This letter addressed to a man named Philemon is a very short letter of only twenty-five verses. It was written to him by Paul while the apostle was imprisoned, perhaps in Ephesus where Paul lived from a.d. 54 to 56. Philemon was a prominent Christian in Colossae, as is known from Colossians 4.9,17, and he was known personally to Paul. Paul here writes to him concerning a highly personal matter. He asks Philemon to forgive and be reconciled to Onesimus, one of Philemon's slaves who had run away and perhaps stolen something (verses 18,19). Paul's rhetoric is artful and persuasive, appealing astutely to Philemon's charitable nature. Paul makes a point that, given his status as an apostle, he could have ordered Philemon to do this, but instead he only requests it (verses 8,9). He asks that Philemon receive Onesimus back just as warmly as he would Paul himself. But that's not the whole story. Somehow, while Paul was in prison Onesimus had come into contact with him and through Paul had become a Christian. And the surprise for Philemon is that Paul sends this letter by the hand of Onesimus himself, asking Philemon to receive him back now as a fellow Christian. Slave ownership in Roman times was extensive and quite common for the minority who were well-off, and the issue of the repugnance of slavery is not addressed in this brief letter. Some readers, however, have detected “between the lines” a possible indirect rejection of the practice of holding humans as slaves in verses 15-22.
Greetings and a Prayer for Philemon (1-3)
The Message to Philemon about Onesimus (4-22)
Final Greetings and a Prayer (23-25)
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