To Philemon 1:1-25

 Paul, a prisoner+ for the sake of Christ Jesus, and Timothy+ our brother, to Phi·leʹmon our beloved fellow worker,  and to Apʹphi·a our sister, and to Ar·chipʹpus+ our fellow soldier, and to the congregation that is in your house:+  May you have undeserved kindness and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers,+  as I keep hearing of your faith and the love that you have for the Lord Jesus and for all the holy ones.  I pray that your sharing in the faith may move you to acknowledge every good thing that we have through Christ.  For I received much joy and comfort on hearing of your love, because the hearts of the holy ones have been refreshed through you, brother.  For this very reason, though I have great freeness of speech in connection with Christ to order you to do what is proper,  I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love,+ seeing that I am Paul an older man, yes, now also a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus. 10  I am appealing to you for my child, whose father I became+ while in prison,* O·nesʹi·mus.+ 11  He was formerly useless to you, but now he is useful to you and to me. 12  I am sending him back to you, yes him, my very own heart. 13  I would like to keep him here for myself so that he might take your place in ministering to me during my imprisonment for the sake of the good news.+ 14  But I do not want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed may be done, not under compulsion, but of your own free will.+ 15  Perhaps this is really why he broke away for a short while, so that you may have him back forever, 16  no longer as a slave,+ but as more than a slave, as a brother who is beloved,+ especially so to me, but how much more so to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17  So if you consider me a friend, receive him kindly the same way you would me. 18  Moreover, if he did you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to my account. 19  I, Paul, am writing with my own hand: I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me even your own self. 20  Yes, brother, may I receive this assistance from you in connection with the Lord; refresh my heart in connection with Christ. 21  I am confident that you will comply, so I am writing you, knowing that you will do even more than what I say.+ 22  But along with that, also prepare a place for me to stay, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be given back to you.+ 23  Sending you greetings is Epʹa·phras,+ my fellow captive in union with Christ Jesus, 24  also Mark,+ Ar·is·tarʹchus,+ Deʹmas, and Luke,+ my fellow workers.+ 25  The undeserved kindness of the Lord Jesus Christ be with the spirit you show.


Lit., “in the bonds.”

Study Notes

To Philemon: Titles such as this were apparently not part of the original text. Ancient manuscripts show that they were added later, doubtless to make it easier to identify the Bible books. In the well-known manuscript Codex Sinaiticus of the fourth century C.E., the title “To Philemon” is found at the end of the letter.

Paul . . . and Timothy: Or “From Paul . . . and Timothy.” Paul is the writer of this letter to Philemon, but he includes Timothy in the opening greeting, as he does in other letters. (2Co 1:1; Col 1:1; 1Th 1:1; 2Th 1:1) When Paul wrote the letter during his first imprisonment in Rome, Timothy was with him. (See study note on Php 1:1.) Philemon may have known Timothy, who was with Paul in Ephesus when the good news spread to cities in the same region, including Colossae.​—Ac 19:22; 1Co 4:17; 16:8-10; see App. B13; see also study note on 1Co 16:9.

a prisoner: In many of his letters, Paul describes himself as “an apostle” of Christ Jesus. (See, for example, 1Co 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; 1Ti 1:1; Tit 1:1.) Here, though, he does not mention that title. He apparently wants to avoid pressuring Philemon to obey him because of his position. Paul aptly chooses the word “prisoner,” described in one reference work as “a designation which would touch his friend’s heart.” It would remind Philemon of Paul’s stressful situation, perhaps preparing Philemon to respond sympathetically to the personal appeal made later in the letter.​—Phm 9-12, 17.

a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus: Lit., “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Paul is a captive in Rome because of being a follower of Christ.​—Phm 9; see study note on 2Ti 1:8.

Philemon our beloved fellow worker: Philemon was a Christian in the congregation in Colossae, a city in the province of Asia. (Col 4:9) It may be that Paul introduced him to Christianity. (Phm 19) Although Paul did not preach in Colossae, he could have met Philemon in Ephesus when “all those living in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” (Ac 19:10) Philemon did not accompany the apostle on his missionary travels, but Paul considered him a fellow worker because he helped to spread the good news.​—See study notes on Ro 16:3; 1Co 3:9.

