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New Testament Survey: The Book Of Philemon

Written By: Steve Shirley

The Book Of Philemon


  • Paul (Phile 1:1,9,19)
    (For more on Paul see: Survey: Biography Of Paul)
  • Nearly all scholars agree that Paul wrote this letter.
  • The people that Paul mentions as being with him when he wrote Philemon are exactly the same (with the exception of Justus: Col 4:11) as the people who were with him when he wrote Colossians.
Timothy (Col 1:1) / (Phile 1:1)
Aristarchus (Col 4:10) / (Phile 1:24)
Mark (Col 4:10) / (Phile 1:24)
Epaphras (Col 4:12) / (Phile 1:23)
Luke (Col 4:14) / (Phile 1:24)
Demas (Col 4:14) / (Phile 1:24)
  • The term “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” is used by Paul only in (Phile 1,9) and (Eph 3:1).
  • Also, compare the similarity between Paul’s words in (Phile 1:4) and (Phil 1:3-4).
  • These early church fathers (Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Eusebius) affirmed that Paul authored this book. (Probably the reason it is not quoted by more early church fathers is simply because of its brevity.)
  • It appears from (Phile 1:19) that Paul may have written all of this letter with his own hand, which as we have seen from previous Epistles (i.e. Col 4:18, Gal 6:11, 2 Th 3:17) was unusual.
  • Most agree that this was the 9th of the 13 Epistles that Paul wrote.

The Stats:

  • Chapters: 1
  • Verses: 25 (This is the shortest Epistle that Paul wrote.)

Date Written:

  • 60-62 A.D.

Place Written:

  • Rome (while in prison: Phile 1,9)
  • This was the third (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Philippians) of the “Prison Epistles,” so called because they were written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, which lasted 2 years (Acts 28:30). (Paul seems to make it clear in [Phile 1:22] that he expected to be released soon.)

Written To:

  • Philemon in Colosse

About Philemon:

  • Philemon (name means “loving” or “affectionate”) was apparently a wealthy man since he was a slave owner (i.e. Onesimus), and had a house large enough for a church to meet in (Phile 1:2) with guest quarters (Phile 1:22).
  • Paul brought him to salvation (Phile 1:19), possibly when he had earlier been in Ephesus (Acts 19:10,26).
  • Paul called him a “dearly beloved fellowlabourer” (Phile 1:1). He was also commended for his hospitality and benevolence (Phile 1:5-7).
  • He had a wife named Apphia, and likely a son named Archippus (Phile 1:2). Archippus apparently worked in the ministry in Colosse (Col 4:17), and Paul called him a “fellowsoldier” (Phile 1:2).

About Onesimus:

  • Onesimus (name means “profitable” or “helpful”) was a slave whose master was Philemon. He apparently stole some of Philemon’s goods (Phile 1:18), and fled to Rome.
  • While in Rome, he somehow met Paul who was still under house arrest during his 1st Roman imprisonment. (He may have sought out Paul because he had heard Philemon speak favorably about him.)
  • After he met Paul, he was converted to Christianity: “my son, whom I have begotten in my bonds” (Phile 1:10). Afterwards, he apparently ministered to Paul for a short time (Phile 1:11-13), but because he had run away from Philemon, Paul induced him to return.
  • Paul wrote this letter, interceding on Onesimus’ behalf, and had Onesimus take the letter to him personally (Phile 1:15-18). He urged Philemon to forgive Onesimus as a brother, and not as a slave (Phile 1:16). They were both now Christians, and all Christians are brothers. (Gal 3:26) “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Gal 3:28) “… there is neither slave nor free man… for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
    (In his letter to the Colossians, Paul also called Onesimus “a faithful and beloved brother:” Col 4:9.)
  • One tradition says that Onesimus was forgiven by Philemon, and later became a bishop at Ephesus (Ignatius). It is said that Onesimus, as well as Philemon, his wife, and his son Archippus, were all martyred in Rome under the reign of Nero.

Key Verse:

(Phile 1:6)


  • To intercede on behalf of Onesimus, asking Philemon to forgive him as a brother in Christ.

Special Emphasis:

  • Forgiveness, and brotherly love are the emphasis of this letter to Philemon.

