The background of Philemon is fairly simple. Philemon owned a slaved named Onesimus. Onesimus ran away but somehow met Paul. And Paul, being Paul, shared the gospel with him. Through it Onesimus was saved, then staying with and ministering to Paul while he was in prison. However Paul sends this runaway slave back to his old master with a letter.
That’s how we get Paul’s epistle to Philemon. The letter urges Philemon to do something absolutely unheard of. Paul asks him to forgive Onesimus as a fellow brother and not as a slave. This isn’t a biblical argument against slavery. Not in the least. Although the relationship seen here is that of a master and a slave, Paul purpose isn’t to condemn slavery. Here he presents Onesimus as a Christian brother instead of a slave.
“For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever 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 15-16 ESV
From verse 2 we know that Philemon’s house serves as the church building so Philemon is a church leader. We also know that this was not a private letter to Philemon, since in the same verse Paul also addresses Apphia and Archippus. However Philemon is definitely a departure from Paul’s usual writing which are addressed to either whole congregations or pastors.
Here’s the basic structure for the short letter:
- Verses 1-3 are Paul’s opening salutation. Paul introduces himself as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus”. He also mentions Timothy who probably co-wrote the letter with him. It’s important not to gloss over Paul’s greetings even if they are oftentimes very similar because they set the tone for the rest of the letter. For example in Galatians he doesn’t just call himself an apostle but seems to feel the need to defend his office of apostleship. Here in Philemon we get a sense of togetherness by using the possessive pronoun “our”.
- Verses 4-7 are Paul’s thanksgiving and intercession. This is also a common thing Paul does. Before getting into the main topic of a letter, Paul gives thanks to God for Philemon while at the same time affirming him.
- Verse 9-19 are Paul’s request to Philemon to take back Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother.
- Verse 20-25 are Paul’s conclusion and greetings from five others. Here he also expresses full confidence that Philemon will do even more than what he requested.
The last thing I’ll say about Philemon is that it’s a wonderful example of how Paul’s teachings play out it real life. I’ll give you a couple of examples. The book of Philippians tells us to emulate Christ by putting others’ interests above our own. In Philemon, we see what this looks like practically in Christian relationships. The letters addressed to Timothy list the qualifications and duties of church leaders. And of course there are more. See if you can figure them out! Happy reading.