Philemon 1:16

no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother [Onesimus], especially to me [Paul] but how much more to you [Philemon], both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Were Philemon and Onesimus biologically related? How to interpret this?

  • Thanks for the edit, Investigator :)
    – Tony Chan
    Oct 24, 2021 at 14:29

2 Answers 2


This short little letter, delivered by former runaway slave Onesimus to his master, Philemon, shows relational problems between the slave and his master, then how the slave began to relate to Paul (spiritually), with the expectation on Paul's part that the slave's return to his master with this letter would restore the ruptured slave/master relationship due to the slave now having become a Christian.

When Onesimus ran away to Rome, he came across Paul, who explained the good news of Christ to him, resulting in the slave becoming a Christian. This meant that these former strangers were now united spiritually by becoming brothers in the faith. Paul was not related physically to Onesimus! Neither was there any physical relationship between him and Philemon. But all three were now united spiritually - adopted into the family of God by the new (spiritual) birth and hence they were all 'brothers'.

This is how The Companion Bible notes explain this relationship:

"Onesimus is the Latinized form of the Greek Onesimos, which means 'useful', or 'profitable'. He was a slave and, fleeing from his master, found his way to Rome, where he was, under Paul, led to become the Lord's freeman, and 'called being a servant (slave)', he cared not for it, but was willing to return to his master's service, whether to continue as slave or as 'brother beloved' (vs. 16). From Col. 4:9, we learn that Paul had sent unto the church at Colosse [where Philemon seems to have been a believer] Tychicus 'with Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you'." (Bullinger, p1820)

When Paul wrote of their brother Onesimus being "useful in the flesh", that meant both useful to Paul (who would fain have kept him in Rome for his service - vs. 13) but especially useful to Philemon as a returned servant. Onesimus was no more Paul's physical brother than he was Philemon's.

The usefulness referred to physical work, or service (in the flesh). But spiritually, "in the Lord", he was now their brother. That is why The Companion Bible rendition of vs. 16 is clearer than the one you are working from. It reads:

"Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord?"

That is why Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, to restore that broken relationship of slave and master ('in the flesh') because now he was above a servant - Onesimus was a beloved brother (spiritually), both to Paul and to Philemon.

  • 1
    P.S. What has the tag '2-kings' got to do with this question? Sorry, it was an error :)
    – Tony Chan
    Oct 24, 2021 at 14:27

The phrase, "according to the flesh" occurs often and is used in two different senses:

"biologically speaking" such as

  • Gal 4:23 - His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born through the promise.
  • Rom 1:3 - regarding His Son, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh,
  • Rom 9:3 - For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
  • 1 Cor 10:18 - Consider Israel according to flesh: Are not those eating the sacrifices fellow partakers in the altar?

"Humanly Speaking" (as distinct from spiritually speaking) such as:

  • Rom 8:5 - Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires
  • Rom 8:13 - For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
  • 2 Cor 5:16 - So from now on we regard no one according to the flesh. Although we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.
  • John 8:15 - You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.

I suggest that Philemon and Onesimus were not biological brothers, but would be regarded, following the the return of Onesimus carrying Paul's touching letter, as an adopted human brother, an equal, and thus not a slave. (Similar to when a person adopted a son and heir, the adoptee was regarded as a son according to the flesh because they would inherit all their earthly goods.)

The import of this would have also been that Philemon and Onesimus would be regarded ALSO as spiritual brothers.

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