In the letter, we have a perfect picture of the forgiveness we have in Christ:

  • Philemon: God the Father, the one who owns us, and against whom we have sinned and need forgiveness.
  • Onesimus: the one who has sinned against the Father.
  • Paul: Christ, who intercedes on behalf of the sinner, asking for forgiveness and grace from the Father, and offering to pay the debt of the sinner.

Excursus On Slavery In The Bible:

  • Philemon was a slave owner, and apparently he wasn’t the only Christian to have slaves (Col 4:1). In fact, the Bible has a number of places where God’s people had slaves. Did God condone slavery in the Bible?
  • Slavery was a part of the culture in Bible times, and apparently God accepted its reality just as He accepted polygamy, divorce, etc… However, God laid down very strict guidelines on how slaves were to be treated by their masters, and gave slaves many rights:
    • They were not to work on the Sabbath (Ex 20:10)(Deut 5:14).
    • They were to share in religious feasts (Deut 12:12,18)(Deut 16:11,14).
    • If a slave was killed, the one who killed him was to be put to death (Ex 21:12).
    • If a slave was seriously injured, he was to be set free (Ex 21:26-27).
    • Male slaves were to be circumcised so they could become members of God’s covenant (Gen 17:10-14).
    • If a master had a complaint against a slave, God ordered that there be fairness given (Job 31:13-15).
    • Hebrew slaves were to work only 6 years (Ex 21:2)(Deut 15:12), were allowed to buy their freedom (Lev 25:47-49), were to be released in the Year Of Jubilee no matter how long they had been slaves (Lev 25:37-43), and were to be given a liberal supply of food and drink when released (Deut 15:12-14).
    • If a slave escaped from his owner, he was not to be returned to the owner, but left alone and not oppressed wherever he chose to go (Deut 23:15-16).
    • If a slave was gored by an ox, restitution was to be given, and the ox was to be killed (Ex 21:32).
  • This treatment of slaves certainly differs from the treatment slaves have received in more recent times. When we hear the term “slavery” today, we automatically tend to associate it with the examples of slavery we have seen in the last century or two, with it’s racial overtones, physical abuse and torture, slaves having no rights, and being considered little more than dirt, etc… However, this is NOT a picture of the slavery that is connected with the Bible.
  • Slavery was not racially motivated. Slaves had rights. God condemned slave trading (the buying and selling of slaves for profit) (Ex 21:16)(Deut 24:7)(1 Tim 1:10).
  • Many people voluntarily made themselves slaves, to pay off a debt they owed to someone (Lev 25:39-41,47)(Ex 21:2-6)(Neh 5:1-5), or to make restitution for something they had stolen and couldn’t repay (Ex 22:2-3). If they didn’t do so, they would have ended up in debtor’s prison.
  • In addition, some people were made slaves in order to spare their lives after a military victory (Num 31:15-17)(Gen 14:21). Some feared they would die in war, and chose to be slaves instead (Josh 9). In some cases, the slaves loved their masters, and became like a part of the master’s family (Ex 21:5-6)(Deut 15:16-17)(1 Chr 2:34-35). Abram was so close to his servant Elisar, that he was going to make Elisar his heir (Gen 15:1-3), before God finally gave him a son (Isaac) to be his heir.
  • Historically, many Christians were sold into slavery in the years following Jesus’ death. They often brought a higher price than the people of heathen nations, because Christians were told not to rebel, but rather, to obey their masters and serve in a way that would bring glory to God (Col 3:22)(Eph 6:5-8)(1 Tim 6:1-2)(1 Pet 2:18-20)(Titus 2:9-10). Their hard work and dedication became a testimony of the Lord working in their lives, and as a result, many of their owners and co-workers became Christians themselves.
  • In a spiritual sense, all Christians are called slaves to Christ (Eph 6:6). We are slaves by choice, and we should serve Jesus, and others in a way that would be seen as a light in the world, and bring non-believers to Christ through our servanthood.


  • The divisions are four:

1. Greeting, 1-3.

2. The character of Philemon, 4-7.

3. Intercession for Onesimus, 8-21.

4. Salutations and conclusion, 22-25.

(Survey from Scofield Reference Notes [1917 ed.]: Public Domain)

Copyright: © Steve Shirley