The Christian Challenge to Slavery


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Getting into the guts of what’s going on

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The meat! And what to do about it!

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Material for Church leaders and Tertiary level students

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The Key
The Key to unlocking the dynamic

The key to unlocking the dynamic of Philemon is to study very carefully the close relationship of the letter of Colossians and the letter of Philemon. More specifically, a huge amount of fascinating information can be slowly pieced together as the details of the people mentioned in Philemon are read in the light of the description of these very same people in Colossians 4:7-17. Once this scenario is understood, Colossians 3:22-25 then becomes crucial in the understanding of the imperatives that Paul gives to Philemon. These passages throw considerable light on each other and as such are a unique cameo in the interpretation of New Testament literature.


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Click on the link above to hear an audio version of Philemon.


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Easy:   Read the letter.


Main:   Read the letter with this question in mind: what is Paul asking Philemon to do?


Advanced:   Read the letter through in different translations and paraphrases.


Watch the film 12 Years a Slave.


Study Philemon and answer the question: what is Paul expecting Philemon to do?


Study the close relationship between Colossians 3:22 – 4:18 and Paul’s letter to Philemon.


Study the way Paul builds his argument through the letter.


Begin your time with God each day by taking one or two verses, ‘wallowing in them deeply’, and then live the rest of the day in the light of their truths.


Suggested verses for meditation


Philemon 6   ‘I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing that we have in Christ.’


Philemon 15-16   ‘… that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.’


Philemon 17   ‘So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.’





Consider learning:


Philemon 7  ‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.’


Philemon 16  ‘He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.’

The Challenge

The Challenge


Explanation:  We all learn in different ways. This section is for those who find that being challenged spurs them on to master a subject.


Here are ten questions about ‘Philemon’. See how you score. The answers are at the bottom of the page.



Q1 Who were Philemon’s wife and son?

Q2 Why did Paul send Onesimus back with Tychicus (Colossians 4:7-9)?

Q3 List the times we know that Paul was in Prison.


Q4 Why did Paul have to send Onesimus back to Philemon?

Q5 What does Paul specifically ask Philemon to do?

Q6 Why does Paul address husbands, wives, children and fathers so briefly in Colossians 3:18-21, but spend four long verses addressing slaves in 3:22-25?


Q7 Which leading metaphor of atonement runs throughout this letter?

Q8 In this letter, Paul is addressing the issue of slavery and arguing for the very different revolutionary answers of the Kingdom. What are the two other leading arenas where the Kingdom brings revolution?


Q9 What might be an explanation for why Justus is listed as a fellow-worker in Colossians 4:11 but is not in the summary list of Philemon 23-24?

Q10 Which other New Testament letter has an argument that is structured in a very similar way to Paul’s letter to Philemon?



A1 – Apphia and Archippus (v2).

A2 – So that Onesimus did not lose his nerve, and run away again, when he got back to Colossae.

A3 – Philippi (Acts 16), Jerusalem & Caesarea (Acts 20-26), Rome (Acts 28).

A4 – It was a crime to protect and harbour a run-away slave. In addition, if Paul had kept Onesimus it would have demonstrated that Christians did not obey the law, and the Romans would have had every right to take action against them.

A5 – Welcome Onesimus back in the same way that he would welcome Paul himself (v17), and prepare a guest room for Paul (v22). Look at the way Paul ‘appeals’ twice to Philemon (v9-10).

A6 – He is publicly addressing Onesimus before the church at Colossae. It is very likely that Onesimus has done the very things that Paul warns against; that he had previously been disobedient, insincere and lazy.

A7 – Reconciliation.

A8 – The three arenas radically changed by the gospel of the Kingdom are: 1) Jews and Gentiles, 2) male and female, 3) slaves and masters (Galatians 3:28).

A9 – Perhaps between the time after Paul had finished writing Colossians, but before he finished the letter to Philemon (a few days later), Justus was sent out by the team to plant a church in his home town. This was Paul’s mission strategy throughout his three years in Ephesus (Acts 19:9-10, Colossians 1:7, 4:12).  

A10 – John’s letter to Gaius – ‘The letter of 3 John’. They are both brilliantly argued ‘personal letters’ exhorting the recipient to take brave action. Note the similar ways in which both John and Paul use the opening prayer to address the heart of the issue they are writing about. Both authors build their arguments with astonishing pastoral care and skill.  




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    • Summary


    Paul is in prison (v1) in Ephesus with Epaphras, his co-worker (v23). Recently in their prison, a runaway slave called Onesimus has become a Christian (v10). In fact, Onesimus has not only become a strong Christian, but has become a considerable help to Paul in his ministry (v11). Now, there’s a fascinating twist to the story; Onesimus has run away from a wealthy man in Colossae called Philemon, who at an earlier stage had been one of Paul’s co-workers (v1, v17), and quite possibly had helped Epaphras plant the church in Colossae (Colossians 1:7, Philemon 2). When Onesimus ran away, he either stole from Philemon, or left outstanding debts to Philemon (v18-20). So, Paul sends Onesimus back to Colossae with Tychicus (Colossians 4:7-9) with this letter appealing to Philemon that he works out the implications (v6) of Christian reconciliation in this situation and not only treats Onesimus as a brother in Christ (v16), but shows to the entire population of Colossae how Christians treat their slaves!

    There is a deep irony here because although the name Onesimus means “Useful”, he was actually a perfectly ‘useless’ slave to Philemon (v11). But, Mr Useful-who-was-Useless’ has now become Mr. Really Useful as a result of believing the gospel.


