Lesson 1 of5
In Progress

Summary of Philemon


The Apostle Paul writes a personal and pastoral appeal to Philemon, a beloved coworker, on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. Onesimus has arrived where Paul is imprisoned and has come to faith in Christ. Since Paul remains in prison, this letter, which accompanies the return of Onesimus to his master, illustrates Paul’s skill in pastoral care from a distance. Paul relies on careful rhetoric and the themes of partnership in faith and of the mutual love of Christian community to support his appeal for Philemon to do the right thing and receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ.


This letter reveals Paul’s pastoral concern for a particular individual and his confidence that the faith and love that Christians share in Christ can be energized by discerning what it means to do a “good deed” in particular instances. As is true for Philemon, so the partnership of faith in Christian community offers the support and encouragement that enables action that goes beyond even what is asked or imagined.


Paul’s letter to Philemon is the eighteenth book in the New Testament. As the shortest of Paul’s letters (335 words), it is situated at the end of the “Pauline corpus,” which has been traditionally arranged not by date but from the longest to the shortest (Romans through Philemon).


The opening word identifies Paul as the author of this letter. Although he adds Timothy’s name as a coauthor, within the main body of the letter his appeal is repeatedly singular and personal (using “I” and “me”). At one point he makes pointed reference to his “writing this with my own hand” as he in effect writes an IOU to cover any losses that Philemon may have experienced (19).


The dating of the letter depends on assumptions about the location of Paul’s imprisonment at the time of its writing. Dates between 55 C.E. and 61 C.E. are possible. It is probably best to say we simply do not know for sure where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter.


Paul writes a letter asking Philemon to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ.


When reading Philemon, it is helpful to keep in mind that you are eavesdropping on a letter that seeks to resolve a potentially explosive situation. Paul appeals to a master, who has absolute economic and personal rights over his slave, to do the “good deed” called for in responsible Christian love. This is a situation of pastoral care in which Paul brings to bear his own personal resources (as an apostle, as a prisoner, and as a friend) and his skill in persuasive argument. Every word is carefully chosen, and his appeal is artfully constructed for its emotional and rational impact on Philemon.