Paul, together with Timothy (Phm 1), writes a letter to his long-term friend and former co-worker Philemon (Phm 1-2). Philemon came to Christ through Paul (Phm 19) and became his co-worker, probably during the three years that Paul spent ministering in Ephesus during his third missionary journey (Acts 19:8-10). Philemon is by now an elder and house church leader in the church of Colossae, his home town, which is an ancient and important city located on the Roman road that leads East from the seaport Ephesus.
The Colossian church was founded in around 53-56 AD, not by Paul directly but by Epaphras (Col 1:7), another person from Colossae who, like Philemon, came to Christ under Paul’s ministry and then went back to his own area to start a church in Colossae, and in nearby Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col 1;7, 4:12-13).
After his third missionary journey Paul has been imprisoned first in Jerusalem, then for two years in Caesarea and now for two years in Rome (60-62 AD). He is awaiting his trial – or a release, according to the Roman law that a person could not be held for longer than two years without conviction (Acts 28:30-31, Phm 22).
The letter is about Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, who, after fleeing from Philemon’s house, found his way to the capital Rome and somehow met Paul. Paul befriends him, shares the gospel with him, teaches and disciples him. Onesimus’ life is changed (Phm 11). Paul calls him “my child” (Phm 10) and “my own heart” (Phm 12). Paul, as part of good discipleship, sends Onesiums back to his legal owner Philemon, to ask for forgiveness, take responsibility for his actions and to re-submit to his former master. Paul sends a strong letter of recommendation with Onesimus, requesting Philemon to treat Onesimus well, to treat him not as a slave but as a brother (Phm 16). This is a tall order and – of course – in conflict with surrounding culture and community. Legally Philemon, as master, has the full right to punish, torture or even kill Onesimus for his prior unfaithfulness. Therefore Paul’s letter is strong, as it is Onesimus’ only protection.
Paul is revealed as a powerful model in this letter, investing himself in a young man who has already proven unfaithful, giving him a second chance, discipling him and trusting God’s power to change his life. Paul also shows great integrity in respecting Philemon’s legal right, using his trust with both Philemon and Onesiums to bring about a reconciliation and a fresh start. He wants to achieve peace and affirmation for Philemon. He wants to achieve peace, deep discipleship and authority for future ministry for Onesimus.
Paul also knows well that for Philemon to do as he requests in this letter will have difficult and potentially dangerous repercussions: other slaves will want freedom as well and other slave masters will pressure him not to release his slave or slaves. Paul basically asks Philemon to become a champion against slavery on a personal and o a leadership level.
But also much now hinges on Onesimus’ humility and exemplary behavior: if he in any way abuses the freedom Paul’s letter has achieved for him, he will undermine Paul’s intent, put his master Philemon is a false position and become the reasons why no master will release any more slaves.
Paul in his letter to the Colossians (written and sent at the same time, Col 4:7-8) makes clear that in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Col 3:11). Yet he still commands slaves to be faithful and wholehearted in their work (Col 3:22-25). To balance this he also asks masters to be fair (Col 4:1). Paul lays the foundations for the slow, peaceful, legal and voluntary abolishing of slavery.
The author and the addressee
Paul, together with Timothy, writes this letter to his long-term friend and former co-worker Philemon (Phm 1).
It seems Philemon has earlier come to Christ through Paul (Phm 17, 19) and become his co-worker, probably during the three years that Paul spends ministering in Ephesus during his third missionary journey. Philemon is from Colossae, an ancient and important city located on the Roman road that leads East from the seaport city of Ephesus (Col 4:9). Ephesus and Colossae were well connected. Philemon must have heard Paul preach, becomes a believer, is taught and discipled by Paul and becomes his co-worker (Acts 19:8-10). By now Philemon is an elder and house church leader in the church of Colossae (Phm 1), a person of great influence through his love and care for the believers (Phm 4-7). Paul is greatly encouraged by Philemon’s ministry, trusts him and is convinced of his cooperation concerning Onesimus (Phm 21). He is also free enough with Philemon to invite himself to his house (Phm 22).
Philemon is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, neither is Apphia (Phm 2), the co-addressee of the letter. She may have been Philemon’s wife or another leader of that church. Paul also addresses Archippus, who may have been the leader of the church in Colossae, as he is instructed by Paul to “complete the task he received” (Col 4:17).
The founding of the Colossian church
The Colossian church was founded in around 53-56 AD, not by Paul directly but by Epaphras (Col 1:7). Epaphras is another person from Colossae who, like Philemon, came to Christ under Paul’s ministry and then went back to his own area to start a church in Colossae, and in nearby Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col 1:7, 4:12-13).
He has left the region, probably to meet Paul and give him an update how the churches are doing. His report is most likely the basis for the letter of Colossians, maybe partially also for the letter of Philemon. Somehow Epaphras was arrested (Phm 23) and – being unable now to return himself – he intercedes for the churches he planted. Paul in the meantime sends Tychicus and Onesimus with letters to Colossae and to Philemon.
The following pictures show the people mentioned in the letter of Philemon (left) and those mentioned in Philemon and Colossians combined (right):
Such a high overlap of people strongly indicates that the letters were written at the same time, and delivered by the same person at the same time (Col 4:7-9).
Where is Paul imprisoned?
