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New Testament | Philemon | Summary



  • Paul and Timothy write to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus, each of whom receives a special title: they are called a "dear friend and coworker," "sister," and "fellow soldier," respectively (Philemon 2).
  • Paul says Philemon's act of sharing his faith will become part of "all the good that we may do for Christ" (Philemon 6).
  • Paul writes on behalf of Onesimus, an enslaved person from Philemon's household who has probably run away from the household and fled to Paul.
  • Paul urges Philemon to welcome the man back as a brother, not a slave.
  • The letter closing lays out Paul's hope that he will be able to stay at Philemon's home.


Although it is quite brief, the letter to Philemon makes two focused points that provide readers with insight into some ways Christ-belief could reconfigure traditional structures of authority. First, Paul emphasizes the authority and power associated with his identity as an apostle. By acknowledging that he is choosing to persuade rather than rely on his superior position in verses 8–9, he implies that an apostle of Jesus does have the authority to command other believers.

Second, Paul employs a powerful kinship (family) metaphor to describe the ideal Christ-believing community, which is structured somewhat differently from a typical Greco-Roman household. Paul himself describes Philemon's slave Onesimus as his own "child" (Philemon 10). This language probably expresses the closeness of their personal bond, but it might also reflect Paul's view of the fictive kinship that exists between all Christ-believers. Paul's role as a virtual "father" to Onesimus highlights again the nature of the hierarchical relationship between an apostle and those who learn from him.

But the parent–child metaphor also suggests there is a tender or protective component to that relationship. Research on ancient slaveholding practices reveals that a household slave such as Onesimus would have been totally subject to the commands of his owners, and there could be extremely harsh punishments for running away. However, Paul suggests that the runaway slave should be welcomed back into the household not as a slave but as a "beloved brother" (Philemon 16) because he is now, like Philemon, a Christ-believer. Paul is suggesting that the status of believers should override any existing social status.

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