Date: c. A.D. 61
Philemon was a friend of the apostle Paul who lived at Colosse, was a fellow worker in the gospel, and had a church in his house. He was a wealthy man who owned at least one slave, Onesimus. Onesimus had escaped from Philemon and after making his way to Rome was converted by the ministry of Paul. There is no need to speculate on how he met Paul. Probably, friendless and alone in a foreign city, he sought out the only person whose name he knew, Paul. At any rate, Onesimus was now going back, bearing this brief letter from Paul to Philemon, asking forgiveness and reinstatement. Paul expressed his desire that Onesimus now be truly useful–a play on words, because the name Onesimus means “useful,” something he had hardly been in the past (v. 11).
The letter is important for at least two reasons. First, it shows how the preaching of the gospel changes lives. Paul, Philemon, Onesimus, Apphia, Archippus, Timothy, Epaphras, Mark, and Aristarchus, all mentioned by name, had been brought to new life in Christ. Where would these people have been without the Lord? Where would any of us be without the Lord? It is easy to forget that many great saints of the church were once pagan blasphemers who reviled the name of Christ. But in the mercy of God they came to a true knowledge of the risen Christ, who saved them and gave them new life.
Second, the basis for vast social change is implicit in the gospel of Christ. When Paul says “receive him for ever; not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (vv. 15-16), the deep human prejudices are forced to give way. In Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, their is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). All are one in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the gospel. It is out of the question that some are better than others. All must come in exactly the same way, in humility. All are saved to serve God in the same way, with total commitment to him and others no matter who they are.
Outline for the Epistle of Philemon
- Salutation and thanksgiving Philemon 1:1-7
- Paul’s appeal for Onesimus Philemon 1:8-21
- Concluding greetings Philemon 1:22-25