Lessons from the Book of Philemon


We thank God for His remarkable providence of preserving this short Book of Philemon. In man’s eyes it might be seen as of little concern to the Church. This is because it is written to only one person. It was written on a personal private family matter. It was also written concerning a poor fugitive slave caught again in prison. However, in the fear of God, this letter is given the status of other scriptures. It is given by the inspiration of God and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for the instruction in righteousness. 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

Brothers and sisters, let is learn the doctrine, take heed to the reproof and receive the correction and instruction for our profit as children of the righteous One.

 The Main Theme:

The main Theme seems to be the doctrine of imputation or attribution or ascription.  It means, the doctrine of taking the sins of a sinner on oneself so that the sinner can be forgiven by the sinner’s master.


Other sub-themes in The Book of Philemon

a)    The ministry of Prayer and letter writing

Paul used the ministry of prayer and the ministry of letter writing to minister to places he could not reach physically.

b)   The illustrated doctrine of Grace

The Book of Philemon uses the names, characters and actions of the persons involved to illustrate the doctrine of grace of God to man. It shows the power of grace in the Gospel of Christ. It is able to turn a useless person to a useful person. The Books shows how a Phrygian slave called Onesimus was turned to a beloved useful brother.

 The Biblical setting of the Book of Philemon

a)    The Book of Philemon was written by Paul.

b)    The book was probably written around 62 A.D during Paul first imprisonment in Rome.

c)    It is one of the four Books written by Paul in prison. The others are Philippians, Colossians and Ephesians.

d)    It is one of the four books written by Paul to individual believers. The others are Titus, 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy.  

e)    The book of Philemon is the shortest of the epistles written by Paul.

f)     It was written before the Book of Colossians.

g)    Only 335 words in the Greek text.

 The Purpose of the Book of Philemon

The purpose of the letter was a request regarding Onesimus. Basically, it is an intercession for reconciliation.


The meaning of the Names of the main characters in the Book of Philemon

  1. Paul means “little” or “small”.
  2. Philemon, means “kisses” or “one that is affectionate” or one who is kind.
  3. Onesimus, means “profitable” or “usefulness”.
  4. Apphia, means “to produce” or “to be fruitful”.


Figure 1. An illustration of the relationship between Philemon, Onesimus and Paul.


The history and Biblical content of the characters in the Book of Philemon


Philemon was a friend of Paul. Philemon was a rich man of a place called Colossae. (Col. 4,17; Phil. 2,10-12; Col. 4,9). He was a believer. He had a Church meeting in his own house. He had a slave called Onesimus. He helped many saints and refreshed them.  Paul used the title συνεργός to Paul. The word συνεργός in Greek is the word synergós. This is the place we get the word synergy. The word synergy means working together. Paul says Philemon is a fellow worker. He was a true copy of Paul. He was a hospitable family man.


He was a slave Phrygia. The Phrygian slaves were usually regarded with disrespect. He was owned by Philemon. His master was called Philemon. He decided to steal things from Philemon and then run away. He stole things from Philemon and ran away. He later made other mistakes and the law caught up with Him and was jailed in Rome. In Prison, he met Apostle Paul who was a friend of his master Philemon. Paul preached to Onesimus and he got converted and became a Christian. Paul decided to write a letter to Philemon to explain to him the circumstances of Onesimus and how he is now a Christian and a good person. In the letter, Paul besought Philemon to accept Onesimus again as his slave.


Apphia is believed to be Philemon’s wife. Her name means to “produce” or to be “fruitful”. She is the secret of the fruitfulness of Philemon and the hospitality in their family. According to tradition, she died as a martyr.


He was a partner in God’s army. He names means “a governor or master of horses”.   Horses are tamed animals. This implies that Archippus was a great administrator. He was believed to be a son of Philemon. He had mastered to control his fleshly life and hence he could wage spiritual warfare.


