An Overview of Paul’s Epistle to Philemon (+ Free Printable Study Guide)

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Article By: Sarah Koontz, Founder of Living by Design Ministries

A few months ago, I started my graduate studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.

I am taking things slow and steady, just one online course this spring, an intensive this summer, and another online course in the fall.

It is my hope and intention to share as much of this journey as possible with you. And that all starts with me taking some time to explain why I decided to go back to school.

I have always felt a strong personal call to discipleship.

My desire to help Christian women understand God’s beautiful design for their lives motivated me to begin sharing biblical truths through my blog in 2015.

As I watched Christian women respond to the truths that had brought so much freedom to my own life, I felt God calling me to write free Bible studies.

My desire to help Christian women understand God’s beautiful design for their lives motivated me to begin sharing biblical truths through my blog in 2015.Click to Tweet

As a Christian woman, I believe in the importance of spiritual umbrellas.

Because of this, we have established a non-profit ministry to support our free online Bible studies. My husband serves on the Board of the Ministry, and I am an elected officer and employee of the Ministry.

We have also established a Pastoral Council to offer a theological review of our studies before they release.

Although the training I will receive at DTS will never replace these protective spiritual umbrellas in my life, I am convinced that advanced theological training is a prudent step for anyone who is writing Bible studies.

I was drawn to DTS, first and foremost, because of their doctrinal statement.

If I am going to pursue theological training, it must come from an institution that believes in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the biblical definition of marriage, the absolute depravity of man, and the deity of Christ.

As someone who is writing Bible studies, it is my responsibility to protect myself and my readers from even the slightest possibility of unbiblical teaching.

At Living by Design Ministries, we are committed to providing free resources to help women understand and apply God's Word. Click to Tweet

I enrolled in seminary to fortify my foundation, deepen my understanding of the Bible, and strengthen my faith in Jesus Christ.

If I can be strong, I can teach others to be strong. If I can understand the deep truths of God’s Word, I can teach others to do the same. If I can know why I believe what I believe, I can defend those beliefs with love and compassion as the need arises.

My first class is called “Bible Study Methods & Hermeneutics,” and it is taught by the Seminary president, Dr. Mark Bailey.

I am loving being a student again and I’m quite excited to share some of what we’ve been learning about the book of Philemon in today’s article.

lettered signed reading "FORGIVE" | An Overview of Paul's Epistle to Philemon

An Introduction to the Book of Philemon

Paul wrote Philemon to implore his friend, and fellow believer, Philemon to forgive his runaway slave, Onesimus.

Paul chose to take the role of mediator between the two and even offered to personally cover the debts of the recently converted slave.

The book of Philemon offers a powerful case study of brotherly love and the importance of forgiveness and equality within the body of Christ.

In today’s article, we will explore the rich historical and cultural context surrounding the writing of the book of Philemon.

We will meet the author of the letter, learn interesting details about the recipients and purpose of the letter, and lay a strong foundation for future study and application of the truths contained within.

We must make every effort to infuse our study of God’s Word with a deep understanding of the context and culture within which it was originally penned.

We must make every effort to infuse our study of God’s Word with a deep understanding of the context and culture within which it was originally penned.Click to Tweet

The Bible is God’s inspired Word delivered at specific times, through unique individuals, during particular circumstances, for a relevant and immediate purpose.

Although the truths contained in this book are timeless, a thorough knowledge of the human author, audience, and historical background will help us discern the original meaning and purpose of the book of Philemon.

Once the historical background is established, we will be able to advance our study to the more practical and applicable truths contained within this short, yet powerful, book of the Bible.

Bible open to the letter of Paul to Philemon | An Overview of Paul's Epistle to Philemon

Meet the Author of Philemon

We learn in Philemon 1:1 that the author of this book is the Apostle Paul.

After his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul’s singular purpose was to prove that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 9:22, 26).

Known as the “apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul is the author of several books and epistles in the New Testament.

Biographical Information

  • Paul was probably born in the same decade as Jesus[1] but the exact date of birth is unknown.
  • He seems to have had two names: his given Hebrew name, Saul, and a more Roman-sounding name, Paul, for use in the Gentile world.
  •  He grew up in Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia, a Roman Providence (modern-day Turkey).
  • The Bible does not tell us the exact time or manner of his death.

