Palms Baptist Church
The Story Behind the Epistle of Philemon
March 26, 2023

The Story Behind the Epistle of Philemon

March 26, 2023   /   Palms Baptist Church

The Story Behind Philemon

I. The Story Behind the letter to Philemon.

  • This is the only personal letter in the Bible. It’s not written to a church or a group, but to an individual.
  • In Acts 19, Paul was on mission to Ephesus. People came from all over to hear him. It appears that a man named Epaphras from Colossae and a man named Philemon heard Paul in Ephesus and were saved under his ministry.
  • Philemon and Epaphras took the Gospel they had received back to Colossae.
  • Paul returned to Jerusalem, and rescued by the Romans from the Jews, he was put in protective custody. However, he appealed his case to Caesar, and was sent to Rome.
  • Back in Colossae, the church Philemon and Epaphras started did well.
  • The appear church met in
  • However, Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus. He stole something of value and ran away. Onesimus ended up in Rome and somehow came in contact with the Apostle Paul, where he was saved and became a valuable member of the ministry team there.

Paul did 3 things:

  • He wrote a letter to the We have that letter (Colossians) with a high emphasis on the supremacy of Christ.
  • He wrote a letter to
  • He convinced Onesimus

II. The letter of Philemon:

In Philemon, Paul gives several arguments why Philemon should release Onesimus. It is interesting, he does not command him to do the right thing. He does something better; he disciples Philemon.

Paul knew that Philemon would grow more by seeking God in the matter than simply getting a command from him.

N.T. Wright put is it this way: Paul wants Philemon to behave Christianly. Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Here, Paul teaches Philemon to seek God for that which is right.

Paul’s Argument:

1. (Philemon 1:10)

Paul calls Onesimus his “son.” This seems to be a unique designation Paul reserved for the men in his ministry who gave themselves to be Pastors.

  • Titus: Titus 1:4
  • Timothy: 1 Corinthians 4:17, Philippians 2:22, 1 Timothy 1:2, 1 Timothy 1:18, 2 Timothy 1:2 , 1 Timothy 2:1

2. (Philemon 1:11-13)

  • Onesimus means “useful.” But in his past he was “useless.” He robbed and ran.
  • Jesus transformed his heart, so that he is now a valuable member of Paul’s ministry team.

3. (Philemon 1:14)

  • Paul anticipates that God will reward Philemon more if he does what is right based on a good heart, instead of being guilted.
  • He is urging Philemon to do the right thing because he loves Jesus, not because he respects Paul.

4. (Philemon 1:15-16)

  • By saving Onesimus, God made the slave and the master “brothers.”
  • The slave and the master have been brought into the same house; not the house of Philemon, but the house of God. They are not master slave anymore, but brothers.
  • The great thing is, Paul destroys the social order and makes the slave and the master equal.

5. (Philemon 1:17-18)


III. The story after the story:

Did Philemon let Onesimus go?

The overwhelming evidence from church history is that Philemon did release Onesimus, and he went on to become the Pastor of Ephesus.

  • In 110ad, Ignatius was being taken to be executed. Escorted by ten Roman Soldiers, he wrote letters as he was taken from Antioch to Rome.
  • His letters are some of the most important in a collection titled, “The Apostolic Fathers.” (Three most important: Ignatius, Clement and Polycarp)
  • When he wrote to the church at Ephesus, he addressed their pastor. Their pastor was named, Onesimus.


Was the Onesimus who was pastor at Ephesus the same Onesimus who was the slave in Philemon?

1. Onesimus is a slave name. There were a lot of slaves named Onesimus, but no other pastors or Bishops with that name.

2. Ignatius in his letter to Ephesus used similar language as Paul did when writing Philemon.

F. F. Bruce: “Why then should one connect the Onesimus who was the bishop of Ephesus with the slave Onesimus in the book of Philemon? Because Ignatius in his letter to the church at Ephesus shows himself familiar with the epistle to Philemon. It is one of the rare places in the literature of the early church fathers where the language of an epistle is clearly echoed. Not only so, but the part of Ignatius’ letter to Ephesus where the language of Philemon is echoed is the part in which the bishop is mentioned in the first six chapters fourteen times.”

3. At Ephesus the first copies of Paul’s letters were collected!

Suggests and explanation for how a personal letter got in the Bible. It was preserved by the Bishop at Ephesus as his personal testimony.

John MacArthur, “History tells us Onesimus was martyred, during reign of Emperor Trajan, and the reason they killed him was because he refused to deny Christ.”

4. Interesting: Laodicea (Just miles from Colossae) there is a Baptismal pool with a dedication put there by freed slaves to their former master who set them free, “Marcus Sestius Philemon.” (John McRay, Archaeology and the NT.)


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