an if clause that means ‘it’s true.’  In doing this Paul would come across more gently than he might have otherwise said it.


In Pm the word ‘owe’ likely has a literal reference to monetary or other loss.  Paul is very definitely using language of finance here, and he seems to be talking about actual monetary debt.

So if he wronged  you in any way means that Paul knows Onesimus did wrong Philemon.

Paul wants to go one step further and not just have Philemon treat Onesimus as a beloved brother v 16.  Paul is saying, chill out.  Paul wants Philemon to forgive Onesimus’ debt.  It’s not just “treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ” but Paul tells Philemon specifically to “forgive his debt.  I’ll pay whatever he owes you.”  Paul wants Philemon to forgive Onesimus’ debt.  It’s not just ‘treat Onesimus right’ but it’s “forgive his debt.”  So that is the first debt.


Paul’s constant stress is that this new identity in Christ, which is the identity here, here’s the social structure that’s in place.


Although many say Onesimus stole something when he fled, this may simply reflect Roman law in that a person who harbored a runaway slave was held accountable to the owner for the loss of work involved.

Also, under Roman law a slave could buy his/her freedom, and many did.  Slaves were a valuable commodity and normally owners expected some compensation for the loss of a slave’s services.  Therefore, under normal circumstances, if Onesimus wanted his freedom, it would have cost him.  So, here, Paul steps in and offers to pay whatever Onesimus might owe.  At one and the same time, however, Paul will, of course, turn right around in the next verse and remind Philemon that Philemon owes Paul his very self!


reckon this to my account 

Paul does not expect Philemon to come to him and say, ‘OK, Paul, pay up.’

It’s as if Paul is saying, ‘I say this that I might not even mention that you owe your very self to me.’  v 19

If Philemon is being obedient here, the idea is that Philemon will forgive the debt.

But Paul, just to make sure the debt will be paid, if Philemon does not forgive the debt, Paul is saying ‘I will repay the debt.’


19  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.

19  evgw. Pau/loj e;graya th/| evmh/| ceiri,( evgw. avpoti,sw\i[na mh. le,gw soi o[ti kai. seauto,n moi prosofei,leijÅ

WT:   I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand (aha!):  I will repay it.  I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.

JW:  I, Paul, writing with my own hand, I will repay.  I say this so that I don’t have to mention that in addition to everything else that you owe me, you owe me your very self.


with my own hand 

So either Paul is picking up the pen from the scribe or he’s been writing the whole letter and he wants to point to the fact that  he’s really writing now.

It’s most likely the case that he is now taking the pen or stylus from the scribe to make sure that there is no misunderstanding here.


I will repay it refers to the first debt, and Paul guarantees with his own hand to repay it.


I say nothing about your owing me even your own self


Talk about irony!  Paul does everything but command Philemon to free Onesimus to return to Paul.  Paul brought Philemon to faith so it’s as if he’s here saying to Philemon:  “Philemon, baby, do you want to talk about debt here?!  You’ve come to know the Lord and you’ve been saved.  You’ve been transformed by Christ into the person you were created to be.  You have been put on the road to salvation.  You owe me your very life!  You owe me eternity.  But, I am not going to press you on it.  I am just going to remind you that you happen to owe me here a bit too.”


The phrase owing me even your own self tells us that Paul converted Philemon to become this new person in Christ just as he had Onesimus.  Thus, everything Philemon is and has is due to Paul.  Philemon owes his very self to him.

Paul uses the verb prosofei,leij verb indicative present active 2nd person singular from prosofei,lw owe, owe besides 

Once again we get a member of the ovfei,lw family here with  the verb  prosofei,lw for the owing.

ovfei,lw owe; ought, must, be bound or obligated; sin against, wrong (Lk 11.4)

you owe me other things besides but in addition to that you owe me your very self.

From Paul’s point of view since Paul brought Philemon to faith, Philemon owes him everything.


With I, Paul, Paul is emphasizing that he Paul is one to whom Philemon owes (directly or indirectly) his Christian life.  In doing so, Paul makes any demand for repayment – from Onesimus to Philemon – virtually impossible.  Paul’s tab already has Philemon’s debt to the apostle on it, and so there is no real question of payment here.  In other words, regarding Onesimus’ freedom, Paul is cashing in Philemon’s chips!


