Author: Paul of Tarsus

Date Written: 61 AD


 Philemon is the shortest of Paul's letters.  It is the only New Testament letter addressed to an individual.  It presents very little doctrine, but gives us insight into the social workings of the early Christian community in the context of the Roman Empire.  It is one of the few books in the Bible without chapter divisions.  Only verse numbers are used for reference.  This letter was carried by Tychicus and Onesimus from Rome along with the letter to the Colossians.


Paul writes this letter to Philemon from prison in Rome.  Philemon is a wealthy member of the church at Colossae.  His slave, Onesimus, has stolen something from him (18) and run away.  Onesimus later meets Paul and becomes a Christian (10).  Paul now has dilemma on his hands.


He would prefer to keep Onesimus in Rome as his servant, but Roman law requires that he send him back to his owner, Philemon.  Paul is conscious of his responsibility and so sends Onesimus back in order that Philemon not be compelled to generosity (14).  Paul offers to pay any debt that Onesimus owes to his owner (19).  Though Paul does not explicitly demand the emancipation of Onesimus, he asks that the runaway slave be received as Paul himself would be (17).  This is the central request of the letter. 


Paul begins with greetings to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and the chuch in Philemon's house (1-2).  Apphia is probably Philemon's wife and Archippus is the leader of the Colossian church, which meets in Philemon's home.  Next Paul launches into prayers of thanksgiving for Philemon (4-7).  Then he begins his emotional request.


Paul feels he has the right to command that Onesimus be treated well, but he opts to appeal to Philemon's judgment.  Under Roman law, Philemon would have the right to punish Onesimus with death for running away.  Paul wants Philemon to recognize Onesimus as a brother in Christ and have mercy on him (16).  Not only that, but he asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul (17).  It would indeed be a shocking change to treat a runaway slave the same as an honored guest.  Paul might even be hinting that Philemon should send Onesimus back to Rome to be with Paul (13, 20-21).


Paul asks Philemon to prepare a room for him because he anticipates traveling to the region soon.  Then Paul mentions some of his companions at Rome.  Significantly, Epaphras had originally evangelized the Colossians, but is now imprisoned with Paul.  Tradition has it that Onesimus eventually became the bishop of Ephesus.


By Mark Giszczak


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April 15, 2014

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