Epistles: A Slave as a Brother (Philemon 1-21)

Some scholars have read Paul’s letter to Philemon as sowing the seeds of abolition, as suggesting that all Christian slavemasters ought to view slaves as members of the family, and should therefore free them all. Other scholars have read this same letter as saying that Christians who find runaway slaves ought to return them to their owners.

Some people today are embarrassed that Paul told slaves to obey their masters, and he did not directly tell slave-owners to free all their slaves. They think that Paul was far too soft on the evil of slavery.

The same letter can be viewed in different ways, depending on the point of view you are coming from – but slaves in the first century apparently were not too troubled by this. They accepted Christianity quite readily, even if it did not mean their freedom. They were happy with the spiritual benefits even if there were no social or economic benefits to go with it.

Introductory material

Verse 1 says: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker…” (NRSV throughout). This is the way first-century letters normally began. This is the way that modern letters begin, too, if we count the information on the envelope: the return address tells us who is writing, and then it says who it is being sent to.

This letter is from both Paul and Timothy. In many of his letters, Paul includes the names of his co-workers as co-authors. In this case, Timothy may have had a lot to do with the way the letter is written. Paul could be quite forceful, but this letter is tactful and subtle, perhaps well-suited to Timothy, who seems to have been of a more gentle nature.

Paul introduces himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. In some letters, he calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ, but that may have been too much irony for this particular letter. But he is a prisoner, apparently in jail.

There are three possible locations for this imprisonment: Rome, Caesarea, or Ephesus. Acts tells us he spent a couple of years imprisoned in Caesarea, and a couple of years in Rome, so those are possible locations. But it is hard to imagine a runaway slave going all the way from Colossae to Caesarea. The scenario is more plausible if Paul is jailed in Ephesus. The problem is that the Bible never mentions Paul being jailed in Ephesus. David deSilva writes,

Acts is silent about such an imprisonment, but Acts, like all history, is selective in the story it tells. Paul refers to some ordeal in Ephesus (see 1 Cor 15:32; 2 Cor 1:8-9) and speaks of suffering imprisonments in the plural (even before his Caesarean and Roman imprisonments) in 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:23. A run-in with the authorities in Ephesus resulting in a brief imprisonment is therefore a plausible scenario.[1]

An imprisonment in Ephesus also makes more sense for verse 22, where Paul says that he wants to stay in Philemon’s home. Someone who gets out of jail in Rome would hardly be expected to go to a small inland city in Asia, especially when he has already announced plans to go to Spain.[2] But it would be plausible for someone who was leaving Ephesus. However, the exact location of writing doesn’t affect the way we interpret the letter.

Verse 2 continues the address of the letter: “to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.” Apphia and Archippus are probably in Philemon’s family, perhaps as wife and son, perhaps leaders in the church, though we cannot be sure. Nor does it matter, for they do not play any further role in the story.

It is significant that a church meets in Philemon’s house – this means that Philemon is wealthy enough not only to have a slave, but also to have a house large enough for a small church to meet in. He was in the upper class, probably in the top 5 or 10 percent.

It is also noteworthy that this letter is written to the whole church; the letter would be read to all the members. This could put Philemon on the hot seat: not only is Paul asking him to free a slave, but also everyone knows that Paul is asking him to do this, and everyone will be able to see whether he does. It is an acknowledgement that Philemon’s actions affect the whole community. Gorman writes, “Paul wants Philemon, as a believer and especially as a church leader, to know that the subject of this letter is not a personal matter.”[3] The relationship of one member to another can affect the entire church. deSilva writes,

Paul turns what appears to be a private matter into a household matter in the broader sense of the Christian family. The local community of faith will become a witness to Paul’s request and thus also to Philemon’s response. Philemon cannot act privately in the matter of Onesimus, who now is part of the larger household of God and not merely Philemon’s household.[4]

Paul writes, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3). The normal Greek greeting in a letter was charein, greetings. Paul always changes this to a similar Greek word, charis, meaning grace, and he adds the typical Jewish greeting, shalom in Hebrew, eirene in Greek, meaning peace – and he notes that both grace and peace come to us from God. In his other letters, he usually mentions Jesus Christ as an equal source of that grace and peace.

