Thirty years prior to writing to Philemon, Paul learned about forgiveness. Acts chapter nine covers Paul’s conversion to Christ. In that single chapter in Acts we see Saul (later to become Paul) — the great persecutor of the early church — meeting Christ, receiving His forgiveness and eternal life, and being forgiven and accepted by the church in Damascus. Remarkable! Forgiveness and reconciliation were free by God’s grace, but not without cost.
About 30 years later, Paul writes to his fellow believer and friend Philemon. He writes to him about forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul knew the subjects well. He had been on the receiving end of them. He was certainly qualified to speak to and instruct Philemon on these topics.
With that context in mind let’s set the stage with the main characters of the Book of Philemon and the story line. We will do so by answering a few questions. The answers will help you unpack Paul’s letter to Philemon and give you a peek into the beauty and power of this small, New Testament book.
1. Who was Philemon?
Paul had met and led Philemon to Christ (Philemon verse 19) while at Ephesus years earlier. Philemon and Paul became close friends. Years later, Philemon was a prominent member of the church at Colossae. The church regularly met in Philemon’s house (Philemon verse 2). The letter was for him, his family, and the church. It was written at the time of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. So, it is known as one of Paul’s “Prison Letters.”
We also know that Philemon was wealthy. He had a large house (Philemon verse 2) and at least one slave — Onesimus. He most likely had several slaves.
2. Who is Onesimus?
He was a slave that had run away from his owner and fled to Rome. In Rome, he met Paul. This is clearly God directing Onesimus’s life. Rome was a huge metropolis. For Onesimus to met Paul (a prisoner) was remarkable.
To gain a better grasp of the story, let’s see what slavery looked like in the Roman Empire in 62 A.D. Slavery was common in the Roman Emprise. One-third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. Slaves were not just common laborers in the Roman Empire. They could be very well-educated and serve as teachers, accountants, musicians, and even doctors. Slaves in those days were not considered persons, there were considered tools of their owners. Slaves could be bought, sold, inherited, exchanged or used to pay a master’s debt. Slaves could learn the trade of their owners and at times, even become a loved part of the family.
While this might sound counterintuitive, some people in those days chose slavery over poverty. To be a slave meant a secure home, food, and work.
As the New Testament was written, we see a change in the way that slaves were viewed and treated (thanks to the Gospel). They were seen as spiritual equals to their owners. (Philemon v 14, Gal. 3:28, Ephesians 6:9 and Col 4:1)
So, Onesimus was a slave, who had run away, and according to Roman Law deserved severe punishment. Thankfully, he met Paul, came to know Christ as Savior, and was being sent back to Philemon to be forgiven, restored, and to fulfill his obligations.
3. What is the book about?
The book is about Paul sending Onesimus back to Philemon. Although Paul longed to keep Onesimus with him, he wrote to Philemon to encourage him to forgive Onesimus, receive him back (without punishment), and treat him as a Christian brother.
He sent Onesimus back to Philemon. This was dangerous due to roaming slave catchers/bounty hunters in that day. So, Paul sent Onesimus with Tychicus. Tychicus was also delivering the letter to the Colossians church from Paul (Col 4:7-9).
There is a lot going on here. Tychicus is taking two “prison letters” from Paul. One was to taken to the Colossians church (the letter of Colossians) and one to Philemon. Rather than peppering you with more facts, please take this background information and re-read Philemon in mind. You will see the book of Philemon open and sense the beauty and power of the message of grace, forgiveness, and friendship that are in Christ.
I will post again on Saturday. We will use our outline of the Book of Philemon to begin to break it down into three sections for further study.
Enjoy it! It’s a wonderful book that shows us God’s grace in Christ.