Paul mentions many times in this letter that he is imprisoned, but where? According to the New Testament record Paul was imprisoned many times:
- 50 AD 2nd journey Philippi one night only Acts 16:23-39
- 54-55 AD 3rd journey Ephesus unknown 2 Cor 11:23-24 by implication of the plural Paul uses “imprisonments”
- 57 AD End of 3rd Jerusalem shortly only Acts 21 – 23
- 57-59 AD Caesarea 2 years Acts 23:3-27:1
- 60-62 AD Rome 2 years Acts 28:30-31 ‘Light imprisonment’ or house arrest
After his third missionary journey Paul is imprisoned first in Jerusalem, then for two years in Caesarea (57-59 AD) and then for another two years in Rome (60-62 AD). In Rome he is held under house arrest: he can stay in a rented place, is watched by guards but is able to receive people quite freely (Acts 20:30-31). Here he awaits his trial, – or his release. As a Roman citizen a law applies in his case, that a citizen cannot be held for longer than two years without a conviction. So Paul hopes that he will soon get either a favorable verdict or a release without verdict, so he can finally travel East again (Phm 22).
Actually there are a minimum of four letters that Paul writes roughly at the same time, Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon, the so-called ‘prison epistles’. The letters are linked by Paul mentioning in each letter being in prison, by a common letter deliverer Tychicus (Col 4:7, Eph 6:21), by Paul expressing the hope of being released soon (Phm 22, Php 2:24), by similar people around Paul who send greetings (Phm 23-24, Col 4:9-17) and by a similarity of topics (Ephesians, Colossians):
Ephesians Colossians Philemon Philippians
Paul in prison Eph 3:10 Col 4:18 Phm 1 Php 1:1, 1:7
Timothy with Paul Col 1:1 Phm 1 Php 1:1
Mailman Tychicus Eph 6:21 Col 4:7 Hope for release Phm 22 Php 2:24
Imprisonment in Rome Php 1:13 Imperial Guard Php 4:22 Emperor’s household
Themes Similar to Col Similar to Eph People mentioned with Paul Col: Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus-Justus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas
Phm: Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, Demas Mentioned people Col: Onesimus, Archippus Phm: Onesimus, Apphia, Archippus
In Philippians Paul mentions the “imperial guard” hearing the gospel through him (Php 1:13) as well as the believers in the “emperor’s household” (Php 4:22) sending greetings, which again points to Paul’s imprisonment being the one in Rome.
The slave Onesimus ran away from his master Philemon in Colossae and ends up in Rome where he somehow meets Paul. Since Onesimus is a slave, it is important to understand slavery in the Roman Empire of that time:
Slavery in the Roman empire (Zondervan‘s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol 5)
- Slavery arose in the Roman empire from 3rd century BC with the conquest of surrounding peoples, who were captured and sold as slaves.
- First slaves were treated very badly. According to the law they were the property of the master, as a goat might be the property of the master.
- Masters had the right over the life of a slave, a slave could be branded, beaten, punished, sold or killed. Slaves were inherited or purchased.
- Children of slaves automatically became slaves also, property of the master. Purchased slaves were usually prisoners of war or persons illegally seized by pirates and sold to slave traders. Some bred slaves as a business.
- By New Testament times there were clear improvements in the rights of slaves. Many slaves were able to save up money and eventually buy their own freedom. They had rights to wife and family. They were tried in the same way as freedmen (former slaves, lower class Roman citizens). Increasingly there were educated slaves, bought as private lawyers or teachers for upper class children or accountants for the business.
- A worthy slave had hopes to receive his freedom within less than ten years (Cicero). Slavery often lead to Roman citizenship by the 1st century AD.
- Slaves were made freedmen in increasing numbers, partially because of the relative lack of freeborn citizenry and also because as freemen they could fulfill obligations to the state, most importantly military service.
- If a master died, a percentage of slaves were commonly freed.
- Yet slaves made up an estimated seventy-five percent of the Roman population.
- Run away slaves had to be returned to their owner. Government and private agencies were expected to assist with this. To give shelter to a run away slave meant to be financially obligated to reimburse his master for the labor the slave did not render. Maybe that’s why Paul refers to a possible debt (Phm 18-19).
- A run away slave could be punished, branded, tortured or even killed by his master, but this was increasingly uncommon by New Testament times.
- If a slave was freed in Italy, he automatically received Roman citizenship. Because of this law run-away slaves often gravitated towards Italy and Rome.
The story behind the letter
It seems that Onesimus, a slave, fled from his master Philemon’s house in Colossae and found his way to the capital Rome, where he somehow met Paul. Was Philemon a hard master or was Onesimus a rather useless slave? The letter seems to indicate the latter: Paul says that Onesimus indeed at one time was “useless” (Phm 11), but that he is so no longer. This verse is actually a play on words because the name ‘Onesimus’ means ‘useful’. So verse 11 paraphrased is: ‘Mr. Useful was at one time really useless, but now Mr. Useful is indeed useful!’
Paul befriends Onesimus, shares the gospel with him, teaches and disciples him. Onesimus’ life is changed (Phm 11). Paul calls him “my child” (Phm 10), a metaphor implying closeness, relationship, care, pride, representation and a permanence of commitment. He also calls him “my own heart” (Phm 12) which shows that Paul is not just counting converts but is really personally and emotionally involved with the people he disciples.
Paul, as part of good discipleship, sends Onesiums back to his legal owner, Philemon to ask for forgiveness, to take responsibility for his actions and to re-submit to his former master. Paul sends a strong letter of recommendation with Onesimus, requesting Philemon to treat Onesimus well, indeed to treat him no longer as a slave but as a brother (Phm 16). This is a tall order and in total contradiction with the surrounding culture and community. Legally Philemon as master has the full right to punish, torture or even kill Onesimus for his prior unfaithfulness. Therefore Paul’s letter is strong, as it is Onesimus’ only protection.
Things to learn from this letter
Importance of forgiveness
Basically the letter is about forgiveness. Luther said: ‘We are all Onesimuses’. We all need forgiveness. But we also all need to extend forgiveness to others who have wronged us.
Onesimus is a person already proven unfaithful. Yet still Paul invests in him, he tries again with him even after Philemon seems to have failed. People do make mistakes. Do not bind people to their mistakes forever. To give second chances is a godly attitude: grace.
