It can be helpful to read a summary of a verse, passage, or book of the Bible that you already know well. Why? It can give you a fresh take on something you think you have completely exhausted! This excerpt from the Know the Word Study Bible Notes helps you to begin reflecting on Philemon, and re-applying it to your own life.


“One of the most remarkable experiences we can have is the realization of how small the world really is. Maybe you’ve been on vacation five hundred miles from home and recognized a friend from high school. Or you met someone on the other side of the world who, through conversation, you realized used to lead your sister’s Bible study. It’s exciting to make a connection where you don’t expect one.

Something similar happened with Paul and a man named Onesimus. Bible students aren’t certain where Paul was, but he was a prisoner somewhere in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) or perhaps in Rome. Paul led Onesimus to saving faith in Jesus Christ. At some point, they realized they both knew the same person: Philemon. Paul had also led Philemon to accept Christ as Savior when Paul was leading the church in Colosse.

But the realization wasn’t all back-slapping fun; Onesimus and Philemon weren’t friends. On the contrary, Philemon was a slave-owner, and Onesimus had been his slave. Complicating things further, Onesimus had run away.”


“Paul knew and loved both men and desired to develop their relationships with Christ and their walks with Him. What was Paul to do? Under Roman law, runaway slaves could be punished with death. Paul himself had written that bondservants (slaves) should “obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God” (Col. 3:22). But he had also taught that Christians should forgive (2 Cor. 2:10) and love (1 Cor. 13).

Paul could have taken many actions. He could have helped Onesimus stay away from officials, but he had taught that governments should be honored (Rom. 13:1–7). He could have kept the secret, but that was not walking in the light of truth (Eph. 5:8). There were many seemingly easy ways out of the situation, for both Paul and Onesimus, but Paul didn’t take the easy way. In fact, he did what might have been the most difficult: he sent Onesimus back to Philemon, carrying a note written by Paul himself (Philem. v. 19). The book of Philemon is that very letter.”


“Only Philemon, as guided by God and in cooperation with Onesimus, could make this situation right. It was time for brotherly love to reign. But that brotherly love appeared to go against culture and law. We can only imagine the prayers and tears that poured out as Paul wrote the letter. We can only imagine how many times Onesimus feared going back. And, we can only imagine what happened once Philemon got the letter, because there is no record of his response.

Through the dangling finale we are forced to confront our own hearts:

Could I forgive?

Would I build a friendship across a cultural divide?

Could I trust God to make this right?

Would I do the right thing?

Could I love one who had wronged me?”

1 Comment

  1. We can be certain that Philemon freed Onesimus, since the former slave eventually became Bishop of the church at Ephesus (mentioned as such by his contemporary, Ignatius Bishop of Antioch). Some scholars conjecture that we owe the inclusion of the letter to Philemon in our Bibles to the possibility that Bishop Onesimus garnered the original collection of Paul’s letters, and perhaps was even the person primarily responsible for the initital formation of our NT canon. On this scenario he added Paul’s and other apostolic letters to the existing three Gospels, plus the writings of John after delivery of the Revelation to him as “the angel of the church of Ephesus”.

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