1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker,
Paul’s letter to Philemon was written at the same time as his letter to the Colossians. Paul wrote the letter to Philemon, a slave owner, while under house arrest in Rome (read Acts 28:16-31). The letter to Philemon is unique in that it is a private letter in which Paul asked a friend for a favor. Philemon was a believer, possibly one of Paul’s converts (see v. 19).
Paul referred to Philemon as “our beloved brother and fellow worker.” Unlike his other letters, Paul did not refer to himself as Paul, an apostle. Perhaps Paul dropped his more official and authoritative title because he was writing to a friend. This is the only letter in which Paul used the phrase “a prisoner of Jesus Christ” in a salutation. Paul was imprisoned because of his devotion and loyalty to Jesus Christ. Timothy was at Paul’s side when he wrote the letter.
2 and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Paul also greeted Apphia (possibly Philemon’s wife) and Archippus (possibly Philemon’s son or a pastor). Philemon opened his home to the church (possibly in Colossae – see Col. 4:9). He was a man of means since he owned a slave and had a house big enough to host a church. Philemon’s house must have been like a safe harbor for believers in the Lycus Valley — a place where people were refreshed and encouraged. Philemon seems to have been a very generous man (see vv. 5-7).
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The word “grace” serves as a reminder of sin forgiven by God and the word “peace” describes the result of receiving God’s grace. Grace speaks of the source of salvation and peace speaks of the result of salvation. First grace, then peace.
4 I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers,
Paul’s expression of thanksgiving for Philemon was personal, directed to God, and continual. Paul gave thanks to God for Philemon every time he thought of this dear friend. Paul was concerned about the churches he helped to start (see 2 Cor. 11:28) as well as for the leaders and laborers in those churches.
5 because I hear of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints;
The news of Philemon’s love and faith had reached Paul. This news encouraged Paul and became the occasion for his prayer of thanksgiving. Philemon loved “all the saints.” Do others hear about our love and faith? Does our love embrace all who are members of God’s family?
6 and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.
Paul prayed that the practical expressions of Philemon’s faith would bring glory to Christ and result in Philemon’s growth in character and in the knowledge of Christ. We can learn more about Christ by giving to and lovingly ministering to others. Our Christian maturity should have a practical and beneficial impact on those around us.
7 For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.
Philemon’s love had found practical expression in serving others. Paul found encouragement and joy in Philemon’s example and thanked God for Philemon. Only heaven will reveal the names of those refreshed (or whose hearts were cheered) and consequently encouraged to continued ministry by Philemon.
8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do that which is proper,
Paul understood that he could authoritatively tell Philemon what he ought to do in regard to Onesimus. Paul however, chose to use persuasion (rather than an authoritative tone) in appealing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus.
9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now a prisoner of Christ Jesus—
Paul could have pulled rank on Philemon. Instead, Paul chose to appeal to Philemon on the basis of love. This is an indication of Paul’s respect for Philemon and confidence that Philemon would do the right thing.
Paul referred to himself as “Paul, the aged.” Paul was a veteran in the Lord’s work (read 2 Cor. 11:23-28; 12:7). Paul had both the credibility and track record to make an appeal to his friend Philemon. Paul further referred to himself as “a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” Paul was in prison for the sake of the Gospel. Perhaps Philemon cried when he read the personal and heartfelt plea of his friend who had suffered so much for the sake of Jesus Christ.
10 I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus,
Before disclosing that he was writing on behalf of Onesimus, Paul described his relationship to Onesimus. Paul referred to the runaway slave as his “child,” an indication that Paul had led Onesimus to faith in Christ (like Timothy, Titus, and Philemon). Paul led Onesimus to faith in Christ while under house arrest in Rome (read Phil. 1:12). Sometimes the worst of circumstances can provide us with the best of opportunities. Paul appealed to Philemon as a father pleading for his child.
Paul wrote of the duties and responsibilities of slaves and masters in Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22—4:1. Paul’s thoughts concerning the relationship between masters and slaves were likely shaped by his conversations with Onesimus.
11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.
Paul did not make any excuses for Onesimus. Paul acknowledged that, in the past, Onesimus had been “useless” to Philemon. The name Onesimus means “profitable” or “helpful.” Paul did not find it necessary to review the ways in which Onesimus had failed to live up to the meaning of his name. However, as a new believer in Christ, Onesimus was a changed man. Onesimus had in fact, already demonstrated the change in his life by being helpful to Paul in his imprisonment (see v. 13). Paul assured Philemon that Onesimus would now live up to the meaning of his name by being useful to him as well. Christianity changes men from the inside out and makes them useful in ways they could never realize apart from Christ.
Note: About 50 years after Paul wrote to Philemon, Ignatius (a martyr), wrote a letter to the Church at Ephesus. In that letter Ignatius referred to their bishop — a man named Onesimus. Using the same pun as Paul, Ignatius said that the bishop of the Ephesian church was Onesimus both by name and nature. Some scholars believe that Onesimus was instrumental in having Paul’s letter to Philemon included in the canon of Scripture — a sort of personal testimony to the fact that Paul had led him to Christ and Christ had set him on a new course.
12 And I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart,
Paul did what Roman law required — he sent the runaway slave back to his master. Onesimus accompanied Paul’s letter to Philemon all the way from Rome to Colossae. It is likely that Tychicus carried the letter and presented it to Philemon (read Col. 4:7-9). The willingness of Onesimus to return to Philemon demonstrates that his conversion was indeed genuine.
