Bible Book Number 57—Philemon
Place Written: Rome
Writing Completed: c. 60–61 C.E.
1. What are some of the characteristics of the letter to Philemon?
THIS very tactful and loving letter of Paul is of great interest to Christians today. Not only is it the shortest epistle preserved from the hand of the “apostle to the nations” but in the whole Bible only Second and Third John contain less material. Also, it is the only “private” letter of Paul, in that it was not addressed officially to a congregation or a responsible overseer but was addressed to a private person and dealt solely with the special problem Paul wanted to discuss with this Christian brother, the apparently well-to-do Philemon, who lived in the Phrygian city of Colossae, in the very heart of Asia Minor.—Rom. 11:13.
2. Against what background and for what purpose was the letter to Philemon written?
2 The purpose of the letter is clearly revealed: During his first imprisonment in Rome (59-61 C.E.), Paul had great freedom to preach the Kingdom of God. Among those who listened to his preaching was Onesimus, a runaway slave from the household of Philemon, Paul’s friend. As a result, Onesimus became a Christian, and Paul decided, with Onesimus’ consent, to send him back to Philemon. It was at this time, also, that Paul wrote letters to the congregations in Ephesus and Colossae. In both of these letters, he gave good counsel to Christian slaves and slave owners on how to conduct themselves properly in this relationship. (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22–4:1) However, over and above this, Paul composed a letter to Philemon in which he personally pleaded in behalf of Onesimus. It was a letter written with his own hand—an unusual thing for Paul. (Philem. 19) This personal touch added greatly to the weight of his plea.
3. When was the letter to Philemon most likely penned, and how was it forwarded?
3 The letter was most likely penned about 60-61 C.E., as Paul had apparently preached in Rome long enough to make converts. Also, because he expresses hope, in verse 22, of being released, we can conclude that the letter was written after some time of his imprisonment had elapsed. It appears that these three letters, one for Philemon and those for the congregations in Ephesus and Colossae, were dispatched with Tychicus and Onesimus.—Eph. 6:21, 22; Col. 4:7-9.
4. What proves the writership and the authenticity of Philemon?
4 That Paul was the writer of Philemon is evident from the first verse, where he is mentioned by name. He was acknowledged as such by Origen and Tertullian.a The authenticity of the book is also supported by its being listed, with others of Paul’s epistles, in the Muratorian Fragment of the second century C.E.
CONTENTS OF PHILEMON
5. (a) With what greetings and commendation does the letter open? (b) What does Paul tell Philemon of his slave Onesimus?
5 Onesimus sent back to his master “as more than a slave” (Vss. 1-25). Paul sends warm greetings to Philemon, to Apphia “our sister,” to Archippus “our fellow soldier,” and to the congregation in Philemon’s house. He commends Philemon (whose name means “Loving”) for the love and faith he has toward the Lord Jesus and the holy ones. Reports of Philemon’s love have brought Paul much joy and comfort. Paul, an aged man and a prisoner, now expresses himself with great freeness of speech concerning his “child” Onesimus, to whom he became “a father” while in prison bonds. Onesimus (whose name means “Profitable”) had formerly been useless to Philemon, but now he is useful to both Philemon and Paul.—Vss. 2, 10.
6. What kind of treatment does Paul recommend for Onesimus, and with what tactful reasoning?
6 The apostle would like to keep Onesimus to minister to him in prison, but he would not do so without Philemon’s consent. So he is sending him back, “no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, as a brother beloved.” Paul asks that Onesimus be received kindly, the same way Paul himself would be received. If Onesimus has wronged Philemon, let it be charged to Paul’s account, for, Paul tells Philemon, “You owe me even yourself.” (Vss. 16, 19) Paul hopes he may soon be released and that he may visit Philemon, and he concludes with greetings.
7. As regards Onesimus, how was Paul adhering to his high call as an apostle?
7 As is shown by this letter, Paul was not preaching a “social gospel,” trying to do away with the existing system of things and its institutions, such as slavery. He did not arbitrarily set even Christian slaves free, but, rather, he sent the runaway slave Onesimus on a journey taking him over 900 miles [1400 km] from Rome to Colossae, right back to his master Philemon. Thus Paul adhered to his high call as an apostle, abiding strictly by his divine commission of “preaching the kingdom of God . . . and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ.”—Acts 28:31; Philem. 8, 9.
8. What practical application of Christian principles does Philemon illustrate?
8 The letter to Philemon is revealing in that it shows the love and unity that existed among the Christians of the first century. In it we learn that the early Christians called one another “brother” and “sister.” (Philem. 2, 20) In addition, it reveals for Christians today the practical application of Christian principles among Christian brothers. On the part of Paul, we find the expression of brotherly love, respect for civil relations and for the property of another, effective tactfulness, and commendable humility. Instead of trying to compel Philemon to forgive Onesimus by the weight of the authority he possessed as a leading overseer in the Christian congregation, Paul humbly appealed to him on the basis of Christian love and his personal friendship. Overseers today can benefit from the tactful manner in which Paul approached Philemon.
9. By complying with Paul’s request, what fine precedent that is of interest to Christians today would Philemon set?
9 Paul obviously expected Philemon to comply with his request, and Philemon’s doing so would be a practical application of what Jesus said at Matthew 6:14 and of what Paul said at Ephesians 4:32. Christians today can likewise be expected to be kind and forgiving toward an offending brother. If Philemon could be forgiving toward a slave that he owned and that he was legally free to mistreat as he pleased, Christians today should be able to forgive an offending brother—a far less difficult task.
10. How is the operation of Jehovah’s spirit evident in the letter to Philemon?
10 The operation of Jehovah’s spirit is very evident in this letter to Philemon. It is manifested in the masterful way in which Paul handled a very touchy problem. It is evident in the fellow feeling, the tender affection, and the trust in a fellow Christian that are exhibited by Paul. It is seen in the fact that the letter to Philemon, like the other Scriptures, teaches Christian principles, encourages Christian unity, and magnifies the love and faith that abound among “the holy ones,” who hope in God’s Kingdom and in whose conduct is reflected the loving-kindness of Jehovah.—Vs. 5.
a The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by G. W. Bromiley, Vol. 3, 1986, page 831.