Introductory prayer

A typical Greek letter, even a “secular” one, usually began with some sort of prayer. Paul follows this custom, and his introductory prayers are not a formality – they are tailored to the content of the letter. Here he writes, in verses 4-5, “When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” Paul will ask Philemon to exercise that love for one saint in particular, and Philemon will need some faith to do so.

Verse 6: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” Paul isn’t talking about evangelism when he mentions “sharing your faith.” The phrase here most likely has a passive sense, not an active one: Philemon shares his faith with the people who have faith. We all have that in common; we share the same beliefs, and the fact that Philemon has the same faith as other believers should be “effective” – it should have results in his life in the way that he treats other believers (Onesimus, in this case).

And Paul hints at some “good” that Philemon may soon have opportunity to do – not just for another believer, but for Christ himself. Our faith in Christ should affect the way that we treat other people who have that same faith (see all the commands in the New Testament about the way we treat “one another”), and the way we treat them is in some sense the way that we treat Jesus Christ himself (see Matthew 25).

Paul has also been blessed because of what Philemon has done for others: “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother” (v. 7). Paul will refer to “refreshing the heart” again in this letter. At this point it in the letter, it is a seed that will come to life a bit later. Paul wants Philemon to repeat the praiseworthy behavior.

Getting to the purpose

In verse 8, Paul gets to the business of his letter: “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty…” Paul was normally bold enough to issue commands, but in this letter he is content to drop strong hints. He is dealing with a touchy issue, and he wants Philemon to make his own decision, not just follow orders.

Also, if Paul issues commands, he is acting like a slaveowner, a behavior he wants Philemon to stop.[5] He wants Philemon to give up some of his customary rights, so Paul is willing to set an example for him by giving up some of his own.[6] Nevertheless, Paul is hinting that Philemon has a duty, something he ought to do as a result of his faith in Christ.[7]

He writes: “Yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (v. 9). The love here is apparently Philemon’s love for Paul. Paul adds a little emotional pathos by mentioning that he is an old man in prison. He is powerless, asking for a little pity. If Philemon loves Paul, he will respond.

Paul’s appeal or request is seen in verse 10: “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” Onesimus was a common name for a slave, for it means “useful.” (Slaves were commonly given new names when they were sold.) This man has now become a Christian.

We do not know how it happened that Onesimus came into contact with Paul. Was it accidental, or did Onesimus seek Paul out on purpose? Would a runaway slave hang around a prison? It seems more likely to me that Onesimus looked for Paul on purpose.

Social custom may explain why. A slave was not legally considered a runaway if he went to a mutual friend, to seek that friend’s intercession with the owner. Onesimus may have committed a huge blunder (v. 18 may hint at some problem), and he wanted Paul to act as a mediator to help restore him without too much penalty. So Onesimus went to Paul, heard the gospel, came to faith in Christ, and began helping Paul. No matter what the past history, Onesimus is not legally a runaway – he is in the category of a slave seeking mediation through a friend of the owner. But in this legal status, he cannot stay with the friend forever – he must eventually be sent back to the owner.

Perhaps with a little rhetorical exaggeration, Paul admits that Onesimus had not been a very good slave. “Formerly he was useless[8] to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me” (v. 11).

He is useful to Paul, but it is not clear how he is useful to Philemon. Perhaps Paul is speaking of the help that Onesimus has given to Paul, and Paul is counting that as if it came from Philemon, and Onesimus has been useful to Philemon by giving Paul the help that Philemon would have done if he had been there (v. 13). That’s a bit convoluted, isn’t it? But it’s part of the psychology of the letter: Paul is praising Onesimus as much as he can so that Philemon finds it easier to grant his request.

