Survey of Philemon

Book Type: Prison Epistle, 18th book of the New Testament.

Author: The apostle Paul and Timothy (directly named in Philemon 1:1). Paul is considered the main author.

Audience: Written to Philemon, an affluent Christian in the city of Colossae, located in modern-day southwestern Turkey. This man was a member of the Colossian church that met in his own home. Mentioned in the book’s second verse, Apphia was likely Philemon’s wife, while Archippus was his son (he is also mentioned in Colossian 4:17). Both are described in ways which suggest all three family members had become believers.

Philemon was wealthy enough to own a home large enough for church meetings, as well as at least one slave named Onesimus. This slave is the main concern in the letter. He and the church members in Colossae knew Luke (writer of Luke and Acts, see Colossians 4:14), as well as Epaphras, who was apparently from Colossae (Colossians 4:12). The church also had close connections with churches in Laodicea and a church led by Nympha (Colossians 4:15–16). They also appear to have known, at least by name, Aristarchus, Mark, Barnabas, and Jesus called Justus (Colossians 4:10), as well as Timothy (Philemon 1:1).

Date: Approximately AD 60—62, during Paul’s house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:30–31). Based on information from Colossians and Philemon 1:22, this letter was probably written near the end of this arrest, closer to AD 62.

Overview: Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s 13 letters. It is one of only four letters written to individuals, along with 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. This is also one of four Prison Epistles, along with Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.

Paul wrote this letter regarding Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. The letter was likely delivered by Onesimus and Tychicus during the same trip described in Colossians 4:7–9. Runaway slaves could be put to death in the Roman Empire. After leaving Colossae, Philemon traveled to Rome where he connected with Paul and became a Christian. Paul then sent Onesimus back to Colossae, and to Philemon, along with this letter which encourages Philemon to forgive his slave and release him. Tradition states that Onesimus later became a leader in the church.

Key Verses (ESV):

Philemon 1:6: “and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.”

Philemon 1:16: "no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord."

Philemon 1:18: " If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account."