Apphia . . . Archippus: Besides Philemon, only these two members of the congregation that met in Philemon’s house are mentioned by name in this letter. Many scholars have thus suggested that Apphia was Philemon’s wife and that Archippus was their son. Some further suggest that Paul mentions them because Onesimus had been their domestic slave. In such a case, all three would have been involved in the matter that Paul was writing about. Whatever their family status, both Apphia and Archippus were considered worthy of mention. Paul dignifies Apphia by calling her our sister. Archippus is likely the same man named in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. (See study note on Col 4:17.) And here Paul calls Archippus our fellow soldier, emphasizing a close relationship as well as Archippus’ loyal and brave service to Christ.​—Compare Php 2:25.

and to the congregation that is in your house: Paul addresses this letter primarily to Philemon but also to Apphia, Archippus, and the entire congregation. The first-century Christians often met together in private homes. (Col 4:15; see study note on 1Co 16:19.) Even though Paul speaks most directly to Philemon throughout the letter, it is noteworthy that he uses the Greek plural pronouns for “you” and “your” in verses 3, 22, and 25. So it is possible that Paul meant for the letter to be read aloud to the entire congregation. The valuable thoughts and principles in the letter would surely benefit them all.

May you have undeserved kindness and peace: See study note on Ro 1:7.

when I mention you in my prayers: These words reveal much about Paul as a man of prayer. His prayers regarding Philemon were appreciative (“I . . . thank my God”), they were frequent (“I always”), and they were personal (“I mention you”). Paul uses “you” in the singular form, which shows that he prayed specifically for his friend Philemon.​—Compare Ro 1:9; 1Co 1:4; Eph 1:16; Php 1:3-5; 1Th 1:2.

your faith and the love that you have: The qualities of faith and love form an important theme in this personal letter. Paul often draws a connection between these two qualities. (Eph 1:15; Col 1:4) Here he commends Philemon (whose name means “Loving”) for being an example in both traits. Philemon expresses his faith and his love for Jesus by the way he treats the holy ones, his fellow believers.

hearts: Or “tender affections.” The Greek term that Paul uses (splagkhʹnon), here rendered “hearts,” refers in a literal sense to the inward parts of the body. Figuratively, it conveys the idea of deeply felt, intense emotions or the seat of such emotions. (See also study note on 2Co 6:12.) Paul uses the same Greek word again in verses 12 and 20. One reference work states: “The frequent use of the word in this short letter shows how personally Paul was involved in the matter.”

brother: The early Christians often referred to one another as “brother” and “sister.” (Ro 16:1; 1Co 7:15; Phm 1, 2) By using these endearing terms, they showed not only their Christian unity but also their close relationship as a spiritual family under one Father, Jehovah. (Mt 6:9; 23:9; Eph 2:19 and study note; 1Pe 3:8) According to some scholars, when Paul calls Philemon “brother” here and in verse 20, the apostle uses a form of direct address that reflects the warmth of their friendship. Some translations thus use the renderings “my brother” or “dear brother.”

freeness of speech: Or “outspokenness; boldness.” The Greek word par·re·siʹa has the basic meaning “boldness in speech.” By adding in connection with Christ, Paul may be alluding to the authority that Jesus has given him as an apostle. However, as Paul explains in the next verse, he would not use this authority to give orders to Philemon; nor would he abuse their relationship as fellow Christians by commanding Philemon to do something against his will. (Phm 9, 14) Therefore, in this context, Paul is likely using the term for “freeness of speech” to refer to straight talk between friends.

