The beauty of Paul’s letter to Philemon comes from the backstory that goes with it. From the letter itself we learn that a slave named Onesimus has deserted his master, Philemon, who was a convert of the apostle Paul and is seemingly a prominent member in the church in the city of Colossae (Philemon 4-7; Colossians 4:7-9). Eventually Onesimus comes into contact with the apostle Paul in Rome where Paul is imprisoned. Paul converts Onesimus, who then becomes a useful and very dear servant for Paul while he is in chains (Philemon 10,13). Since the punishment of runaway slaves was often cruel, Paul then sends this letter to Philemon pleading for him to welcome Onesimus back graciously (Philemon 17-21).
This letter is often considered a companion of Paul’s letter to the Colossians because it is apparent that they were sent at the same time to the church in the city of Colossae via a helper of Paul’s named Tychicus (Colossians 4:7-9). Therefore while he is sending a letter to the Christians in Colossae Paul must have decided that it was perfect timing to send Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with a letter explaining what had happened as well as a plea on his behalf. This letter is then dated to Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome around 61-63 AD.
The main purpose of this letter, as stated above, is to update Philemon on the situation of his runaway slave, Onesimus, and to plea for his treatment as a brother in Christ. Paul tactfully writes this personal letter to Philemon in order to encourage him to show his Christian love to Onesimus.
In this letter Paul gives us all an example of how to incorporate Christ’s work as our Savior into our everyday lives. As Christ offered himself to save and pay for the sins of all people, so Paul acts as Christ on behalf of Onesimus (Philemon 17-20). This shows all Christians how the forgiving love of Jesus permeates our earthly lives and how we can show the same love to those around us, even those who have wronged us or others.
This letter also shows an important truth of the gospel and of the ministry God has given us on this earth: we are still to honor earthly institutions that are not themselves against God’s moral law. Paul converts Onesimus and gladly accepts his loving service while in prison, but he recognizes that Onesimus is still rightly bound to his master and thus sends him back. Onesimus also recognizes this and willingly returns with Tychicus to Colossae and to Philemon (Colossians 4:7-9).
- Philemon 6-7
- Philemon 12-16
- Philemon 17-21
Philemon is simply one chapter long (25 verses), but an outline of the letter is as follows:
- Introduction (Philemon 1-3)
- Thanksgiving and Prayer for Philemon (Philemon 4-7)
- Plea for Onesimus (Philemon 8-21)
- Greetings and Conclusion (Philemon 22-25)