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For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.316-324; R.H.Gundry, pp.390-402. Further reading: D.A.Carson, et al., An Introduction to the New Testament, pp.305-316; 331-342; 387-390.

Prison epistles
Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon are referred to as Prison Epistles. They were written in the period between A.D. 55 and 60.  Modern interest often concerns the subjects of authorship, place of writing and destination.  M.C.Tenney makes the observation:

"Undoubtedly they were written during the period of imprisonment, for all of them make reference to Paul's bondage (Phil.1:12-13; Eph.3:1; 4:1; 6:20; Col.1:24: Phlm.1).  Probably the traditional view that they were written from Rome is correct, for the allusions to Caesar's household (Phil.4:22) and to the praetorian guard (1:13) would apply better to Rome than to Caesarea.  He seemed to be in a centre of travel, where his friends came and went with ease, which would be much more characteristic of Rome than Caesarea. [1]


The background to the book is told by Tenney:

"Philemon was written at the same time and under the same circumstances as Ephesians and Colossians.  Onesimus, a slave of Philemon who was a businessman of Colossae, had absconded with some of his master's property and had gone to Rome to lose himself in the crowds of that great city.  In some way he came into contact with Paul and was converted (Phlm.10)". [2]

The suggestion has been made that Epaphras may have met him either accidentally or through the mediation of some other Christian, and, being the pastor of the church to which Philemon belonged, took him to Paul seeking his advice.  Paul valued the presence and ministry of Onesimus.  But the apostle, having persuaded him that his duty was to return to his master, wrote this personal letter appealing to Philemon to forgive him and reinstate him as a 'brother beloved'. Paul even offered to pay for any financial loss that Onesimus had caused (Phlm.vv.18-19).

Content and outline of the epistle
The epistle provides an example of Paul's adeptness in dealing with a touchy social problem. It t touches on the master-slave issue in a Christian context.  It also illustrates the application of forgiveness in a real life situation.  The contents and appeal of the letter can be sensed by imagining Onesimus turning up on his master's doorstep with the letter in his hand.  Onesimus proved his born-again experience by returning home - now Philemon had to apply his faith!

M.C.Tenney's outline of the letter sees forgiveness as a central truth:

  • Philemon: A Picture of Christian Forgiveness

  • Salutation: the family (1-3)

  • The fellowship (4-7)

  • The favour (8-20)

  • The farewells (21-25).

Philemon illustrates the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, as M.C.Tenney indicates:

"In this letter are found all the elements of forgiveness: the offense (11,18), compassion (10), intercession (10,18-19), substitution (18-19), restoration to favour (15), and elevation to a new relationship (16).  Every aspect of the divine forgiveness of sin is duplicated in the forgiveness that Paul sought for Onesimus.  It is a practical lesson in the petition of the prayer, 'Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors'". [3]


Some scholars cast doubt on the traditional Pauline authorship of the epistle.  However, the writer calls himself Paul (1:1; 3:1).  The letter also follows the apostle's pattern with greetings and thanksgiving leading on to doctrinal discussion, and then practical exhortations.  There is a strong tie between the epistle and Colossians (with varying degrees of similarity 75 of the 155 verses of Ephesians are found in Colossians).  The formal character of Ephesians is uncharacteristic of Paul.  However, it may have been an encyclical epistle sent to the churches in Asia, which left a blank space for the inclusion of the local church's name (1:1) The fact that the letter was not written to an individual church (personal greetings are missing) could affect the apostle's style of writing. [4]

Content and outline of the epistle
The theme of the epistle is the universal church. Christ is seen as the head of the body, his church.  Tenney notes these themes: the sovereign purpose of God (1:4,5,9,11,13,20; 2:4,6,10,11; 3:11); the believer's 'walk' (4:1,17; 5:1,8,15; cf., 2:1); 'the heavenlies' (1:3,10,20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12); and the church's life in the Spirit (1:13; 2:18; 3:5,16; 4:3-4,30; 5:18; 6:17).  His outline is rather sermonic:

  • Ephesians: The Epistle of the Church

  • Introduction (1:1-2)

  • The constitution of the church (1:3-14)

  • The consciousness of the church: a prayer (1:15-23)

  • The concord of the church (2: 22)

  • The creation of the church (2:1-10)

  • The calling of the church (3:1-21)

  • The conduct of the church (4:1-6:9)

  • The conflict of the church (6:10-20)

  • Conclusion (6:21-24).

M.C.Tenney is conscious of the ecclesiology of the epistle as he writes:

"The total complex is integrated into a new picture of the church as a single functioning body, created out of Jew and Gentile, equipped with standards of its own, and engaged in a spiritual conflict. Its goal is 'the unity of the faith... the knowledge of the Son of God... the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ' (4:13)". [5]

The modern church's awareness and use of the epistle indicates the epistle's vital value.


Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis formed a group of cities in the Lycus valley, Laodicea being the most important (Col.4:16).  Col.1:4,7,8; 2:1 may indicate that Paul did not found the Colossian church. Epaphras (possibly with Timothy) probably pioneered it (1:7-8).  He may have been converted during Paul's three-year ministry in Ephesus, and then travelled the 100 miles east to Colossae.  Luke does indicate ongoing evangelism in the area at the time (Acts 19:10).  When Paul wrote the epistle Epaphras was a fellow-prisoner (Phlm.23).  He had obviously visited Paul seeking advice on a heresy which had entered the church.  Archippus may have been left in charge of the work in his absence (see 4:17).

The Colossian heresy
The only knowledge we have of the heresy is in the epistle itself.  Syncretic in nature, it contained Greek and Jewish elements and combined pagan mythology with speculative philosophy.  Scholars often refer a 'gnostic' heresy.  M.C.Tenney summarises the heresy:

"Among its tenants were voluntary humiliation, probably by ascetic practices (2:20-21), the worship of angels... reputed intermediaries between God and man (2:18), abstinence from certain foods and drinks, and the observance of feasts and ceremonial days (2:16)... these teachings included a Jewish legalism... Paul's references to ceremonialism (2:11) and to the fact that the ceremonies and feasts were a shadow of things to come (2:17) sound more like Judaism than heathenism.  The Colossian heresy, then, was of the same order as the Galatian heresy, except that it centred about the person of Christ rather than about salvation by grace versus salvation by works... There appears to be ascetic veneration of the 'elemental spirits of the universe' (2:8)". [6]

The epistle is Christ-centred, a fact emphasised in M.C.Tenney's suggested outline:

  • Colossians: Christ Pre-eminent

  • Salutation (1:1-2)

  • Christ pre-eminent in personal relationships (1:3-2:7)

  • Christ pre-eminent in doctrine (2:8-3:4)

  • Christ pre-eminent in ethics (3:5-4:6)

  • Concluding personal greetings (4:7-18).

The apostle Paul's answer to the false teaching was good Christ-centred teaching which, unlike 'gnosticism', placed an emphasis on practical Christian living (3:1ff.).


1. M.C.Tenney, p.316.

2. M.C.Tenney, p.318.

3. M.C.Tenney, p.319.

4. See the note on Eph.1:1 in modern translations: 'In Ephesus' is missing from P46, Aleph, and B).

5. M.C.Tenney, p.321.

6. M.C.Tenney, p.321f.

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Copyright 2007 Vernon Ralphs

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