Paul has faith that people can indeed be changed by the gospel. He trusts Onesimus’ salvation, he trusts the discipleship process he has been through with him. Paul has hope for people. Maybe this is because Paul himself was once considered ‘hopeless’ and even ‘evil’. He was a persecutor of the church and a self-willed and violent leader (Acts 8:1). When he converted the church in Jerusalem was so afraid of him, they did not allow him into church (Acts 9:26). Only when Barnabas, a courageous and wise believer, reaches out to Paul is he allowed into fellowship with the church (Acts 9:27-28). Paul learned his lesson from Barnabas: he is now somebody reaching out to other ‘unfaithful’ or ‘hopeless’ people.
Investing in the lowly
Paul, though a very important apostle and a leader of many churches, takes time to invest into a slave, one proven unfaithful at that. This shows that Paul truly makes no differences based on race, class or status: he deeply and emotionally invests in a low class person. He does as he says: “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, man nor woman, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28, Col 3:11).
No self-pity but faithfulness to calling
Paul has been in prison for about four and a half years when he writes the letter of Philemon. He could be discouraged, complaining and blaming God for not getting him out of prison to fulfill his ministry as a pioneer missionary and apostle. But Paul does not complain, rather he takes every opportunity to do what God called him to do: he preaches the gospel (to Onesimus and to the guards Php 1:13), he prays, he disciples, he teaches, he builds up workers, he cares for the church, he writes letters. Paul basically does in prison what he also does outside of prison. He is faithful to his calling. He will not let himself be limited by circumstances but rather is pro-active.
Mending broken relationships
Paul is using the trust he has with Philemon on the one hand, and with Onesimus on the other hand, to work towards a restoration of their broken relationship. When two people have a conflict, we are often tempted to use that for our own purposes, to endear us to either side, to bring people into deeper loyalty to ourselves. We use false pity by which we make the conflict worse. How different is Paul! Notice with what integrity he communicates: He says nothing to Philemon that Onesimus shouldn’t hear. He says nothing to Onesimus that Philemon would feel bad about. As far as it is in his power he works towards reconciliation and peace.
What is discipleship?
Paul is revealed as a powerful model in this letter, especially in the area of discipleship. Paul’s discipleship is not ‘cheap grace’, he doesn’t say: ‘you are a new creation, forget all that was in the past’ and ‘let me send you to the West, Philemon will never know’. Paul’s discipleship includes confession of sin, taking of responsibility for past action, asking for forgiveness, going back to make things right, humility and submission, faithfulness and a servant attitude.
Why in the world would Paul send back a slave into slavery? What is the good of sending Onesimus back? On the one hand Paul does this to respect Philemon’s legal right as the owner of Onesimus, even though Paul is no supporter of slavery. But he does it also for Onesimus’ sake: the requiring of repentance, humility, taking responsibility for past action, restitution and submission will challenge Onesimus and build his character. It will also build his authority for future ministry: When he will gain his freedom (whether Philemon will release him now or whether he will eventually work his way out of slavery), he will go out not only a free man, but as a man of character and integrity. He has done what is right, the foundations for Onesimus’ future ministry are laid: he has peace, self-respect and a deep understanding of discipleship.
Often our discipleship is so cheap in comparison. We ‘cut cocoons’. Butterflies struggle for hours to get out of their cocoons. If the cocoon is cut they get out easily, but the emerging butterfly is unable to fly because by lack of struggle his wings have not fully extended. It is in fact crippled. Paul does not cut cocoons, he takes the long road with Onesimus but is successful in his discipleship. From church history we know that in 100 AD (so around forty years after this story) the spiritual leader of the church in Ephesus is called Onesimus. This Onesimus.
Basically this letter is a letter of recommendation for Onesimus. Often people require letters of recommendation from us. This is a tricky business and we should only recommend somebody if we have a very solid knowledge of his character. If the recommended person proves unfaithful, the trustworthiness we have in people’s eyes is broken.
Yet recommendations are powerful. They may open doors for good people or changed people to get a chance to prove themselves. We can use the trust we have with people to help another person.
Paul says he will soon come to visit (Phm 22). This introduces accountability for all involved: Upon arriving Paul’s first question to Philemon will be: ‘Where is Onesimus?’ And his first question to Onesimus will be: ‘Did you ask for forgiveness and submit to Philemon?’. But Paul also holds himself accountable: If his recommendation of Philemon to Onesimus breaks (that is: if Philemon treats Onesimus harshly) then Paul will have to ask Onesimus’ forgiveness for endangering him. If Paul’s recommendation of Onesimus to Philemon breaks (that is: if Onesimus acts haughtily) then Paul will have to ask Philemon’s forgiveness for forcing his hand and setting him up with a difficult situation.
Obeying this letter will create waves
But the issue of accountability goes further: Paul knows very well that for Philemon to do as he requests in this letter will have difficult and potentially dangerous repercussions, for this letter and Philemon’s action does not happen in a vacuum.
Rather this will create waves: If Philemon indeed welcomes back Onesimus no longer as a slave but rather as a brother, then other slaves in Philemon’s household will feel wronged: They were faithful, they probably worked more because of Onesimus’ absence and their reward for that is to see Onesimus honored and released and themselves still as slaves. This creates a sense of injury and of injustice, possibly it will feed rebellious thoughts: ‘I will also demand freedom’ or ‘I’ll also run away and then come back with a grand letter’. They will feel that faithfulness is discouraged.
If Philemon starts treating all of his slaves differently or if he starts releasing them all, then he will come under tremendous pressure from other slave owners in the church: They will discourage him from doing this, as it has repercussions on their households and their slaves as well. All slaves might demand freedom and there will be no end to the implications. If non-Christian slave owners see that the church is starting a movement of freeing slaves (manumission), they may get afraid and angry and may try to create pressure on the church for being a destabilizing force in society. This will create further pressure on the small group of Colossian Christians.
