This little book, one chapter only, is not about Philemon. It is a letter written to him. The first two verses explain this, “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy, our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.” Paul includes Timothy as a co-sender of this letter and addresses it to Philemon. Many believe that Apphia was Philemon’s wife and Archippus was Philemon’s son, and the church that Paul addresses is meeting at their house. There are 13 New Testament books that all begin with the name “Paul.” None begin with Paul identifying himself as a “prisoner of Jesus Christ.” Philemon is the only book that does so. “He currently sits in prison in the city of Rome.  Paul refers to his imprisonment six times (1, 9, 10, 13, 22, 23).  Philemon is the fourth prison epistle, accompanying Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians. These were all written during his first imprisonment. 2 Timothy was written during his 2nd and final incarceration.  Paul identifies as a prisoner but prefers to see himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Although the Romans had imprisoned him, he knew that nothing had come into his life that had not first come through the will of Jesus Christ. Commenting on this, Richison says, “There is no circumstance that comes into our lives that is not of the Lord’s doing.  We either have a human viewpoint or a divine viewpoint on life.  A divine viewpoint allows us to look at our circumstances from God’s viewpoint.  Any illness, handicap, affliction, or tragedy cannot come upon us without God’s will.  All of it is for our ultimate good and His glory.”[1]

Paul had a close relationship with Philemon, and from this short book, we can learn that Paul was the one who had led Philemon to the Lord. Philemon and his family housed a church. Philemon was a relatively well-to-do roman citizen, as was the practice of the day; he owned slaves. Onesimus, the subject of this letter, was one of the slaves that had run away. It appears that Onesimus stole from his wealthy slave owner, Philemon, and had run away to the big city, Rome, to get lost amongst the masses. He ran out of money and committed another crime that resulted in his incarceration with Paul in the Roman prison. Paul proceeded to lead Onesimus to repentance and saving faith in Christ. He was helpful to Paul in some ways, and Paul explained this to Philemon before interceding on Onesimus’ behalf.

Paul leans heavily on his relationship with Philemon to intercede on behalf of Onesimus. He calls Philemon a “beloved fellow worker.” But what can’t be ignored is that Paul addresses Philemon’s whole family and all the Christians that meet as a church in his house. Some have suggested that he does that to put more pressure on Philemon to respond positively to his request. But I believe a better understanding would be that when Onesimus stole from Philemon, he stole from all the believers that met at his house. Garland understands this well, “I think the explanation lies elsewhere. Paul sees Philemon’s two households, the natural and the spiritual, intersecting. Therefore, the whole church, not just his master, must accept Onesimus, particularly if Paul would like him to be set free for ministry. The slave’s flight showed disloyalty and jeopardized the harmony and welfare of the household in which he lived, and he needs their forgiveness, welcome, and spiritual support. Consequently, they also need to know what has happened to him since his departure and to accept him back as a brother.”[2]

[1] Richison, Grant. 2006. Verse by Verse through the Books of James and Philemon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems.

[2] Garland, David E. 1998. Colossians and Philemon. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.