    Paul argues this letter brilliantly. Read it as if you were Philemon, and see what you think and feel at the end. You’ll find you really don’t have any option but to do what Paul says, treat Onesimus as your brother, and allow him to stay in your home as your brother in Christ. Paul places on Philemon the responsibility for living in a revolutionary way, breaking the hold of the status quo of slavery, and showing the world that the Christian lifestyle is far better and more powerful than the institution of slavery. The really clever thing that Paul does is not to instruct Philemon to free Onesimus, but to tell him to treat him as a brother. Paul therefore places on Philemon the responsibility of working out for himself in his cultural situation at Colossae and in the public view of his church all that it means to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ. All of humanity watches as Philemon works this out, and the very fact that we have this letter almost certainly indicates that Philemon did exactly what Paul asked. The result is that this was an outstanding example to all the people in Colossae of what happens when Christ invades society. Historians tells us that one of the leading reasons that Christianity grew so rapidly through the Roman Empire was that vast numbers of slaves became Christians. So in this brilliantly argued private letter, Paul is planting a time bomb under the whole system of slavery in the Roman empire. We therefore need to ask ourselves – what systems of evil we must subversively undermine in 21st Century?


    In this letter Paul takes the role of intermediary approaching Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf, and bringing the two ‘brothers in Christ’ together. Paul takes the role of Christ who atoned for our sin, approaching the Father on our behalf and bringing peace and restoration. Christ effectively intercedes to the Father on behalf of you and me, saying ‘Father, this is your run-away son/daughter who was lost, but is now returning repentant to you. I ask you for my sake to receive him/her back into your family and household’.




    taster Questions - Questions to start you off

    Question 1 -

    Jonathan Aitken, a previous British Cabinet Minister and ex-prisoner (but now a prominent Christian), writes about prisoners reoffending: “Many ex-prisoners long to go straight. They re-offend because we let them down when they reach the jail gates.” Would you take an ex-prisoner into your home, or church?

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    Question 2 -

    Watch the film “12 Years a Slave”. Why and how is it possible that some Christians get caught up in the horrifying abuses of being slave traders and justifying this behaviour?

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    Question 3 -

    In 1995 two Christian tribes slaughtered each other in Rwanda and Burundi and about 800,000 people died because they could not see that Christian brotherhood is a far higher loyalty than tribal identity. What can’t we see in Britain today?

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    the essentials


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    Philemon - Christianity and Slavery

      the essentials - The literary features explained
    • Context
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    • Literary Genre
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    • Structure
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    • Themes



    Author: Paul, writing from prison (there are 5 references to ‘chains’) in Ephesus. At the same time, he writes the accompanying letter of ‘Colossians’ to the Colossian church (where Philemon is an active member), and the general letter (which we call ‘Ephesians’) to all Christians in ‘Asia Minor’ (Western Turkey).


    Date: Around 54AD, towards the end of Paul’s time in Ephesus (52-55AD).


    Situation: A runaway slave called Onesimus has become a Christian, and is serving Paul while Paul is in prison. Paul sends Onesimus back to his master Philemon at Colossae with Tychicus (Col 4:7-9) who is carrying this private letter, the letter to the Colossian church and most probably Paul’s letter to the Laodicean church (Col 4:16). Roman law allowed slave owners to punish run-away slaves very severely, in some cases even with crucifixion. However, Paul is asking Philemon to forgive him because he is now his ‘brother’ in Christ. (There is also the implicit request that Philemon ‘forgives’ Paul for temporarily harbouring a runaway slave).



    This is a ‘personal letter’, which although only 25 verses long, is nevertheless longer than the usual ‘personal letters’ of the time (which were usually the size of 2 John). The circumstances of Paul’s letter to the Colossians and this letter to Philemon are so similar and close that ‘Philemon’ should quite properly be read and studied as a fifth chapter of the letter to the Colossians; compare the personal references in Colossians 4:7-18 with those in Philemon 1,2,10,12,22-24. Paul’s greeting to Philemon in v2 indicates that he expects this ‘personal letter’ to be read publicly to the church that Philemon, Apphia and their son Archippus lead in their home.

    The Structure of Philemon:

    Greeting   (v1-3)

    Thanksgiving   (v4-7)

    Appeal   (v8-22)

    Ending   (v23-25)

    The brilliance of the letter is in Paul’s exceptional writing skill; it has been compared to Mark Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’. He builds rapport & goodwill (v4-10). He presents the facts and arguments in such as way as to convince the mind and intellect (v11-19). He appeals to the emotions (v20-21). Almost every phrase, every word, is crafted to serve and enforce Paul’s argument.



    1. Paul writes this letter in order to exhort Philemon in the strongest and clearest terms to welcome back Onesimus, the returning runaway slave, ‘no longer as a slave… but as a dear brother’ (v16), and thereby provide a public example of how Christians should apply their faith to the institution of slavery in the Roman Empire.


    1. In exhorting Philemon to behave like this, Paul is laying a time bomb under the whole system of slavery throughout the world. In Christ, all injustices are quashed: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). Jews and Gentiles in Christ should ‘Accept (Welcome) one another’ (Romans 15:7). Those free and those who are slaves who are in the Lord should ‘Welcome each other’ (Philemon 17). Men and women in the Lord are mutually dependent (1 Corinthians 11:11). Paul does not give Philemon a law to obey –  “free your slave!” – instead, he does something much more powerful: he gives him an exhortation to think and act as a Christian.


    Literary Genre >
    starter Questions - To help you think carefully about the key issues

    Question 1 -

    Is the New Testament against slavery?

    Question 2 -

    What were the three leading issues of discrimination and inequality that Paul addresses, and where the Kingdom brings equality, unity and peace?

    Question 3 -

    What issues did Philemon face when Onesimus returned to him?

    Question 4 -

    Did Paul expect Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery?

