Letter to Philemon

Letter to Philemon = Freedom in Forgiveness (Pinterest Bible Journaling pin)

The Epistle of Paul to Philemon:

Background information about this epistle:

“Purpose: To convince Philemon to forgive his slave Onesimus, and accept him as a brother in the faith.
Original audience: Philemon, who was probably a wealthy member of the Colossian church.
Date written: Approximately A.D. 60, during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, at about the same time Ephesians and Colossians were written.
Setting: Slavery was very common in the Roman Empire, and evidently some Christians had slaves. Paul does not condemn the institution of slavery in his writings, but he makes a radical statement by calling this slave Philemon’s brother in Christ.”
(Life Application Study Bible)


“In the Roman period, Colossae was in the province of Phrygia in central Asia Minor about 125 miles east of Ephesus. It sits near the Lycus River at the foot of Mt. Cadmus, the highest mountain in Turkey’s western Aegean Region. Colossae is close to two other well-known cities in the ancient world: Laodicea (modern Laodikeia) lies 11 miles to the west, and Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale) lies 15 miles northwest of Colossae. …Pottery from the site of Colossae reveals settlements from the Late Chalcolithic to the Byzantine and Islamic periods (3500 B.C.E.–1100 C.E.). It confirms that Colossae was first geopolitically and economically important during the Persian period (547–330 B.C.E.), and it retained its significance in Greco-Roman times (fourth century B.C.E.–fourth century C.E.) during the growth of the Jesus movement in the region in the first century C.E.” – Biblical Archaeology Review (1)

Some important points for readers of today:

Slavery was quite common and an established norm within ancient Roman society, although we, the current readers of Philemon, and our modern western society in general, consider it unacceptable and abhorrent.

We will not agree with Paul’s viewpoint on slavery. We cannot view Philemon, or any of the verses about slavery in the New Testament, through our contemporary lens.

Again, I need to provide a bit of historical and cultural background regarding first-century slaves. (Also see additional background information of the practice of slavery in the first century that is contained in my blog post on Titus – The Epistle to Titus).

“The fate of a slave depended largely on the temperament of his or her master. Masters could punish slaves brutally for real or perceived infractions. Sexual abuse of slaves was also common. Slave work included hard labor as well as skilled service like tutoring, bookkeeping, and estate managing. Masters often freed slaves—and for numerous reasons, including as a reward for obedience and loyalty. Written contracts, however, commonly enforced continued work by freed slaves for their former masters. A wide range of circumstances dictated whether a slave would be educated, illiterate, poor, wealthy, abused, or comfortable.

New Testament writers lived in the Roman Empire and likewise adopted widespread attitudes about slaves. …Several [New Testament] passages address slaves directly, which is evidence that they were attracted to the early Jesus movement (1 Cor 7:21, 1 Tim 6:1, 1 Pet 2:18). Christian slaves navigated the complex world of enslavement with their new faith.” (2)

“…[Philemon]…its influence has been perhaps most resonate beyond the walls of the church rather than within, as the diminutive correspondence became a site of contestation over the morality of slavery in the United States. …Philemon has unfortunately been too frequently and tragically misread.” (Aymer, p 613)

“[In antiquity]…slavery was not an inevitable and inescapable condition of a particular people. Emancipation was possible, and slavery was not necessarily seen as an inheritance passed down from generation to generation.” (Aymer, p 615)

Last week when I discussed the Python slave girl/fortune teller, I was a bit confused (and unhappy with Paul) as to why he did not exorcise the demon from within her much earlier. He waited until the demon had taunted him for several days, until he became aggravated and ordered the unclean spirit to leave the poor girl. Exorcising the demon from within her days earlier would have been the most caring and loving thing to do. Yes, I understand that he would have known that his actions would have angered her masters. Did he wait because he didn’t want to deal with the fallout of his actions? And thus he waited and only after the unclean spirit greatly annoyed him to the point where he turned and ordered it to leave her. (I will be posting in the future my writings about the slave girl with a pythonic spirit found in Acts and will put the link to the blog entry here when it is created).

So was Paul pro-slavery? Ben Wirtherington addresses this issue in an article from Biblical Review, “Paul was working hard, with great rhetorical finesse, to implement what he firmly believed: Anyone who was “in Christ” had been set free from the old oppressive patterns of life and was to live as a new creature, re-created in the image of Christ.” (3)

The Epistle of Paul to Philemon:

  1. Greetings from Paul.

Paul addresses the letter to “Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home.” – Philemon 1:1b-2 (NIV)


Many have thought that Apphia was Philemon’s wife, including in the 4th century writings of John Chrysostom. Most modern commentators believe she was probably the wife of Philemon.

