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This very short letter takes the form of a personal appeal to Philemon, one of Paul’s friends who had worked alongside him proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ (1.1). He also addresses Apphia, whom Paul addresses as a sister, and Archippus, a 'fellow soldier', and the church in Philemon’s house (1.2). The subject of the letter is Onesimus, a runaway slave from the household who had met Paul in prison and come to faith in Christ. Paul sent him back to the household with this letter, encouraging its recipients to receive the runaway back with love.

Reading time: Three minutes
Short of time? It’s only 25 verses, read it all!

4When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. (Philemon 1.4–5)

Welcome him as you would welcome me. (Philemon 1.17)

The trickiest feature is that Paul does not say, as we might have hoped today, that Onesimus should be freed because slavery is wrong. At best this is implied.

The authors of this letter are given in 1.1 as Paul and Timothy.

What do we know about him?

Paul is probably the best–known of all the early Christians. Before encountering Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, he was a zealous Pharisee who sought to maintain the purity of Judaism. After his experience on the Damascus road, he turned his zeal to proclaiming Jesus Christ among the Gentiles. This brought him into conflict with some other early Christians, not least Peter, who thought that followers of Jesus should convert to Judaism. He travelled around the Roman Empire (though primarily in Asia Minor – modern-day Turkey – and Greece) proclaiming the good news and founding communities of Christians as he went. He also wrote a large number of letters, 13 of which are preserved in the New Testament. Philemon has traditionally been thought to be one of these.

Timothy was born in Lystra in Asia Minor of a Jewish mother and Greek father. Acts 16.1–3 recounts his meeting with Paul in Lystra and Paul’s desire to take him with him on his journeys. Paul often sent Timothy to communities that he had founded to take letters to them and so that he could report to Paul about what was going on. Two letters in the New Testament (1 and 2 Timothy) are reputed to be letters of encouragement from Paul to Timothy in Ephesus. Christian tradition identifies Timothy as the first Bishop of Ephesus.

Philemon is not the author but the recipient of the letter. Very little is known about him other than what we read in here. He hosts a church in his house and owns a slave, so is probably quite wealthy. He has also worked alongside Paul (1.1) presumably in the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ and not in tent making.

The time of writing varies depending on which prison you think Paul might have been in when he wrote – the range of possible dates stretches from AD 55 to 64.

Onesimus is mentioned in Colossians 4.7–9 as being sent to Colossae with Tychicus; it also mentions Archippus (Colossians 4.17), so Philemon may have lived somewhere near Colossae.

What were people feeling? 

The letter implies that Onesimus was very nervous about his return, but we know little about Philemon or how he was feeling. Sadly we also don’t know whether Philemon did, in fact, welcome Onesimus home or not.

This is a letter. Like 2 Timothy, it stands as out as being a personal letter written to address the particular concerns of a single person (although unlike 2 Timothy it is addressed to more than one person). It's about a runaway slave who is going home.

1.1–3 Introduction
1.4–7 Thanksgiving and prayer
1.8–20 Paul’s appeal for Onesimus
1.21–25 Farewells

There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.

The names of people and peoples

Onesimus, Archippus, Apphia, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, Epaphras, Levites, Mark, Timothy

Other words


The theme of partnership runs through the letter – look out for it.

Verse 19 makes mention of ‘owing me even your own self’. What might Paul mean by that?

Paul asks an awful lot of Philemon – not just to forgive Onesimus for running away, but to welcome him back as a brother in Christ. Is there anything in your life that might need a similarly generous response?

  • Were there any parts of the book that you particularly liked or that inspired you?
  • Were there any parts of the book that you disliked or that troubled you?
  • What did you think the book was about?
  • If a letter like Philemon were to be written today, who might need the kind of forgiveness that Onesimus needed?
  • Why might it have been hard for Philemon to do as Paul asked?
  • What do you learn about Paul’s attitude to slavery from this letter?
  • Did you read anything in the book that touched you, expanded your faith or made you think more deeply about your life and how you live it?

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