Introduction to Philemon

The one-chapter epistle of Paul to Philemon is unique among Paul’s epistles in that it was addressed to neither a church nor a pastor but to a prominent layman living in or near Colosse. Philemon was a friend and convert of Paul’s (Philemon 19), who at this time even was using his own house as a meeting place for a local church (Philemon 2).

Paul was writing on behalf of Onesimus, who had been a slave of Philemon’s, but had run away to Rome. Onesimus had met Paul in Rome, who had led him to Christ (Philemon 10). Paul was now sending him back to his master as a Christian brother (Philemon 16), with the inference that he should be set free, possibly to help Paul in the ministry (Philemon 13).

This is one of three “prison epistles” (the others being Ephesians and Colossians) written by Paul during his house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:30), and delivered by Tychicus. Evidently Onesimus accompanied Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7-9) as he carried the three letters to Asia.

The act of sending Onesimus back to Philemon with the request that he be received as a brother beloved, with the offer to repay any debt incurred by the flight of Onesimus, gives a unique insight into the character of Paul. It was not politically expedient in that day to argue for the abolition of slavery, but a brotherly relation between master and slave would render it almost meaningless. In fact, this little epistle was widely used centuries later for the very purpose of promoting the abolition of slavery in Christian countries.

Perhaps this is one reason why the Holy Spirit inspired such a short and personal letter and led to its incorporation in the canon of Scripture. In any case, the epistle of Philemon has always been accepted both as Pauline and as canonical by all scholars, even by liberal critics.

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