The name Apphia means fruitful. Which, to me, brings to mind the 63 times the word fruitful is found in the Bible. Especially, in Genesis where it says many times to “be fruitful and multiply”.

She is the only woman mentioned in the introduction of the Pauline epistles.

Some have attempted to make the case for Apphia being a deaconess, like Phoebe, or having a leadership role in the home church. But there is no concrete evidence to support these ideas. “Sisters” in the early church were involved in missionary activities. And “it is fair to assume that Apphia had her share in the church and in its missionary activities, though we do not know in which function and to what extent.” (4)

Whatever her role, she was a respected member of the home church, she is mentioned by name by Paul, and thus showed that she had an influential status. The verse does seem to imply that the church was in Philemon’s home (most likely the home of he and his wife Apphia). And would have meant that he along with his wife Apphia, both together would have offered their home to be a home church.

[Apphia was]…a sister with a significant say in the household of God, and as a potential leader who may have had considerable positive influence upon the life and ministry of Onesimus who, once freed, used his freedom to boldly live and proclaim the gospel as a faithful brother, no longer as a slave. Paul’s inclusion of Apphia illustrates that he does not discriminate on the basis of gender and pays respect to each leader as an equal in Christ, as a sister…and perhaps as an advocate for Onesimus’s manumission.” (5)

I [Paul] give thanks to my God always, remembering you [Philemon, Apphia, and family] in my prayers, hearing of the love and the faith that you have in the Lord Jesus and for all the holy ones. ― Philemon 1:4–5. (NHEB, BSB, LSV)

Philemon 1:4. Bible Journaling from pin on Pinterest. Originally posted by Nola Pierce Chandler.

Paul’s Thanksgiving and Prayer.

In 1:6 “Paul’s prayer for Philemon was setting the stage for the request Paul would make in this letter. Philemon was active in his faith and generous in sharing its blessings. As he gained fuller understanding of all that Christ had done on his behalf, this knowledge should cause him to respond appropriately to Paul’s request regarding Onesimus.” (Life Application Study Bible)

The Body of the Letter.

“Paul continues to emphasize not his power over Philemon but the relationship they share. But notice that Paul continues to point glancingly to his power even as he says he is subsuming it. …Paul states that he could demand Philemon’s compliance (v.8), and yet he appeals to a brother in faith, not an inferior person (v.9).” (Aymer, p 616)

“…Paul based his request not on his own authority [as an elder and apostle] with Philemon, commanding him to deal kindly with his…slave. But Paul based his request not on his own authority but on Philemon’s Christian commitment.” (Life Application Study Bible)

“We learn in verse 10 the primary concern of Paul’s letter: he is interceding on behalf of Onesimus, who has become like a son to Paul. …it is not immediately clear what the backstory is between Onesimus and Philemon.” (Aymer, p 616)

But what is the backstory exactly?

Most interpreters have theorized that Onesimus escaped his master’s house and yet somehow ended up becoming a Christian under the tutelage of Paul, Philemon’s friend.” (Aymer p 613)

My study Bible agrees with this theory that Onesimus was a runaway slave. I prefer what Aymer and others have hypothesized, “…Onesimus probably was Philemon’s slave. He was likely sent to Paul by Philemon to care for Paul’s needs in prison; Paul now sends Philemon back to Onesimus.” (Aymer, p 615)

This makes much more sense to me, then believing that Onesimus just ran into Paul, quite by happenstance, and as a runaway slave, and cared for Paul while he was in prison.

In verse 15, Paul says, “It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever.” Most have used this verse to show he was a runaway slave. Could Onesimus have been lost for a little while, in that by Philemon sending him to care for Paul, and during this time he was tending to Paul, he was lost (unavailable to perform his duties) to Philemon and his household? If Apphia was indeed Philemon’s wife, then she too was affected by Onesimus’ absence from within her home. And to “have him back forever” as showing the new kinship that Onesimus, Philemon and Paul all have together as Christians — as well as a kinship to all brothers and sisters in Christ that endures forever.

