The next Prison Epistle of the Apostle Paul to examine is the Book of Philemon. Philemon was a prominent member of the church at Colossae (vv. 1–2; cf. Col. 4:9). The church met in his house (Philem. 2). The letter was for him, his family, and the church.
Paul is clearly the author (vv. 1, 9, 19), a claim that few in the history of the church have disputed. Philemon’s close connection with Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which Paul wrote at the same time (c. A.D. 60–62; cf. vv. 1, 16), brought an early and unquestioned vindication of Paul’s authorship by the early church fathers. These include Jerome, Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia).
Philemon had been converted under Paul’s ministry, perhaps at Ephesus (v. 19). He was wealthy enough to have a large house (cf. v. 2), Philemon also owned at least one slave, a man named Onesimus (lit., “useful”; a common name for slaves). Onesimus was not a believer at the time he stole some money (v. 18) from Philemon and ran away. Like countless thousands of other runaway slaves, Onesimus fled to Rome, seeking to lose himself in the imperial capital. Through circumstances not recorded in Scripture, Onesimus met Paul in Rome and became a Christian.
Paul developed a great love for the runaway slave (vv. 12, 16) and longed to keep Onesimus in Rome (v. 13), where he was providing valuable service to Paul in his imprisonment (v. 11). However, by stealing and running away from Philemon, Onesimus had both broken Roman law and defrauded his master. Paul knew those issues had to be dealt with, and decided to send Onesimus back to Colossae.
It was too hazardous for him to make the trip alone (because of the danger of slave-catchers), so Paul sent him back with Tychicus, who was returning to Colossae with the epistle to the Colossians (Col. 4:7–9). Along with Onesimus, Paul sent Philemon this beautiful personal letter, urging him to forgive Onesimus and welcome him back to service as a brother in Christ (Philem. 15–17).
More to come.
Soli deo Gloria!