What is the Purpose of the Book of Philemon?

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

What was the Apostle Paul’s reason for writing the Book of Philemon? Explore several reasons why it was.

Book of Philemon

Paul declares himself to actually be the author in this short, one chapter Book of Philemon. Paul not only says who wrote the Book of Philemon but he also tells who he wrote to by writing, “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker” but also to “Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house” (Phil 1:1-2). Paul wrote this around AD 60 while being imprisoned. Even though it is the shortest of all Paul’s letters, it contains a rich amount of biblical teachings on forgiveness.


Sadly, many misconstrue this to say that Paul condones slavery but that is not even in the context of the Book of Philemon. Paul was writing Philemon as a brother in Christ and now that Onesimus had trusted in Christ, Paul wanted Philemon to consider him as a brother in Christ too. That meant Paul wanted Philemon to change the relationship between him and Onesimus from owner and slave to brother in Christ. If necessary, Paul said he’s take care of any crime Onesimus committed, possibly due to theft (Phil 1:17), but that occurred before Onesimus came to repentance and faith in Christ.

The Christian Duty

The Apostle Paul‘s letter to Philemon was written to display God‘s not being any respecter of persons by saying to Philemon that he should have a relationship with his slave Onesimus, like that of a brotherly in Christ, which he was (Walvoord and Zuck, 769). Paul also addressed Onesimus, whose name means “useful” or “beneficial,” to tell him that he has a duty to return to his master Philemon (1:8-16). Paul emphasizes God’s teachings in the Old Testament that He is no respecter of persons in regard to their position or estate in life (Walvoord and Zuck, 770). The Book of Philemon (which was a letter) gives believers the model with which to characterize what mutual love and respect looks like and how it should be embodied among the church membership (Carson and Moo, 590). Paul reflects this brotherly relationship because He could have used his apostolic authority to order Onesimus to go back to Philemon (1:8) but instead, he wants Onesimus to do as an act of love and respect for authority and as an example of being in submission to Philemon.

Brothers in Christ

True Friendship Bible Study

Since Paul tried to show that Onesimus was now a brother in Christ, he is “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Phil 1:16). Paul must have led Onesimus to faith in Christ because Paul writes for an appeal for Onesimus’ sake “to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment” (Phil 1:10). Paul was Onesimus so-called spiritual father who led him to saving faith, just as he had Timothy and Titus and countless others. Now Paul desires to have Philemon consider Onesimus as a brother in Christ and he writes, “if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (Phil 1:17) and just like a brother would do for a brother or a sister for a sister, he says “if he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Phil 1:18) or “I’ll pay for it!”

Employer – Employee

This is an excellent analogy of the relationship between employer and employee. Paul was showing respect for authority in asking Onesimus to return to Philemon voluntarily, showing his submission and compliance with Roman law (Carson and Moo, 590). Paul writes in Philemon 2:3-4 that Christians are to live in “humility [and] value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Co-Heirs, Co-Equals

Paul models Christian relationships even in the way that he addresses Philemon as a dear friend and not as having apostolic authority, which he did. As it was, Paul considered Philemon a co-heir and fellow worker in the Lord and thus not trying to exalt himself over Philemon (Walvoord and Zuck, 770). In this regard, Christians ought to consider believers as beloved friends, co-heirs, co-workers, and co-equals. This is evidenced by Paul calling Philemon’s wife (most likely) a “sister” and Philemon’s son a “fellow soldier” (Walvoord and Zuck, 770).Bible Lessons About Forgiveness

Like Family

Paul also is thankful to believers and is often seen expressing this in his writings. Paul uses love in modeling his relationships to pastors and to the church. He even models that of being a father figure to them. This implies there is a relationship like that of being in a family. His relationship to Onesimus was like that of a brother which denotes an affectionate attachment and one of brotherly love (Walvoord and Zuck, 773).

Like a Father

A significant insight that I gained from the Book of Philemon was that Paul regarded Onesimus as a child of his. By Paul’s use of such powerful language, even though Onesimus was a slave owned by Paul, Paul still referred to him as a son (1:10). By reading Philemon you can see that Paul’s words expressed his love for Onesimus by his statement that by his sending Onesimus, “my very heart,” is going back to Philemon(1:12). This is like the attachment that a father has for a son who is departing. The similarity of this family-like love relationship is displayed by Paul’s regarding Onesimus as a brother (1:16). How heartbreaking this must have been to Paul. Since Onesimus had been attending to the needs of Paul while he was imprisoned, Onesimus and Paul must have formed a strong, loving relationship with one another (1:1, 13).

God is love.

Even Paul’s love for Philemon is obvious because even though Paul could have asked Philemon to let Onesimus stay with him to aid him, Paul was still respectful to Philemon as being Onesimus’ master. Paul is thus not being presumptuous and does not try to use his apostolic authority in trying to keep Onesimus with him (1:14), even though he could.


One of the things that struck close to home for me was that if a pastor or an aspiring pastor was to be a good under-shepherd for the church, he must be so at home, providing and protecting his wife and children. [1] The meaning was clear that if he is not a good pastor at home, then how could he ever be expected to lead the local church? What a powerful set of reminders for a pastor or even a father in how to lead his family as the Lord commands him; to be the head of the family and reflect God the Father in all he does; particularly and especially in love.

D.A. Carson and Douglass J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Press, 2005).

John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, trans., The Bible Knowledge Commentary – New Testament. (Colorado Springs, CO.: David C Cook, Publisher, 1984).

1. Adam Groza and Steven James. “First Things First: Being A Pastor at Home”.

Here is some related reading for you: What Does the Bible Say About Slavery? Does it Condone It?

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible: English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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