INTRODUCTION TO PHILEMON
Philemon 1 - Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow-laborer.
The apostle, Paul, wrote four personal letters: two to Timothy, and one each to Titus and Philemon. The three previous letters were filled with inspired, spiritual instructions. This personal letter to Philemon differs in that it is intended neither for general or doctrinal instruction. However, it contains applications of sound Christian principles that serve as examples for children of God throughout all ages. For that reason, it is well to diligently study this letter in depth.
Paul was a prisoner in Rome at the time he wrote this letter to Philemon. It is well believed that Philemon resided in the city of Colosse. This seems to be confirmed since Onesimus, for whom this letter was written, and Archippus, a fellow-soldier of Paul, were both mentioned in this epistle, and were both Colossians (See Col. 4:9 & 4:17). His property and liberality, as indicated by this letter, tends to confirm that Philemon was a noble man of influence in the area in which he lived.
Studying this epistle, one needs to understand that, at the time of its writing, slavery was almost universally accepted. The Law of Moses, as well as all known Gentile nations, condoned slave ownership. Although slavery, under Jewish law, was restrained and mild, this was not the case throughout the rest of the world. Under Roman law, slaves were considered chattel, had no civil rights, and their life rested completely at the mercy of their owner-masters. They could be bought and sold, made to labor at the will of their owners, disciplined by punishment, and even put to death, all without any governmental protection. However, this changed with the coming of Jesus Christ, and the establishment of His church on earth. Within the body of Christ, all are one; and, whether bond or free, all are equal in the sight of God (See 1 Cor. 12:12-13). Regarding this fact, the apostle Paul wrote, For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:27-28).
No doubt it was the influence of the teaching of Jesus, and His inspired disciples, that ultimately was accepted by society, and led to the abolition of slavery. However, under the early years of Christianity, servants were to continue to render faithful service to their masters, and masters were to trust and love their servants as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, His church. Doubtlessly, in the early church, there were numerous masters and slaves that met together to scripturally worship as equals in the sight of God.
The text of this letter assures us that, at the time he fled from his master, Onesimus was an unconverted slave of Philemon. He evidently fled to Rome where he met Paul, whose teaching and influence led to his conversion into the body of Christ. When converted by Paul, the Christian principles Onesimus accepted, and, by which he was to abide, required him to return to his master. Paul explains these things in this letter to Philemon, which was carried by Onesimus as he returned to serve his earthly master. He returned as a servant, but more importantly, he returned to his master, Philemon, as a beloved brother in the Lord.
Appealing to his conscience, Paul tenderly asked Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back as a servant as well as a fellow Christian. He wrote, I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: but without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly (Vss. 10-14).
Practically everything that is known of Philemon, is found in this letter. We know nothing of his secular profession, his age, or the circumstances surrounding his death. The fact that he was a dearly beloved, ...fellow-laborer of Paul and Timothy, for the cause of Christ, is sufficient to describe the characteristics of Philemon. To possess the forgiving, benevolent heart of Philemon should be the goal of every Christian during any age, and under any circumstances of life on earth.