By Tim Sullivan


The book of Philemon is one of the four "prison epistles" that Paul wrote along during his first imprisonment in Rome. Colossians, Ephesians and Philippians were epistles to entire congregations; this letter was to one man.

A. The Introduction

Philemon 1:1-2:
1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,
2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:

Two pieces of evidence lead to the conclusion that Philemon was a wealthy man. First, his home was large enough to be the meeting place for the church. (Church historians agree that Christians met in private home until the 3rd century AD.) Second - as shall be seen - he owned slaves.

Apphia was very likely the wife of Philemon. Archippus was likely the pastor of the church. He was mentioned by name and singled-out for an exhortation in Paul's letter to the Colossians:

Colossians 4:17:
And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.

Paul begins his letter to Philemon with his customary benediction:

Philemon 1:3:
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace are gifts from God through his Son. Truly there is no peace without grace, and no grace without peace.

B. Philemon's Character

Although it possible that these two men never met face-to-face, Paul was clearly aware of this man's good reputation and his service to the church.

Philemon 1:4-5:
4 I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,
5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;
6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

Paul prayed that word of Philemon’s faith (demonstrated by his good works towards the church) would spread, so that all would see Christ’s blessing upon his life, and glorify God. This is Christ's desire for us all:

Matthew 5:16 
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

C. Paul’s Charge to Philemon

Paul was keenly aware of Philemon's past service to the church.

Philemon 1:7:
For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.

According to Strong's Bible Concordance, "The bowels were regarded by the Hebrews as the seat of the tenderer affections, esp. kindness, benevolence, compassion; hence, our heart (tender mercies, affections, etc.)."

This is why Paul knew he could count on him for something that went beyond the usual request.

Philemon 1:8:
Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,

To "enjoin" someone is to give him an order or command. "That which is convenient" is that which is fitting or appropriate. Paul was pressing Philemon to make a certain sacrifice, not out of duty to Paul (although that was clearly owed), but for the sake of Christian love.

Philemon 1:9:
Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s request was for a runaway slave named Onesimus, who was still bound to Philemon. Onesimus had traveled from Colosse to Rome. There he met Paul, who led him to salvation in the name of Jesus Christ.

It is fair to assume that Onesimus kept his situation a secret from Paul for some time before making his confession. It must have come as quite a surprise to him that Paul actually knew the man he had run from!

Paul was now sending Onesimus back to his master, as was the right thing to do. But Paul wanted Philemon to know that Onesimus had become quite dear to him, and he would have much preferred for Onesimus to stay with him in Rome.

Philemon 1:10-12:
10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

It is safe to assume that the penalty for a recaptured slave was death, and this was one reason Paul was so adamant in his plea for this man. Nevertheless Paul knew that Philemon had the final word in the matter.

Philemon 13-14:
13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:
14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.

He knew that Philemon’s mercy toward Onesimus would be rewarded in heaven – but only if the act came from his heart.

2 Corinthians 9:7
Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give;
not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.

Paul makes the bold suggestion that Onesimus’ running away was an act of providence ensuring he would return to Philemon as a brother in the Lord. And this, Paul reminds him, made him much more valuable to them both.

Philemon 15-16:
15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;
16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

D. Paul’s Wise Offer

Paul wanted to be sure that Onesimus would be well-treated upon his return. He therefore made a personal pledge to Philemon on his behalf:

Philemon 1:17-19a:
17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.
18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
19a I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it ....

However, Paul also reminded Philemon of his own indebtedness to him! He says, “I do not say to thee,” but then says it anyway!

Philemon 1:19b:
... albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.

As you have refreshed others, Paul says to Philemon, so refresh me.

Philemon 1:20:
Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.

Paul now frames his request of Philemon in terms of both his obedience to God and Paul’s confidence in him. It is now a favor that Philemon knows he cannot refuse.

Philemon 1:21:
Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

As an added incentive, Paul let Philemon know that he expected to be soon released from prison, crediting Philemon’s prayers for this happy development. He would then be able to visit him – inferring that he would then be able to see for himself how Onesimus was being treated!

Philemon 1:22
But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.

Paul used everything short of outright manipulation to move Philemon to do the right thing. And yet, this is exactly what it means to “beseech” someone to conduct himself as is fitting for a Christian.

Romans 12:1:
1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

E. The Salutation and Postscript

The last three verses of Paul's letter to Philemon contain his greeting to various members of the church. Along with Onesimus, each of these man are named in the fourth chapter of Colossians (Onesimus in verse 9; Epaphras in verse 12, Marcus and Artistarchus in verse 10, Demas and Lucas in verse 14).

Philemon 1:23-25:
23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;
24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.
25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Once again, Paul's message begins and ends with grace.

The postscript to this epistle is not included in all Bible versions. "Written from Rome to Philemon, by Onesimus a servant." It would serve to underscore to Philemon that Onesimus was indeed a helper to Paul, and that he himself knew the content of Paul's letter.


Presented September 4, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Edited March 2020