The Letter of St. Paul to Philemon

Considered a genuine Pauline epistle, the letter to Philemon is dated around 54-55 AD and was written from an imprisonment (probably in Ephesus) that Paul expects will soon be over. 

This short letter addressed to three specific individuals concerns Onesimus, a slave from Colossae (Col 4:9), who had run away from his master, perhaps guilty of theft in the process (Phlm 18). Onesimus was converted to Christ by Paul (Phlm 10). Paul sends him back to his master (Phlm 12) with this letter asking that he be welcomed willingly by his old master (Phlm 8–10, 14, 17) not just as a slave but as a brother in Christ (Phlm 16). Paul uses very strong arguments (especially Phlm 19) in his touching appeal on behalf of Onesimus. It is unlikely that Paul is subtly hinting that he would like to retain Onesimus as his own slave, lent to Paul by his master. Rather, he suggests he would like to have Onesimus work with him for the gospel (Phlm 13, 20–21). There is, however, little evidence connecting this Onesimus with a bishop of Ephesus of the same name mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch (ca. A.D. 110).

Paul’s letter deals with an accepted institution of antiquity, human slavery. But Paul breathes into this letter the spirit of Christ and of equality within the Christian community. He does not attack slavery directly, for this is something the Christian communities of the first century were in no position to do, and the expectation that Christ would soon come again militated against social reforms. Yet Paul, by presenting Onesimus as “brother, beloved…to me, but even more so to you” (Phlm 16), voiced an idea revolutionary in that day and destined to break down worldly barriers of division “in the Lord.”

Excerpts from Philemon:

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The Letter to Philemon

Chapter 1

Address and Greeting.

1 Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our beloved and our co-worker,
to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church at your house.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


4 I give thanks to my God always, remembering you in my prayers,
as I hear of the love and the faith you have in the Lord Jesus and for all the holy ones,
so that your partnership in the faith may become effective in recognizing every good there is in us that leads to Christ.

Plea for Onesimus.

For I have experienced much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the holy ones have been refreshed by you, brother.
Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper,
I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus.
10 I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment,
11 who was once useless to you but is now useful to [both] you and me.
12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.
13 I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel,
14 but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.
15 Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,
16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.
17 So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.
18 And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me.
19 I, Paul, write this in my own hand: I will pay. May I not tell you that you owe me your very self.
20 Yes, brother, may I profit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
21 With trust in your compliance I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
22 At the same time prepare a guest room for me, for I hope to be granted to you through your prayers.

Final Greetings.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you,
24 as well as Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my co-workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
  • [2] Apphia our sister: sister is here used (like brother) to indicate a fellow Christian.
  • [9] Old man: some editors conjecture that Paul here used a similar Greek word meaning “ambassador” (cf. Eph 6:20). This conjecture heightens the contrast with “prisoner” but is totally without manuscript support.
  • [13] Serve: the Greek diakoneō could connote a ministry.
  • [23–24] Epaphras: a Colossian who founded the church there (Col 1:7) and perhaps also in Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col 2:1; 4:12–13). Aristarchus: a native of Thessalonica and fellow worker of Paul (Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2).