One of three personal letters in the Bible, the letter to Philemon is Paul’s personal plea for a slave. Onesimus “belonged” to Philemon, a member of the Colossian church and Paul’s friend. But Onesimus, the slave, had stolen from his master and run away. He ran to Rome where he met Paul, and there he responded to the Good News and came to faith in Christ. So Paul writes to Philemon and reintroduces Onesimus to him, explaining that he is sending him back, not just as a slave but as a brother.
Paul pleads on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave; Paul’s intercession for him illustrates what Christ has done for us. As Paul interceded for a slave, so Christ intercedes for us, slaves to sin. As Onesimus was reconciled to Philemon, so we are reconciled to God through Christ. As Paul offered to pay the debts of a slave, so Christ paid our debts of sin. Like Onesimus, we must return to god our Master and serve him.
This small letter is a masterpiece of grace and tact and a profound demonstration of the power of Christ and of true Christian fellowship in action. What barriers are in your home, neighborhood, and church? What separates you from fellow believers – race? status? wealth? education? personality? As with Philemon, God calls you to seek unity, breaking down those walls and embracing your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Writer of Philemon
Written by Paul, “a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1), in the company of Timothy having been commissioned of God with an apostleship (job) in the dispensation of grace to write a book (personal letter).
During the two years that Paul was in his own hired house (A. D. 61-63), continuing to preach the kingdom of God (Acts 28:31). Paul wrote Philemon at about the same time he wrote Colossians.
To Whom Written
To “Philemon our dearly loved beloved, and fellow-laborer, and to our beloved Apphia, and Archipus our fellow soldier, and to the ekklesia in thy house” (Philemon 1-2). Written from Rome.
Purpose of Philemon
The purpose of the Epistle was to exemplify dealing with others in grace, just as God deals with us in this dispensation. To convince Philemon to forgive his runaway slave, Onesimus, and to accept him as a brother in faith.
The theme of the Epistle is the power of the gospel to transform lives (“formerly he was useless” but “now he is indeed useful,” v. 11) and to impact human relationships (receive him “no longer as a bondservant [or slave] but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother,” v. 16).
Philemon was a resident of Colossae and a convert of Paul. Philemon’s house was large enough to serve as the meeting place for the church there. He was benevolent to other believers, and his son, Archippus evidently held a position of leadership in the church. Philemon may have had other slaves in addition to Onesimus, and he was not alone as a slave owner among the Colossian believers. Thus this letter and his response would provide guidelines for other master-slave relationships.
This Epistle is a lesson in the art of Christian relationships. No finer example of “speaking the truth in love” exists than this beautiful letter. While it was Philemon’s legal right in the ancient world to punish or even kill a runaway slave, Paul hoped – indeed expected – that Philemon would receive Onesimus back as a brother in the Lord, not as a slave.
Special Consideration of Philemon
Although Paul never, so far as we know, called for an end to slavery, the Epistle to Philemon laid the ax at the root of that cruel and deformed institution – and to every way of treating individuals as property instead of persons.
Click here to download or print the Bible outline “Philemon – Dearly Beloved, Fellow Laborer“.