Philemon 22-25 Commentary: Prepare a Guest Room

22 One thing more: prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my coworkers.25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

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Historical-Cultural Context: Ephesus and Colossae

Ephesus was roughly a four-day walk from Colossae and was the capital city of the Roman province of Asia at the time Paul wrote the letter. Some scholars argue that the prison from which Paul wrote Philemon was in Ephesus. In contrast, the other main options considered by scholars—Caesarea and Rome—were much farther away and likely would have required travel by boat.

Philemon 22 Commentary

The fact Philemon has a guest room in his house (v. 22) reminds us he is a wealthy property owner. Only such property owners would have a house large enough to include guest rooms.

The fact Paul thinks he’ll “be restored to” the Colossian church soon (v. 22; why else would he ask them to prepare a guest room?) implies both that Paul expected his term in prison to end soon and that his place of imprisonment was likely close to Colossae. This evidence suggests he was not imprisoned in Caesarea or Rome but rather in Ephesus at the time he wrote Philemon.

Philemon 23-25 Commentary

From Colossians 1:7-8 and 4:12-13, it seems Epaphras was from Colossae and founded the churches in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis.

The fact that Colossians 4:10-14 mentions the same names mentioned in Philemon 23-24, along with the fact that Onesimus seems to have delivered the letter to the Colossians (cf. Colossians 4:9), suggests to some scholars that the two letters were written and sent at or around the same time.

Paul calls Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke his “coworkers,” again emphasizing the egalitarian relations between followers of Jesus that Paul has emphasized throughout the letter.

Paul’s use of “spirit” in v. 25 is a reference to the human spirit, i.e., to the people of the Colossian church understood as spiritual people open to the grace and Spirit of God.

Looking for more? Try this excellent free Bible study on the book of Philemon. Or, read commentary on Philemon 4-9, Philemon 10-17, or Philemon 18-21.


Philemon 18-21 Commentary: Conflict with Onesimus

18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

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Philemon 18 Commentary

The idea that Onesimus may have “wronged” Philemon (v. 18) suggests there was a conflict between them. Paul’s talk of “owing,” “charging,” and “repaying” (vv. 18-19) suggests the conflict involved money.

Paul’s use of a conditional sentence in v. 18 (“If he has wronged you…”) suggests he doesn’t really think Onesimus has wronged Philemon. If Paul really thought Onesimus had wronged him, Paul would simply have said, “Charge what he owes to me.” Thus, it seems likely Paul is acknowledging, here, that Philemon thinks Onesimus has wronged him and owes him compensation, even though Paul and Onesimus disagree.

The fact of the conflict suggests that part of Paul’s objective with the letter is to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus. This objective, in turn, suggests that what Paul felt bold enough to command Philemon to do in v. 8 was to forgive Onesimus whatever wrong Philemon perceived him to have committed. Forgiveness was a teaching Jesus frequently emphasized (e.g., Mark 11:25, Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:21-35, Luke 17:3-4), explaining why Paul would feel bold enough to command it (v. 8).

The fact of the conflict further suggests that Onesimus’s “separation” from Philemon (v. 15) did not arise because Philemon sent Onesimus to serve Paul in prison. Philemon would not have sent a slave he perceived to be disobedient, especially to serve a person as important to Philemon as Paul. In light of the reasons (given in commentary on Philemon 15) for thinking Onesimus didn’t seek Paul out to mediate his conflict, the traditional explanation for Onesimus’s separation seems most plausible: Onesimus fled his enslavement.

The conflict may explain why Paul doesn’t want to force (v. 14) or command (v. 8) Philemon to do what he wants, and why Paul is subtle in his request for Onesimus’s freedom: the situation is delicate, Onesimus is at risk, and he doesn’t want to anger Philemon.

Philemon 19-21 Commentary

Paul’s offer to pay Onesimus’s perceived debt (vv. 18, 19) echoes the way the sin of humanity was charged to Jesus’ account when he died on the cross.

Paul’s phrase, “…owing me even your own self” (v. 19) seems to refer to Philemon’s conversion under Paul’s influence. Here Paul applies subtle pressure, reminding Philemon of how much he owes Paul. Paul’s phrase, “…benefit from you in the Lord” (v. 20) seems to have a similar purpose of pressuring Philemon: Paul connects the benefit he requests with “the Lord,” thereby making the request a matter of Philemon’s faith. Perhaps Paul here puts reconciliation and Onesimus’s freedom among the good things (“benefits”) he hopes to share in Christ (v. 6) with Philemon.