Note:  There are some scholars who say there never was an encounter between Philemon and Paul.

Those who favor an encounter between Paul and Philemon generally suggest that the meeting had not taken place where Philemon now lives (because Paul himself had not evangelized Colossae) but perhaps at Ephesus.


20  Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.

20  nai. avdelfe,( evgw, sou ovnai,mhn evn kuri,w|\avna,pauso,n mou ta. spla,gcna evn Cristw/|Å

MLS:   … I want some benefit from you …

JW:  yes, brother, I would have usefulness (profit / benefit) from you in the Lord!  Refresh my heart in Christ.

JW:  yes, (my) brother, may I have (get) some benefit (usefulness) from you in the Lord!  Refresh my heart in Christ.



Sometimes people miss this in v 20 thinking, “Oh, Paul is going on to a new topic.  I want to have some benefit or joy from you in the Lord.  What could it be?”  However, Paul’s statement here is much more sophisticated and charming than that; he’s on the same topic; he’s reaching the climax here.  By using a verb form based on Onesimus’ name – see below, he’s making it quite clear what benefit he needs.

In fact, v 20 actually echoes vv 7, 12 of the letter.  Notice the language of brother, refresh and heart.

Through your Christian faith you’ve done all these good works.  Paul praised Philemon in v 7 for refreshing the hearts of the saints with   the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.  

This is all in the past and Paul recalls that but now here in v 20 he wants them to refresh his heart in Christ.

That recalls v 12 where Paul talks about my very heart, and that very heart is Onesimus.  

12  whom I am sending back to you, him, that is, my very heart {Onesimus is my own heart.}

Then in v 20, he summarizes everything up,

In Christian speak Paul is saying that Philemon will refresh his heart – probably through the giving of freedom to Onesimus.


So how does Paul want Philemon to refresh his heart in Christ?  This is much more clear in the Greek than in the English.  This language in v 20 recalls both vv 7 and 12.

Paul here uses the verb – which means get benefit, get usefulness  ovnai,mhn – as a pun on the name Onesimus.  

ovnai,mhn verb optative aorist middle 1st person singular from ovni,namai aninamai (aor. opt. ovnai,mhn) to have benefit, profit, have joy   (JW:  also transliterated it as onin[Symbol]mi meaning to have (get) profit or benefit)

ovnai,mhn is the verb cognate of the adjective Onesimus – another creative play on Onesimus’ name – onesimos meaning profitable, beneficial.

Therefore, the verb form ovnai,mhn that Paul uses when he says in v 20 when he says may I have some profit – that verb form is verb form based on the root of the name Onesimus  Vonh,simon

ovnai,mhn  onin[Symbol]mi  is a very rare word in Greek but similar-sounding in the Greek to Onesimus  vOnh,simon



The name Onesimus 


comes from the Greek adjective onesimus 


which means useful, beneficial, profitable 


The word benefit


comes from the Greek verb onin[Symbol]mi based on Onesimus’ name


which means to be useful, beneficial or profitable



So when Paul says, may I have some profit/benefit; usefulness, he’s using a verb whose stem is the same as the stem of the name Onesimus.  That is Christian code language meaning that Paul wants Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother.  That’s how Philemon is going to bring joy to Paul.  Paul uses a verb form based on Onesimus’ name to make it crystal clear that he wants Philemon to do these things for Onesimus.  Philemon might talk all he wants and say “I am a believer and I love the apostle Paul.  He brought me to Christ.”  But if Philemon does not act that same way toward Onesimus, then it’s all for naught.


When Paul says this is what I want you to do for me, he puts Onesimus name at the center of the verb. That’s a very charming and sophisticated way of doing things.  It’s a way of Paul saying this message in an understated way, and yet much more powerfully because it’s so understated.  It’s a way of saying, “What you do for Onesimus, you do for me.”  I’m asking you to show your faith for Christ by how you act toward Onesimus.


Paul is not going to let Philemon off the hook by allowing him to show his faith in ways Philemon would prefer.  Paul is, in effect saying, “The way that I want to have benefit from you in the Lord is by what you do for Onesimus.”


