At the end of the Epistle to the Ephesian church, we learned about one of Paul’s ministry friends whose name was Tychicus. As we looked at other places he was mentioned in the Bible, we came across another man’s name — Onesimus. He was mentioned as a fellow minister alongside Tychicus (Col. 4:8-10). That was quite interesting because his name is more often associated with the letter to Philemon. That interesting note got me started on studying the letter to Philemon. In this article, we will be covering an introduction to that letter.
Let’s ask a few questions:
Who wrote the letter to Philemon? (1-7)
Paul refers to himself three times in the letter. He introduces himself (1), refers to himself as an old man (9), and says he wrote with his own hand (19). The letter is also similar to his writing elsewhere. He uses the same introduction style (Gal. 1:1-3; Eph. 1:1-3), expresses thankfulness for the recipients (1 Cor. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:2), and mentions his co-workers at the end (Rom. 16:21-23; Col. 4:12-14). It seems obvious that Paul wrote this letter. However, some people are very skeptical about the books and letters contained in the New Testament and require external evidence to prove that Paul wrote this letter. Thankfully, there is external evidence that supports his authorship as well.
Early Christian leaders such as Ignatius (AD 35-117), Tertullian (AD 160-225), Origen (AD 184-254), and Eusebius (AD 260-340) believed it was written by Paul. It was also included in the canon of Marcion and the Muratorian fragment. Note that external evidence does not validate the inspiration or authorship of a New Testament book. They simply show that other Christians recognized the inspiration and authorship that is obvious from the content of the letter. Both the internal and external evidence shows that Paul was the author of this little letter.
When and where did Paul write the letter? (8-11)
Paul wrote it from prison (cf. Philemon 1, 9; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1). At the beginning of the letters to Galatia and Ephesus, Paul introduces himself as an apostle sent by God. But in verse 1 of Philemon, he refers to himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” In verse 9, he refers to himself as “now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” I don’t think he was speaking figuratively as he was often imprisoned during his missionary journeys.
- Philippi (Acts 16) — imprisoned for one night
- Jerusalem (Acts 23) — imprisoned in the barracks after the Jews attacked
- Caesarea (Acts 24) — more than two years (24:27)
- Rome (Acts 28) — under house arrest for two years
Paul wrote it when he was old (9). I think that his age would point to later in his life but not necessarily the end of his life. Notice that he calls himself old (9) but still wants to visit Philemon shortly (22). He truly thought he would be out of prison soon and traveling again. This is much different than his attitude at the end of his life (2 Tim. 4:6). Note also that Demas was still with him (24; cf. 2 Tim. 4:10).
This makes me think that Paul was in Rome for his first imprisonment as opposed to Caesarea or even his final imprisonment and execution. That would put the writing of the letter somewhere around AD 63 or about 36 years after God saved him in Damascus (AD 37). So, if he was saved at the age of 30 (as Saul he was very active in the persecution of the church.), he would be about 66 years old when he wrote this letter.
Stop a moment for an application. At what point in life do you find yourself now? Some of us are at the beginning. some in the middle, and others toward the later years of life. Think about how you are using your time for the Lord. Paul kept ministering to people throughout his life and continued to do so during his older years. We should follow his example.
What was the situation?
At this point in Paul’s imprisonment, he was probably under house arrest (Acts 28:16, 30-31) while awaiting his trial before the emperor Nero. The Bible says that Paul received all who came to him in his rented house. It was probably during this time that Paul met Onesimus. But who was Onesimus?
Was Onesimus a fellow prisoner? I don’t think so. If he was a prisoner, why would he be allowed to live with Paul? And if he was a prisoner, how could Paul be sending him back to Philemon? Was Onesimus a runaway slave? The Bible does indicate that Onesimus was a slave (16) from Colossae (Col. 4:9) who had been unprofitable to his owner (11) and had departed from him (15-16). We don’t know much more than that, but that does give us a few details to weave together.
Slaves existed for a variety of reasons. One of the difficulties we have with slavery in the Bible is understanding the differences between now and then. The slave trade in America was cruel in that people were kidnapped from Africa and sold as slaves. Slavery in Paul’s day included that but that was not the only way someone could become a slave. “Slaves in Rome might include prisoners of war, sailors captured and sold by pirates, or slaves bought outside Roman territory. In hard times, it was not uncommon for desperate Roman citizens to raise money by selling their children into slavery” (Slaves and Freemen). Think also of Joshua and the Gibeonites. Their punishment for lying to Joshua and the elders was perpetual slavery to the Israelites. They became slaves who cut wood and drew water for them. That is a bit different from what happened in the United States.
Slaves were numerous. “In fact, slaves looked so similar to Roman citizens that the [Roman] Senate once considered a plan to make them wear special clothing so that they could be identified at a glance. The idea was rejected because the Senate feared that, if slaves saw how many of them were working in Rome, they might be tempted to join forces and rebel” (Slaves and Freemen).
Slaves were treated as property. For whatever reason, slaves were treated as less than real people. They had been bought like any other implement or property, so they were something the master owned and were treated as such. However, they had some rights. Under Roman law, a slave could procure his freedom under something called “manumission.” His owner could simply declare him free or the slave could purchase his freedom as long as a magistrate validated the change in status. “The prospect of possible freedom through manumission encouraged most slaves to be obedient and hard working.”
However, there were times when things didn’t work out very well. From what I have read, a master was legally able to kill his slave for the smallest offenses. Some slaves were crucified for disobedience. So, another law gave the slave the right to seek sanctuary from an angry master.
So, why did Onesimus leave his master and go to Rome? We don’t know. But seeing that Paul described him as formerly unprofitable, he must have been a bad slave who rebelled against Philemon and chose to run away to Rome where he might have found it easier to hide. We don’t know the situation very well. But somehow, in God’s providence, Onesimus came across Paul’s path, heard the good news of Jesus Christ, was born again through faith in Christ (10), and submitted to Paul’s wish that he return to his master.
What is the purpose of the book?
The letter was written to express Paul’s joy about Philemon’s faithful Christian example (4-7).
Paul was not simply buttering up Philemon. He sincerely rejoiced in his Christian example. Look through the other letters of Paul and you will see the same thing. At the beginning of Ephesians Paul expressed the same joy for that church’s faith and love (Eph. 1:15-16). With all the persecution that Paul endured during his ministry, it must have been especially joyful to hear that Christians were faithfully serving the Lord.
The letter was written to restore Onesimus (8-20).
The heart of the letter is revealed in these verses. Paul appealed to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus (8-11). Paul wanted Onesimus to stay and minister to him (12-14). Paul showed him the big picture (15-16). Paul put his reputation on the line (17-20). These are the main points I see Paul writing on behalf of Onesimus. But I think there is another theme interwoven for us to see.
The letter was written as a testimony to the life changing power of the gospel.
Throughout the letter, you see the Holy Spirit’s work already working in Philemon’s life (4-7) and later in the life of Onesimus (11-16). The change God makes in a sinner who repents and believes is remarkable. In fact, Paul elsewhere points out that God had changed many people with horrible former lifestyles (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The evidence of change in Onesimus’s life must have been a blessing for all who knew him—including his master Philemon.
Have you experienced the new birth and the wonderful change from darkness to light? God loved the world and gave his only begotten Son for the salvation of all who believe. But you must turn from your sin (repent) and place your faith (believe) in Jesus who died for you and rose again. When God convinces you of your sin and need for Christ, and when you repent and believe in him, you will be born again. Onesimus did and there was a great change. Have you experienced that change?