Family Heritage/Cultural Background

  • A member of the tribe of Benjamin; son of a Pharisee; of pure and unmixed Jewish blood.
  • Extremely zealous for the traditions of his people (Gal. 1:13-15).
  • His father was a Roman citizen, making Paul freeborn Roman citizen (a valuable privilege; of great use to Paul throughout his life and ministry).
  • We know nothing of his mother except for the character of the son she birthed.
  • His sister’s son is mentioned in Acts 23:16.
  • Other relatives are mentioned in Romans 1:7, 11, 12.
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 Education

  • Because the education system in Tarsus was world-renowned, Paul likely received a high-quality education from his earliest years.
  • Schooled as a Pharisee under the rabbi Gamaliel, likely in Jerusalem beginning around age 13. [3]

 Occupation

  •  As per Jewish custom, Paul learned a trade before pursuing advanced religious studies.
  • He was a tentmaker, likely making tents from goats’ hair cloth—a common trade in the city of Tarsus. [2]
  • Continued this trade throughout his life and ministry (Act. 18:3).

Religious Experience

  • Circumcised on the 8th day, a Pharisee, persecutor of the early church (Phil 3:5-6), likely a member of the great Sanhedrin.
  • His conversion to Christianity is recorded in Acts 9.
  • After a period of time in Arabia (Gal. 1:17) he began to boldly preach the name of Jesus Christ (Act. 9:27).
  • Commanded by God to preach the gospel to the Gentiles; experienced persecution from his Jewish brethren (Act. 13:46-48).
  • Became a traveling missionary and preacher for the early church.
  • Imprisoned (house-arrest) in Rome for two years from AD 61-63, during which He wrote the “prison epistles” (including the letter to Philemon). [4]

hands clasped together and tied with rope | An Overview of Paul's Epistle to Philemon

Meet the Original Audience of Philemon

Although this letter is addressed to four readers,  the primary recipient is Philemon.

We know this because plural pronouns are used in the salutation and conclusion, and singular pronouns are utilized throughout the body of the letter. [5]

 Philemon

  • A Christian convert in the Lycus valley (possibly the city of Colosse).
  • A wealthy man—owner of at least one slave, and owner of a house large enough for a church to meet in.
  • Paul refers to him with terms of endearment and friendship—“beloved brother” and “fellow worker” (vs. 1).

Apphia

  • A Christian woman Paul greets as “our sister” (vs. 2), possibly Philemon’s wife. [5]

Archippus

  • A Christian man Paul greets as a “fellow soldier” (vs. 2), possibly a relative of Philemon or the pastor/leader of the church that met in their home (see Col 4:17).

The Church

  • In major cities, social groups gathered in homes of patrons or sponsors—the urban Christians of the first-century church followed the same pattern. [5]
The Bible is God’s inspired Word delivered at specific times, through unique individuals, during particular circumstances, for a relevant and immediate purpose.Click to Tweet

Date, Location, and Purpose of Philemon

Date

Although the exact date of the letter is unknown, we do know that Paul was a prisoner when he wrote Philemon (Phm. 1:1, 9).

We also know that the letter was delivered by Onesimus, who traveled with Tychius, who also carried Paul’s letters to the Colossians (Col 4:7-9) and the Ephesians (Eph. 6:21-22).

Therefore, Philemon is included in Paul’s “prison epistles” likely sent from Rome to the churches in the Asia Minor around 60-61 AD.

Location

map of where Paul was when writing his letter to Philemon in the Bible | An Overview of Paul's Epistle to Philemon

Purpose

Once he has thoroughly reminded Philemon of their strong, loving relationship, Paul reveals his purpose for writing the letter in vs. 10 when he says, “I appeal you for my child Onesimus.”

Onesimus was Philemon’s runaway slave, who also may have owed him some amount of money (Phm. 1:18).

After Paul and Onesimus met in prison, Onesimus accepted Christ and repented of his past misdeeds.

A friendship developed and Paul wrote Philemon to intercede on behalf of his “beloved brother,” Onesimus.

