A familiar common phrase, or idiom, is “good things come in small packages.” What the phrase means is often the things that have the most value or quality are small. In other words, the size of something does not always properly indicate its value.
Such is the case perhaps with the New Testament book, Philemon. This brief Pauline Epistle contains only 25 verses and one chapter. Yet like the familiar phrase, even though Philemon is a small epistle it contains sound theology particularly concerning the doctrine of forgiveness.
Philemon, the recipient of this letter, was a prominent member of the church at Colossae (vv. 1–2; cf. Col. 4:9). This local church met in his house (Philem. 2). Paul’s letter was for him, his family, and the church. It is also for us (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21).
The epistle identifies the Apostle Paul as its author (vv. 1, 9, 19). This claim has met very few detractors in church history. One of the reasons for this is that Philemon contains no content that a forger would have been motivated to write.
The Epistle of Philemon is referred to as one of Paul’s Prison Epistles, along with Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. It is closely connected to Colossians, which Paul wrote approximately at the same time (c. A.D. 60–62; cf. vv. 1, 16). Paul’s authorship of Philemon was unquestioningly supported by such early church fathers as Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia.
What is the background and setting for the epistle? Philemon had been converted to Christ several years earlier under Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (v. 19). Due to the fact that Philemon was wealthy, he had a large enough house in which the church could meet (cf. v. 2). Philemon also owned slaves. One such slave was a man named Onesimus (lit., “useful”; a common name for slaves).
We discover that Onesimus was not a believer in Christ at the time he stole some money (v. 18) from Philemon and ran away. Like many other runaway slaves, Onesimus fled to Rome. He sought to lose himself in the imperial capital’s huge and commonplace slave population. It was through the providence of God, in circumstances not recorded in Scripture, that Onesimus met Paul in Rome and was converted to Christ.
What were the circumstances by which you were converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? It is wise to always remember what we were before our conversion to Christ. This prompts us to appreciate what we are as forgiven believers in Christ.
More to come. Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Soli deo Gloria!