Verse 12: “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.” Paul calls Onesimus his heart (Greek splanchna, meaning internal organs, a metaphor for deep emotions), and this probably has a function later in the letter. Paul is sending him back, for Philemon is the legal owner.

(It bothers some people today that Paul sent Onesimus back, as if he was still property belonging to Philemon. However, it could have been counterproductive for Paul to say that Christianity required the abolition of slavery. It would also have been problematic for Onesimus to remain a fugitive; it was better to clear up his legal status. Slaves were 20 to 25 percent of the population, and universal emancipation would have meant social and economic chaos, and most of the slaves would not have ended up any better for it.[9] If Paul had said that Christianity was against slavery, it could have hindered the gospel among the upper class, given slaves ideas of rebellion, and caused more government persecution against the gospel. For whatever reason, Paul treaded carefully when it came to slavery.)

In verse 13, Paul reveals what he really wants – or at least it seems to me that this is the clearest statement of what he wants: “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.” Paul wanted Onesimus to stay with Paul, helping him in his imprisonment (which would include bringing him food, for example, since first-century prisons did not provide food). Philemon could not do it (he would have if he could, Paul implies) because he lived too far away, but euphemistically speaking, Onesimus did it for him, in his place.

“But I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced” (v. 14). Paul wanted to keep Onesimus, but Onesimus did not belong to him, and he didn’t want to keep him without permission (is this a hint?).

So Paul again says that Philemon has the opportunity to do a good deed (that is, letting Onesimus stay with Paul). This is what Philemon has the opportunity to do voluntarily, rather than being ordered to do it. Marshall writes, “Paul hoped that it might be possible for Onesimus to spend some time with him as a missionary colleague…. If that is not a request for Onesimus to join Paul’s circle, I do not know what more would need to be said.”[10]

Supporting discussion

“Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while…” (v. 15). The reason for the “separation” may have been that Onesimus ran away, but Paul tactfully puts this in the passive. By doing this, he suggests that the “separation” may have been God’s doing—Onesimus was temporarily absent so that he could be restored more permanently—perhaps not Onesimus’s original intention, but that’s the way it is working out now.

The purpose: “so that you might have him back forever.” Does this mean that Paul wants Onesimus to stay in Colosse with Philemon? I think the other verses in the letter hint at something different, and I think that here Paul means that Onesimus will be restored to Philemon in a more figurative sense, as it says in verse 16: “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…” Paul is saying that Philemon should receive this good-for-nothing slave (to paraphrase v. 11) as a beloved brother, not as a slave. In other words, he should be freed. Don’t treat him like a runaway slave—treat him like a long-lost brother!

This is a rather tall order, a difficult request, and it is no wonder that Paul deals with it so delicately. If Philemon frees the runaway, what will his other slaves think? They might think: “Let’s get our freedom by pretending to believe in Christ.” What will the neighboring slaveowners think? “If Christianity means having to free your slaves, I don’t want my slaves to hear about it.” Paul seems to be putting Philemon in a tough spot.

Onesimus is a brother “especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16b). Onesimus is Paul’s son and Paul’s brother; now Paul is asking Philemon to treat him as a brother not just spiritually, in the church, “in the Lord,” but also “in the flesh,” in physical life. Achtemeier et al. write,

The reference to receiving Onesimus as a brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16) may indicate Paul’s desire that Onesimus be freed, so that he can be Philemon’s brother both within the Christian community (“in the Lord”) and in secular society (“in the flesh”).[11]

In other words, some social benefits ought to go along with the change in spiritual status. When people are equal in the Lord, believers should treat them equal in the flesh, too. (A principle that supports gender equality, too.) Our theology should affect our ethics.

“So if you consider me your partner,” Paul asks, “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17). “Partner” is the Greek koinōnos, someone who shares in something. If you are with me in the faith, Paul is saying, treat him like you would treat me.