And then there may be other Christian slaves who are faithful, but their masters are not believers and would never release them. So they might feel left out and abandoned that while others may get freedom, they will surely not.
All of this shows that this letter will create a stir for sure, possibly even serious trouble. Paul basically asks Philemon to breed out a ‘cuckoo’s egg’ for him, well knowing that this will mean trouble for Philemon. Maybe Philemon has long ago forgiven Onesimus and is very happy to oblige Paul with his request. Maybe Paul writes the letter so strongly to indirectly back Philemon when he takes a stand against all these pressures. Paul puts his weight behind Philemon, so to speak, asking him – as a good man with a very good reputation – to become a champion against slavery for his area, which will also mean to come under a lot of crossfire.
Another important aspect: everything now hinges on Onesimus’ humility and exemplary behavior. If he in any way abuses the freedom Paul’s letter has achieved for him, if he exalts himself even an inch above the other slaves, he will become the counter-proof, he will thereby bind Philemon’s hands, he will become the reason Philemon cannot release other slaves and the reason no master will release any more slaves at all. Onesimus’ exemplary behavior is absolutely crucial to support Philemon in his task to stand up for slave release.
The link between Colossians and Philemon
One other important question needs to be asked: How does Paul address these issues in the letter of Colossians, that – remember – is delivered at the same time to this same church.
Paul in his letter to the Colossians lays the all important Biblical foundations: He talks about salvation and Jesus’ grace bringing about a renewal. “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11). In this way Paul lays the foundation for the unity and equality of all man and effectively undercuts the whole concept of slavery.
But at the same time he does not promote rebellion, unfaithfulness or flight for slaves, rather he instructs them: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into is, as done for the Lord and not for your masters” (Col 3:22-25). But on the other hand Paul also sorely reminds masters of their accountability to God for the treatment of their slaves: “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1).
How to bring about change to a social evil of our time
So Philemon is not just about forgiveness, it also about how to bring change. Some people reading Philemon get upset at Paul for using such strong language and basically manipulating Philemon. Others get upset at Paul because he says so little against slavery.
What does and doesn’t Paul do to fight slavery?
- No political revolution, no rabble rousing, no telling people to throw off the yoke.
- No political involvement, as far as we know, but legal ways to achieve freedom would be welcome.
- Laying actively the dogmatic and theological basis of abolishing slavery (Gal 3:28, Col 3:11).
- Telling slaves to obey and be submissive to their masters, also for the sake of witness (Col 3:22-25).
- Telling slaves that circumstances cannot limit them. If they can, get freedom, good. If not: Do not worry and be faithful within the system (1 Cor 7:21-24).
- Actively encouraging abolition of slavery on a personal level (Philemon) and in his disciples.
Paul actively lays foundations of truth in a society, trusting that change will come. It will come, but slowly. It will come but not by outside pressure and force, but rather by inside transformation and by free will.
Powerful examples of how to bring about change in a godly and legal way:
William Carey … abolition of Widow burning, child marriage
William Wilberforce … abolition of slave trade and slavery
Who wrote the letter to Philemon?
- Phm 1 “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy our brother”
- Phm 9 “I, Paul, write this as an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ”
To whom is this letter written?
- Phm 1-2 “Philemon, dear friend, co-worker, Apphia our sister, Archippus, our fellow soldier, and church in their house”
- In order to find the background of these people and the letter, one has to check where the names Phiemon, Apphia, Archippus and Onesimus (Phm 10) appear elsewhere in the New Testament. It so happens that Philemon and Apphia are mentioned nowhere else, but:
- According to Col 4:9 one Tychicus (the bringer of the Colossian letter) is coming with one Onesimus, who is described as being “one of you”. This places Onesimus and his master Philemon in Colossae.
- Actually Col 4:7-17 has a very high overlap with Philemon as to people mentioned:
- Such a high overlap clearly indicates the almost simultaneous writing of the two letters, Philemon and Colossians, and a common deliverer of both letter.
When was Philemon written? From where was it written?
- Paul makes it clear he writes the letter from jail:
- Phm 1 “Paul a prisoner”
- Phm 9 “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus”
- Phm 10 “Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment”
- Phm 13 “that he might be of service to me during my imprisonment for the gospel”
- Phm 23 “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner”
- Phm 22 “prepare a guest room for me”
- Paul is in prison, long enough for the Onesimus story to happen, a letter to be written. He has hope of being freed soon. How can we fit this into Paul’s life?
- Where was Paul imprisoned?
50 AD Philippi one night Acts 16:23-39
54-55 AD Ephesus ? 2 Cor 11:23-24 mentions jail in plural
57 AD Jerusalem shortly Acts 21-23
57-59 AD Caesarea 2 years Acts 23:31-27:1
60-62 AD Rome 2 years Acts 28:30-31
- The very short imprisonments are not an option because they do not allow for all the events, like Onesimus meeting Paul and being discipled by Paul. That leaves Caesarea and Rome.
- How can we decide where Paul was? In order to give an answer, we need to look at the three other letters that also were written by Paul from imprisonment: Philippians, Ephesians and Colossians.
- This is how the four so-called “prison epistles” are linked:
TABLE PRISON EPISTLES
- Php 1:13 mentions that the whole praetorian guard knew that his imprisonment was for Christ, Praetorium was the Roman leadership’s headquaters, Ceasar’s, but also a Proconsul’s
- Php 4:22 greetings from the believers of Caesar’s household, this more clearly indicates Rome
- Php 2:23 Paul waits for the outcome of his court case. According to Roman law an accused citizen could not be held for longer than 2 years in a un-convicted state. His case had to either come to court so a clear sentence was received or else the prisoner had to be released anyway. It seems this is why Paul does not know the outcome, but has a clear time horizon in mind (the two years finishing). In Phm 22 he asks Philemon to make a guest room ready, where that same hope for release is visible.