So Paul tells Philemon that he wants some benefit  ovnai,mhn   onaim[Symbol]from Philemon.

While Onesimus and benefit in the English are not at all similar, On[Symbol]simon and onaim[Symbol]n look and sound alike in the Greek because they come from the same root.

In sloppy modern Erasmian Greek pronunciation they don’t sound alike at all

but in the ancient Greek it would have sounded like [Symbol]  n[Symbol]´ s[Symbol]  mon  and  [Symbol]  n[Symbol]´  m[Symbol]ne.

They would have sounded a great deal alike in their original pronunciation.


Paul is saying to Philemon that he wants some benefit from him, and the word in Greek at a glance would have looked and sounded like the Onesimus

You can easily mishear or misread it for the name of the slave that Paul says that he wants.

Thus, by using paronomasia [punning =  playing on words that sound alike] Paul implies, without saying it, that he desires Onesimus from Philemon!!!  In antiquity you could do a play on words even in the most serious and important situations.  In our own time we have a different cultural take on it.  We tend to do plays on words only for having fun, only for having amusement.  We wouldn’t do it in a serious situation.  So Paul appropriately uses that literary device here.  Paul is one tricky dude when it comes to the Greek.


Literally, however, Paul says “I want some benefit from you, Philemon.”  ‘What I’m asking you to do, Philemon, is not just something generally.  The benefit, profit or joy I want from you is what you are going to do for Onesimus who is the dear brother of both  of us in the Lord.’


So Paul says he desires some benefit from Philemon, and the very next thing he says is that the benefit he desires is for Philemon to refresh my heart in Christ. 

refresh my heart in Christ  isn’t some generalized thing; it’s not ‘go do some good deed.’  Instead, it is ‘do what I’m asking you to do for Onesimus.’

Remember that in vv 7, 12 and 20 Paul worked out a play on words using the word heart and in doing so made clear what he thinks Philemon should do.

v 7  Paul praised Philemon for past actions by acknowledging that the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through (Philemon).

7  for I received much joy and comfort because of your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.  

v 12 Then Paul said that his very heart is Onesimus.

12  whom I am sending back to you, him, that is, my very heart 

v 20Finally, here in this v, Paul declares what benefit he desires from Onesimus, namely that he (Philemon) refresh my (Paul’s) heart in Christ.  



in v 7 Paul wants Philemon to be a heart refresher

in v 12 Onesimus is Paul’s heart and finally

in v 20 Paul asks Philemon to refresh his heart in Christ.

In other words, indirectly Paul is telling Philemon to act in relationship to Onesimus.

Paul himself never tells Philemon what to do but in writing the letter Paul does say in vv 13-14  I would have been glad to keep him with me in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel.  but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your goodness might not be from compulsion but of your own  

So without ever telling Philemon what to do, Paul is indicating to Philemon what he needs to do.  Basically Paul tells Philemon that he wants Onesimus to be returned to him in Rome.  Paul has deftly placed Philemon between that Christian “rock and a hard place”.


21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

21  Pepoiqw.j th/| u`pakoh/| sou e;graya, soi( eivdw.j o[ti kai. u`pe.r a] le,gw poih,seijÅ

WT:   trusting in your obedience, I write you knowing that you will do even more than I say.

JW:  confident in your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do far beyond what I say


The obedience here would be directed to God on the part of Philemon were he to carry through with Paul’s wish for him.

Obedience here would be for Philemon to

treat Onesimus as a beloved brother when he comes back to you with this letter,

forgive him of any debt and

free him to become Paul’s coworker.

Paul wants Philemon to do it of his own free will; Paul does not want to strong arm Philemon into doing it, even though he, Paul, has this big apostolic stick which Paul could use if he wanted to because he, Paul, has the authority of God on his side.  Paul wants Philemon to do this voluntarily our of Christian love which fits in quite well with Paul’s Christian ethics that this is God at work in his people such that they freely follow God.