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    Verse by Verse

    The Apprentice


    • Verse by Verse - For a thorough understanding of the Biblical text
    • Philemon 1-3: Situation & Greeting
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    • Philemon 4-7: Thanksgiving & Prayer
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    • Philemon 8-22: Appeal
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    • Philemon 23-25: Final Greetings

    The Situation:

    Paul is in Prison towards the end of his three year ministry in Ephesus from 52-55AD. A runaway slave, Onesimus, has been converted and become a committed disciple. It happens that Onesimus is owned by a man called Philemon, who was previously one of Paul’s missionary team members, but has returned to his home town Colossae to help lead the new church there planted by Epaphras. Paul writes this brilliant letter encouraging Philemon to receive Onesimus back ‘no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother’ (v16). Tychicus carried the letter to Philemon. He was accompanied by Onesimus, as described in Colossians 4:7-9.



    Philemon 1 – 3: Paul greets Philemon, Apphia and Archippus and the church that meets in their home


    “Paul a prisoner for Christ Jesus and Timothy our brother,

    To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Appha our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church which meets in your house:

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


    “Paul” – The Pauline authorship of this letter is generally undisputed, although that of its accompanying letter ‘Colossians’ is. However, the close interrelation and timing of the two documents, as per the names and details of Colossians 4:7-18, argues persuasively for the Pauline authorship of the letter to the Colossian Church.


    “A prisoner” – Although the location of Paul’s imprisonment is usually taken to be Rome, this argument faces severe problems. It is more convincing to understand Paul to be in prison in Ephesus during his three years of ministry there. This commentary follows the view argued by Tom Wright that Paul wrote three letters during the same imprisonment: ‘Ephesians’, a general letter to all the new churches throughout Asia Minor; ‘Colossians’, a rewriting of the general ‘Ephesian’ letter specifically tailored to tackle a particular heresy emerging in the Colossian church; and ‘Philemon’, a private letter addressing a specific case study of reconciliation in Christ, applied to the master-slave relationship. Epaphras is in prison with Paul (v23), but although he is referred to at length in Colossians (1:7, 4:12-13), the letter is co-sent by Timothy (as per Colossians). The location of the imprisonment is a secondary issue to the letter’s message and appeal.


    “For Christ Jesus” –  Throughout these three letters, Paul consciously and repeatedly emphasises that the believer’s place is ‘in Christ’. Paul may be in prison, but his primary location is ‘in Christ’. There is a deep assurance and peace that runs through the prison letters that Christ is completely in control, so quite naturally Paul is now a prisoner for Christ Jesus. Wherever you are, you are there for Christ – a genuinely repentant criminal can be in prison for Christ Jesus.


    “Our brother” – Even in this opening phrase, Paul, who wastes neither a word nor an opportunity, lays the foundation for his argument and appeal. This third person in the greeting (Timothy) is in a ‘sibling’ relationship with two men, and each of the three are sons of the Heavenly Father, as so brilliantly described in the great family prayer of Ephesians 3:14-21. This perspective underlies Paul’s appeal to Philemon, which could be summarised: “Go on Philemon, treat Onesimus as your brother!”


    “To Philemon our beloved fellow-worker – also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier – and the church which meets in your house” – Neither Philemon or Apphia is mentioned in the New Testament outside this letter. They are almost certainly a family, Archippus being the adult son who is specifically exhorted to complete some previously commissioned ministry at the end of the letter to the church (Colossians 4:17). The description of Philemon as a “fellow worker” implies some previous ministry connection with Paul, most probably at the daily teaching sessions in the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus (Acts 19:9-10) which may well have led to him assisting Epaphras in the establishment of the Colossian Church (Colossians 1:7). It is possible that Nympha was also part of that missionary team, along with others who established the church at Laodicea (Colossians 4:15). The rhetorical use of the word partner in v17 strengthens this ministry relationship. “Sister” has special meaning because Paul’s argument and appeal to Philemon is built on the ‘sibling’ relationship between all the parties in the letter. Indeed, the concept of family undergirds the letter powerfully, and takes us to the great Church family prayer of Ephesians 3:14-19, and to the Jesus’ most popular parable, the parable of the Two Lost Sons (Luke 15:11-32). In coming to faith in Christ Jesus, Onesimus has moved from being a slave in God’s household to being a free son, and now Philemon must work through the full implications of this change. “Fellow soldier” carries the overtones of the commission Archippus has received and is reminded of at the end of Colossians 4:17. The military language belongs in the passage on spiritual warfare from Ephesians 6:10-18.

    Philemon himself has therefore been converted through Paul (v19), and then served Paul in ministry (v1). He has returned to Colossae where his wife and adult son live, and where all three play a leading part in the new Colossian church. They own a house large enough to host at least some of the church gatherings, they have at least one slave (quite possibly several), and they have at least one guest room. It is indeed possible that Philemon’s house is so large that he and his family host all the Colossian church gatherings. He is therefore a man of prominence in the city whose population are watching his behaviour to see how ‘a Christian’ behaves.


    “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” – Grace and peace are the two benefits of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24-26). Grace is God’s undeserved goodness to us, primarily expressed in all that He has done for us through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Peace is the state of ease and rest we enjoy in our relationship with God as a result of Jesus’ atoning work for us – the relationship with the Bank manager when the mortgage has been fully repaid. Even though this phrase frequently occurs at the beginning of Paul’s letters, the word “Father” is the third ‘family’ word used in this introduction.

