Paul’s Letters

There is treasure hidden in Paul’s thirteen letters, but the path to find it is not obvious. Here is a tip: in the Bible, Paul’s letters are not sequenced in chronological order.

The Bible rarely gives us specific dates about events it addresses, which can be frustrating for modern readers. As an example, this is a very brief timeline of the first four decades of Christianity that is probably correct to within a few years:

27 AD to 30 AD           Ministry of Jesus

30 AD to 39 AD           Death, resurrection of Jesus; Christianity spreads among the Jews

40 AD to 48 AD           Christianity spreads increasingly to non-Jews

48 AD to 57 AD           Paul’s three missionary journeys

58 AD to 70 AD           Paul’s imprisonment; Paul’s death; Temple destroyed

Paul wrote his letters within the two decades of 48 AD to 68 AD. His thirteen generally accepted letters are arranged in the New Testament in two blocks: the nine written to churches, then the four written to individuals. The nine written to churches are generally placed in order by length. (This also assumes Hebrews was not written by Paul.)


This episode presumes Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon at the same time, and sent them by Tychicus and Onesimus. Based on Colossians 4:2, Paul probably wrote and sent a letter to the church at Laodicea at the same time.

Paul lived in Ephesus for three years during the Third Missionary Journey, so he personally knew most people in the church of that large city. It is possible that the church at Colossae was started during that period by one of the people working with Paul. The Bible doesn’t say whether Paul had been to Colossae or if he personally knew its leaders.

Based on Philemon 1:1-2, Philemon was a leader in the church at Colossae. Onesimus was a runaway slave owned by Philemon, and Paul was sending him back to Philemon. You can rightly guess Paul’s instructions about slaves and masters in both Ephesians and Colossians were pointed straight at Philemon while also intended for all other Christians. For this reason, it is profitable to read those passages and Philemon at the same time to get better context.

Many modern people are displeased that neither Jesus nor Paul overtly condemned slavery, not content that the teachings of Jesus and Paul are certainly against slavery. It seems that both Jesus and Paul were much more concerned in their cultural moment with people being freed from the slavery of sin rather than the slavery of an earthly master. Perhaps they knew if all earthly masters became serious practicing Christians, then slavery would cease.

Philemon 1:11 says physical slaves are actually worthless, while Philemon 1:16 shows that having a brother or sister in Christ is invaluable. If all Christians lived by this value system, no one would desire to have slaves.

Your understanding of Philemon is possibly influenced by your thoughts on whether Paul and Philemon had a personal relationship. Philemon 1:22 might indicate they knew each other, but other verses could lead you to the opposite conclusion. It is interesting to read this very short letter two ways: read it first as if Paul does not personally know Philemon, then as if they are good friends.

Primary Scriptures:
Story Summary:
Paul’s letter to Philemon about returning his slave, Onesimus
Roman Empire; Asia; Ephesus
AD 30 Jesus crucified and resurrected; Pentecost; Holy Spirit arrives AD 48 Paul’s “famine visit” to Jerusalem; First Missionary Journey starts AD 50 Council at Jerusalem; Start of Second Missionary Journey. AD 53 Start of Third Missionary Journey AD 61 Paul writes Philemon while imprisoned