In this v Paul keeps the pressure on Philemon with his double rhetorical touch in which he both reminds Philemon that he owes obedience (to Paul as an apostle, or to God and the gospel?) and expresses his confidence that Philemon will do even more than asked.  Also, the nature of the appeal becomes all the more clear.  Some scholars interpret the more as a hint that Philemon should release from slavery Onesimus, who is his Christian brother, and send him back to Paul.



confident in your obedience, ties in with v 8  For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty (to do what is right)  Here it’s a matter of his obedience.  So by the time we get to the end of Pm, we see the nature of Paul’s appeal is clearly not just a request.  By this point Paul’s appeal clearly has the force of Philemon doing what is right.


knowing that you will do beyond what I say  acknowledges that Philemon will do what he needs to in order to be obedient.  Paul is charging Philemon to engage in Christian ethical reflection concerning further acts of love to Onesimus, about how much more he could do even beyond these three things so far!  Paul praised Philemon for his active love.  Then in v 20 he said the way you show your love in this instance is Onesimus.  Put yourself in Philemon’s place!  Ouch!  Paul gives Philemon this tough list and then turns around and effectively says, “I know you are going to do far more than this!!!”  Paul has given Philemon a starter list knowing Philemon will do far more than just this.  Paul leaves it open.  This is really hubris.  On the one hand Paul has already told Philemon that he has to treat Onesimus as a beloved brother; you have to forgive any debts, no matter how large; you need to set Onesimus free and “there’s much more I know you are going to do.”  By not specifying Paul is inviting Philemon to engage in this ethical reflection of “What should I do for Onesimus?”


Paul may be thinking of Philemon giving funds to Onesimus for his missionary labors as Paul’s coworker or supporting Onesimus in other ways.  There are all sorts of possibilities but we don’t know because Paul simply wants Philemon to think about all the various ways he could help and Paul knows he’s going to.  It’s all the more powerful because Paul in the end just leaves it unsaid.  With these words Paul concludes that he is confident of Philemon’s obedience to the command he never issued!!!    Don’t you just love it?!


Paul doesn’t directly tell Philemon what to do but rather Paul creates a theological framework for decision making and then, even though he indicates the direction that he thinks things ought to go, he allows Philemon the freedom to make the decision that only Philemon can make.

This is not a bad model for how you work pastorally when people ask you what to do.  This happens often.  People will come in to lay out a situation and then they will ask what they should do.  At one level they don’t want you to tell them what to do and the proof of the pudding there is to tell them what to do, and you’ll find out how much they want you to tell what to do.  There are some who will want you to tell them what to do because then that resolves their responsibility.  If it doesn’t work out, it’s not their fault but yours.

But generally people don’t want you to tell them what to do.  Still, what we can do for people is to help create the larger theological framework for them to make their own decision and that in a sense is really part and parcel of what we are getting paid to do, to help people interpret their lives, their situations, theologically in light of the faith, using the resources of the Christian faith.  But we really cannot make the decision for them.  People have to live with their decisions and they need to make to them themselves.


22  One thing moreprepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

22  a[ma de. kai. e`toi,maze, moi xeni,an\evlpi,zw ga.r o[ti dia. tw/n proseucw/n u`mw/n carisqh,somai u`mi/nÅ

JW:  and now at the same time prepare for me a place, a guest room, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you.


So far Paul has told Philemon that he’s not going to force him to do anything, ‘but you know as well as I do that useful was useless until he became Christian and when he was Christian, then he became truly useful.  On the other hand, you, Philemon, refresh hearts.  Onesimus is my heart; refresh my heart in Christ.’

Next, in the fashion of “I know you will do the right thing!”, Paul in v 21 stated that Philemon will do even more than Paul says.


Then, in this v with his “Oh, by the way” insertion, Paul backs up the motivation he’s been laying out to Philemon with this paraenesis (practice request) he makes of him regarding the guest room.  Paul’s impending visit should function for Philemon as a thing of joy and it surely does.  The beloved Paul is assured that God is going to get him released from prison through their prayers and that he’s will be granted to them, so prepare for him a guest room.  But, just in case Philemon was not playing to treat Onesimus with the consideration that Paul wanted him to, how would this function?  That is, the not-so-subtle pressure continues.   In fact, there may be an implicit threat here.