Paul’s imperative, “Refresh my heart…” (v. 20) recalls Philemon’s refreshing of the hearts of the saints from earlier in the letter (v. 7). Philemon has done it before, and Paul is asking him to do it again.

Paul is confident Philemon will do as he asks and “even more” (v. 21). Some scholars think the “even more,” here, may be a request for legal manumission. On this view, not only is Paul asking Philemon to treat Onesimus as a free person (v. 16), but he’s asking him to free Onesimus legally.

Looking for more? Try this excellent free Bible study on the book of Philemon. Or, read commentary on Philemon 4-9, Philemon 10-17, or Philemon 22-25.


Philemon 10-17 Commentary: No Longer as a Slave

10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me so that he might minister to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for the long term, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

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Historical-Cultural Context: Roman Slavery

In v. 16, Paul refers to Onesimus’s status as Philemon’s slave. Slavery was ubiquitous in the Roman Empire and was a key basis for economic production and wealth. Roman slavery took many forms. Some lucky slaves, such as those who served in the Emperor’s household, lived in relative luxury and enjoyed significant freedom and responsibility in their work.

However, for most Roman slaves, life was difficult and often cruel. In the worst cases—e.g., slaves who rowed on galleys, dug in mines, or worked in fields—slavery amounted to a slow death sentence. While slaves in Ancient Rome typically had more freedom and responsibility than (e.g.) slaves in the American South before the Civil War, and while race was not used to justify Roman slavery, the institution remained a condition that every person in the Roman Empire wished to avoid. All Roman slaves were subject to physical violence and arbitrary separation from family members, and no slave had legal standing or social status in Roman culture.

As a result, Roman slaves sometimes tried to escape their enslavement. If caught, these “fugitive slaves” were subject to punishment at the discretion of their masters, including death by crucifixion.

Manumission (freeing) of slaves was a common occurrence. Upon the death of a slaveholder, a faithful slave might be freed as a condition of the slaveholder’s will. Slaves could also be freed at the discretion of a slaveholder through a ceremony before a Roman magistrate (by “vindicta”).

Philemon 10-14 Commentary

In v. 10 we learn of Onesimus, whose situation seems to have prompted the letter. Colossians 4:9 suggests Onesimus was from Colossae. Onesimus is dear to Paul: Paul speaks of him as his “child,” understands himself to be Onesimus’s “father” (v. 10), and calls Onesimus “my own heart” (v. 12).

It seems Paul’s use of father-son language (v. 10), along with his description of Onesimus as a “beloved brother…in the Lord” (v. 16) implies Onesimus became a follower of Jesus through his relationship with Paul.

“Onesimus” means “useful” or “beneficial” in Greek. Thus, in v. 11, Paul is using wordplay that draws on Onesimus’s name. His claim that Onesimus was “formerly…useless” (v. 11) to Philemon may hint at a conflict between Philemon and Onesimus. His claim that now Onesimus is “useful to you [Philemon] and to me” seems to refer to Onesimus’s conversion to Christian faith but may also refer to Onesimus’s care for Paul’s needs while imprisoned (cf. v. 13).

Philemon 15-16 Commentary

Verse 15 tells us Onesimus “was separated” from Philemon for a while, and v. 12 says Paul is “sending him [Onesimus] back to” Philemon. Thus, the passage raises two key questions: (1) what caused the separation between Onesimus and Philemon and (2) why did Paul send Onesimus back?

The traditional answer to question (1) is that Onesimus tried to escape his enslavement. However, not all scholars accept that answer. Some think Onesimus sought Paul to mediate a conflict with Philemon. But, given that Onesimus spent time serving Paul in prison and converted under his influence, it seems unlikely Onesimus went simply seeking mediation: staying away as long as Onesimus did would not have helped his chances at reconciliation with Philemon. Indeed, the duration of the visit might have suggested to Philemon that Onesimus had, in fact, escaped. Other scholars think Philemon himself sent Onesimus to serve Paul in prison (v. 13 might suggest this view).

Interpreters have also given several answers to question (2). Early Church Father John Chrysostom (d. 407 CE) and Americans who supported the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act understood Paul to be sending Onesimus back to restore his role as Philemon’s slave. Other interpreters understand Paul to be seeking reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon. Some also understand Paul to be asking Philemon to free Onesimus. Lastly, some think Paul is asking Philemon to let Onesimus continue to serve Paul in prison (vv. 13-14). Some of these possibilities are not mutually exclusive, i.e., Paul could have several motives.