Paul makes several pleas on behalf of Onesimus:

  •  He is useful (Phm. 1:11).
  •  He is beloved (Phm. 1:12-13).
  •  He is your brother in Christ (Phm. 1:16).
  •  I will cover his debt (Phm. 1:18).
  •  It will bless me and refresh me (Phm. 1:20).

Paul bases these requests on his knowledge of Philemon’s character, his belief that Philemon will do the right thing, and his desire to help a broken relationship between two Christians be restored.

barred windows on stone walls in Biblical times | An Overview of Paul's Epistle to Philemon

The Cultural Context of Philemon

Sadly, disregarding context is one of the greatest problems in Bible interpretation. [6]

Without baseline knowledge of the cultural setting and beliefs of the original author and audience, we will never be able to fully understand or appreciate the intricacies of Scripture.

The purpose of this portion of the article is to give you a basic knowledge of Roman slavery in the first century, so you will be able to understand the cultural context of Paul’s letter to Philemon.

Slavery in the Roman Empire

The ancient Roman world relied heavily on slave labor for everything from physical labor to household management positions.

There were many other ways a person could become a slave in the Roman Empire, including punishment for crimes, failure to pay debts, by choice or by birth.

Although some slaves were uncivilized, many were well-educated and beloved members of the households they served.

If caught and returned to their masters, runaway slaves could be subject to torture and death. [7]

To understand and appreciate the intricacies of Scripture, it is necessary to have a baseline knowledge of the cultural setting and beliefs of the original author and audience.Click to Tweet

Slavery and the Early Church

The Old Testament acknowledged slavery and even established rules for the Jewish people to follow regarding their slaves (Ex. 21:20-21).

Similarly, New Testament writers lived in a culture where slavery was a common and accepted cultural practice.

The way Paul handled this situation would have had a profound impact and set an important precedent for the early church.

Instead of speaking against the institution of slavery, Paul chose to direct his comments to the heart of the gospel message—the importance of Christian love.

His appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus was to receive him, “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” (Phm. 1:16)

To understand and appreciate the intricacies of Scripture, it is necessary to have a baseline knowledge of the cultural setting and beliefs of the original author and audience. This overview of Paul's letter to Philemon is designed to help you not only understand the context in which it was written, but also to see how Paul's example of and call for sacrificial brotherly love is still relevant for us today. A free printable study guide is included!

Free Printable Philemon Study Guide

I hope that this overview of Philemon has whet your appetite and inspired you to take some time to study this small, yet powerful section of Scripture.

In order to facilitate deeper study, I have partnered with my friend, Sandra Bretschneider, to compile the information from this article into a free printable study guide of the book of Philemon (including application questions).

When Paul encouraged Philemon to charge Onesimus’ debt to his account, he put the Gospel message into action.

His example of and call for sacrificial brotherly love is still relevant for us today!

This 7-page guide will take you step-by-step through the book and help you understand and apply the powerful truths it contains regarding Christian fellowship and equality.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • [1] A.L. Donne, Paul the Apostle. In J. D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.
  • [2] Easton, M. G., Easton’s Bible dictionary. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893.
  • [3] Martin, M, Colossians, Letter to The. In Brand, C. et al, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.
  • [4] Melick, R. R., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991.
  • [5] Powell, M.A., The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
  • [6] Zuck, Roy, Basic Biblical Interpretation. Colorado Springs, Co: David C. Cook, 1991.
  • [7] Scott, J. J. Slavery in the First Century. In D. S. Dockery (Ed.), Holman concise Bible commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998.
About the Author: Sarah Koontz

About the Author: Sarah Koontz

Sarah Koontz is the founder of Living by Design Ministries, a non-profit organization that exists to deliver free Bible Studies to inboxes around the world. She is a passionate storyteller who enjoys using illustrations to communicate deep spiritual truths. Sarah and her husband Ryan live on thirteen acres in the heart of the Black Hills, SD. They have two beautiful daughters, a rowdy flock of chickens, and two cats. Sarah is an avid gardener, a faithful coffee drinker, lover of one-pot-dinners, and an unexpected homeschooler.

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