- Also in the so-called Marcionite Prologue 170 AD it is mentioned that the prison epistle was written from Rome (Marcion was a Paul fanatic heretic).
- In summary we can say that it is highly likely that Paul writes the letter to Philemon (and Philippians, Ephesians and Colossians) in AD 62, towards the end of the 2 year light imprisonment in Rome (60-62 AD).
Founding of the church?
- A comparison of names between the letter of Philemon and Colossians 4:7-16 shows that the church Philemon is part of is Colossae. But when was the Colossian church founded?
- Most likely the church was not founded by Paul himself: in Col 2:1 he says that he is “struggling for you, Laodicea, those who have not seen me face to face”. In Col 1:4 Paul says he “heard of your faith”. The church was rather founded by Epaphras (Col 1:5-7).
- Epaphras has also been reporting to Paul about the church recently (Col 1:4, 1:8, 1:9) and is praying and wrestling on their behalf (Col 4:12-13). The writing of Colossians is most likely Paul’s response to Epaphras’ reporting.
- The church was probably founded during Paul’s two and a half years in Ephesus, during the third missionary journey, around 53-56 AD.
- Acts 19:8-10 describes Paul preaching, teaching and training until “all of Asia” (likely an overstatement!!) has heard the word, both Jews and Greeks.
- Epaphras, coming from Colossae (or possibly from nearby Laodicea or Hierapolis), probably was an early convert at Ephesus and become a trainee of Paul, eventually sent out by Paul to his own city for church planting (Col 1:7, 4:12).
- Philemon, whom Paul calls a “co-worker” and Archipus, who he calls “fellow-soldier” (Phm 1-2) are likely early converts in Ephesus, that Paul then discipled and trained as preachers and elders. Eventually Philemon returned to Colossae, where he is a pillar in the local church.
History of the church since its founding?
- By 62 AD , when the church receives the letter of Colossians and Philemon receives the letter of Philemon, the church is minimum seven, maximum ten years old.
- Epaphras has gone to Rome to see Paul and gives a report on the church which triggers the writing of Colossians (Col 4:12-13). Maybe Epaphras has handed over responsibility to Archippus.
How makes up the church?
- Husbands and wives (Col 3:18), children and parents (Col 3:20), masters and slaves (Col 3:22).
- According to Col 2:13, 2:16 … there are Greek and Jewish believers in the church (also Col 3:11).
- People mentioned by name: Philemon, a slave owner (Phm 1), Onesimus, his slave, again (Phm 12), Apphia (Phm 2), Archippus (Phm 2, Col 4:17), who has a ministry and who was possibly left in charge by Epaphras upon his departure. Epaphras, their founder, maybe pastor and trainer, now away at Rome with Paul.
- The church is mixed on all accounts, as typical for a cosmopolitan city and old center. It has believers of many backgrounds, and the influence of these backgrounds can be felt in the letter.
- Colossae seems to have had close relationships with Laodicea and Hierapolis, and some house churches, like that of Nympha (Col 4:15) and Philemon (Phm 1).
Politically / Economically
- Roman Empire, Province Asia Minor, Asia District, Subdistrict Phrygia. Asia was a willing and early ally of Rome and happy to be part of the the Roman Empire (unlike the Jews).
- It was a fertile, hilly area, good for flocks, hence the famous purple wool produced there.
- First historical mentioning of Colossae is by the Persian king Xerxes around 500 BC. He describes Colossae as a ‘large city’. Cyrus in around 539 BC describes is as a ‘large, wealthy city’
- Colossae was strategically located on the most important Roman road connecting Ephesus with the Euphrates. It was therefore also a center of trade.
- Later the Romans re-directed the road and subsequently Colossae lost in importance, Laodicea becoming more important and populous.
- The neighboring cities Laodicea and Hierapolis were about 16 km away, located in the same valley. They had military strongholds, banking, wool prduction, hot springs, eye cures, trade guilds and a large Jewish community, numbering eleven thousand at one time.
- In summary Colossae was highly developed, though loosing importance.
- Colossae was a cosmopolitan mix of Phrygians, Syrians, Greeks and Jews and their respective religions. Jews had started moving to the area around 200 BC.
- Spiritually Colossae was a mixture of Greek philosophy (West) and mysticism (East). It boasted many temples, magic arts and mystery religions.
- Since Onesimus, a main figure in the letter of philemon is a slave, we need to know more about slavery in the Roman Empire (this is a summary of Zondervan‘s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol 5
- Slavery rose in the Roman empire through conquest and enslaving of captured peoples from 3rd century BC onwards.
- Masters had the right over the life of a slave, a slave could be beaten, sold, killed without the master breaking law.
- Slaves were inherited or purchased. Purchased slaves were usually prisoners of war, persons illegally seized by pirates and sold to slave traders, some bred slaves.
- With the conquest of Greece came an influx of educated slaves, for example private lawyers, teachers for children, accountants for the business.
- First slaves were treated very badly, by New Testament times there were clear improvements. Slaves were considered property, but they had increasing rights, akin to those of a freedman. If in conflict with the law they were tried as freedmen. Eventually many slaves saved up considerable amounts of money, had rights to wife and family. An incidence of a death penalty handed to all slaves of a murdered master in 61 AD sparked riots.
- Manumission: Slavery often lead to Roman citizenship in the 1st century AD. Captives were educated and trained in Roman ways before becoming citizens. Slaves were made freedmen in great numbers, partially because of the relative lack of freeborn citizenry and also because as freemen could fulfill obligations to the state, most importantly military service. If a master died, a percentage of slaves were commonly freed.