    Philemon 4 – 7: Paul gives thanks to God for Philemon’s ministry and prays for him


    “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers” – Paul uses the traditional ‘thanksgiving and prayer’ at the beginning of a personal letter to lay the foundation and context for his appeal to Philemon (v8-22). Disciples would do well to follow this important spiritual prayer habit of Paul’s (see Romans 1:8). To pray in this way is to be in step with the Spirit as we pray, and it opens up in the Spirit the next step of intercession and petition for the person.


    “…because I hear of your love and the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” – This phrase expresses obedience to the two greatest commandments; to love God and our neighbours (Matthew 22:35-38). Faith is the perimeter, and those who have faith in Christ are within the perimeter of the body of Christ, the Church. The public evidence of being ‘in Christ’, of being within the body, is a lifestyle of agape love. Jesus said “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another” (John 13:34-35). Paul wrote “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value, the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6). James wrote “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).  In other words, if there is no evidence of love, there cannot be any faith present. And so we should always begin our prayers focusing on a person or a church’s ‘faith and love’, and giving thanks to God for these. It is our love for the Lord that leads directly to loving other believers; “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us” (Romans 5:5). Our aim is to love all people, but “especially those who belong to the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).


    Very typically, Paul now phrases his prayer to express his purpose in writing this letter. To be blunt, it is a mouthful, and translators struggle to articulate its sense and meaning. The ESV reads and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (v6). But Tom Wright’s paraphrase gets much further to the heart of Paul’s intent: “I am praying that the mutual participation which is proper to the Christian faith you hold may have its full effect in your realisation of every good thing that God wants to accomplish in us to lead us into the fullness of Christian fellowship, that is, of Christ.”[1] The essence of the prayer is simple; Paul hopes that Philemon will understand and act on the full implications of their fellowship together in Christ. The Greek word fellowship, koinonia, is the platform for Paul’s whole argument. Instead of segregation and discrimination, there is now fellowship in Christ (Galatians 3:28). And fellowship means belonging to each other. Paul prays that Philemon will understand the full implications of this in terms of his new relationship with Onesimus. The last words, “in us for the sake of Christ” (v6), carry the meaning that God is working in his people to bring about the very response and lifestyle that he will be pleased with.


    So in this prayer, Paul is seizing the opportunity for a breakthrough in the revolutionary kingdom lifestyle by asking God to work in Philemon so he can understand the full implications of the changes that ought now to take place in the relationship between himself and Onesimus. It is of enormous significance that Paul does not give the answer and command Philemon to obey, but that he prays that God will water the ground before he plants the seeds of revolutionary change in Philemon, and through him in the entire Christian church.


    “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you” – Before Paul begins his brilliantly argued appeal (v8-22), he turns and encourages Philemon. This is not flattery, or manipulation, Paul is genuinely encouraging Philemon, because Paul himself has been genuinely (and entirely truthfully) encouraged by Philemon’s loving behaviour. Here we have substance for the earlier description of Philemon as a “dear friend and fellow-worker” (v1), and we can conjecture that one of Philemon’s main contributions as part of Epaphras’ missionary team (Colossians 1:7) was that he “refreshed the hearts of the saints (believers)(v7), perhaps through a ministry of hospitality at his home in Colossae. Paul again uses the loaded and crucial word “brother”, endorsing the foundational platform of sibling loyalty, the sense that ‘blood is thicker than water’, upon which he will build his appeal. “Joy” is experienced in their “hearts” and there is therefore an implied question: Philemon, will you now rise to a greater challenge and refresh the hearts of the saints once again by now doing something so revolutionary that the whole world will see and rejoice?



    [1] N.T. Wright, ‘The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon’ (IVP; Leicester; 1986), 175-78.

    Philemon 8 – 22: Paul appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother


    “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment” – Paul now states that his purpose in writing the letter is to make an appeal for the slave Onesimus. The issue is so important that Paul could, if he chose, use the full weight of his apostolic authority to command Philemon’s behaviour and obedience in the matter. The force of this should be fully recognised. Paul very rarely commands obedience; the main example is his command that the Thessalonians avoid idle Christians (2 Thessalonians 3:6). Paul is building his case carefully, but his instructions in v16 should be heard by Christians with the same imperative, priority and urgency as his axiomatic appeal that Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles accept one another in Christ (Romans 15:7).  This is because their unity ‘in Christ’ is a unique act of God in creation and a sign to the principalities and powers of what is to come in the future (Ephesians 3:6-13). We must note Paul’s literary skill; by mentioning the command and then replacing it with a loving appeal, Paul is stating that his appeal is actually a command – a point enforced by the word “obedience” in v21. Philemon really has no room for negotiation. The reference to Paul being “an old man” (v9) is very untypical and the secondary meaning of the word may well have been intended, that he is an ‘ambassador’. This fits with his self-description elsewhere, as well as with the nature of the apostolic commission to introduce a new culture – and this letter is about challenging and changing the culture of slavery throughout the Roman empire. The translation also impinges directly on the geographical location of the prison. ‘Old man’ would fit with the timing of his Roman imprisonment, although not without significant difficulties, since the frequent mention of “chains” (v10,13) does not concur with the freedom of house arrest in Acts 28:30-31, nor with such a long journey from Rome to Colossae for an old man! ‘Ambassador’ would fit with an Ephesian imprisonment, which is the much more convincing perspective of these three letters. Paul became Onesimus’ ‘father’ (v10) by leading him to a faith in Christ while they were both in prison. Paul’s concern for the discipleship of individual Christians is seen in this concept (1 Corinthians 4:15, Galatians 4:18, 1 Thessalonians 2:11). This word also builds on the concept of family that underlies Paul’s argument. Further, it strengthens the motive of love as the ground of appeal for Philemon’s, and our, obedience.