“Here’s what I want you to do for Onesimus.  By the way, I’m coming for a visit and I’m going to see what you did do when I get there.”  Talk about a rock and a hard place!  Paul is pulling out all the stops for Philemon to do the right thing by Onesimus.


Imagine Philemon facing Paul face-to-face if he did not do what Paul recommended!

Most agree that Philemon must have reacted generously; otherwise the letter would not have been preserved.


23  Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you,

23  VAspa,zetai, se VEpafra/j o` sunaicma,lwto,j mou evn Cristw/| VIhsou/(


se you in the singular

That is, final greetings are passed to Philemon alone from Paul and his fellow prisoner, Epaphras, as well as his fellow workers listed in v 24.


24  and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

24  Ma/rkoj( VAri,starcoj( Dhma/j( Louka/j( oi` sunergoi, mouÅ


25  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

25  ~H ca,rij tou/ kuri,ou VIhsou/ Cristou/ meta. tou/ pneu,matoj u`mw/nÅ



Finally, Paul pronounces the benediction of grace v 25 of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the whole church in Philemon’s house (v 2).  Notice to whom Paul sent this letter in v 25.

The your of your spirit is in the plural which ties in with the salutation of the letter vv 1-3 and which tells us  there are multiple addressees.  So Paul has now switched back into the plural use of you.  Hence, Paul is writing to the whole church at Philemon’s house.  That is, Paul framed the letter in plurals but in between he focuses on the singular.  In other words, in between Paul addressed Philemon singularly in the context of a Christian community.  It’s not a private letter but it’s very personal.  That’s a hard thing for us to sometimes grasp because we are in a time and culture where we are so individualistic that we can’t see how a letter like this could do this interesting thing.


So the multiple addressees are:

... To Philemon our dear friend and coworker, 2  to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Since Paul’s letters were read to the whole congregation in the context of worship, everyone is going to know what Paul says and Philemon does.


So using various means Paul brings the pressure so that this appeal is couched as a request.  Paul is pulling out all the stops and putting every pressure he can on Philemon because he’s so concerned that Philemon might mistreat Onesimus.  Thus, the nature of Paul’s appeal is somewhat different than just a request.

Paul wants Philemon to do the right thing for good, theological, moral reasons.

Paul wants Philemon to do this on his own accord.

Paul doesn’t want to command Philemon so he doesn’t.

Still, what is the right thing to do is very clear, and so Paul brings all sorts of encouragement to bear on Philemon to make sure he’s going to do the right thing.

This is a volatile situation in which Paul is sending Onesimus back with the letter.  Legally Philemon could do anything he wanted to Onesimus, including killing him.  So we have this big power difference between the master Philemon and the slave Onesimus.  Philemon is in power; Onesimus is the weak one.  All of the pressure that Paul brings on Philemon is actually very attractive and positive and good because here is Paul the apostle weighing in on the side of the weak person in the social relationship, Onesimus, the slave.  Paul wants to make sure Philemon has every incentive to do the right thing because Onesimus’ welfare hangs in the balance.




Reading Reflection: The Relationship of Co to Pm 


As final greetings are being passed at the end of Co, we get in Co 4  7  Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. 8  I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; 9  he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.


Co is one of the disputed letters of Paul.


  1. One fascinating aspect of the letter to the Co is the many common features and connections of this letter to Paul’s letter to Philemon.  A key historical datum, in connection with the question of Paul’s authorship of Co, is the occurrence of the same names and persons in both Co and Pm.  Comb carefully through Pm and Co 4and collect the names of all the persons mentioned by Paul. How many names occur in both letters?


  1. Now read the analysis of the literary relationship between Pm, Ep and Co by LTJ.  As noted above, a crucial  historical datum is the striking occurrence of the same names and persons in both Co and Pm.  What are the different ways in which scholars have sought to explain this phenomenon historically?  What is Johnson’s historical explanation for this phenomenon?  Which do you think is the best explanation?


  1. What are the main objections which have been raised to Pauline authorship of Co?  What is Johnson’s response to these objections?  What is Johnson’s conclusion regarding the authorship of Co?


  1. What is your conclusion, based on the historical evidence, regarding Paul’s authorship of Co, and the historical relationship between Paul’s letter to Pm and the letter to the Co?