Let’s put this in a modern context. Imagine that you are a business owner. One of your worst employees has taken the company truck without permission and wrecked it. He goes to your pastor, gets converted, and your pastor then asks you to give the guy his job back, give him a raise, and even to treat him as an honored guest. In first-century culture, Paul is asking for more than that!

“If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (v. 18). Most scholars believe that this is a polite way of admitting that Onesimus wronged Philemon in some way—perhaps by being a lazy worker, perhaps by stealing something to help him on his unauthorized journey, or perhaps it was an accidental destruction of property, something that caused Onesimus to take off in the first place.

Whatever it is, Paul says, I’ll pay for it, and he signs it in his own handwriting to make it a legal note of debt: “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it” (v. 19). I’ll pay for that truck, the pastor says.

But then he reminds Philemon that Philemon already owes Paul a great deal: “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” Whatever I owe you, Paul says, you owe me even more, because I have fathered you in the faith. DeSilva puts it in the terminology of the social customs of the time:

Paul claims to be Philemon’s patron on the basis of bringing Philemon the message of salvation…. Paul claims authority to command Philemon’s obedience as Paul’s client, a social inferior whose response of service may be commanded on the basis of Paul’s benefaction of salvation.”[12]

Financially, Philemon was probably a patron, but spiritually, Paul was the patron. So, no matter how much I ask for, Paul seems to imply, you ought to do it. Paul here has moved from being a helpless old man in prison and started to act like a person in authority. He is the “father” in the family of faith, and as head of the family he has authority over both Philemon and Onesimus. But he says he is not mentioning this. Luke Timothy Johnson writes:

In the realm of the Christian oikomene [household] (which includes not only Philemon’s immediate household, but all the Christian households in the larger Pauline communities), Paul possesses the authority of a “head.” This means, in effect, that Paul has authority over Philemon’s own household, including Onesimus, thus trumping the Greco-Roman social hierarchy of obligation…. Paul is Philemon’s patron and “head” in the Christian household, so he did not have to return the runaway slave. But while Philemon is now the recipient of Paul’s benefaction, he can again become the great benefactor of Paul’s mission by “giving” Onesimus to Paul.[13]

Similarly, Christians today are asked by Christ to make personal sacrifices—but we are never asked to give more than what we ourselves have been given. deSilva points toward a modern application of this story:

Paul removes a major obstacle to unbegrudging generosity, namely, the excuse that we may have been injured in some way by the person in need. Paul tells Philemon not to withhold kindness from Onesimus because of any loss he may have suffered on Onesimus’s account, but rather to symbolically charge that to Paul’s own account. Similarly, we are challenged to measure other people’s “debts” to us against our debt to God, to forgive as freely as we have been forgiven, to share and help as generously as we have been helped and sustained.[14]

Whatever obligations people have against us, whatever wrongs they have done against us, we should charge that to Jesus’ account, and remember that our debt to him is far greater that what he asks of us.

So Paul asks again in verse 20: “Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.” He wants a benefit, he says, and this is what it is: Refresh my heart, my inner organs. This may be a figure of speech, a general phrase, but even if it is, I think Paul is using it tongue in cheek, wanting Philemon to catch his allusion. He has already called Onesimus his heart – here he seems to be asking Philemon to restore him, or send him back.

“Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v. 21). Earlier, Paul indicated that he would not command Philemon (v. 8), but here he implies that there is a command that should be obeyed—in context, the command to refresh Paul’s heart—and to do even more than that, whatever that may be. He is indicating that he has been beating around the bush rather than coming right out and saying what he wants.

David Garland suggests another point of application: “We may not be able to undo all the injustice in the world, but in our local neighborhood we can stand with those individuals who are oppressed” (366). Paul could not eliminate slavery in entirety, but he could eliminate it for one person. He did what he could, rather than fretting about what he could not – and he did it by 1) showing that the gospel leads to social equality and 2) appealing to principles of the faith, not by issuing blunt commands.