    “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me” – The name Onesimus means ‘profitable’ or ‘useful’. In the Greek there are two puns here, where the words are very similar sounding, with euchrestos, like ‘eucharist’, meaning thanksgiving. Onesimus is useful and ‘in Christ’, and therefore his relationships with both Paul and Philemon are changed for the better. The use of puns was common in the literature, and rhetoric, of the time. Paul often uses puns, demonstrating his skill in rhetorical arguing. So, having begun his letter with a strong affirmation of Philemon’s ministry and godliness (v4-7) and then stated his intention to appeal for Onesimus (8-10), Paul briefly interjects humour into his argument (v11). It is important to study Paul’s full exhortations to slaves in Colossians 3:22-25 where he almost certainly has Onesimus in his sights. His teaching that slaves should obey their masters from their hearts and be hard working not lazy is a clear indication that Onesimus had been a lazy, disobedient and insincere slave to Philemon.


    “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart” – As a Roman citizen, Paul not only had a legal duty to return a runaway slave to his master, but also knew that if he were to keep Onesimus he would be both stealing Philemon’s property, and would risk giving the fledgling Christian movement a dangerous reputation for illegally harbouring runaway slaves. The authorities would then have the legal right to pursue Christians. In addition, there would be the tension such behaviour would bring between Philemon and Paul. So Paul is clear; “I am sending him back to you” (v12). But he immediately adds a personal comment about his love for Onesimus that is exceptional to the point of being almost embarrassing. Having emphasised his own close relationship with Philemon in verses 1-7, Paul is now emphasising the closeness of his relationship with Onesimus. It is clear that this young slave’s conversion is completely genuine, and his service of Paul is quite exceptional – one thinks of Timothy, of whom Paul says “I have no one like him …as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (Philippians 2:20-22).


    “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 by compulsion but of your own accord” – This sentence should be read at face value; Paul is not prepared to simply assume the right to make use of Philemon’s slave, even for the magisterial work of proclaiming the gospel. Paul wants Philemon to take the decision himself, in order that Philemon is entirely at peace with his own decision. Two points arise from this. First, Paul wants individual Christians to take responsibility for making their own decisions before God. It is not Paul’s responsibility as the church leader to make the decision about Philemon’s slave, it is Philemon’s! There is no place for ‘heavy shepherding’ in the church. Church leaders should not make key decisions that rightly belong to the individuals concerned. Paul hereby passes the responsibility for taking decisions about slavery over to the individuals concerned, and therefore to the future church. Second, there is a clear implication that Paul would like Philemon to send Onesimus back to Ephesus to serve in Paul’s ministry team.


    “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” –  Up to this point, Paul has been building his argument first by describing his deep relationship with Philemon, and then, from verse 8, by skilfully “commanding” Philemon “in love” to do what is right. He then brought in humour, making a pun on Onesimus’ name, before explaining what he was doing; sending the slave back while reminding Philemon of his duty to serve Paul. Now Paul gets to the heart of the issue (but not yet the request): Philemon is to receive Onesimus back as a “beloved brother” (v16), not as a slave. This begs a crucial question which the letter, and Paul, never answers: does Paul expect Philemon to set Onesimus free? Throughout the letter Paul has taken every opportunity to build and endorse the sibling relationships that Christians have ‘in Christ’ and ‘in the Lord’, and this is the foundation of his argument here. We are brothers and sisters forever in Christ so we must look after each other here.



    “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it – to say nothing of you owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ” – Paul began his argument in verse 8 saying that he was making an appeal, he then built it to the point when in v16 he specifically asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave … but as a dear brother”. In this sentence, he makes the same request in different, but stronger, terms. Philemon is asked to receive Onesimus back as if he were Paul himself. The idea of Paul serving as Philemon’s slave is unthinkable. In addition, Paul then takes personal responsibility, in writing, for any outstanding debt between Onesimus and Philemon. The slave may have stolen from his master when he fled, or, perhaps Onesimus was serving as a slave in order to clear a debt. But Paul’s trump cards are that Philemon is his partner in mission, and Philemon already owes Paul his own life in terms of his own salvation through the gospel ministry. Paul has argued so brilliantly that Philemon simply has no alternative but to receive Onesimus back and then treat him as befits a brother in Christ which fully implies setting him free from slavery. The sheer brilliance of Paul’s argument is that it leaves Philemon no alternative but to treat Onesimus like a brother and free him.  Even more importantly, instead of commanding Philemon to do this in verse 8, Paul argues in such a way as to put all the initiative and responsibility on Philemon to work out the right thing to do in his own circumstances. Paul thereby empowers and gives responsibility to ALL Christians throughout history to do the same, not just in the matter of slavery, but in all arenas, especially the leading three contrasts mentioned in Galatians 3:28: Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free, Male or Female.



    “And one thing more: prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers” – This extraordinary sentence underlines just how seriously Paul views Philemon’s obedience in this matter. The Prime Minister is going to come and stay! The direct implication being that he is coming to inspect. The matter of equality between Christians (regardless of whether they are ‘free’ or ‘slaves’) is so axiomatically important that as soon as Paul has been released from prison the very first thing he will do is to visit Philemon, and ensure that he is being “obedient” (v21). Paul wants to visit Philemon in order to help him think through the implications of himself and Onesimus being brothers and help him to do the right thing. At this point the issue of geography is significant. If Paul is in Rome, then the journey to Colossae for an “old man” (v9) is astonishing because it further endorses the seriousness with which Paul is taking this issue. If Paul is an “ambassador” (alternative translation in v9) in Colossae, as argued in this commentary, it may also be understood that Paul needed time and space for recovery following his imprisonment.