Onesimus: From Slave to Brother! (Bible Journaling pin on Pinterest. Originally uploaded by Peggy Thomas).

“Verses 15-16 mark the transformation of Onesimus and a reinvention of the relations between him and Philemon. Paul theorizes in verse 15 that Onesimus’s separation from Philemon (whatever the reason) was a divine initiative so that their bonds would be extended but also transformed. Onesimus is more than a slave now, Paul tells Philemon; he has become your brother, your kin, a part of you (v. 6).” (Aymer, p 617)

“Paul genuinely loved Onesimus. Paul showed his love by personally guaranteeing payment for any…goods [debts] or wrongs that Onesimus might be responsible.” (Life Application Study Bible)

“Just as Onesimus previously stood in Philemon’s stead, Paul now asks Philemon to receive his erstwhile slave as if Paul himself were his guest (v. 17). When Philemon sees Onesimus, he ought to imagine the face of Paul. Paul offers to fulfill any debt he might have incurred, even taking the scribe’s pen in his own hand to state this (v. 19). And yet, the very next verse is an even more powerful rhetorical stroke: : “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” In saying nothing of the indebtedness, Paul nonetheless raises it. In these renewed communities of faith, it seems, debt is ever present, never discharged, but its payment also never demanded.” (Aymer, p 617)

“Philemon owed his soul to Paul, meaning that Paul had led Philemon to Christ. Because Paul was Philemon’s spiritual father, he was hoping that Philemon would feel a debt of gratitude that he would repay by accepting Onesimus with a spirit of forgiveness.” (Life Application Study Bible)

Final Greetings.

“When he asks Philemon to make his household ready for a visit, Paul is not just making necessary travel arrangements or being a polite guest. He is promising a visit to the household of sisters and brothers to ensure their community reflects the gospel in all its fullness. Even in this brief letter, the rhetoric of persuasion is consistent and at the center of Paul’s argumentation.” (Aymer, p 618)

This request to ready a guest room for him, would have been a request of Philemon and his household, including his wife Apphia.

“Paul also sent a letter to all Christians of Colossae, offering sound advice and hopeful encouragement. Evidently there were preachers in Apphia’s hometown at that time who would veer off on angles, getting away from the core of Christianity―Christ. Paul gave warning in this letter against embracing these “shadow” teachings and reminded the Colossians to keep Jesus at the center of their lives.

In the fourth chapter of this letter, there is a brief reference to Apphia’s possible son, Archippus, indicating that he was a church leader in Colossae. [Achippus is also mentioned in the opening of the letter to Philemon (1:2)]

It is fair to assume that Apphia read both of these letters―Philemon and Colossians―in their entirety; it is even plausible that they were read to other new Christians in her home church. How these letters directly influenced Apphia and her family as they continued to grow and help others grow in Christ is intriguing to consider.” (6)

“…Philemon is an exhortation to communities of faith to bond as kin, to embrace one another as children of God. The gospel reconstitutes our relations and our communities at a fundamental level. The gospel also calls us, then, to give ear to those who are normally voiceless in our midst. Our communities must have wide boundaries and an eagerness to invite other voices to speak along with an equal yearning to listen carefully to these marginalized voices.” (Aymer, p 620)

In Closing.

So, what happened to Onesimus?

He turns up in Colossians. “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know about us, and that he may encourage your hearts. With him I am sending Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.” Colossians 4:7-9 (BSB)

Colossians and Philemon were written around the same time. The exact order the epistles were written is not known for sure. But let us assume that Colossians was written shortly after Philemon. Then we get answers to the fate of Onesimus. Philemon did free him. He is shown to have become (continues to be) a faithful servant of the church and a beloved brother in Christ who is helpful (continues to be helpful) to Paul.

“According to ancient traditions, Onesimus went from slave to bishop. Various traditions pick up where the New Testament left off and find Onesimus as the bishop of Ephesus, having been ordained by the apostles. However, his newfound Christian faith brought him under fire and he was arrested in Rome and sentenced to death after preaching about the beauty of celibacy. He was cruelly tortured and then beaten to death.

While little else is known about Onesimus, it reminds us that these various characters in the Bible were real people and were deeply affected by the proclamation of the Gospel. They were changed forever and helped others find freedom in Jesus Christ.” (7)

“Early church writings include a tradition that Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and Onesimus, all of whom are addressed in the epistle Philemon, were stoned to death during the reign of Nero, who was a Roman Emperor from 54 to 68 A.D.” (8)

Sts. Philemon, Archippus, Onesimus, and Apphia. Holy Apostles of the Seventy.

