Get Renew.org Weekly Emails

Want fresh teachings and disciple making content? Sign up to receive a weekly newsletters highlighting our resources and new content to help equip you in your disciple making journey. We’ll also send you emails with other equipping resources from time to time.

12 minutes
Download

Summary of Philemon: Understanding the Basics of Philemon in the Bible

Here is a short summary of Philemon: Paul wrote the letter of Philemon during his first Roman imprisonment to a man named Philemon in whose house the church at Colossae met. He wrote to him, expecting the letter to also be read to the whole church, in order to appeal on behalf of one of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus. Onesimus had run away, encountered Paul in Rome, become a Christian, and was now returning to Philemon to set things right. Paul expects Philemon to treat Onesimus as a Christian brother and welcome Onesimus just as he would welcome Paul. He wants Philemon to send Onesimus back to Rome to serve Paul during his imprisonment.

Backstory to Philemon

The little letter to Philemon is unique in that it’s a personal letter from Paul to an individual Christian in a church Paul had responsibility for but had never been to. Most New Testament letters are to churches. Some are to Paul’s ministry colleagues (1-2 Timothy and Titus). But only Philemon is to one particular Christian in a church. This letter involves Paul, Philemon, and one of Philemon’s slaves named Onesimus. Although it is addressed to an individual, it has ramifications for the church in Colossae so Paul includes the whole church in the recipients of the letter. Here’s what happened.

Paul is under guard in house arrest in Rome.

Philemon is part of the Colossian church and is the wealthy homeowner who opened his house to be a meeting place for the church. Like all wealthy people in a Greco-Roman city, Philemon owned some slaves. In fact, studies suggest that at any given time, 20-25% of the population of the Roman empire were slaves of some sort. They were household servants, tutors, shopkeepers, farm hands, groundskeepers, and even doctors. Slaves operated throughout every level of society in various roles on behalf of their wealthy patron or master. We don’t know any details about the size of Philemon’s estate, but he did employ some slaves, and Onesimus was one of them.


“The little letter to Philemon is unique in that it’s a personal letter from Paul to an individual Christian in a church Paul had responsibility for but had never been to.”


And at some point, Onesimus fled Philemon’s estate.

Perhaps he’d planned it for weeks and looked for an opportune moment, or perhaps it was in the heat of some conflict with Philemon, but however it came about, Onesimus ran. He got away from Colossae and made his way west until he reached Rome. And there he found the apostle Paul.

One pressing question is, how in the world did Onesimus eventually run into Paul who’s under lock and key in Rome, a city of 1.5 million people?

Was it mere happenstance, a coincidence guided by the providential hand of God? Perhaps Onesimus fled to Rome hoping to disappear in the big city and by chance ran into some of the Christians there who introduced him to Paul when they learned his story? It’s possible.

Another possibility is that it was intentional. Onesimus fled to Rome to locate Paul. In that case, he knew about Paul through Philemon and the church in his house, and even though Paul hadn’t been to Colossae yet, he would’ve heard about Paul as a great man who was deeply honored by his master Philemon. He would’ve known that Paul had much social clout. Roman law provided for slaves to flee to a friend of their master for asylum and for help mediating a dispute with their master. So, it’s also possible that was Onesimus’ plan all along—to flee to Paul to intervene between him and Philemon.

Either way, Onesimus was in deep trouble with Philemon.


“Onesimus was in deep trouble with Philemon.”


So he makes his way to Rome and encounters Paul. The first order of business for Paul is to lead this runaway slave to faith in Jesus the Messiah. And Onesimus becomes a follower of Christ!

And following Christ changes your life.

For Onesimus, that means the very practical reality of his relationship with Philemon. The two of them are now brothers in Christ. Onesimus’s absence is defrauding his brother, Philemon. Philemon needs to begin to treat Onesimus (and all his slaves) according to the way of Christ. And whatever complaint there is between the two of them needs rectified. Forgiveness needs to be extended.

But as a slave, and a runaway slave at that, Onesimus is in a terrible position. Philemon has all the power. Roman law is on his side. Nevertheless, living out the way of Jesus is more important.

So Paul and Onesimus agree to a plan, a risky one that requires real courage for Onesimus. This could go seriously wrong. Onesimus will return to Colossae and to Philemon’s house with one of Paul’s coworkers and a letter from Paul himself—the letter of Philemon. (There will also be a letter for the whole church—Colossians—that will aim to deal with some of the ramifications of Onesimus’s situation for them, as well as address some other issues in the church.)


Summary of Philemon: “Paul and Onesimus agree to a plan, a risky one that requires real courage for Onesimus.”


So Paul writes Philemon and pulls out all the rhetorical and persuasive stops. He won’t command Philemon what to do because he’s discipling him, too. And that means Philemon needs to think through what’s right according to the way of Jesus and choose it for himself. So Paul doesn’t command Philemon, but he does make it very clear what he thinks is best, and he uses all his persuasive powers to encourage him to do it.

