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This brief personal note was written to Philemon – a prominent member of the church at Colossae (see Map 27). He was wealthy, with a large house and servants. Philemon was also one of Paul’s fellow-workers, and the church at Colossae met in his home.
The note was written in c.61AD while Paul was under house arrest in Rome. It was taken from Rome to Colossae by Tychicus at the same time as the Letter to the Colossians (see Colossians 4:7-8), the Letter to the Ephesians (see Ephesians 6:21-22) and probably also a letter to the Laodiceans which has not survived (see Colossians 4:16).
Tychicus was accompanied by Onesimus, the slave on whose behalf Paul wrote this letter to Philemon (see Colossians 4:9 & Philemon 1:10-12). Onesimus probably travelled from Colossae to Rome some time earlier with Epaphras, the founder of the Colossian church (see Colossians 1:7 & 4:12-13). He had matured as a Christian under Paul’s spiritual guidance and Paul decided he should return to his master, Philemon, in Colossae.
In this letter, Paul asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus for any wrong he may have done in the past and to accept him back, not just as a slave, but as a Christian brother.
Philemon 1:1-3 Paul sends greetings from himself and from Timothy, who is with Paul in Rome. He sends greetings to Philemon and his household – to Apphia (a Christian sister – probably Philemon’s wife) and to another fellow-worker, Archippus – who may have lodged with Philemon and his family, or could have been his son (see Colossians 4:17).
Philemon 1:4-7 Paul thanks God for Philemon and for the joy he has brought to the believers.
A note regarding Onesimus
Philemon 1:8-11 As a fellow-worker, Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a Christian brother rather than as a slave. Onesimus has matured as a Christian while he has been in Rome with Paul, and Paul now regards him as “my child” (Philemon 1:10).
Paul was under house arrest in Rome
Philemon 1:12-16 Paul would like to keep Onesimus in Rome – to help him while he is under house arrest – but he is sending him back to Philemon, not just as a slave, but as a “loved brother” and “a believer in the Lord” (Philemon 1:16).
Philemon 1:17-21 Paul says, “If he has done anything wrong to you or if he owes you anything, charge that to me” (Philemon 1:18). And he adds, in his own handwriting, “I will pay it back.” (Philemon 1:19).
Onesimus may have admitted to Paul that he had a poor relationship with his master and he had stolen something from Philemon before he became a Christian. Although ‘Onesimus’ means ‘useful’, Paul’s letter suggests that Philemon had previously regarded Onesimus as ‘useless’. He is sometimes referred to as ‘the runaway slave’, but there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that he had run away from Philemon.
Philemon 1:22 Paul asks Philemon to get a room ready for him as he hopes to visit Colossae shortly, if he is set free after his trial.
Philemon 1:23-24 Paul sends greetings from Epaphras (the founder of the Colossian church who has been imprisoned in Rome – see Colossians 1:7 & 4:12-13), John Mark (the author of Mark’s Gospel – see Acts 12:12, 25, 13:5,13), Aristarchus (who is also imprisoned in Rome – see Colossians 4:10), Demas (see Colossians 4:14) and Luke (the doctor who accompanied Paul during the later stages of his third missionary journey and on his voyage to Rome, and who wrote the Gospel of Luke – see Acts 20:6 & 27:1).
Philemon 1:25 Paul finishes with his usual benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 1:25).
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