    Philemon 23 – 25:  Final Greetings


    “Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus sends you greetings” – Since Epaphras, the founder of the Colossian church (Colossians 1:7), would have known Philemon well, the emphasis here is on him being in prison with Paul while the letter was being written (or rather, dictated, apart from v19), and the implication is that Epaphras was in complete agreement with Paul’s argument and instructions, and therefore Paul’s appeal is seconded by Epaphras himself.



    “And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow-workers” – All of these are mentioned in Colossians 4:10-17 (with the exception of Justus), and this thereby roots the two letters together. Paul is in prison with some of them in Ephesus. Clearly there is a lot going on with the authorities and the opponents (Colossians 4:9b), which explains why some are in prison and others aren’t. It is not unreasonable to assume that in the short period (perhaps a few days) after Paul completed the letter of ‘Colossians’ and before he completed the letter to Philemon, Justus was sent by Paul and his fellow-workers back to his home church to plant a church.



    “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” – The usual ending, reflecting the benediction of verse 3. Philemon will need grace in his spirit because it is in his spirit that he will make the forthcoming crucial decision to free Onesimus.


    Philemon 4-7: Thanksgiving & Prayer >
      The Apprentice - Helping apprentices of Jesus think through the applications
    • Overall Message
    • /
    • Leading Imperatives
    • /
    • Implied Imperatives
    • /
    • Applications
    • /
    • Holy Habits

    The overall message of Philemon:

    Paul writes the letter of ‘Philemon’ in order to appeal (v9) to him on behalf of his runaway slave Onesimus who is now a faithful believer. The essence of the appeal is that Philemon must now not only receive Onesimus back as a brother ‘in Christ’, but that he must demonstrate the full implications of his new relationship to his family (v2), the church (v2), the city of Colossae, the wider Roman society and indeed the entire world and human race. Paul is therefore placing a time bomb under the institution of slavery throughout the Roman Empire.

    The leading imperatives:

    There are two specific imperatives in Philemon, the first is a universal exhortation to all Christians, the second is specific only to Philemon.

     V17 Welcome him as you would welcome me.

    V22 Prepare a guest room for me.

    The implied imperatives:

    There are quite a number of implied imperatives in Philemon, and each of them expresses different aspects of how we as sisters and brothers in our Heavenly Father’s family can love one another.


    V4  Begin praying by thanking God.


    V6  Pray for others to receive an ever-deeper understanding of the outworking of our faith in Christ.


    V7  Refresh the hearts of other believers.


    V8  Do not ‘order other Christians around’.


    V9  Genuine love should motivate us to serve one another.


    V14  Do not presume on the good will of other believers.


    V16  Set your brothers and sisters free.


    V18  There is a right place and occasion for paying each other’s bills.


    V21  Greet one another.




    The leading application from ‘Philemon’ is that Christianity challenges the institution of slavery. To have a Christian brother as a slave in your home is a blatant contradiction!


    Paul’s argument is quite exceptional. To receive a personal letter like this from ‘the apostle to the Gentiles’ gives Philemon absolutely no room at all to do anything other than what Paul asks for, and indeed much more. Not only must Philemon receive Onesimus back as his dear brother in Christ, but Paul himself is offering to personally repay any outstanding debts and is therefore acting as Christ did in his atoning work for humankind. This is a perfect demonstration of the absolute equality of all who believe in Christ as stated unequivocally in Galatians 3:28.

    • Jews & Gentiles in Christ should “accept one another” (Rom 15:7)
    • Free & slave in the Lord should “welcome” each other (Philemon 17)
    • Men & women in the Lord are mutually dependent (1 Cor 11:11)


    Paul not only rips the heart out of the institution of Roman slavery, but he challenges ALL Christians to work through the full implications of being brothers and sisters throughout the world. Paul’s appeal is a challenge to every Christian to be “active in living out our faith and have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (v6); it is a challenge to all believers to subvert every injustice, which is the heart of the challenge in the accompanying letter of Colossians which Tychicus also handed to Philemon (Colossians 4:7, Philemon 2).

    Holy Habits: (Holy Habits are patterns of living and lifestyle practices which we choose to do in our lives.  These can be in order to either withdraw from the dominion of the world, such as silence, secrecy, submission, fasting, watching, simple living, or, practices that plunge us into the life of the Kingdom, such as prayer, worship, celebration, study, serving the poor and deprived, etc. They can be as simple as kneeling by your bed and thanking God at the end of the day, or as substantial as attending an annual Christian festival.)



    Join a pressure group that is fighting against human trafficking (modern-day slavery)


    Pioneer a group in your church that fights against human trafficking


    Learn from this letter, and 2 & 3 John and by practicing, how to write gracious but effective letters to other Christians urging them to excel in their obedience to Christ.


    Go out of your way to make friends with Christians of different ages, ethnic groups, classes and gender.


    Fight discrimination on the basis of class. All human beings have a streak of xenophobia – a tendency to stick with our own type of people; apprentices of Jesus should actively work against this.

    Leading Imperatives >
    main Questions - Important questions directly from the text

    Question 1 -

    What exactly was Paul driving towards in his prayer in verse 6?

    Question 2 -

    How should church leaders go about asking church members to do things for them?

    Question 3 -

    Study Paul’s argument in verses 8-22. What literary techniques does he use that make his argument so persuasive?

    Question 4 -

    What atonement motifs does Paul use in this letter?

    Question 5 -

    If you have been affected by this study, would you be prepared to give, along with Bible for Life, to fight slavery? If so, why not go to the ‘Blessings’ page and make a donation to Hope for Justice.

    dessert course

    A prayer

    Suggested Sermon Series



    • A prayer -
    • Prayer

    A prayer based on Philemon 


    Our Father, we ask that you give us wisdom and discernment in the Holy Spirit, that we may be filled with the knowledge of your will and live lives worthy of the Lord in this fallen world, in his name. Amen.