Another version (tradition) is found within the Orthodox Church. “Saints Philemon and Apphia, and also Saint Archippus (who also lived at Colossa), all received the crown of martyrdom during the persecution of Nero (54-68). During a pagan festival an enraged crowd rushed into the Christian church when services were going on. All fled in terror, and only Saints Philemon, Archippus and Apphia remained. They seized them and led them off to the city prefect. The crowd beat and stabbed Saint Archippus with knives, and he died on the way to the court. Saints Philemon and Apphia were stoned to death by order of the prefect.” (9)

How might we apply the ideas/concepts in Philemon to help introduce a Not-Yet Christian to Jesus and/or of interest to a No-Longer Christian to give Him another try?

I would use the letter to Philemon with not-yet Christians, those who have left the church and new Christians. Even though it does include the hot button issue of slavery, which would matter especially to African-Americans because of the history of slavery in America and elsewhere in the world. But there is a lot of love expressed and to be found in Philemon. We are a new creation in Christ. Our relationships are transformed. How we treat each other as part of the Christian family, our kinship together within the family of God. We are different, our lives will be different because we are Christians. This letter also strongly addresses the practice of reconciliation and forgiveness of others.

The Epistle of Paul to Philemon ends with “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (1:25, NLT)

In the Liturgy of the Roman Catholic Rite, we say at Mass, Dominus vobiscum et cum spiritu tuo. After Vatican II (since 1970) this has been translated as: The Lord be with you (Priest says). And also with you (congregation responds). This is the way it was when I was growing up in the church and up until they revised the translation of the Roman Missal in 2010 and the translation is now revised to read: The Lord be with you (Priest says). And with your spirit (congregation responds).

So, I will end with sending you all three greetings/salutations!

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Dominus vobiscum et cum spiritu tuo. The Lord be with you, and with your spirit.


I don’t usually think of Madonna songs as being a good fit with my spiritual, religious, and Bible study writings, and blog entries, but this song “Batuka” is fitting with its themes related to slavery and freedom. The ocean and wind as a background along with the drums being played by the Batukadeiras Orchestra, and a call and response structure, with the group singing their own solos in the Cape Verdean Creole language are hauntingly beautiful. “Batuque is a style of music created by women that originated in Cape Verde, some say [was] the birth place of slave trade. The drums were condemned by the Church and taken away from the slaves because it was considered an act of rebellion. The women continued their singing and dancing and the Batuque lives on today”. (Spruch, Kirsten (July 19, 2019). “Madonna Addresses Portugal’s Haunting Past in ‘Batuka’ Video: Watch”)

Lyrics to “Batuka” – Madonna

It’s a long way (It’s a long way)
It’s a long way (It’s a long way)
It’s a long day (It’s a long day)
It’s a long day (It’s a long day)

Lord have Mercy (Lord have Mercy)
Things have got to change (Things have got to change)
There’s a storm ahead (There’s a storm ahead)
I hear the wind blowing (I hear the wind blowing)
Let me catch my breath (Let me catch my breath)
Will we win this race? (Will we win this race?)
Swear the road is long (Swear the road is long)
And the highway listens (And the highway listens)

‘Cause it’s a long way (Cause it’s a long way)
It’s a long way (It’s a long way)
‘Cause it’s a long day (Cause it’s a long day)
It’s a long day (It’s a long day)

I was up all night
I said a little prayer
Get that old man
Put him in a jail
Where he can’t stop us (Where he can’t stop us)
Where he can’t hurt us (Where he can’t hurt us)
We will stand tall (We will stand tall)
Underneath this tree (Underneath this tree)
Cause it’s a

‘Cause it’s a long way (‘Cause it’s a long way)
It’s a long way (It’s a long way)
‘Cause it’s a long day (‘Cause it’s a long day)
It’s a long day (It’s a long day)

But when we can stop it all (But when we can stop it all).
In the right way (In the right way)
Will we stand together? (Will we stand together?)
It’s a new day (It’s a new day)
So don’t judge a human (So don’t judge a human)
‘Til you’re in their shoes (‘Til you’re in their shoes)
‘Cause if you have a dream (‘Cause if you have a dream)
Then you can’t stop us (Then you can’t stop us)