In vv. 15-16, Paul implies Philemon should treat Onesimus as a “beloved brother” and “no longer as a slave.” This statement suggests one of Paul’s intentions in sending Onesimus back is that Philemon no longer treat Onesimus as a slave. To restore Onesimus to the hierarchy of master and slave would be contrary to the egalitarian sibling relationship between Christians that Paul emphasizes throughout the letter. Freeing Onesimus would follow Jesus’ mission to “proclaim release to the captives” and to “set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).

Philemon 17 Commentary

Paul’s overt request finally comes in v. 17: “welcome him as you would welcome me.” Given what Paul has said about his relationship with Philemon, the implication is that Philemon should treat Onesimus as a partner (v. 6, 17) and a beloved brother (vv. 7, 16).

This request seems to further support the idea that Philemon should no longer treat Onesimus as a slave: surely Philemon would not treat Paul as a slave. The request is at least part of the “good deed” (v. 14) and “right thing” (v. 8) that Paul desires of Philemon, the action that Paul hopes will flow from Philemon’s faith (v. 6), partnership (v. 6), and love for the members of the church (vv. 5, 7, 9)

Paul’s description of Onesimus as beloved brother to Philemon “in the flesh” (v. 16) may refer to the fact that Onesimus is part of Philemon’s household, or it may suggest that Onesimus was related to Philemon by blood (e.g., as a half-brother). For Paul, “flesh” refers to human beings in their ordinary, natural capacities (e.g., their capacity to feel hunger and thirst).

Looking for more? Try this excellent free Bible study on the book of Philemon. Or, read commentary on Philemon 4-9, Philemon 18-21, or Philemon 22-25.


Philemon 4-9 Commentary: Philemon’s Relationships

I thank my God always when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the partnership of your faith may become effective as you comprehend all the good that we share in Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am more than bold enough in Christ to command you to do the right thing, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

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Philemon 4-7 Commentary

After addressing several people in vv. 1-3, Paul addresses one person, Philemon (singular “you”), for most of the remainder of the letter (vv. 22 and 25 are exceptions). Apparently, the letter was primarily addressed to Philemon, but was meant to be read aloud to the church in his home.

In this passage, Paul reminds Philemon of the nature of their relationship. We learn that Paul prays for Philemon (v. 4), that he is consistently thankful to God for Philemon (v. 4), that he understands them to have a kind of “partnership” in their faith (v. 6), that they share a kind of “good…in Christ” (v. 6), that Philemon is a source of “joy and encouragement” to Paul (v. 7), and that Philemon is his “brother” (v. 7)—again emphasizing the sibling relationship that Jesus taught for his followers.

The good they “share” in Christ (v.6) likely refers to all the good things they experience because of their shared faith in Christ, i.e., the good things resulting from their corporate faith, their faith together.

Paul also reminds Philemon of his relationship to the church that meets in his house. He notes that Philemon has a “love for all the saints,” and that his service has refreshed “the hearts of the saints” (v. 7). The “saints,” here, are simply members of the church that meets in his house (v.2).

The emphasis on the warmth and love that characterize Philemon’s relationship with Paul and with the “saints” demonstrates Jesus’ teachings that we are to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40) and fellow followers of Jesus (John 13:34-35).

Paul also reminds Philemon of his relationship to Jesus, a relationship characterized by faith (vv. 5, 6). By “faith,” Paul means an attitude of trust. This faith can be “effective,” according to Paul (v. 6), which means it can issue in certain kinds of action. Indeed, Philemon’s faith has led him to host the Colossian church in his house (v. 2) and to refresh “the hearts of the saints” (v. 7).

Philemon 8-9 Commentary

Paul’s purpose in this passage seems to be to prepare Philemon for something Paul is about to ask him to do (“the right thing” in v. 8). Paul wants Philemon’s act to be an expression of his partnership with Paul (v. 6), his love for Paul and for the church (vv. 5, 7, 9), and an expression of Philemon’s faith in Jesus (v. 6).

Paul likely feels bold enough to command Philemon to do as he asks because he believes he’s asking him to do something Jesus commanded his followers to do (like in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11; when Paul doesn’t have a command of the Lord, he only feels comfortable giving his trustworthy opinion [1 Corinthians 7:25].) In commentary on v. 18, I guess at which command of Jesus might be in view.

It does not seem Paul feels he could command Philemon simply because Paul is an Apostle and Philemon is merely the host of a church. Indeed, Paul never mentions his standing as an apostle in the letter. Such a hierarchical motive would be contrary to the egalitarian relationship between members of the church that Paul has emphasized thus far in the letter.

In this passage, Paul seems to understand love not as a kind of action, but rather as a motive for action (vv. 8-9).

Looking for more? Try this excellent free Bible study on the book of Philemon. Or, read commentary on Philemon 10-17, Philemon 18-21, or Philemon 22-25.