St. Philemon, Who Saw a Slave Become His Brother

“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our beloved and our co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church at your house. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philemon 1–3)

Rembrandt, “Saint Paul at His Writing Desk,” ca. 1629
Rembrandt, “Saint Paul at His Writing Desk,” ca. 1629 (photo: Public Domain)

Philemon lived with two other people, Apphia and Archippus — likely his wife and son — in Colossae (now an ancient ruin site in southwestern Turkey) early in the AD 60s. In the New Testament Epistle named after Philemon, Paul gives a few clues that help us understand Philemon’s character.

The Letter to Philemon is known as one of Paul’s “Captivity Epistles,” letters written while Paul was in prison. Biblical historians believe that Paul wrote to Philemon’s family, possibly during his Roman imprisonment, approximately AD 61–63.

The crux of Paul’s Letter to Philemon and his family focuses on a slave of theirs, Onesimus (Feb. 15), who fled from their home. Evidently, while on the run, Onesimus met up with the restrained Paul — and it appears that perhaps Paul taught the runaway slave about the life and love of Jesus.

After Onesimus embraced a Christian life, Paul felt it was necessary for Onesimus to return to Philemon and his family in Colossae. So, he wrote this letter to Philemon, Apphia and Archippus, encouraging them to kindly welcome back and forgive their slave. Paul’s words seem to gently suggest that Philemon’s household should not only pardon Onesimus for his action but consider freeing him as a Christian brother:

So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him [Onesimus] as you would me. (Philemon 17)

It is not recorded in the Bible how Onesimus’ return was actually handled, but it has been written that an increased Christian spirit settled in, which prompted Philemon to forgive and free the slave.

Tradition relates that Philemon and Apphia were martyred at their home in Colossae. They share Nov. 22 as a feast day.


Nine Days with St. Philemon

It seems that not often does one sit down and read the letter in the Bible named after St. Philemon from beginning to end. However, if you employ people one way or another, you might want to read this short letter — slowly, reflectively, in small chunks. Read with care the words, meditate on them, and compare the situation to your own life. What can St. Philemon teach you?

  • Day 1) Philemon 1–3
  • Day 2) Philemon 4–6
  • Day 3) Philemon 7–12
  • Day 4) Philemon 13–20
  • Day 5) Philemon 21–25
  • Day 6) Colossians 1:1–2
  • Day 7) Colossians 4:1
  • Day 8) Colossians 4:7–9
  • Day 9) Colossians 4:17