The book of Philemon is a beautiful letter pleading for reconciliation between a slave owner and a runaway slave. Let's begin with some background information:
- Who wrote it? The Holy Spirit is the author and Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, wrote down the letter via inspiration. We know this letter was God-breathed because of II Timothy 3:16,17. The very fact that these 25 verses are included in the word of God should communicate to us that they are worthwhile to study, even though no lengthy doctrinal themes are addressed.
- Where was the letter written from? Rome, where Paul was a prisoner at that time.
- Whom was it written to? To Philemon primarily, but it applies to all human beings by principle since it is inspired Scripture.
- When was it written? Around 62 A.D., about the same time Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians were penned.
- Most importantly, why was it written? Because Onesimus, a slave belonging to a Christian named Philemon, had run away and made his way to Rome. Onesimus came in contact with Paul and was converted to Christ by the apostle. Paul grew to have a deep regard for this man, Onesimus, and he wanted to keep him with him, but Paul would not do this without the consent of Philemon. Therefore, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, in the company of Tychicus (cf. Col. 4:7-9), and Paul also wrote this special letter on behalf of Onesimus. Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus "as a brother," and he expressed his confidence that Philemon would do even more than this! Essentially, Paul wrote this letter to request a warm, Christian reception for Onesimus. He desired to bring about genuine reconciliation between the two men and, at the same time, to bring the world some important and powerful lessons from God to man.
- We should comment briefly on the topic of slavery since it is central to the book. Although the modern view of slavery is that of an intrinsic evil, such has not always been the case. The practice of slavery is not condemned in Scripture, though it is regulated. For example, "Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven" (Col. 4:1). Also, "Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh" (I Pet. 2:18). So, the Bible gives instructions for both slaves and masters. The Pentateuch says much about the practice also, though it typically limits slavery to a short span of years (except where one volunteered to serve for life; cf. Exo. 21). It is unknown how Onesimus came to be a slave but perhaps it was due to a debt that he could not pay. It was common for debtors to sell themselves when they had no other means to pay.
Let's now begin examining the text of Philemon.
Paul Gives the Salutation (Philemon 1-3)
"Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
The source of the letter is from Paul and Timothy, and it is addressed to Philemon as "our beloved" and "fellow laborer." He also mentions Apphia, who many believe to be Philemon's wife. Finally, a man named Archippus is mentioned as a "fellow soldier." Perhaps he served as a minister of the group of Christians who met in Philemon's house and he might even be Philemon's son (cf. Colossians 4:9,17). It is evident that Philemon and his family were people of considerable material means, and were using their means to the glory of God by providing a meeting place for the church. They had become Christians and were anxious to extend the gospel message to others. This is a great example for all.
We will continue this study in our next lesson.