This is the only private letter of the apostle Paul still in existence and, although it is pithy, it is a masterpiece of courtesy and diplomacy. The Pastoral Epistles, e.g. the epistles to Timothy and Titus, are regarded more as quasi church letters than private letters.
The letter was written by the apostle during his imprisonment at Rome, Acts 28, probably at the same time as the letter to the Colossians.
Apphia – Probably the wife of Philemon whom Paul describes as ‘our sister’ – the received text at Philemon 2 has agapete (beloved) but the weight of manuscript evidence supports ladelphe (sister). She is mentioned not just because Paul knew her but the question of a slave was a household matter.
Archippus – Was he Philemon’s son? He is referred to by Paul in Philemon 2 as a fellow soldier. From a reference to him at Colossians 4. 17, we note that he received a personal exhortation from the apostle to be faithful in the discharge of his ministry, whatever that might have been.
Onesimus – A Phrygian slave owned by Philemon. His name, which was common among slaves of that day, means ‘profitable’, or ‘useful’. Most Phrygian slaves were regarded as of poor quality hence the famous proverb, ‘A Phrygian is the better and the more serviceable for beating’. He was, however, highly thought of by the apostle Paul, Col. 4. 9; Philem. 11, and is the subject of the apostle’s letter to Philemon.
Philemon – A resident of Colosse and a confederate of the apostle Paul. Probably converted under the ministry of Paul, Philem. 19, and by all accounts bore a remarkable testimony as a Christian, Philemon 5, 7, 21. The church at Colosse met in his house, Philem. 2, which suggests, prima facie, that he was a wealthy individual. His name is derived from the Greek word phileo which can mean either to love, or to kiss.
It seems that a Phrygian slave named Onesimus has in some way wronged his master Philemon, a resident of Colosse. To make things worse, Onesimus has absconded to Rome in an attempt to avoid capture. When in Rome he comes into contact with the apostle Paul who at the time is under house arrest in the city. Paul leads the runaway to Christ and he becomes extremely useful to him in his ministry for Christ. Paul however, is faced with a dilemma. He wants to retain the services of Onesimus but knows that, under Roman law, Onesimus must be returned to his rightful owner Philemon. The penalty under Roman law was very severe in respect of a runaway slave. How could Paul reconcile Onesimus to his master and save the former from a miserable end? Providentially, an opportunity arises for Paul to intercede on behalf of Onesimus. He has received disturbing news of a strange teaching that had infiltrated the church at Colosse. It is therefore necessary for Paul to write to the Colossians and address this issue and so he sends Tychicus with a letter, Col. 4. 7. At the same time, Paul writes a personal letter to Philemon, which is also delivered by Tychicus who sees to it that Onesimus has a patron when master and slave are reunited.
ANALYSIS OF EPISTLE
Verses 1-3 Opening salutations
Verses 4-7 Commendation of Philemon
Verses 8-19 Intercession for Onesimus
Verses 23-25 Concluding salutation and benediction
THE THRUST OF THE EPISTLE
Some commentators regard Paul’s approach in this letter as nothing more than arm-twisting. This they consider is confirmed not only by verse 19 but also Paul’s promise or (veiled) threat to visit Philemon in due course, v. 22! It is hard to imagine, however, that Paul would defend this type of approach in others let alone in himself. His great concern for Onesimus is reflected in the diplomatic way in which he gets to the point of his submission to Philemon. No one reading this letter, including Philemon, would, in my opinion, feel in any way pressurised. On the other hand, the moral and spiritual force of Paul’s argument would be difficult, if not impossible, to resist. How could Philemon not do what Paul required without denying all that his faith stood for? We are persuaded that Philemon was so overjoyed at the news of the conversion of Onesimus that he went that step further and released him from his slavery, see v. 21. In other words, Christianity had effected a significant sociological change in the relationship between master and slave.
SOME VERSE NOTES
Verse 1 – Paul describes himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ. He will shortly be asking Philemon to make a sacrifice but he never asks of others without sacrifice himself.
Verse 5 – This is probably a figure of speech in Greek known as a chiasmus, i.e. a grammatical structure in which there is inverted parallelism. Thus the love is towards all the saints whereas faith is exercised towards the person of Christ.
Verse 11 – Note the play on the name, Onesimus = profitable. Perhaps Paul had in mind the words of Abigail to David, ‘for as his name is, so is he’, 1 Sam. 25. 25. In verse 20, Paul produces a further pun on the word ‘profit’.
Verse 15 – Although Onesimus had run away, Paul does not express his departure in this way. What he suggests is that the master and the slave were separated for a short time but this was all in the design of God so that they might be eternally linked together.
Martin Luther said of this epistle that it showed a right, noble and lovely example of Christian love.