The Epistle to Marcus Sestius Philemon

This epistle is the shortest writing of Paul’s, occasioned by the circumstance of a runaway slave whom Paul was returning to his master, a fact that was used in time past to justify slavery in the US.

Given the fact that slave dealers were denied salvation (1 Timothy 1:10), there is no question that Paul did not approve of chattel slavery* personally, but since it was a staple of every major civilization on earth, to speak out against it would have put the apostle in opposition to the laws of the time, and brought the wrath of Rome upon the faith, the memory of Spartacus 180 years earlier still fresh in the minds of many Romans. (You’ll note that Paul dared not even flat-out ask Philemon to free the man, though his desire in verse 21 is abundantly clear. This is how sensitive the issue of speaking against slavery in the Roman Empire was--the apostle needed to speak in veiled language, lest his words, falling into Roman hands, be used against he and the church!)

There is virtually nothing of theological significance in the letter other than Paul’s pointing out we are all, whether slave or free, equal in Christ.

Philemon himself was supposedly bishop of Colossae, probably overseeing Laodicea and Hierapolis as well (which reveals that slave-ownership did not disqualify one from ministerial authority in that era), and Appia is believed to have been his wife, with Archippus their son. This epistle was written around 61-63 AD, during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, and fits with the epistle to the Colossians because the slave in question--Onesimus--was among the group sent back by Paul with that epistle.

According to tradition, Onesimus was martyred with Philemon and his family during Nero’s reign, but he may actually have become bishop of Ephesus.

* Slavery, in Jewish culture, was a sort of indentured servitude. We’re not told what sort of “slave” Onesimus was. We know only that he seems to have stolen some money (verse 18), and ran away to find Paul, who eventually sent him back with this letter requesting Philemon free him.



1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon1 our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,

2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:

3 Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

4 I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,

5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;

6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

7 For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.

8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,

9 Yet for love's sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:

11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:

14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.

15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;

16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.

18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;

19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.2

20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.

21 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.

23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;

24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas,3 my fellowlabourers.

25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, to Marcus Sestius Philemon, our dearly beloved fellow laborer;

2 And our beloved Apphia and Archippus, our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your house:

3 Grace and peace to you, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

4 I thank my God, always making mention of all of you in my prayers,

5 Having heard of your love and faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the righteous;

6 So that the sharing of your faith will be sparked into action when you understand all the good things we can do in Christ Jesus.

7 For we have great joy and comfort in your love because the souls of the righteous are refreshed by you, brother.

8 Therefore, though I could ask a request upon you because of my rank in Christ,

9 Yet for the sake of our love for each other, I instead beg you as nothing more than Paul, the old man, who is now in prison for Jesus Christ.

10 I am asking you for the sake of my son Onesimus, whose father I became in prison.

11 In time past with you, he did not live up to his name (--which means “profitable”). But now, he is that both to you and to me.

12 I have sent him back to you (with this letter). Receive him, and you will be receiving my own heart.

13 I would love to have kept him here, that in your place he could assist me while I am in chains for the Gospel.

14 But without your permission, I would not do so; and I didn’t want to constrain you to do this, but I hoped it would be with your consent.

15 For perhaps Onesimus left you for a while,

that you could have him back forever,

16 Not as a slave, but more than a slave--a brother who is beloved, especially to me. And how much more should he be beloved to you, both in a natural sense, and in the Lord?

17 If you consider me your partner in the Gospel, receive him as you would me.

18 If he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to my account.

19 I, Paul, writing with my own hand, agree to repay whatever he owes you--though I won’t remind you of how you even owe your very soul to me!

20 Yes, brother, give me cause to rejoice in the Lord--refresh my heart in the Lord.

21 Having confidence in what I knew you would do, I wrote this to you, knowing you’ll go beyond what I have asked (and will give him his freedom altogether).

22 Keep a bed made up for me, for I believe, through your prayers, I shall gain my freedom and come visit you.

23 Those who send greetings apart from me include Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus,

24 Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow laborers.

25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

1. An inscription on a tomb in nearby Laodicea from a freed slave in tribute to his former master very possibly identifies Philemon as having the full name of Marcus Sestius Philemon. While this cannot be known with absolute certainty, the coincidence is striking enough that it is no great leap to presume that man was the Philemon.

2. This statement is so completely Jewish in flavor, one might wonder if Paul was from Brooklyn, for we could hear precisely the same thing from the mouth of a present-day Jew: “I won’t remind you of how much I’ve done for you!”

3. This is referring to Luke, the Gospel writer.