Sing hallelujah (Sing hallelujah)
Say amen (Say amen)
Say hallelujah (Say hallelujah)
And say amen (And say amen)
I say, oh, yeah (I say, oh, yeah)
I said, oh, yeah (I said, oh, yeah)
I said, amen (I said, amen)
I say, hallelujah (I say, hallelujah)

Cause it’s a long way (Cause it’s a long way)
It’s a long way (It’s a long way)
Cause it’s a long day (Cause it’s a long day)
It’s a long day (It’s a long day)

Songwriters: . Madonna, Mirwais Ahmadzai, David Banda


Required for course:

Aymer, Margaret (Ed.), Briggs Kittredge, Cynthia (Ed.), Sanchez, David A. (Ed.), (2014) Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press

Life Application Study Bible, New Living Translation, 2014, Wheaton, Il: Tyndale House Publishers

Additional References Used:

  1. Trainor, Michael, “Colossae—Colossal in Name Only?”, Biblical Archaeology Review 45:2, March/April 2019
  2. Katy E. Valentine, “Slavery in the New Testament “, n.p. [cited 14 Mar 2021]. Online: Slavery in the New Testament (bibleodyssey.org)
  3. Witherington III, Ben. “Was Paul a Pro-Slavery Chauvinist?” Bible Review 20:2, Apr. 2004. Biblical Archaeology Society Online Archive. Was Paul a Pro-Slavery Chauvinist? · The BAS Library.
    Accessed 12 Mar. 2021. Was Paul a Pro-Slavery Chauvinist? · The BAS Library
  4. Christoph Stenschke, “Married Women and the Spread of Early Christianity,” Neotestamentica 43.1 (2009), 145-194, 155.
  5. Quient, Nicholas. “Was Apphia an Early Christian Leader? An Investigation and Proposal Regarding the Identity of the Woman in Philemon 1:2” Web journal post. Priscilla Papers The academic journal of CBE International. CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality) International. 29 Apr. 29 2017. Web. Accessed14 Mar. 2021. Was Apphia an Early Christian Leader? | CBE (cbeinternational.org)
  6. Doyle-Nelson, Theresa. “St. Apphia—A Saint Who Was Asked to Prepare a Room for Paul – St. Apphia and her husband, St. Philemon share Nov. 22 as a memorial.” Web blog. National Catholic Register. http://www.ncregister.com. 22 Nov. 2019. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.
    St. Apphia—A Saint Who Was Asked to Prepare a Room for Paul| National Catholic Register (ncregister.com)
  7. Kosloski, Philip. “Whatever happened to Onesimus, the slave mentioned by St. Paul?” Web blog. SPIRITUALITY. Aleteia. 16 Feb. 2019. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.
    Whatever happened to Onesimus, the slave mentioned by St. Paul? (aleteia.org)
  8. Aboutbibleprophecy.com. “Apphia.” Website. aboutbibleprophecy.com. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021. Apphia (aboutbibleprophecy.com)
  9. The Orthodox Church in America. “Apostles of the Seventy Philemon and Archippus, Martyr Apphia, wife of Philemon and Equal-to-the-Apostles, and Onesimus, disciple of Saint Paul.” Website. The Orthodox Faith / Lives of the Saints. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.
    Apostles of the Seventy Philemon and Archippus, Martyr Apphia, wife of Philemon and Equal-to-the-Apostles, and Onesimus, disciple of Saint Paul – Orthodox Church in America (oca.org)

See also:

Bible Journaling Philemon images are from Pinterest pins:

(1023) Pinterest

☆ This blog entry is from my work in my Intro. to the New Testament course I took at Phillips Seminary. ☆

If you use any information from my blog posts as a reference or source, please give credit and provide a link back to my work that you are referencing. Unless otherwise noted, my work is © Anna A. Kasper 2011-2023. All rights reserved. Thank you.

About Anna Kasper, ACDP

I am an avid Genealogist. I am currently a student at Phillips Theological Seminary (one of the few Catholics!). I am an ACDP - Associate of the Congregation of Divine Providence (Sisters of Divine Providence of Texas). If you are unfamiliar with what a Religious Associate (also called an Affiliate, Consociate, Oblate, Companion) is exactly, visit my about me page for more information. In community college, I majored in American Sign Language/Deaf Studies, and Interdisciplinary Studies when at university.
This entry was posted in Bible Study, Catholic, Religious and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s