Closing comments

He ends with one last request in verse 22: “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Travel plans were often part of the closing comments in a letter, so Paul’s comment could be seen as a routine note, in this case also expressing confidence that Paul will soon be released from jail.

This request also says that Paul wants the friendship between them to continue. He does not want to impose on that friendship, but he does have an important request to make of his friend.

In verses 23-24, Paul closes with the greetings that typically ended a first-century letter (though Paul has more companions than most letter-writers do). This seems to be his whole ministry team at the time he wrote: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.”


Did Philemon do what he was asked? Walter Elwell and Robert Yarbrough note the following:

An ancient inscription discovered at Laodicea, a village very near Colossae, was dedicated by a slave to the master who freed him. The master’s name: Marcus Sestius Philemon. We cannot be certain that this is the same Philemon as the one Paul addressed, but the identical names from the same locale do raise the possibility.[15]

Another interesting bit of history: Around the year A.D. 110, Ignatius of Antioch mentions that the bishop of Ephesus was named Onesimus. Since Onesimus was a name generally given to slaves, it is likely that the bishop of Ephesus in 110 was a former slave. We cannot be certain that this is the same Onesimus, but it is possible. Garland notes, “If Onesimus were twenty years old when Philemon was written, he could have been seventy at this time.”[16] What Paul did in this short letter may have had repercussions in church history.

Paul closes with a benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (v. 25). And that is a good benediction here. May God’s grace be with your spirit—and may his grace radiate out from you to bless everyone you meet. May the spirit of liberation, emancipation, and equality bring blessings to your relationships in Christ.

[1] David deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament (InterVarsity, 2004), 668.

[2] Similarities with Colossians (cf. Col. 1:1; 4:9-10, 17) make most scholars conclude that Philemon lives in or near Colosse.

[3] Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord (Eerdmans, 2004), 456.

[4] deSilva, 669. If Philemon decided not to free the slave, he probably wouldn’t have the letter read in church, either. But if he did decide to free the slave who had undesirable behavior, the letter would help explain the slaveowner’s strange action.

[5] “Slavery is a system of bossing people around” (Paul Jewett, quoted in David E. Garland, Colossians, Philemon. NIV Application Commentary [Zondervan, 1998], 367).

[6] “Paul himself is imitating Christ by denying himself the use of a certain status and power…. The text echoes similar refusals to use apostolic privilege (1 Thess. 2:7; 2 Thess. 3:7-9; 1 Cor. 9, esp. v. 19, all of which in turn are based on texts about Christ’s self-denial (e.g., Phil. 2:6-8; 2 Cor. 8:9)” (Gorman, 465).

[7] “Conformity to the pressures of authority is not what God seeks, but conformity to the mind of Christ…. If a pastoral leader must use authority to coerce rather than facilitate transformation, he or she may win a minor victory at the expense of the larger campaign for Christlikeness” (deSilva, 683).

[8] Paul is playing a little on words. Onesimus means “useful,” but Onesimus was useless as a slave. “Useless” is the Greek word achrēstos, and indeed Onesimus had been a-christos – without Christ. But now that he is in Christ, he has become useful (euchrēstos).

[9] First-century slavery was not as oppressive as American slavery was — some slaves had white-collar jobs; others were blue-collar skilled workers. Emancipation was common upon age 30 or so. Some people actually sold themselves into slavery because the slaves had some economic security, whereas freedmen had to scramble to find jobs day by day. However, some first-century slaves did have it bad — forced to work in mines, fields or as oarsmen on ships —but those jobs were usually given to slaves who had already misbehaved. “The number of papyri dealing with runaway slaves suggests that it was not a benign institution” (Garland, 349).

[10] Marshall et al., 146-147.

[11] Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Maryanne Meye Thompson, Introducing the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2001), 423.

[12] deSilva, 671, 673.

[13] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Fortress, 1999), 388-389.

[14] deSilva, 676.

[15] Walter Elwell and Robert Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), 323.

[16] Garland, 306.

Author: Michael Morrison


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