Paul was an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He was jailed in Rome for preaching Christ. He did not stop preaching everywhere he went. He preached about Christ even in jail. The preaching in the jail in Rome made Onesimus to be convicted of his sins. Onesimus repented and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as his savior. Paul decided to send Onesimus back to his former boss, Philemon. He knew this could be a very unpleasant meeting, therefore he wrote a letter and gave it to Onesimus to take it back to Philemon. Paul was very close to this family of: Husband Philemon, Wife Apphia and son Archippus. No wonder Paul knew the slave Onesimus very well and could not allow him to be far from this family. Paul was a family man. 

Paul was under house arrest in Rome. Paul was waiting for the outcome of his trial for treason against the Roman empire. However, Paul had limited liberties as a Roman citizen. This allowed him to live in a private home. The law allowed Paul be visited and preach within a limited area. Paul was with fellow workers in the Kingdom of God like Demas, Mark, Aristarchus, Luke, and Timothy. Other messengers from Galatia, Philippi, Colossae, and Ephesus also visited Paul and told him about the Churches. One day Onesimus also appeared at the door of Paul. Maybe he saw people from Colossae.


Epaphras was very close to Paul. He was from the Colossian Church. He was a faithful minister. He is the one who told Paul about the love of God among the Colossian believers. He was a man given to prayer. He used to pray fervently for the saints to be perfect of mature in the will of God.  See Colossians 4: 12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God


Marcus this was also called John Mark. Acts 12: 12 we read, and when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.  He lived at Jerusalem. (Col. 4,10) John was his Jewish name, and Mark his name among the Romans. The John Mark of Acts 12,12-25, and the John of Acts 13,5 & 13 becomes Mark only in Acts 15,39, Col. 4,10, 2 Tim 4,11, Philemon 24.


Aristarchus and Mark were Jewish Christians. He was of Thessalonica. (Acts 20,4; 37,2—a devoted follower of Paul. He is first mentioned at Ephesus, together with Gaius, the Macedonian, as a companion of Paul’s travels. See, Acts 19,29, Acts 20,4 and Acts 27,2.


Demas name is probably a short form of the name Demitrius. He was a Gentile Christian. (Acts 16,10; 20,5-6). He is later seen as having forsaken Paul, “from love of this present word.” (2 Tim. 4,10).


Luke is also referred to as the beloved physician. His name occurs 3 times (Col. 4,14; 2 Tim, 4,11; Philemon 24). Luke is the author of the Book of Acts. He stuck with Paul is the most difficult times.


Timothy was an evangelist who accompanied Paul very closely. His father was a Greek but his mother was a Jew. The books of Timothy were written to him.

 Major lessons from the Book of Philemon

 1.    The illustration of the doctrine of grace from the book of Philemon

We can begin by asking a question. What did Onesimus do to deserve the forgiveness of Philemon?  Philemon did nothing. This is the way we are saved by grace. We know the relationship with God has with the Lord Jesus Christ. If Jesus says we use His name to seek grace we know the Father will agree to our petition.

We, like Onesimus, were rebels from God’s service. We also injured Him. Paul like Jesus finds us, and by His grace, He works a change in us, and then He intercedes for us before the Father, that we may be received back into His family again. He even agrees to pay for our mistakes and debts.

 Onesimus and grace

 Onesimus was tried to be good to Philemon and realized it could not work. He decided flee from Philemon. We all like Onesimus have been trying to please God but we always find that in us there is a law that makes us to sin. We find that in our flesh we are slaves to sin. We keep on wandering because we are lost. Our flesh is weak and it cannot please God.  We wander in all kinds of places lacking direction and purpose.

Remember, Onesimus did not seek Paul. Even us as we run away from God, we do not seek Jesus. We seek other vanities including religion.

When we remember our sins, we desire to be lost in the midst of multitudes so that God will not find us!

The desire of Onesimus as journeyed to Rome was likely to get lost in the masses, where Philemon would not be able find him.

Onesimus was always looking with fear everywhere over his shoulders so that he would not see anybody called Philemon.  

