Philemon, who lived in or near Colosse (modern-day Turkey), Apphia, Archippus, and the church that met in Philemon’s house.
We do not know the exact circumstances that occasioned the writing of this epistle. The epistle itself does not tell us why Onesimus was away from Philemon and how he came into contact with Paul. The traditional belief has been that Onesimus was a runaway slave, and that, according to Roman law, Onesimus’ offense was punishable by beatings, chains, or even death. But, with recent investigations on slavery during the Roman era, we have reasons to question these assumptions. Onesimus’ departure might not have been for the purpose of escape, and Paul’s letter was probably a plea for a sooner manumission rather than for restraint on punishing Onesimus. 2vol5/307
Regardless of the larger legal and social context, we know from Paul’s letter the following facts about Onesimus:
1. He was Philemon’s slave (Phm 16) but has departed from Philemon (15).
2. He has wronged or owed Philemon in some way (11,18,19)
3. He became a believer during his stay with Paul (10).
Paul intends to send Onesimus back to Philemon, but he also feels the need to make an appeal on behalf of Onesimus. Thus Paul writes to Philemon, urging him to forgive and receive Onesimus and consider this former slave a dear brother in the Lord.
- The letter contains many terms of endearment, more than any other letters of Paul: brother, friend, fellow laborer, sister, fellow soldier, beloved, love, my own heart.
- The letter is a masterpiece of tactful persuasion. It follows the conventional structure found in the genre of Greek rhetoric: 1) commendation, 2) appeal to reason, and 3) appeal to emotion.
- After reading the epistle several times, record the themes that you have observed in the epistle.
- Appeal and intercession, conversion, oneness in Christ, forgiveness and reconciliation, repaying debt on another’s behalf.
The “players” in the letter are themselves a symbol of our unity in Christ. Paul, a Jew in prison, writes a letter to a wealthy Greek believer concerning a slave. For the modern reader, Paul’s letter to Philemon continues to serve as an appeal to Christian love. Slavery is no longer around, but we may still judge people by certain criteria and show partiality. We know that in Christ we have all become one body, but do we ever look down on anyone because of their status, appearance, income, or intelligence? Do we consider every believer a dear brother or sister?
Paul’s letter also teaches us the spirit of reconciliation. Does anyone owe you anything or have wronged you in some way? What should you do about it? What’s the first step? If two members of Christ’s body are at odds, how can you be the peacemaker and intercessor between them? These are questions that we must ask ourselves as we study the epistle and ponder on its relevance to our own lives.