Philemon – A study in grace (Guest Author)

I asked my good friend and fellow worker in Jesus Christ Norm Robinson to write a series of articles for the readers of He considered my request and we are honored with his contribution on the book of Philemon.



I decided to write a completely new commentary for these humble posts. I will employ the cultural, historical and geographic hermeneutic style to an exegesis of one Book or Epistle from the New Testament at a time; breaking each Book down into small, comprehensible and workable pieces for each post.


When I was a young man and began to seriously study the New Testament in order to learn authentic Christianity and essential theology, I often thought, “Why was Philemon canonized?” I never doubted it’s authenticity or Pauline authorship, but it does not contain any teaching about Christian beliefs, advice for the church or how Christians should live together in the church and their communities. I determined that it was a very personal letter.

Even though this epistle (letter) is the shortest of all of the Pauline epistles it is still longer than average first century personal letters. Paul wrote this epistle to a particular person Philemon (Φιλήμων, Transliteration Philēmōn, Pronunciation fē-lā’-mōn, meaning “one who kisses”) on behalf of another person Onesimus (Ὀνήσιμος, Transliteration Onēsimos, Pronunciation o-nā’-sē-mos, meaning “profitable or useful”) a Christian slave of Philemon.

Paul was writing to Philemon about a particular set of circumstances and not general advice for the church at large. Paul was simply doing what spiritual leaders are supposed to do; he was dealing with his people’s personal issues and counseling them from a scriptural perspective.

Paul wrote Philemon during his first imprisonment in Rome along with the Epistle to the Colossians sometime around 60-62 A.D. When Paul sent Tychicus (Τυχικός, Transliteration Tychikos, Pronunciation, tü-khē-ko’s, meaning “faithful”) with the Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:21) and Colossians, (Colossians 4:7) Onesimis most likely went with him (Colossians 4:9) and carried this letter to Philemon who lived in Colossae.

Apparently Philemon was wealthy enough to own slaves as most of the wealthy Colossians did. He may have been converted to Christianity by the Apostle himself (Philemon 19) when he lived in Ephesus. Onesimus was one of Philemon’s slaves who fled from his master and made his way to Rome where he came into contact with Paul. Paul witnessed to him and he became a convert to Christianity. Paul wrote of him as, “my own heart” and encouraged Onesimus to return to his master. This must have been an ominous decision for Onesimus to make because Romans labelled runaway slaves ‘fugitives’, and as the greatest modern historian of ancient slavery, Moses Finley, has remarked, ‘fugitive slaves are almost an obsession in the sources’. This suggests that the incidence of running away was always high.

To deal with the problem, the Romans hired professional slave-catchers to hunt down runaways, and posted advertisements in public places giving precise descriptions of fugitives and offering rewards for their capture. If caught, fugitives could be punished by being whipped, burnt with iron, killed or even crucified. Those who lived were branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus. Sometimes slaves had a metal collar riveted around the neck. One such collar is preserved at Rome and states in Latin, “I have run away. Catch me. If you take me back to my master Zoninus, you’ll be rewarded.

God’s grace and His mercy will blot out our sins and remove them from us as far as the east is to the west, but a person is still accountable in this life for their actions and the effects of their actions. So as a new convert in The Lord, Onesimus sets out to return to his master in the company of Tychicus and armed only with this short letter from Paul to Philemon to defend and intercede for him with his master.

So without any further ado shall we turn our attention to the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to his friend and disciple Philemon. The primary text we will employ is the New American Standard Bible (NASB) for it is known as a bridge to the Greek. All other texts will be cited at the end of the quotes.
All Greek citations, transliterations and pronunciations are taken from Thayer’s Greek lexicon.

