By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Church Workers

  • Philemon was probably a well-to-do citizen. He had a house large enough to host a whole church.
  • He also had at least one guest room.
  • He also owned at least one slave, Onesimus.
  • He probably was wealthy enough to travel, having met Paul somewhere other than in his hometown of Colossae. (Acts does not describe any Pauline visits to Colossae.)
  • He was a Gentile, but not a proselyte since he does not know Jewish history. (There are no references to Jewish writings or customs in this letter.)
  • Because of his acquaintance with Paul, Philemon had become a Christian.
  • Typically students regarded their teachers as “spiritual fathers.”
  • Yet it is doubtful that Onesimus was a Christian before he ran away, so Philemon’s whole household had not yet been baptized/converted.
  • Paul refers to Philemon as a “dear brother” and “fellow worker.”
  • His faith and love give Paul great “joy” and “encouragement.”
  • In short, Philemon was a good man of some stature.
  • Paul regarded him as a very sincere Christian and expected him to do what was right.
  • Nothing is known about his age or profession or education.
  • Scholars who assume Apphia was his wife and Archippus was his son have nothing to back up such assumptions. (Scholars, though, are more apt to agree that Apphia might have been his wife. This is based on a postscript that they were joint owners of Onesimus.)
  • One late tradition claims that Philemon was bishop of Colossae.
  • It is unknown how or when Philemon met Paul.
  • It is possible that Philemon heard him preach in another city or possibly even lived in another city at one point in time.
  • It is unknown how Philemon treated his slaves.
  • Generally the prospect of manumission was offered to most slaves.
  • But it is unknown whether Philemon respected his slaves, paid them on time, or cared for their health and happiness.
  • The bottom line is that Onesimus did run away – and probably had a good reason for doing so. Surely there were issues despite Paul’s praise for Philemon’s love for all the saints.
  • It is just too hard to speculate on the reasons behind the runaway.
  • Paul exhorts Philemon (as well as Onesimus) to do good and to be rich in good deeds.
  • Obviously scholars wonder about the outcome of this letter—did Philemon respond the way Paul had hoped?
  • Given his love for the saints, his experience of grace, and Paul’s encouragement, did Philemon comply? (We don’t know.)
  • Nothing is known about the demise of Philemon.


Barclay, William. "The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon." Daily Study Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975.

Barth, Markus, and Helmut Blanke. "The Letter to Philemon." Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 2000.

Duling, Dennis and Norman Perrin. The New Testament. Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History. Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1994.

Gaebelein, Frank. "Philemon." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1985.

Koenig, John. "Philippians, Philemon." Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing. 1985.

Martin, Ralph. "Colossians and Philemon." The New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 1981.

Patzia, Arthur. "Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 1988.

Bible Characters