    Phrases and concepts from Colossians 1:9-10 and Philemon 6.  


      Suggested Sermon Series -

    Series Title:            Bringing Brothers Together


    Text Title Theme

    Main Verse


    ‘Philemon and his family’ An introductory sermon describing the situation, the different contexts of Paul, Onesimus and Philemon, and describing the revolutionary change and restoration that happens when a person becomes a Christian. Describe Philemon, his wife and son and the situation at Colossae.  

    Main Verse


    ‘Reconciliation’ The atonement theme underlying ‘Philemon’ is reconciliation. The first point is the reconciliation argument throughout the accompanying letter of Colossians. The second is the structure of Paul’s argument, where he first enlarges on his brother-brother relationship with Onesimus, and then does the same thing with Philemon, with the direct implication that Philemon and Onesimus are now brothers in the Father’s family. The third picture from this story is of Jesus bringing us to the Father and saying ‘here is my brother/sister ‘X’. He/she was separated from you for a while. He/she is sorry for what happened, but I am bringing him/her back to you so that everything can be restored.’

    Main Verse


    ‘Christianity and slavery’ The leading key question at the heart of this letter is: what exactly is Paul asking Philemon to do with Onesimus? Or more specifically, does Paul want Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery? The implication of the prayer in verse 6 and the brilliantly argued appeal is a definite ‘yes’. But the brilliance of Paul’s argument is that (like other Jewish argumentation for example, the end of Luke 15) he leaves the key question unspoken. In doing this, Paul is throwing the implications of the issue (the runaway slave returning home now converted and a brother in the Father’s family) not only firmly on Philemon’s desk, but on EVERY Christian’s desk. It is now MY responsibility, and YOURS, to think through the full implications of the gospel in our situation today. Is the issue slavery? Then free the slaves! Is the issue religious tension between Jew and Gentile? Then live out the fact that you are one in Christ. Is the issue the subordination of women to men? Then turn the world upside down by radically living equality in Christ (Galatians 3:28).


      Commentaries - Introducing the best commentaries
    • Commentaries

    Commentaries on ‘Philemon’

    (Updated: February 2018)


    Commentary Comment
    English Standard Version

    Study Bible

    Sadly, the ESV notes on Philemon are very disappointing and miss most of the key dynamics of this letter and event.
    N.T Wright


    A really helpful study of Colossians and Philemon with good insights into the whole event of Onesimus returning to Philemon, and Paul’s appeal to treat him as a brother.
    R.C. Lucas

    BST Series

    Lucas wrestles with the force of Paul’s argument and appeal to Philemon. The book is frustratingly brief, and has been written in a very dated literary style.
    G.B. Caird

    New Clarendon Bible Series  

    Dated, but as always with Caird, thorough and full of insight.




    dessert Questions - Gloves off; hard questions for the Bible student and theologian

    Question 1 -

    In 1995 Christians in Rwanda and Burundi slaughtered each other because their commitment to their tribes was greater than their commitment to each other in Christ. What can’t we see? What are we 21st Century Christians in the western world blind to?

    watch video

    Question 2 -

    Was this letter written from Rome or Ephesus?

    Question 3 -

    If the central issue in Philemon is how to apply Christian morality to the ubiquitous evil of slavery in the Roman Empire, then how should we apply Christian ethics to issues of religious syncretism and sexual issues in C21st Britain?

    Question 4 -

    In what other areas in society is Christianity subversive?

    watch video

    Waiter's Brief

    Answers to Questions

    Coaching Questions


    • Answers to Questions -


    Taster Course Questions



    Jonathan Aitken, a previous British Cabinet Minister and ex-prisoner (but now a prominent Christian), writes about prisoners reoffending: “Many ex-prisoners long to go straight. They re-offend because we let them down when they reach the jail gates.” Would you take an ex-prisoner into your home, or church?



    Watch the film: “12 Years a Slave”. Why and how is it possible that some Christians get caught up in the horrifying abuses of being slave traders and justifying this behaviour?



    Their behaviour demonstrates that they do not know the Holy Spirit or the Kingdom. 




    In 1995, two Christian tribes slaughtered each other in Rwanda and Burundi and about 800,000 people died because they could not see that Christian brotherhood is a far higher loyalty than tribal identity. What can’t we see in Britain today?



    The powerful hold that the ‘gods’ of money and sex have over us. Many Christians are indistinguishable from the world in their pursuit of money and sexual satisfaction.




    Starter Course Questions



    Is the New Testament against slavery?



    Absolutely. See 1 Timothy 1:10, 1 Corinthians 7:21. Listen to the podcast in the Starter section on Christianity and slavery.




    What were the three leading issues of discrimination and inequality that Paul addresses, and where the Kingdom brings equality, unity and peace?



    Paul’s leading statement on this is Galatians 3:28. First the religious and ethnic inequality and tension between Jew and Gentile; Paul addresses this in ‘Romans’. Second, the sexual and gender tensions between men and women; Paul addresses these in ‘1 Corinthians’; third, the discrimination, violence and inequality between free and slave which Paul addresses in ‘Philemon’.




    What issues did Philemon face when Onesimus returned to him?



    Should he punish Onesimus?

    How  should he punish Onesimus?

    Was Onesimus’ conversion genuine?

    What is more important: following the expectations of the Roman Empire and disciplining Onesimus, or demonstrating that Onesimus’ repentance and new faith provide the basis for a completely fresh beginning?

    Should he free Onesimus?!

    But Paul’s brilliant letter (and Tychicus’ presence and affirmation – Colossians 4:7) changes everything.



    Did Paul expect Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery?



