The Epistle to Philemon
- Recipients, Author and Time of Writing
- Subject and purpose of writing
- Contents (overview)
Author, Addressee and Time of Writing
Paul's epistle to Philemon is one of the few books in the NT whose authenticity has hardly ever been doubted. Paul mentions his own name three times in this his shortest epistle (verses 1.9.19). Twice he speaks of being a prisoner of Jesus Christ. He mentions this also in his other “prison epistles” (Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians).
Philemon is not mentioned anywhere else in the NT. The epistle shows that he was a believing Christian and an esteemed acquaintance of the Apostle. The Epistle is addressed to Philemon, with the church in his house, and to sister Apphia and Archippus. Archippus is also mentioned in Col. 4:17. This shows that Philemon lived in Colossae. In Col. 4:7-9 we learn that Onesimus was from Colossae also.
The Epistle was written at the same time as the Epistle to the Colossians, that is 61 to 62 AC, from Rome. In both Epistles Paul mentions his imprisonment and gives greetings from Ephaphras, Marcus, Aristarcus, Demas and Luke. In Colossians the believers are informed that Tychicus, who was the deliverer of the Epistle, was accompanied by Onesimus.
Tertullian (around 160 to 220 AC) and the Muratori Canon (end of 2 nd century) testify that the Epistle was written by Paul.
This Epistle has often been called a “private” epistle of the apostle. But the mention of the church in Philemon's house shows that the personal circumstances of the Christian are not to be separated from the fellowship of the believers, as they are members of one body (Eph. 4:25). Onesimus was Philemon's slave who had run away and thereby probably stolen money of him. On his flight he met the imprisoned apostle Paul in Rome and was led to faith in the Lord Jesus by him. This is why Paul calls Onesimus “my son” in verse 10. Onesimus might have known Paul by hearsay. Meantime he had become quite helpful to the apostle in various respects (see Col. 4:9).
But Paul wanted Onesimus to put things right which he had inflicted upon his master Philemon. This is why he sent Onesimus with Tychicus to Colossae and handed them the Epistle. In the Epistle Paul does not write on the Christian doctrine neither does he mention his apostleship nor his authority connected with it. Paul does not plead for Onesimus' release either but gives an example of the spirit of grace and love with which difficulties in daily matters among brethren might be solved. This grace overcomes social differences (compare Col. 3:11) and past guilt (compare Col. 3:13). Martin Luther has said of this Epistle: “This epistle is a masterly sweet example of Christian love.”
The Problem of Slavery
Slavery was a fixed component of the social and governmental order in antiquity. A slave was considered a “thing” and therewith the sole property of his proprietor. A run-away-slave as Onesimus was had to fear most severe punishment.
Among the first Christians there were many slaves. This is evident from various passages in the NT (1 Cor. 7:21-24; 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25: 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10). Although slavery was a consequence of man's sin and therefore not according to the will of God, slaves did not receive outward liberty from their often hard fate when they believed in the Saviour Jesus Christ. They were however encouraged to be faithful witnesses for God and His grace through their new life in Christ; and even more so if their masters were not Christians. God does not want to change the world by revolution but by leading people from darkness into His wonderful light. This is why Paul does not question Philemon's authority over Onesimus, his slave. But Paul appeals to Philemon's heart in verses 15 to 21 and this may have produced Onesimus' liberation (compare 1 Cor. 7:20-24).
Unprofitable - Profitable
Twice in this epistle Paul uses a play on words in respect to Onesimus whose name means “profitable”. But Onesimus had not honoured his name when he had fled from his master Philemon and perhaps even stolen something. Onesimus had experienced a radical change. To this the Apostle alludes, in verse 11, with the words “unprofitable” and “profitable” (Greek: achrestos – euchrestos ). In verse 20 he addresses Philemon directly when saying “I would have profit of thee” (Darby) (Greek: onaimen).
Philemon 1-3: Greetings
Philemon 4-7: Paul Praises Philemon
Philemon 8-21: Paul Intercedes for Onesimus
Philemon 22-25: End
Translation by Veronique Vries