I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love: Paul has already mentioned that Philemon’s love for Christ and for his fellow Christians was well-known. (Phm 5, 7) The apostle trusted that such love would move Philemon to choose the kindest course of action. (Phm 21) But Paul knew that he could not force Philemon to show love. As one reference work notes regarding this verse, “love may be invited, but not compelled.”

an older man: Paul may have been in his 50’s or 60’s when he wrote this letter. According to some sources, the Greek word that Paul here uses could describe “a man of 50-56 years” of age. However, in the Greek Septuagint, the same term is used of Abraham and Eli when they were much older. (Ge 25:8; 1Sa 2:22; LXX) Therefore, Paul’s use of this word does not provide enough support to reveal how old he was when writing to Philemon. The general facts of his life are more helpful. He was converted to Christianity about 34 C.E. and wrote this letter to Philemon about 25 years later, in 60-61 C.E. At the time of his conversion, he was old enough to be known and trusted by the high priest. Some suggest that he was born about the same time as Jesus or shortly thereafter. The Greek word here used is rendered “an ambassador” in some Bible translations. But most scholars favor the rendering “an older man,” which is similar to how it is rendered at Lu 1:18 and Tit 2:2.​—Compare 2Co 5:20 and study note; Eph 6:20 and study note.

a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus: See study notes on Phm 1.

Onesimus: Onesimus was a slave who may have robbed his Christian master, Philemon, before running away to Rome, where Onesimus became a Christian. (Phm 18; see study note on Col 4:9.) Though Onesimus is the subject of Paul’s brief letter, this is the first mention of him. Paul explains that while he was imprisoned in Rome, he became like a father to Onesimus. Paul even calls him my child, which suggests that the apostle may have played a role in his conversion to Christianity.​—Compare 1Co 4:15; Ga 4:19.

He was formerly useless . . . , but now he is useful: Paul here describes the drastic change that took place in the life of Onesimus. This slave was “formerly useless”; he had run away from his owner, and even before that he may have been an unreliable worker. (See study note on Phm 18.) But now that he had embraced Christianity, he became “useful” to the apostle Paul and to Philemon as well.

useless . . . useful: The name Onesimus means “Profitable; Useful,” which according to some references was a common name in the first century C.E., especially among slaves. In this verse, Paul is apparently using a play on words; the word he uses for “useful” has a meaning similar to that of the name Onesimus. Paul is also using a play on the Greek words rendered “useless” (aʹkhre·stos) and “useful” (euʹkhre·stos). The one who was named “useful” had long been “useless,” but now he had truly become “useful.”​—See also study notes on Col 4:9; Phm 10.

I am sending him back to you: By sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul showed proper subjection to the governmental authorities. (Ro 13:1) The apostle did encourage slaves to “seize the opportunity” to obtain a legal release. (1Co 7:21) Still, he knew that Christ had not authorized his followers to defy the law of the land by opposing the institution of slavery.​—Joh 17:15, 16; 18:36 and study note; see also study note on 1Ti 6:1.

my very own heart: Or “my tender affections.”​—See study note on Phm 7.

in ministering to me: Paul may have in mind a wide range of ways in which Onesimus could assist him. The Greek word di·a·ko·neʹo (“to minister”; “to serve”) basically conveys the idea of humbly rendering service in behalf of others. In this context, it may refer to performing such services as obtaining or preparing food or helping Paul in other practical ways. Ultimately, by assisting Paul, Onesimus was working humbly “for the sake of the good news.”​—See study notes on Lu 8:3; 22:26.

of your own free will: Or “willingly; voluntarily.” Paul recognized that it was Philemon’s choice to handle the situation involving Onesimus as he saw fit. Thus Paul says: “I do not want to do anything without your consent.” Rather, he trusted that Philemon would make good use of his free will and would choose to act out of love. (2Co 9:7) The idea of exercising free will​—that is, making personal choices about one’s course in life​—is a vital Scriptural concept. (De 30:19, 20; Jos 24:15; Ga 5:13; 1Pe 2:16) The Greek word rendered “free will” in this verse is also used several times in the Septuagint to describe voluntary offerings. (Le 7:16; 23:38; Nu 15:3; 29:39) Jehovah neither demanded such offerings nor punished those who did not bring them to his house. They were to be expressions of love and appreciation, which can never be coerced.