- In 81-49 BC some 500‘000 slaves were freed. The population of Rome around Jesus‘ birth is estimated at 870‘000. Slaves made up something like 75% of the Roman population.
- When a dole of grain was established for needy citizens in 57-56 BC, many masters set their older slaves free > not always was the freeing of slaves on humanitarian grounds.
- Cicero said that a worthy slave could expect his freedom in about 7 years. Often the freedman was established by his patron in a business, of which the patron remained a share holder. Usually the slave had learned his trade as an apprentice in the master‘s household or handicraft shop, then slowly earned his freedom by extra work or was freed by the generosity of the master. Often freedmen made great wealth. There is evidence that the Jews being brought earlier to Rome as slaves had all became freedmen by New Testament times.
- Slaves dressed in the same way as freedmen. Seneca once suggested to dress them differently, but was voted down for fear of a slave uprising.
- Often the living conditions of slaves were similar or better than of poor freedmen.
- Slavery in Greece: Greek civilization was built, essentially, on the institution of slavery. Slaves were considered inferior beings, as ‘work horses’, ‘machines’ for industrial purposes and worked in the mines in terrible conditions. Many died as a result.
- According to a census made in Attica in 309 BC 95% of the population were slaves. Another later estimate gives a ratio of 70% slaves, 9% resident aliens, 21% free citizens.
- Jewish slaves had certain privileges and were under legal protection. The Jews prided themselves in the fact that they never treated their slaves with cruelty. Upon returning from Babylon, Jewish slaves made up 15-20% of the population.
- It is written entirely in prose (> literal interpretation).
- Philemon is a letter (epistle), written according to the Greek style.
- problem > solution, principality
Main ideas or topics
- appeal for and commendation of Onesimus, Philemon’s former slave now turned believers & disciple of Paul
- Paul’s effort to restore relationship by forgiveness and acceptance, trying to achieve discipleship & freedom for Onesimus, respect, resolution and truth for Philemon
Main reasons or goals
- to ensure Onesimus’ favorable reception by Philemon, and hopefully release from salvery
- to safeguard Philemon’s right to his slave, to disciple Onesimus in owning up & taking responsibility
- to initiate a movement towards freeing of slaves, which Philemon & Onesimus will carry
OBSERVATION OF THE TEXT
- Phm 4 when I remember you in my prayers
- Phm 9 appeal now as a prisoner of God
- Phm 10 during my imprisonment > I have become his father
- Phm 11 formerly useless to you, but now he is indeed useful
- Phm 15 perhaps he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever
- Phm 16 no longer as a slave
- Phm 2 the church in your house. > can’t conclude much, geography comes through the names mentioned
- Phm 22 guest room
- Phm 8-9 I am bold enough to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal on the basis of love
- Phm 11 formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.
- Phm 13-14 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place … but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced
- Phm 16 no longer a slave, but more than a slave … especially to me but how much more to you
- Phm 16 no longer a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother …
- Phm 17 welcome him as you would welcome me
- Phm 21 knowing that you will do even more than I say
- Phm 17 if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me
- Phm 18 if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account
Emotions, Atmosphere, Emphatic Statements
- Phm 1 Philemon, our dear friend and co-worker
- Phm 4-5 when I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for al the saints
- Phm 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, bc the hearts of saints refreshed through you
- Phm 9 appeal to you on the basis of love … I, Paul do this as and old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ
- Phm 10 I am *appealing to you for my child Onesimus, whose father I have become
- Phm 12 I am sending him, that , my own heart, back to you.
- Phm 14 your good deed voluntary, not something forced
- Phm 17 welcome him as you would welcome me
- Phm 18 if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
- Phm 19 I, Paul*, am writing this with own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owning me even your own self
- Phm 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you
- Phm 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Reasons, Connectives, Intentions
- Phm 7-9 I have received much joy and encouragement from your love … for this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love
- Phm 13 I wanted to keep him withme, so that he might be of service to me in your place …
- Phm 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever
- Phm 17 So, if you consider me your partner, welcome him
- Phm 22 One thing more – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Figures of Speech
- Phm 10 Onesimus, whose father I have become Metaphor
- Phm 12 I am sending him, my very heart Metaphor
- Phm 16 a beloved brother, both in the flesh and in the Lord Metaphor
INTERPRETATION OF PHILEMON
Reconstructing the story
- Onesimus was once Philemon’s slave. For some reason he was unhappy, possibly rebellious and fled.
- Was Onesimus a believer when he fled? or a nominal believer? not clear. He becomes one under Paul’s influence.
- Was Philemon a harsh master? Or was Onesimus rather an irresponsible slave? The text seems to indicate that the problem was more with Onesimus, Paul calls him ‘once useless’ in Phm 11. Paul also really trusts Philemon.
- Did he steal when he left? Maybe. Paul gives a financial guarantee for him in 18-19. But he says: “if he has wronged you”, Onesimus would have confessed to Paul, so he would have known. Therefore probably rather referring to missed work.
- Like today, people own their own tend to gravitate towards the capital. Also: Rome gave citizenship to freed slaves, so Onesimus had good reason to go to Italy.
- Somehow or other he ends up in Rome … maybe he is lonely, finds people from his area, eventually he falls in with Christians, it seems, they take him to Paul, maybe to serve Paul?
- Paul is imprisoned, yet in an own rented room, with relative freedom (Acts 28:30-31)
- While spending time with Paul, Onesimus becomes a believer (or a serious believer) and Paul starts to disciple him.
- Now he sends Onesimus back with a letter to recommend him to Philemon: the letter of Philemon. He is traveling with Tychicus, who is delivering more letters of Paul (Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians) to the East
Relationship between the main characters
Paul & Philemon’s relationship?
- Old friendship, warm encouragement, honor, trust, confidence, trustworthiness, …
- Philemon owing to Paul, maybe heard the gospel through Paul. During the time in Ephesus
- Paul dares to ask hospitality as well, a sign of long-standing solid friendship
Philemon & Onesimus’ relationship?