 2.    The therapeutic or healing effect of serving others

In verse 4, Paul says, “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my payers” Despite being bound in prison, Paul was not bitter or sad. He preoccupied himself with meeting the needs of the saints. He did two great ministries. These two ministries brought him much joy. The two ministries are:

  1. Praying always for the saints.
  2. Writing encouragement and teaching them the doctrines of Christ

Any believer in any situation can be able to do these two ministries. Only our attitudes and feeling bitter and offended can hinder this God proven ministries. Oh, we even have better means of ministering to the saints. Paul was using a feather print media and foot dispatch which was localized. Today we have digital media and electronic dispatch which is global.

As you serve and teach others, God shall take care of your pains, worries and needs.

Paul said in verse 7, “For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by you, brother”.

Christ servants are extremely joyful despite their troubles when they hear that their fellow saints are working to help other saints. Paul was calling Philemon his brother and was not ashamed even to write it down in paper and ink. Paul was greatly encouraged (paraklesin) by Philemon.  

 3.    The Doctrine of Restoration to God’s original plan

 In Verse 11. The Bible says, “Which in time past was to you unprofitable, but now is profitable to you and to me”. This clearly shows restoration back to original plan. Onesimus is now restored in Christ. He now lives up to the meaning of his name. His name means “profitable”. His name means “useful”.  Even Paul can trust him with the mission from Rome to Colossae. Paul even calls him brother like he called Philemon. He actually calls him beloved brother see Colossians 4:4-7.


Figure 2: The illustration of the gospel of grace.

 4.    God’s Command to the Church from the Book of Philemon

God is saying loud and clear: God is saying to all believers. God is commanding all saints. God is saying that Christians should accept other Christians regardless of their status, colour of their skin and past actions as beloved brothers. They should accept them as redeemed by the Blood of Christ just like them. This is the New Testament. Even a Hebrew slave could not be kept in slavery for more than 6 years. We must forgive.

 5.    The issue of slaves and how Paul observed it

Hebrew owners’ power over the slaves was limited by law of Moses. For example, if he punished a slave to cause bodily (permanent) injury the slave gained his freedom. If he punished his slave, so as to cause death, he was treated as a murderer. Furthermore, if a slave escaped from his master, he was not to be delivered up again to his master. Kindly notice that Paul could not be accused of having broken this law of Moses in the case of Onesimus. This is because Onesimus returned voluntarily. Oh, take notice also of the doctrinal truth here also, Jesus does not force anybody to return back to God, He knocks at the door and waits for your response. The prodigal son decided by his own volition to return to his father.

The Rabbis taught that a runaway slave who was recaptured was to pay for the time of his absence; This might be the reason why Paul wanted Onesimus to return to Philemon and pay for his absence. However, Paul stood to pay for his debts. He says in verses 18-19. “But if he has harmed you in any way or owes you anything then make me answerable for it. I, Paul, wrote this with my own hand, and I will repay it.” It is like Paul is putting his signature of commitment. This is grace. The Lord Jesus has paid for our debts before God with His own precious Blood.

 6.    Cultural barriers and the Gospel

The book of Philemon shows that some of our cultures can hinder others from knowing the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Imagine, because Onesimus was a slave he did not know the gospel until he was out of Philemon’s home! The Church was meeting in the same house where he was serving. Onesimus actually served the Church members. But he could not sit and listen with his master on the same table due to traditions. God by His mercy allowed him to get into trouble so that he could be saved and returned back to serve as brother. May God eradicate by His grace all hindrances that can make anybody to miss the grace of God.

 7.    The House Church concept for sustainable discipleship

The house churches have been mentioned in the Bible as the way Jesus builds the Church. See for example: the following references of house churches and their hosts:

a)    Gaius at Rome (Rom. 16:23)

b)    Nymphas at Laodicea (Col. 4:15)

c)    Aquila and Priscilla at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19)

d)    Lydia at Thyatira (Acts 16:15)

e)    Philemon at Colossae (Philemon 2)

f)     Mary at Jerusalem (Acts 12:12)

g)    Jason at Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-6)

Visit www.josphert.com for more on this concept.