The Narrative World of the Letter to Philemon

This brief letter contains its own narrative world. What it offers is partial, often ambiguous (to us), but nonetheless profound. I begin this series on Philemon by simply (though it is not all that simple) observing the world this letter evinces.


Paul’s letter presumes a relationship with Philemon who was, presumably, the host of a church in the city where he lived. The letter does not tell us where Philemon lived. Most think he probably resided in Colossae or Laodicea. Paul had never visited these cities (at least at the time when Colossae was written) but peopled frequently traveled between those cities and Ephesus.

Paul spent several years in Ephesus some time in the mid-50s. Through this missional outreach he became acquainted with Philemon whom he led to faith in Jesus the Messiah. Paul regarded him as both a son in the faith and a co-worker.

When Paul wrote the letter, he was in prison. No one is certain where, though the most common identification is Rome. Possibly, perhaps likely in my estimation, Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus. We know Paul endured severe risks in Ephesus (e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:8-9) and may have been imprisoned there at some point.

At some point, Paul met Onesimus while in prison. We don’t know much about Onesimus except that he had some kind of relationship with Philemon and was indebted in some way to Philemon. We don’t know how he and Paul met except that when they did, Paul led him to faith in Jesus the Messiah.

Some speculate Onesimus knew something about Paul because of Paul’s relationship with Philemon and sought out Paul because of that. Perhaps he thought Paul might serve as a mediator or peacemaker between Philemon and himself. Or, perhaps Onesimus was also a prisoner when he met Paul. We don’t know. Either way, Paul ultimately sent Onesimus to Philemon with this letter in hand (perhaps also with the letter to Colossae as well).

The letter does not unambiguously tell us what the precise relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was. The traditional suggestion is that Onesimus was a runaway slave (Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrhus both assume this in the early fifth century). Others, though few, suggest the two are biological brothers involved in some kind of quarrel. No one can say with absolute certainty.

The letter’s narrative backstory, then, is “simply” something like this. Paul converted Philemon while in Asia Minor. Then Paul was imprisoned when Onesimus and Paul met. Paul converted Onesimus. Then Paul acted mediated some kind of conflict between Onesimus and Philemon toward reconciliation.

The Plot of the Letter

Community. Paul invites Philemon’s community into this story.

On the one hand, Timothy—whom Philemon presumably also knows—is the “co-author” of this letter with Paul, though the letter uses the first person singular throughout (“I”). Further, Paul sends greetings from others who are present with him, including Epaphras who is imprisoned with Paul as well as (John) Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke who are all identified as “co-workers” just like Philemon is also Paul’s co-worker. In one sense, a whole community addresses Philemon, a community that knows both Onesimus and Philemon. We might even say, the letter carries the weight of that Christian community, and, consequently, its request is a loaded one.

On the other hand, Paul addresses the letter not only to Philemon but also Apphia (“our sister”), Archippus (“our fellow-soldier”), and the whole church that meets in someone’s (“you” is singular) house. Paul’s salutation wishes grace and upon upon the community (“you” is plural in verse 3). Paul addresses the whole community, though Philemon is the principal addressee, which is indicated by the singular second person (“you”) used throughout the rest of the letter. The addressees, however, reflect that Paul’s request is a public one, and the weight of Philemon’s own community is also in play.

These communities are important to the plot of the story. They function as witnesses; they represent the living community or fellowship of believers who will watch what happens. They are, in fact, a gentle peer pressure of sorts since they all share the same communion or fellowship (koinonia). Philemon is no isolated believer who receives a mere individual request. He is part of a community—both in his own home city and in other places. He is a believer in Jesus, and this means he is part of a community larger than his own household.

Reconciliation. Whatever the problem is—which is not unambiguously identified—Paul seeks to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus. Since Paul appeals to Philemon, Philemon is, apparently, the offended party. Paul recognizes some kind of debt Onesimus owes Philemon, and Paul is willing to credit this debt to his own account.

What’s at stake is communion or fellowship (koinonia or koinonon) and mutual hospitality (or, welcoming), which lies at the heart of this new movement of believers in Jesus. Fellowship and welcome are the theological values that shape how believers treat each other, and the Philemon-Onesimus-Paul relationship becomes a case in point. Can this new community make peace within its own narrative world? Does it really believe its own story?

Moreover, reconciliation not only serves fellowship but also utility or participation in the work of God in the world. Paul desires Onesimus (whose name means “useful”) to become “useful” in Paul’s ministry. Philemon can make this happen through not only reconciliation but also missionality, that is, Philemon can send Onesimus back to Paul for the sake of ministry.

Further, Paul anticipates more than reconciliation and missional usefuleness. He does not say what that it is explicitly, but it is beyond mere peace and utility. Paul seems to think that if Philemon captures the full story, Philemon will do more than reconcile and send Onesimus back. The gospel, in essence, calls us beyond the boundaries of what is normally expected or even requested. What that might be is something we will consider in later posts.


We don’t know what happened. Did Philemon welcome this letter and respond positively? Were Philemon and Onesimus reconciled? Did Onesimus return to Paul?

Paul invites himself to Philemon’s home, but did Paul ever get the opportunity to go? We don’t know if Paul ever visited Philemon or Colossae. If he is imprisoned in Ephesus, perhaps he did sometime after writing this letter and its companion, the letter to Colossae. We wonder what that reunion might have been like. Perhaps he never had the opportunity.

We don’t know what happened to Onesimus. We would like to know. Some think the Onesimus in this letter is the same as the Onesimus who was bishop of Ephesus in the early second century (see Ignatius’ letter to Ephesus, chapter 1). No one is certain, however.


Ultimately, from where we sit, the letter does not fill out the backstory completely. Our retelling will have to fill in some gaps—sometimes best guesses, sometimes probabilities, rarely certainties.

But that is OK. This is the nature of literature itself. Indeed, it is what we are supposed to do. We enter this world in order to see our own more clearly.

Who are we in this story? Paul, the reconciler? Philemon, the creditor? Onesimus, the debtor? What is our relationship with each other like? What is the goal? Where is the peace? Where is justice? What is the bond between us? What is the conflict? Do we believe our own story? Are we willing to live our own story, even if it costs us?

How will we live together so that faith in Jesus the Messiah is honored, communion is authentic, and shared ministry bears fruit for the sake of the reign of God in the world?

That is the real story of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon, whatever the precise historical factors actually were. That is the story I hope to pursue in this series on Philemon.







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