The little letter of Philemon matters because it shows us that although our relationship with Jesus is personal, it’s not individual. It can and must change our relationships with others, even (maybe especially) others who have less social power than we do. In this specific case, what will it look like for Philemon and Onesimus to relate first and foremost as brothers in Christ, not according to the social norms of slaveholder and slave?

Overview of Philemon

The letter to Philemon is only one page long. There aren’t even any chapters, just verses. One important observation is that Paul never actually asks Philemon to set Onesimus free. None of the writers of the New Testament ever do this, and this troubles some people. This article is not the place to offer a full exploration of why they don’t call for the immediate emancipation of all slaves by Christian slaveholders, but what they do is actually more powerful in the long run and lays the foundation for the abolition of slavery in the future.

What is it that they do? They call for slaveholders to treat slaves as brothers or sisters in Christ, dignifying them as full human beings and transforming the whole relationship. It’s this that we see Paul doing in the letter to Philemon, as he seeks to disciple Philemon in the way of Jesus regarding Onesimus.

As you read the letter, take note of the two specific things Paul asks Philemon to do. He wants Philemon to send Onesimus back to Paul to help him. And he asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus just as he would welcome Paul. Both of these are radical requests for how to treat a slave who just ran away!


Summary of Philemon: “He wants Philemon to send Onesimus back to Paul to help him. And he asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus just as he would welcome Paul.”


Here’s how the letter to Philemon is organized.

Introduction

In verses 1-3, Paul begins with the customary intro and greeting of a Greco-Roman letter. The letter is from Paul and Timothy and to Philemon and the church that meets in his house, which means Paul expects the letter to be read to the whole church. Paul also includes two other specific individuals in the introduction: Apphia (most assume this is Philemon’s wife) and Archippus (who appears to have a significant ministry in the church; see Colossians 4:17).

Paul follows the opening salutations with a description of thanksgiving and prayer for Philemon in v. 4-7. His thanksgiving and prayer have to do with Philemon’s faith, love, and service to God’s people (the “saints”). Paul even mentions how Philemon’s service to God’s people has brought Paul joy and comfort.

Body

Then Paul enters into the body of the letter. In verses 8-16 Paul appeals on behalf of Onesimus. He indicates that Onesimus has become a follower of Jesus through Paul. So he’s now Paul’s son in the faith. As an apostle of Christ, Paul has enough confidence or boldness to order Philemon what to do, but he chooses to appeal so that Philemon’s response can be freely chosen as an expression of his faithfulness to Jesus. Paul shows Philemon that Onesimus is now their brother in Christ, and he wants Onesimus to be his helper during his imprisonment. But he wants Philemon to choose that and send him back to Paul.

Next in verses 17-21, Paul tells Philemon to welcome Onesimus (who’s standing right there!) as if he were Paul. Paul also tells Philemon to charge anything that Onesimus might owe to Paul’s account. Perhaps Onesimus has stolen something to pay for running away or maybe it’s a debt of lost weeks of work. Whatever it is, Paul assures Philemon he’ll repay it . . . but then he adds the note that Philemon owes Paul his very life! In saying that, Paul presumably refers to the fact that it was through Paul’s ministry that Philemon has come to know Christ and thus is eternally in his debt. He ends the body of the letter by expressing confidence in Philemon’s obedience and that he’ll do even more than Paul has asked.


“Paul presumably refers to the fact that it was through Paul’s ministry that Philemon has come to know Christ and thus is eternally in his debt.”


Travel Plans & Greetings

The final section, verses 22-25, describes Paul’s travel plans and greetings. Paul is in prison when he writes the letter, but he hopes through their prayers to be released and come stay with Philemon. According to Colossians, Paul has never been to Colossae. The church there was started by someone Paul had trained. So, if Paul is able to stay with Philemon, this would be his first visit to his house and with the whole church there. Paul concludes the letter with greetings from some of his coworkers who are with him and with a prayer of blessing.

To restate, this letter matters because it shows us that following Christ transforms the way we relate to others in down-to-earth, practical terms. Whatever the social structures are in a specific culture and whatever the expected ways of relating are within those structures, the love of Christ transforms it, so that even if Onesimus remains Philemon’s slave from the view of the social structures of the day, he is his brother in Christ and they’ll be that forever. That relationship trumps the slave-slaveholder relationship, so that love and grace and commitment to the work of Christ must now prevail.

Key Verses from Philemon

“For I have had great joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.”[1]

—Philemon 7

“Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—since I am such a person as Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”

—Philemon 8-9


Summary of Philemon: “Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you.”


“For perhaps it was for this reason that he was separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

—Philemon 15-16

“Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.”

—Philemon 21


[1] All Scripture references are from the NASB. 


For more from John, see johnwhittaker.net.

Get Renew.org Weekly Emails

Want fresh teachings and disciple making content? Sign up to receive a weekly newsletters highlighting our resources and new content to help equip you in your disciple making journey. We’ll also send you emails with other equipping resources from time to time.

You Might Also Like