    In my opinion, yes, although I expect that because the situation was complicated and involving debts it would probably have to be a process. But this is only a limited part of what Paul seems to have intended. Paul seems to be wanting something much greater than the end of slavery. He is wanting Philemon, Onesimus and the Colossian church to show the world what a radical Christian community of love looks like. Paul is not just challenging the institution of slavery; he is challenging every human failing in society. 



    Main Course Questions


    What exactly was Paul driving towards in his prayer in verse 6?



    That the Spirit would give Philemon a clear understanding of the implications of the gospel and the life of the Spirit in the Kingdom, so he would see how to work out the full implications of the fact that he and Onesimus were now brothers in the Father’s family, and fellow-workers in the same business of the Kingdom. 




    How should church leaders go about asking church members to do things for them?



    This is such a crucial issue, and this letter has much that can guide us and teach us:

    Genuinely affirm the person (but do not flatter) (v4-7)

    Clearly present the facts of the situation (v8)

    Explain what you have done and why you are making the request (v14)

    Present the request in the context of the gospel ministry

    Be clear about what you are asking (v17)

    Paul makes the request out of love (v9), not because he had authority to do so (v8)

    Paul uses humour where appropriate (see the pun on ‘useful’ in v11)



    Study Paul’s argument in verses 8-22. What literary techniques does he use that make his argument so persuasive?



    V8 – He describes his options and chooses the gentler

    V9 – He appeals (he doesn’t command, or pull rank)

    V10 – He describes Onesimus as his son – twice!

    V11 – Paul uses a humorous pun on Onesimus’ name

    V12 – He makes an emotional point

    V13 – He reminds Philemon of his duty and obligation to help Paul in his ministry

    V14 – He emphasises Philemon’s responsibility

    V15/16 – This is Paul’s main point – “he’s your brother” – and the implication is: free him!

    V17- A second approach: “Welcome him” – Paul is taking the role of Christ, reconciling separated parties

    V18 – Paul takes personal responsibility for repaying the possessions that Onesimus stole from Philemon

    V19 – He repeats the offer, and then uses the rhetorical oratorical devise of ‘not mentioning’ Philemon’s obligation to Paul, and thereby deliberately ‘mentioning’ it publicly

    V20 – A third approach – Paul asks for benefit from Philemon – “refresh me” – i.e. “please do what I ask”.

    V21 – A fourth approach – Paul presumes on Philemon’s obedience – this is strong stuff!

    V22 – His fifth approach – an emotional statement: Paul asks to come and stay with Philemon, and is in effect saying “Philemon, your response to this and the example you give is going to be so important that I am going to come and visit you specifically to make sure that you do what I am urging you to do!”




    What atonement motifs does Paul use in this letter?



    1) In giving Philemon a written promise to completely pay off Onesimus’ debts to Philemon, Paul is following the ‘ransom’ motif that Christ explained in Mark 10:45.

    2) In brokering the reconciliation of Philemon and Onesimus as ‘dear brothers in Christ’, Paul is following Christ’s atoning work in reconciling the estranged son back to the Father, as in the parable of the prodigal son, and as argued by Paul in Romans 5:10-11 (see also Galatians 4:5-7).



    If you have been affected by this study, would you be prepared to give to fight against slavery? If so, go to the ‘Blessings’ page and make a donation to Hope for Justice.



    Dessert Course Questions



    In 1995 Christians in Rwanda and Burundi slaughtered each other because their commitment to their tribes was greater than their commitment to each other in Christ. What can’t we see? What are we 21st Century Christians in the western world blind to?




    Was this letter written from Rome or Ephesus?



    In my opinion, Ephesus make considerably more sense because Rome would involve huge distances. I take the view that Paul wrote the three letters of ‘Ephesians’, ‘Colossians’ and ‘Philemon’ over something like three weeks from the prison cell in Ephesus somewhere around the end of his three years (52-55AD) in that provincial capital.




    If the central issue in Philemon is how to apply the Christian morality to the ubiquitous evil of slavery in the Roman Empire, then how should we apply Christian ethics to issues of religious syncretism and sexual issues in C21st Britain?




    In what other areas in society is Christianity subversive?



    Wives obeying their husbands so that their husbands are impressed and become Christians – 1 Peter 3:6 but note the context of persecution and the principle of 1 Peter 2:15

    “Greet one another with a Holy Kiss”. In some cultures this would be extremely inappropriate.

    Obeying the ‘King’, which in the modern day also applies to the Government and politicians


    NB the hyperlink included with this question in the Dessert Course is provocative – it does not reflect the views of Bible for Life.





      Coaching Questions -
    • Coaching Questions

    Coaching Questions for the Philemon Pod Sessions



    Sections Point to be noted
    Opening: What’s the main thing happening with you at the moment?


    At the end of our last pod you said you would be happy for me to ask you this question …How have you got on?


    How did you go about engaging with Philemon? 


    Are there specific things you want to talk about today from your study of Philemon?

                Any questions,

                …or things you don’t understand?


    Which verses made the greatest impression on you?


    Substance – Message and Theology:


    QQQ – What exactly is Paul asking Philemon to do?


    QQQ – Slavery: Describe slavery in the Roman Empire.

                                Is the NT against slavery?


    QQQ – Describe the essence of the challenge that Philemon faces.


    QQQ – What role does Paul take in bringing Onesimus and Philemon together and how does this mirror Christ’s work of atonement?


    QQQ – Ask some of the Menu Questions



    Your insights:





    Holy Habit:

    QQQ – What question shall I ask you when we next meet in the light of the application that you have made from our study today?


    QQQ – On a scale of 1 – 10, how good at you at welcoming (v17) those who are very different from you, and come from very different backgrounds?