This short letter addressed to three specific individuals was written by Paul during an imprisonment, perhaps in Rome between A.D. 61 and 63 (see the Introduction to Colossians for other possible sites). It concerns Onesimus, a slave from Colossae (Col 4:9), who had run away from his master, perhaps guilty of theft in the process (Phlm 18). Onesimus was converted to Christ by Paul (Phlm 10). Paul sends him back to his master (Phlm 12) with this letter asking that he be welcomed willingly by his old master (Phlm 8–10, 14, 17) not just as a slave but as a brother in Christ (Phlm 16). Paul uses very strong arguments (especially Phlm 19) in his touching appeal on behalf of Onesimus. It is unlikely that Paul is subtly hinting that he would like to retain Onesimus as his own slave, lent to Paul by his master. Rather, he suggests he would like to have Onesimus work with him for the gospel (Phlm 13, 20–21). There is, however, little evidence connecting this Onesimus with a bishop of Ephesus of the same name mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch (ca. A.D. 110).
Paul’s letter deals with an accepted institution of antiquity, human slavery. But Paul breathes into this letter the spirit of Christ and of equality within the Christian community. He does not attack slavery directly, for this is something the Christian communities of the first century were in no position to do, and the expectation that Christ would soon come again militated against social reforms. Yet Paul, by presenting Onesimus as “brother, beloved…to me, but even more so to you” (Phlm 16), voiced an idea revolutionary in that day and destined to break down worldly barriers of division “in the Lord.”
Address and Greeting. 1* Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our beloved and our co-worker,a 2to Apphia our sister,* to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church at your house.b 3Grace to you and peace* from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.c
Thanksgiving. 4* d I give thanks to my God always, remembering you in my prayers, 5as I hear of the love and the faith you have in the Lord Jesus and for all the holy ones,* 6so that your partnership in the faith may become effective in recognizing every good there is in us* that leads to Christ.e
Plea for Onesimus. 7For I have experienced much joy and encouragement* from your love, because the hearts of the holy ones have been refreshed by you, brother.f 8Therefore, although I have the full right* in Christ to order you to do what is proper, 9I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man,* and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus.g 10I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment,h 11who was once useless to you but is now useful* to [both] you and me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve* me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel,i 14but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.j 15Perhaps this is why he was away from* you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man* and in the Lord.k 17So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. 18* And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19I, Paul, write this in my own hand: I will pay. May I not tell you that you owe me your very self.l 20Yes, brother, may I profit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
21With trust in your compliance I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22At the same time prepare a guest room for me, for I hope to be granted to you through your prayers.m
Final Greetings. 23Epaphras,* my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you,n 24as well as Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my co-workers. 25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.o
*  Prisoner: as often elsewhere (cf. Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians especially), the second word in Greek enunciates the theme and sets the tone of the letter. Here it is the prisoner appealing rather than the apostle commanding.
*  Apphia our sister: sister is here used (like brother) to indicate a fellow Christian. The church at your house: your here is singular. It more likely refers to Philemon than to the last one named, Archippus; Philemon is then the owner of the slave Onesimus (Phlm 10). An alternate view is that the actual master of the slave is Archippus and that the one to whom the letter is addressed, Philemon, is the most prominent Christian there; see note on Col 4:17.
*  Grace…and peace: for this greeting, which may be a combination of Greek and Aramaic epistolary formulae, see note on Rom 1:1–7.
*  In my prayers: literally, “at the time of my prayers.”
*  Holy ones: a common term for members of the Christian community (so also Phlm 7).
*  In us: some good ancient manuscripts have in you (plural). That leads to Christ: leads to translates the Greek preposition eis, indicating direction or purpose.
*  Encouragement: the Greek word paraklēsis is cognate with the verb translated “urge” in Phlm 9, 10, and serves as an introduction to Paul’s plea. Hearts: literally, “bowels,” expressing in Semitic fashion the seat of the emotions, one’s “inmost self.” The same Greek word is used in Phlm 12 and again in Phlm 20, where it forms a literary inclusion marking off the body of the letter.
*  Full right: often translated “boldness,” the Greek word parrēsia connotes the full franchise of speech, as the right of a citizen to speak before the body politic, claimed by the Athenians as their privilege (Euripides).
*  Old man: some editors conjecture that Paul here used a similar Greek word meaning “ambassador” (cf. Eph 6:20). This conjecture heightens the contrast with “prisoner” but is totally without manuscript support.
*  Useless…useful: here Paul plays on the name Onesimus, which means “useful” or “beneficial.” The verb translated “profit” in Phlm 20 is cognate.
*  Serve: the Greek diakoneō could connote a ministry.
*  Was away from: literally, “was separated from,” but the same verb means simply “left” in Acts 18:1. It is a euphemism for his running away.
*  As a man: literally, “in the flesh.” With this and the following phrase, Paul describes the natural and spiritual orders.
* [18–19] Charge it to me…I will pay: technical legal and commercial terms in account keeping and acknowledgment of indebtedness.
* [23–24] Epaphras: a Colossian who founded the church there (Col 1:7) and perhaps also in Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col 2:1; 4:12–13). Aristarchus: a native of Thessalonica and fellow worker of Paul (Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2). For Mark, Demas, and Luke, see 2 Tm 4:9–13 and the note there.
a.  9; Eph 3:1; 4:1; Phil 1:7, 13.
b.  Col 4:17.
c.  Rom 1:7; Gal 1:3; Phil 1:2.
d. [4–5] Rom 1:8–9; Eph 1:15–16.
e.  Phil 1:9; Col 1:9.
f.  2 Cor 7:4.
g.  1; Eph 3:1; 4:1; Phil 1:7, 13.
h.  1 Cor 4:14–15; Gal 4:19; Col 4:9.
i.  Phil 2:30.
j.  2 Cor 9:7; 1 Pt 5:2.
k.  1 Tm 6:2.
l.  Gal 6:11; 2 Thes 3:17.
m.  Heb 13:19.
n.  Col 1:7; 4:12–13.
o.  Acts 12:12, 15; 13:13; 15:37–39; 19:29; 20:4; 27:2; Col 4:10, 14; 2 Tm 4:10–13.