This letter to Philemon was written during one of Paul’s many imprisonments. It’s the shortest letter he ever wrote, but don’t let its size trick you. This is actually one of the most explosive things Paul ever composed.
From what we can gather, Philemon was a wealthy Roman citizen from Colossae. He likely met Paul during his mission in Ephesus (Acts 19), where he became a follower of Jesus. When Paul’s coworker Epaphras started a Jesus community in Colossae, Philemon became a leader of a church based in his home.
Philemon, like all other household patriarchs in the Roman world, enslaved people, one of whom was named Onesimus. At some point, these two had a serious conflict. Onesimus wronged Philemon in some way, perhaps by theft or cheating. Whatever exactly happened, it was made worse when Onesimus ran away (Phm. vv. 18-19). Eventually, Onesimus visited Paul in prison, likely to appeal for help, and there he became a follower of Jesus and a beloved assistant to Paul.
Paul finds himself in a difficult and very delicate situation as he writes this letter. He wants Philemon to not simply forgive Onesimus but also receive and embrace him as a brother in the Messiah. In other words, Paul is asking Philemon to release Onesimus from enslavement and treat him like an equal within their Jesus community.
Christian tradition holds that the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Philemon.
The events described in Philemon take place in Asia-minor, close to Ephesus or Caesarea Philippi. Philemon was likely composed while Paul was in custody in Rome between 60 and 64 C.E.
The book of Philemon is a letter written in prose discourse from Paul to Philemon.
Equality between followers of Jesus
The gift of God’s love and grace
Slavery and Jesus’ new humanity
Philemon can be divided into three parts. Verses 1-7 open with a prayer of thanks. Verses 8-20 are a request of forgiveness and restoration for Onesimus, an enslaved person. And verses 1:21-25 include encouragements and greetings.
Philemon 1-7: A Prayer of Thanksgiving
Paul opens the letter with a prayer (Phm. vv. 1-7), thanking God for the love and faithfulness Philemon has shown toward Jesus and his people. Paul starts to pave the way for his request with this dense line: “I pray that the partnership that springs from your faith may effectively lead you to recognize all the good things at work in us, leading us into the Messiah” (Phm. 6).
The key word here is “partnership,” or in Greek, koinonia. It means “sharing, mutual participation.” It’s when two or more people receive something together and share in it, becoming partners. Paul says that faithfulness to Jesus means recognizing that all of his followers are equal partners who share in the gift of God’s love and grace. For Paul, this experience of koinonia among Jesus’ followers isn’t just an idea; it’s something you do in your relationships.
Philemon 8-20: A Request for Forgiveness and Restoration
Paul then gives his request to Philemon (Phm. vv. 8-20), finally bringing up Onesimus, who has become Paul’s “child” in prison (Phm. 10). Paul has led Onesimus to dedicate his life and allegiance to Jesus, so both Paul and Onesimus are now family members in Jesus. Onesimus has been serving Paul faithfully in prison. And though Paul wants to keep him around, he knows that this unresolved conflict with Philemon has to be reconciled, especially since they are both followers of Jesus. Paul asks that Philemon receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave, as a beloved brother … in the Lord” (Phm. 16). This is a tall order. Under Roman law, Philemon had every legal right to have Onesimus punished or put in prison. Paul is not only asking him to forgive Onesimus but to welcome him back into Colossae as a social equal and as a family member.
This is way beyond kindness—it’s unheard of! Freeing an enslaved person and treating them like family would mean upsetting the status quo of Roman social order. Why should Philemon do such a thing? At this point, Paul pulls a brilliant move, recalling the key word koinonia from his opening prayer. He says that if you are truly a “partner” with me, then “welcome Onesimus as if he were me. And if he’s wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to me … I will repay it” (Phm. vv. 17-19).
Within this request, we can see the heart of Paul’s Gospel message being acted out. For Paul, the Gospel is about reconciliation, first of all. As he told the Corinthians, “In the Messiah, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). In this situation, Paul is playing out the role of Jesus. He will absorb the consequences of Onesimus’ wrongdoing and pay the cost himself, all so that he can be reconciled to Philemon.
Paul’s message was about more than a legal transaction—it’s all about koinonia. Onesimus, Philemon, and Paul are all equal partners before God, and they all share the same need for forgiveness. The ground is level before the cross. Philemon and Onesimus can no longer relate merely as “master” and “slave” because they are now family members, brothers in the Messiah, as Paul tells Philemon, along with the entire church of Colossae.
“In God’s new family, people are not Greek or Jewish, circumcised or uncircumcised, foreigners or uncivilized, slave or free. But the Messiah is all, and is in all people” (Col. 3:11).
Paul then brings the short letter to a close, stating his confidence that Philemon will do even more than Paul has requested. Paul asks him to prepare a guest room, as he wants to visit as soon as he’s out of prison. With a few final greetings, Paul ends the letter.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is powerful for many reasons. It is the only letter in which Paul doesn’t explicitly mention Jesus’ death or resurrection. This is not an oversight. He doesn’t need to explain the cross with words because he is demonstrating it through his actions. Paul is embodying the meaning of the cross, becoming the means by which Onesimus and Philemon are reconciled to God as well as to each other.
This letter shows us that the implications of the good news about Jesus are extremely personal but never private. The fact that Philemon and Onesimus are now brothers in the Messiah makes their master-slave relationship totally irrelevant. The family of Jesus’ people, where all are equal recipients of God’s grace, is a new kind of society or a “new humanity,” as Paul calls it (Colossians 3:10). In this new society, people’s value and social status are no longer defined by race, gender, social, or economic class. In the Messiah, they are simply new humans and equal partners, sharing together in God’s healing mercy through Jesus.