Perhaps this is really why he broke away: Paul here seems to suggest that Jehovah had a hand in what happened to Onesimus, who became a Christian after running away from his master. Philemon could now receive him back, not as a slave, but as a spiritual brother. Paul further points out that any difficulties caused by Onesimus’ absence lasted a relatively short while (lit., “an hour”). In contrast, the spiritual relationship between these men would last forever; they would now serve “with everlasting life in view.”​—Jude 21; Re 22:5.

as more than a slave, as a brother: Paul here points out that the primary relationship between Philemon and Onesimus would now be that of Christian brothers and fellow workers in the ministry. (Mt 23:8; 28:19, 20) Onesimus may have resumed his life as a slave in Philemon’s household, but it is also possible, as some scholars suggest, that Philemon decided to free him from slavery. (See study note on Phm 12.) Even if Onesimus remained a slave, his Christian faith would make him a better worker, since his behavior would now be governed by godly principles.​—Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22, 23; Tit 2:9, 10; see study note on 1Ti 6:2.

a friend: The Greek word here rendered “a friend” literally means “a sharer.” Paul never refers to himself as an apostle in this letter. Rather, he puts himself on the same level as Philemon by using this term that could also be rendered “a companion; a partner.” The word conveys the idea of fellowship, and it was used of business partners. (Lu 5:10; 2Co 8:23; 1Pe 5:1) In this context, however, it conveys more warmth. One reference work describes the close bond between Paul and Philemon this way: “Their ‘fellowship’ . . . is grounded in their belonging to one Lord. This deeply binding relationship draws them together into common activities, in faith and love.” It is also worth noting that the ancient Greek author Aristotle used this term to define what a friend is, saying: “A friend is a sharer.”

receive him kindly: Paul showed great confidence in Philemon. At that time, some slave owners punished disobedient slaves by flogging, branding, or even killing them​—if only to maintain order among other slaves in the household.

charge it to my account: This wording was commonly used to agree to repay a debt, as proved by other documents from the first century C.E. On the basis of this verse, some commentators suggest that before fleeing, Onesimus might have stolen from his master, perhaps reasoning that he could not survive long without some means to purchase food or to buy passage on a ship. Paul’s desire to reconcile these two Christians was so strong that he was even willing to do so at his own expense.

I, Paul, am writing with my own hand: It seems likely that Paul wrote this short letter with his own hand, although that was not his usual custom. If Paul suffered from poor eyesight, writing would have been difficult for him. (See study notes on Ga 4:15; 6:11.) However, some scholars suggest a different idea, namely, that Paul here adds a type of signature, perhaps writing just a few words in his own hand. In either case, the personal touch would add weight to Paul’s request and authenticate his promise to repay any debt that Onesimus might have incurred.

you owe me even your own self: This expression suggests that Paul had helped Philemon to become a Christian. (See study note on Phm 1.) Here Paul reminds Philemon that any material loss he had suffered was insignificant compared to all that he had gained.​—Phm 18; compare Eph 1:18; 2:12.

my heart: Or “my tender affections.”​—See study note on Phm 7.

I am confident: Paul’s confidence in Philemon is not mere wishful thinking. He uses a Greek word denoting strong confidence or trust, and it is often found in his letters. For example, he used it of his own trust that God would carry out His purpose regarding His people (Php 1:6) and of Jesus’ trust in God (Heb 2:13). At Ro 8:38, the same word is rendered “I am convinced.” Paul is sure that Philemon will do more than just oblige the apostle grudgingly. As Paul says, you will do even more than what I say. His confidence likely moved Philemon to cooperate gladly and willingly, perhaps even to go beyond what Paul asked of him.

for I am hoping that through your prayers: Paul uses the plural form of the Greek pronoun rendered “your,” so he may be referring to the united prayers of the congregation that met in Philemon’s house. (See study note on Phm 2.) Paul suggests that such prayers may help to bring about a remarkable outcome​—his release from imprisonment in Rome. He thus acknowledges that the prayers of faithful Christians may move Jehovah God to act sooner than He might otherwise have done or to do something that He might not otherwise have done.​—Heb 13:19.

I will be given back to you: Or “I will be set free for you.” Here Paul uses an expression that literally conveys the idea “I will be graciously given to you,” that is, in answer to the prayers of those in the congregation in Colossae. One reference work observes that Paul uses the passive form of the verb here, indicating that “it is only God who can secure Paul’s release.”