Salutation Philemon 1:1-3

1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, 2 and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

V.1 “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus,…”

Literally a prisoner in bonds and chains held in custody in Rome, but Paul considers himself a prisoner of Jesus Christ. He understood the words of his Master, “But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.”  Matthew 10:17-18

After three days Paul called together those who were the leading men of the Jews, and when they came together, he began saying to them, “Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. And when they had examined me, they were willing to release me because there was no ground for putting me to death. But when the Jews objected, I was forced to appeal to Caesar, not that I had any accusation against my nation. For this reason, therefore, I requested to see you and to speak with you, for I am wearing this chain for the sake of the hope of Israel.”  Acts 28:17-20

V.1 “…and Timothy our brother,…”

Paul often called Timothy his son in the faith and Timothy was with Paul in Ephesus and  during his first imprisonment in Rome. Here Paul stresses the relationship that we have with every member in the church of Christ.

“But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers!” “For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.”  Matthew 12:48-50

V.1 “…To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker,”

Paul does not flout his Apostolic credentials in his salutation and uses a term of endearment in addressing Philemon as his beloved fellow worker as best translated in the English Standard Version (ESV).
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker.” ESV

Always remember that when you see a word italicized in your Bible it means that the word was not originally in the Greek. Sometimes a word is added to be able to convey the meaning of the phrase and at other times it is inserted because of the translators theology or preconceived biases.

The Greek word translated here as beloved (ἀγαπητός, Transliteration agapētos, Pronunciation ä-gä-pā-to’s) was used in scripture to speak of Christians bound together in mutual agape love to one another; hence they were dignified with this epithet very often in a tender address. The word was also used to express God the Father’s approval of The Lord Jesus upon His baptism, “and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”  Matthew 3:17

The Greek word (συνεργός, Transliteration synergos, Pronunciation sün-er-go’s) translated “fellow worker” was used almost exclusively by Paul in his writings to speak of one whom God employs as an assistant, as it were a fellow worker with God. What an honor our Christian labors are in deed to be praised and thought of as being a fellow worker with God Almighty. This should give us some perspective in ministry and service, that we are working with God. Not to be seen by man, but to seen and rewarded by God Himself. To one day hear our God say, “…Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”  Matthew 25:23

V.2 “and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house”

We cannot be absolutely sure of this, but Apphia (Pronunciation äp-fē’-ä, meaning “fruitful”) may have been Philemon’s wife and Archippus his son. They were certainly members of his household and Archippus was a fellow soldier in labors and conflicts for the cause of Christ. The word is used exclusively by Paul to describe two people, the other was Epaphroditus (Phillipians 2:25) a fellow worker and fellow soldier. The Greek word συστρατιώτης, Transliteration systratiōtēs, Pronunciation sü-strä-tē-ō’-tās, literally means soldiers together.

“…and to the church in your house”

The Greek phrase οἶκόν σου ἐκκλησίᾳ translated “church in your house” according to Thayer’s lexicon, “i.e. the company of Christians belonging to a person’s family or household.” Also used of the assembly of Christians in one’s home to worship God. The word for church (ἐκκλησία, Transliteration ekklēsia, Pronunciation ek-klā-sē’-ä) literally means assembly. So you could say that Philemon had a home fellowship attended by his spiritual and physical family. We do know that in the first century church there were no buildings designated as churches, but the people assembled together in homes, open air forums, by the river banks, schools not in use at the time and just about anywhere they could come together to praise The Lord, share a word of wisdom, a psalm or spiritual saying.

“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”  Colossians 3:16  

A spiritual application might be thought of this way; the home is where the true servant of God serves first. He is the spiritual leader of his family and household. They have learned from his example of Christ and have been brought up in His Ways. The home is open to all who want to hear and see the Word of God being proclaimed. We are to fight the good fight for Christ and not shut the door to those who truly desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, for the Kingdom is in your midst. Remember that where two or more are gathered together in His name there He will be also.

V.3 “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In the scripture Grace always proceeds Peace. For it is the Grace of God that brings us the Peace of God our Father and The Lord Jesus Christ.

May this humble study of the epistle to Philemon be a blessing to all who read it. May His Word be a lamp unto our feet so that we may not stumble in this dark and perverse generation.