AUTHOR AND TITLE:
As with the other prison epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians), Philemon was written by Paul during his first confinement in Rome. That Paul is the author is supported by both the external and internal evidence.
First, “among the church fathers, Ignatiusdb01, Tertulliandb02, Origendb03, and Eusebiusdb04 give evidence of the canonicity of this brief book. It was also included in the canon of Marciondb05 and in the Muratorian fragmentdb06.”fn70 As to the internal evidence, Paul refers to himself as the author in verses 1, 9, and 19.
The letter is written to Philemondb07, the owner of Onesimusdb08, one of the millions of slaves in the Roman Empire, who had stolen from his master and run away. Onesimus had made his way to Rome, where, in the providence of God, he came in contact with the apostle Paul, who led him to trust in Christ (v. 10). So now both Onesimus and Philemon were faced with doing their Christian duty toward one another. Onesimus was to return to his master and Philemon was to receive him with forgiveness as a Christian brother. Death was the normal punishment for a runaway slave, but Paul intercedes on behalf of Onesimus.
Thus, the book is titled Pros Philemona, “To Philemon.”
DATE: A.D. 61
Since it was written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, it was written around A.D. 61.
THEME AND PURPOSE:
Of this letter, the most personal of all Paul’s letters, was to ask Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back as a beloved brother and fellow servant in the gospel (see vv. 10-17). In the process of this, Paul asks Philemon to charge this to his own account. As such, this epistle is a fitting illustration of Christ who took our place as our substitute (see v. 18).
Is to teach the practicality of Christian love as we seek to express the life-changing effects of Christ’s life in ours as it transforms our relationships with others whether in the home or in the master/slave or employer/employee relationships. In the other prison epistles, Paul spoke of this new relationship (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22; 4:1). In this letter we have a wonderful example. A final purpose was to express Paul’s thanksgiving for Philemon and to request preparation for lodging for him when he was released from prison (vv. 4-7 and 22).
The theme, then, is the life-changing power of the gospel to reach into the varied social conditions of society and change our relationships from bondage to brotherhood.
Philemon was not the only slave holder in the Colossian church (see Col. 4:1), so this letter gave guidelines for other Christian masters in their relationships to their slave-brothers. Paul did not deny the rights of Philemon over his slave, but he asked Philemon to relate the principle of Christian brotherhood to the situation with Onesimus (v. 16). At the same time, Paul offered to pay personally whatever Onesimus owed.
This letter is not an attack against slavery as such, but a suggestion as to how Christian masters and slaves could live their faith within that evil system. It is possible that Philemon did free Onesimus and send him back to Paul (v. 14). It has also been suggested that Onesimus became a minister and later bishop of the church at Ephesus (Ignatius, To the Ephesians, 1).fn71
Key words or concepts are,
- “Oneness,” and
- “forgiveness in Christ.”
15-18. 15 For perhaps it was for this reason that he was separated from you for a little while, so that you would have him back eternally, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a dear brother. He is especially so to me, and even more so to you now, both humanly speaking and in the Lord. 17 Therefore if you regard me as a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 Now if he has defrauded you of anything or owes you anything, charge what he owes to me.
CHRIST AS SEEN IN PHILEMON:
The forgiveness that the believer finds in Christ is beautifully portrayed by analogy in Philemon.
Onesimus, guilty of a great offense (vv. 11, 18),is motivated by Paul’s love to intercede on his behalf (vv. 10-17). Paul lays aside his rights (v. 8) and becomes Onesimus’ substitute by assuming his debt (vv. 15-19). By Philemon’s gracious act, Onesimus is restored and placed in a new relationship (vv. 15-16).
In this analogy:
- We are as Onesimus.
- Paul’s advocacy before Philemon is parallel to Christ’s work of mediation before the Father.
- Onesimus was condemned by law but saved by grace.fn72
- I. Prayer of Thanksgiving for Philemon (vv. 1-7)
- II. Petition of Paul for Onesimus (vv. 8-18)
- III. Promise of Paul to Philemon (vv. 19-21)
- IV. Personal Matters (vv. 22-25)