The Apostle Paul writes a personal letter to his friend, Philemon. His slave, Onesimus had run away, and visited Paul in Rome (59-61AD). It is the shortest of all Paul’s letters.
It is clear that Philemon was sent at the same time as Colossians, with these letters written at the same time as Ephesians.
Philemon had become a Christian through Paul’s ministry and was in the Colossae church (v. 19) but according to 1:14, 2:1, he was not in Colossae at the time of his conversion, for Paul had not yet been to Colossae (Colossians 1:4; 2:1).
Onesimus had run away from Philemon, with his owner’s money, and headed for Rome. He came across one of Paul’s friends, Epaphroditus, who was also travelling to Rome, and it would seem that he was advised to see Paul to gain advice. It seems that Onesimus becomes a Christian through Paul.
Slavery in Roman times was common place, and varied from place to place. There were around 30% of the population numbering 2-3 million. It was not pleasant, but not the same as some slavery in recent centuries. Slaves might have a profession and in some cases could earn money to earn their freedom. But it was common for runaway slaves to be tortured or even executed.
Paul is urging Philemon to welcome the slave as a ‘brother’ and to free him. He even offers to pay Philemon for anything that Onesimus owed him.
Why read it?
Philemon is a model of a gracious letter. Paul urges Philemon without commanding him, even though as an apostle he could. It shows us how our fellowship in Christ is to impact everything.
It reminds us that if we have been forgiven by Jesus, we can be forgiving to others. This may take time and we may need help from others to deal with any bitterness. But it is possible and vital if we are to move on with God.
The New Testament does not outright condemn slavery, but it does teach the principles that would eventually lead slavery to end.
|1:1-3||Paul’s courteous introduction|
|1:8-21||Paul’s counsel to Philemon|