Paul’s affection for Onesimus is seen in the phrase “sending my very heart.” Somehow the runaway slave had endeared himself to the heart of Paul. Sending Onesimus away was not easy for Paul. Surely this must have made an impression on Philemon.
13 whom I wished to keep with me, that in your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel;
It was difficult for Paul to send Onesimus back to Colossae. Onesimus likely ministered to Paul in his imprisonment. This service probably helped to form a bond between the two men. As Philemon’s servant, Paul considered any service rendered to him by Onesimus as service in Philemon’s behalf. Philemon himself would have done no less to help Paul had he been present.
14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will.
Paul did not want to continue to be the beneficiary of Onesimus’ service without Philemon’s knowledge. In addition, Paul did not want to violate Roman law by detaining a fugitive slave. As a new believer, Onesimus needed to return to his master to make restitution for what he had done. Christianity does not exempt us from our debts, responsibilities, and mending of broken relationships. Barclay writes, “Christianity is not out to help a man escape his past and run away from it; it is out to enable him to face his past and rise above it.”
15 For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever,
Paul saw God at work in the matters at hand. Perhaps Onesimus “parted” so that, in God’s providence, he could come to Christ and return to his master with a greater commitment than before (read Gen. 45:5 concerning Joseph’s separation from his brothers). Onesimus’ departure from Philemon was only “for a while” yet brought about a change that would last for all of eternity.
16 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.
The events that transpired in the life of Onesimus changed his relation to Philemon in more ways than one. No longer would Onesimus be just a mere slave (“in the flesh”). His new relationship with Christ made him and Philemon “beloved” brothers in the family of God (“in the Lord”).
17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.
Paul appealed to Philemon as a “partner” or one with common interests and feelings. As such, Paul asked Philemon to receive back Onesimus as he would receive Paul himself. Do we accept and welcome back those who have made a mistake?
18 But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account;
Here is yet another indication of how much Paul esteemed Onesimus. He was willing to assume any financial obligation of Onesimus. Perhaps Onesimus had stolen from Philemon in order to finance his escape to Rome. Or perhaps the loss of income was the result of Onesimus’ absence from Philemon’s household. Like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), Paul was willing to open his own wallet and obligate himself to repay any debt owed by Onesimus (much like what Christ did for us on the cross).
19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (lest I should mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well).
Paul put his own signature on his promise to repay any debt owed by Onesimus (as one would sign a promissory note). Paul’s resolve was firm, “I will repay it.” Paul gave Philemon an out should he decide to not require Paul to repay Onesimus’ debt. Paul gave Philemon an out by mentioning that Philemon was in debt to Paul for his salvation and all the spiritual riches he enjoyed as a result. Philemon’s debt to Paul was greater than any debt owed to Philemon by Onesimus.
20 Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.
Paul stated in verse 7 that Philemon had refreshed the hearts of the saints. Paul expected that Philemon would do no less for him. Paul also used a play on words in this sentence. The name Onesimus means “profitable” or “helpful” (see comments on verse 11). The word “benefit” comes from the same root word as Onesimus. Paul was saying, in essence, “I am sending Onesimus back to you. Please demonstrate some ‘onesimus’ to me.”
21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.
Paul expected good out of Christian leaders like Philemon. He was confident that Philemon would do the right thing. Some believe that Paul hinted that he expected Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom. Others see Paul’s words (“I know that you will do even more than what I say”) as a commentary on the good character of Philemon. The “more” would certainly include receiving, forgiving, and treating Onesimus as a fellow brother in Christ.
22 And at the same time prepare me a lodging; for I hope that through your prayers I shall be given to you.
Paul expected to be released from prison. He hoped to visit Philemon where he could see the outcome of his letter. Undoubtedly the possibility of a visit from Paul put more than a little pressure on Philemon to receive Onesimus as Paul instructed in his letter.
Paul hoped that the prayers on his behalf by all the saints in Colossae would result in his release from prison.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you.
Paul included greetings from five fellow Christians (compare to list in Col. 4:10-14). Philemon likely knew each of the individuals who sent their greetings. Epaphras was the founder of the Colossian church (see Col. 1:7). Epaphras had journeyed to Rome to report to Paul about the condition of the church in Colossae (see Col. 1:8 and 4:12-13). Perhaps Epaphras recognized Onesimus (or vice versa) when he visited Paul. The phrase “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus” is probably a reference to Epaphras’ voluntary decision to stay with Paul in order to minister to him.
24 as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers.
Paul also sent greetings from “Mark” — that is, John Mark, the writer of the second Gospel. Apparently, John Mark had regained Paul’s confidence (read Acts 16:36-41 concerning Paul’s earlier estimation of John Mark).
Aristarchus was “a Macedonian of Thessalonica” (Acts 27:2) and one of Paul’s traveling companions (Acts 19:29).
Demas was in good standing with Paul and his fellow Christians at this point in time. Sadly, he would desert Paul (see 2 Tim. 4:10) during Paul’s second imprisonment.
Luke was a dear friend of the Apostle Paul (see Col. 4:14).
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Paul’s concluding benediction was for Philemon and all (the word “your” is plural) the recipients of the letter to experience the wonderful grace of God.