- Slave-master, probably a downward story leading up to the running away, unfaithfulness, disappointment, possibly guilt
- financial damage, maybe emotionally draining, maybe self-doubt, maybe frustration, resulting in household unpeac
Paul & Onesimus’ relationship?
- description: own son, spiritually, disciple, having become useful, as his name says, my own heart, warm, close relationship
MAIN THEMES OF PHILEMON
- Importance of forgiveness, second chance … Luther: we are all ‘Onesimuses’.
- Forgiveness Illustration: Somebody pouring dirt into my living room.
What can we learn from Paul about disciplesip? about leadership?
- seeing something in people, having hope for hopeless people, 2nd chance for failures
- Paul believes change is possible, the gospel really transfroms …
- Why? Paul also once was a very zealous and very mislead, even violent young men, for whom most people had no hope that he would change (Acts 9:26-27), but Barnabas did
- Paul has become what Barnabas was to him, someone senior who really believes in a young men
- Paul does not think Onesimus ‘not worth his time’ (in discipleship or letter writing’), even with increasing age and seniority Paul spends great time and effort on discipling just one young man
- Paul still does in prison what he always has done – what is his calling – sharing the gospel and building people to be gospel workers … he is faithful and effective in his calling
- Paul does not see himself a victim of his circumstances (the 4 and a half years in prison), he remains active, giving, concerned for others, faithful to his calling
- Paul is confident that the change he saw in Onesimus, that the discipleship he invested has left lasting fruit / true impact … Onesimus will not run away on the road, he will not dodge responsibility
- Paul is no aloof leader, managing from a distance … he is heartily and emotionally involved
- Paul shows his emotions to Philemon (and to Onesimus presumably)
- Paul does not build organizations / institutions, but people
Meaning of discipleship / Taking responsibility
- What does discipleship mean?
- Getting people saved
- established in truth
- changing lives / increasing character
- taking responsibility
- discipleship as by Paul is leading Onesimus in a process of bringing his whole life under God’s authority
- confession, asking God for forgiveness, being forgiven, … so far we are aware
- “Onesimus you are saved, forgiven, free, … clean slate! Now you can pursue your calling to God!
- Paul thinks it necessary for Onesimus to go back and own up his past life … Why risk sending him back to possibly slavery?
- He maintains and respects Philemon’s right as the legal owner
- He doesn’t counsel a person to go against the law of the land
- But even more so: he thinks this a needed part of Onesimus’ development … to disciple means to teach the disciple:
- to stop blaming others
- to humble himself
- to take full responsibility for past action
- to make things right
- to not ignore but work up old situations
- to make restitution …
- not to ignore circustances but to handle them under God
- to trust God … and Paul … and Philemon
- to learn obedience & submission … which are the basis for future leadership & authority … only those under authority have authority (Lu 7:8, He 5:8)
- This will teach the disciple truth, cause & effect, make him understand the nature of sin, help me break its hold over his life and understand God’s character better
- While working through this with Paul Onesimus’ reactions would show, fears, non-trust, cope-outs, … and be addressed.
- Illustration: butterfly wiggling out of cocoon. We are too cheap in our discipleship!
- What would this achieve for Onesimus? … Honesty, feedom, good conscience, integrity, basis for future ministry
Trust, Recommendation, Reconciliation
- Discipling Onesimus like this would also mean to (re-)establish his trust in Philemon, which means to trust Pauls’ recommendation of Philemon and trust in him (I know he will not do you harm!)
- It’s a trust triangle: Paul trust Philemon. Paul assures Onesimus to trust Philemon. Paul trust Onesimus. Paul assures Philemon to trust Onesimus. … Paul’s trust in both helps to repair their relationship.
- Paul’s intention is to restore relationship, to restore trust, to make this relationship ‘independent of him’
- How do I behave around broken relationships? It’s never as easy to bind people in loyalty to you than in a broken relationship situation, where you come in as the comforter, licker of wounds, empathizer with injustice (oh poor you, I can’t believe he did that!”)
- Paul is loyal to Philemon in his absence, he does not ‘blame all on him’, he does not clear Onesiums of responsibility, he recommends Philemon to Onesimus … Relationship builder / Reconciler
- Does your interference in other people’s difficult relationships polarize? patronize? make loyal? take advantage?
- Paul is selfless in his attempt to restore their relationship … are you using other people’s conflicts to win brownie points? to do politics? to gossip? to win yourself a friend?
- To recommend is to extend trust in one relationship into another relationship … it’s a risk … to a degree we bind our word to somebody else’s behavior … and we are accountable for our recommendation, if it breaks
- Onesimus will be honored by Paul’s trust in him, calling forth the best … Paul’s word / Paul’s reputation is in Onesimus’ hands … Paul trusts that Onesimus will not shame him once back in Colossae.
- Issue of gospel over culture … culture would give Philemon a free hand to do whatever … is he more lead by culture or by the gospel? … To what are we more adherent? … Philemon is written so that the gospel may overcome culture
- Issue of open communication versus conspiracy … Paul could have made Onesimus a missionary to the West, Philemon would probably have never known … Paul will not go the pathway of secrecy / conspiracy
Accomplishing for Philemon?
- To make sure he is not wronged / not overstepped / not ignored
- To work up an old disappointing story … maybe he felt guilty for being too harsh … maybe he felt hurt because he made efforts and was gracious to this young man but was misused …
- To disciple / teach / lead Philemon on in justice and forgiveness … in how he handles his slaves
- To get a committed, believing slave into his household, who will now be constructive … help for Philemon
• Paul is strong, especially 19, calling in Philemon’s own indebtedness to him … Why?