Epaphras: A Christian from Colossae who was probably instrumental in establishing the congregation there. (See study notes on Col 1:7; 4:12.) At the time of Paul’s first imprisonment, Epaphras came to Rome. He likely remained there, for Paul conveys his greetings and refers to him as “my fellow captive in union with Christ Jesus.”

my fellow captive: Or “my fellow prisoner.” Paul uses this Greek term not only of Epaphras but also, in other letters, of Aristarchus, Andronicus, and Junias. (Ro 16:7; Col 4:10) These companions of Paul might actually have been imprisoned with him. However, some suggest that Paul used the term figuratively to indicate that these fellow Christians courageously visited him and spent time with him while he was imprisoned.

Mark: See study note on Col 4:10.

Aristarchus: A Macedonian from Thessalonica who traveled with Paul. His background was likely Jewish. (See study note on Col 4:11.) He stuck with Paul under dangerous circumstances, even surviving a mob attack in Ephesus and a plot by the Jews in Greece. (Ac 19:29; 20:2-4) Later when Paul was sent to Rome as a prisoner, this loyal friend accompanied him. Along the way, they suffered shipwreck. (Ac 27:1, 2, 41) Aristarchus apparently continued ministering to Paul during his house arrest in Rome. (Ac 28:16, 30) He likely spent some time in prison with the apostle, who gratefully acknowledged him as “a source of great comfort.”​—Col 4:10, 11; see also study notes on Phm 23; 2Co 8:18.

Demas: See study notes on Col 4:14; 2Ti 4:10.

Luke: See study note on Col 4:14.

the spirit you show: In his conclusion, Paul uses the Greek plural pronoun for “you,” likely directing his words to all those addressed in verses 1 and 2, including “the congregation that is in [Philemon’s] house.” (Phm 2 and study note) Paul expresses his hope that the undeserved kindness of Jesus Christ will be with their “spirit.” Here that word refers to the impelling inner force, or dominant mental inclination, that moves them to speak and act as they do. (See Glossary, “Spirit.”) With Christ’s blessing, they would be able to continue to speak and act in harmony with God’s will and Christ’s example.​—Ga 6:18 and study note; Php 4:23.


Video Introduction to the Book of Philemon
Video Introduction to the Book of Philemon
Onesimus Returns to his Master, Philemon
Onesimus Returns to his Master, Philemon

Onesimus arrives at the home of his master, Philemon, in Colossae, bringing him a letter from the apostle Paul, who is under house arrest in Rome. Sometime earlier, Onesimus had run away to Rome, where he became a Christian because of his contact with Paul. Learning of Onesimus’ situation, Paul encouraged him to return to Philemon. Onesimus may have wondered what treatment to expect because Philemon may have had the legal right to mete out severe punishment. In his letter to Philemon, Paul appeals to him to receive Onesimus kindly, not just as a slave but as a Christian brother. (Phm 15-17) Paul also expresses his confidence that Philemon will comply. (Phm 21) The letter harmonizes with the rest of the Christian Greek Scriptures, which contain many exhortations to all Christians to treat one another as brothers—regardless of wealth or social position.—Ro 12:10; 1Co 16:20; Col 4:15; 1Th 4:9, 10.

Common Duties of a Slave
Common Duties of a Slave

Slavery was part of everyday life in the Roman Empire. Roman law regulated certain aspects of the relationship between slaves and their masters. Slaves performed much of the work in the homes of wealthy families occupying the territories of the Roman Empire. Slaves cooked, cleaned, and cared for children. Other slaves worked in factories, in mines, or on farms. Those who were better educated served as doctors, teachers, or secretaries. In fact, slaves worked at every occupation except in the military. In some cases, slaves could be emancipated. (See Glossary, “Freeman; Freedman.”) First-century Christians did not take a stand against governmental authority in this matter, nor did they advocate that slaves revolt. (1Co 7:21) Christians respected the legal right of others, including fellow Christians, to own slaves. That is why the apostle Paul sent the slave Onesimus back to his master, Philemon. Because Onesimus had become a Christian, he willingly returned to his master, subjecting himself as a slave to a fellow Christian. (Phm 10-17) Paul encouraged slaves to work honestly and diligently.—Tit 2:9, 10.