Who wrote it?
The author of the book of Philemon was the apostle Paul (Philemon 1:1).
When(ish) was it written?
Philemon was written in approximately AD 60.
Why was it written?
Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s writings and deals with the practice of slavery. The letter suggests that Paul was in prison at the time of the writing. Philemon was a slave owner who also hosted a church in his home. During the time of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, Philemon had likely journeyed to the city, heard Paul’s preaching, and became a Christian. The slave Onesimus robbed his master, Philemon, and ran away, making his way to Rome and to Paul. Onesimus was still the property of Philemon, and Paul wrote to smooth the way for his return to his master. Through Paul’s witnessing to him, Onesimus had become a Christian (Philemon 10) and Paul wanted Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ and not merely as a slave.
Some Key Verses
And I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.
– Philemon 6
No longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
– Philemon 16
If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
– Philemon 18
A Quick Summary
Paul had warned slave owners that they had a responsibility towards their slaves and showed slaves as responsible moral beings who were to fear God. In Philemon, Paul did not condemn slavery, but he presented Onesimus as a Christian brother instead of a slave. When an owner can refer to a slave as a brother, the slave has reached a position in which the legal title of slave is meaningless. The early church did not attack slavery directly, but it laid the foundation for a new relationship between owner and slave. Paul attempted to unite both Philemon and Onesimus with Christian love so that emancipation would become necessary. Only after exposure to the light of the Gospel could the institution of slavery die.
Old Testament Ties
Perhaps nowhere in the New Testament is the distinction between law and grace so beautifully portrayed. Both Roman law and the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament gave Philemon the right to punish a runaway slave who was considered property. But the covenant of grace through Jesus allowed both master and slave to fellowship in love on an equal basis in the body of Christ.
What does this mean?
Employers, political leaders, corporation executives, and parents can follow the spirit of Paul’s teaching by treating Christian employees, co-workers, and family members as members of Christ’s Body. Christians in modern society must not view helpers as stepping stones to help them achieve their ambitions, but as Christian brothers and sisters who must receive gracious treatment. In addition, all Christian leaders must recognize that God holds them accountable for the treatment of those who work for them, whether the helpers are Christians or not. They must eventually answer to God for their actions (Colossians 4:1).
Take a few minutes to read aloud the Scripture from Philemon 1, Galatians 3:26-28, Luke 23:34. What verses or ideas stand out to you from this passage? What questions do you have? What “next step” are you considering as a result of your interaction with God’s Word?
Have you ever felt “useless,” like Onesimus once was? Like you’re a failure? Like no one believes in you? How does the truth of the Gospel impact these feelings of inadequacy?
How do you respond when you are wronged? Do you experience anger? Bitterness? Does your heart feel cold? How does the example of Jesus motivate you to choose forgiveness, even when you don’t feel forgiveness? Are you willing, for the Gospel, to walk in mercy and grace?
Describe a situation in your life where running away from sin or difficult circumstances unknowingly caused you to run toward God’s love and forgiveness.
Read Romans 12:18. Is there a relationship in your life that needs reconciliation? As far as it depends on you, have you pursued peace? Have you taken the necessary steps from your end? Have you asked for forgiveness? Have you offered mercy?