• Legally Philemon has the right to punish / brand / torture even kill Onesimus … though that was not so common anymore
• The letter is Onesimus’ only defense … it needs to accomplish its goal
• Paul uses lighter language, a pun, which takes some of the seriousness away: 11 (Onesimus’s name meaning useful) … “Mr. useful was useless but now he is indeed useful”
• 21 is warm, affirming … “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
• In a minute we will look at one more aspect of this letter, and that will show even more clearly that Paul is not manipulative.
- Phm 22 “Prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you”
- This is important! … it builds accountability into the system
- Accountability for Onesimus: Paul will come and see, whether the former slave now behaves fairly, humbly, wisely in the potentially difficult situation. Will he bring Paul’s recommendation in disrepute? Will he prove trustworthy?
- Example: Bangladesh Pastors escaping on Training week in Germany / Korea to seek asylum … will Onesius close doors for others?
- Accountability for Philemon: Paul will come and one question will be: How is Onesimus? He will follow up on this
- Accountability for Paul: if his recommendation was wrong, he will stand straight for it financially, emotionally, he is accountable to Philemon for the difficulty he brings him in
- There is also accountability in the fact that it is addressed not only to Philemon, but also Appia, Archippus and the church … Apphia and Archippus are to hold Philemon accountable, and Onesimus, and maybe support Philemon
Thinking about the impact of the letter on all around
- Let’s say that the letter is successful. Onesimus is forgiven and welcomed back as a brother, no longer than a slave. Onesimus is free!
- How do you feel about this letter? What are your questions / problems with it?
- other slaves in Philemon‘s household
- other believing slave owners of the Colossian church
- other believing slaves in the church working in the households of believers or unbelievers
- Colossian slave owners (not believers)
- Paul knows very well what Philemon may face if he starts treating slaves differently or starts releasing slaves.
- This will get him in trouble, tensions will arise, this will ferment, spark rioting, in a worst case scenario really affect the reputation of the church of Colossae.
- Now Paul well knows all this … but still he requests Philemon … to model, to explain, to teach, to stand up for this, to become a champion of change, to stand when the backlash comes …
- Basically Paul put’s a cuckoo’s egg in Philemon’s lap, and lets him breed it out.
What does this mean?
- Maybe Philemon is more than willing to do what Paul says, but because of the tension this will create, Philemon needs strong arguments / strong obligations
- Maybe it wasn’t manipulation after all. Maybe Paul is simply putting his weight and authority behind Philemon … “oh, I had to do it, how could I say no?” … “oh Paul himself commanded this, so that’s why I’m doing it” … “If the apostle Paul teaches this, we need to be obedient”
- Paul is convinced that Philemon can carry this weight, that Philemon is mature enough, has a good enough reputation that he can pull this one off.
- He trusts Philemon with spearheading this very delicate and potentially explosive issue and change
- Maybe he makes Appia, Archippus (the pastor?) and the church itself co-fighters with Philemon, to bring about social change
Philemon – How do I bring about social chnge?
- So Philemon is not just about forgiveness, it also about how bring change.
- Some people reading Philemon get upset at Paul for using such strong language on Philemon / for manipulating him
- Some people reading Philemon get upset at Paul because he says so little, he doesn’t condemn slavery in itself
- What does and doesn’t Paul do to fight slavery?
- No political revolution / rabble rousing / telling people to throw off the yoke
- No political involvement, as far as we know, for Paul, but legal ways would be welcome
- Laying actively the dogmatic and theological basis of abolishing slavery (Gal 3:28, Col 3:11)
- Telling slaves to obey / be submissive to their masters > for the sake of witness? (Col 3:22-25)
- Col 3:22-25 … “Slaves, obey your masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into is, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality.”
- Eph 6:5-6 Parallel passage
- 1 Ti 6:1 … Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.
- Ti 2:9-10 … Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters … they are not to talk back … but to show perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.
- 1 Pe 2:18-21 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference not only those who are kind but also those who are harsh … if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’ approval. For to this you have been called, …Christ also suffered for you.
- Col 4:1 Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
- 1 Cor 7:21-14 Slavery is not all consuming issue: if you can, get freedom, if not: don‘t worry and be faithful within the system.
- 1 Ti 1:9-10 the law is not laid down for the innocent, but for the lawless and disobedient, … for murderers, slave traders, liars, perjurers … Though Paul doesn’t condemn a slave owner, he clearly forbids slave trade, making this a profitable business.
- But Paul very actively encourages abolishing of slavery on a personal level and in his disciples, as seen in the letter to Philemon.
- Neither Jesus nor Paul:
- directly speak against slavery
- agitate / take action directly
- encourage slaves to disobey / run
- denounce slave owners
- Jesus and Paul rather:
- affirm a slave’s equal value
- command to submit / be faithful in whatever situation one might find oneself
- encourage to use situation for God / for witnessing / for his glory
- do not think situation as more important than attitude
- think sin the actual and more important slavery
- hold masters accountable also
- teach theology that undercuts the foundations of slavery
- will lead to abolishing slavery
- Paul – on a personal level – works actively against slavery: Philemon
What can we learn from the Social Change Theme?
- Importance of teaching foundational truth
- Stirring discontentment / agitation / revolution / change by force is not God’s way
- Injustice does not give me the right to act outside the law
- God’s focus is not so much on ‘situation’ as on ‘right attitude within situation’
- Do not blame the situation, use whatever situation faithfully
- Do not agree with false view: slaves have equal value
- We must believe / live / model / teach God’s view:
- Change is slow! Change has to be incremental!
- Actively lay foundations of truth in a society > change will come
- Change does not come by outside pressure and force but by inside transformation & free will
- Examples: William Carey … abolition of Widow burning, child marriage
William Wilberforce … abolition of slave trade and slavery
“There is no longer Jew or Greek there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)