Like the book of Colossians, Philemon 1 identifies Paul and Timothy as the writers of this book. Paul repeats this claim in verses 9 and 19. Paul is described as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” while Timothy is called “our brother.” Although both are mentioned, the book is written in the singular (I, me, my) thus indicating that the apostle Paul was the writer. In verse 19, Paul also mentions that it was written by his own hand. Timothy was a younger evangelist who had spent a considerable amount of time with Paul (see Acts 16:1-5).
This letter was written to four audiences: Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and “the church in your house” (Philemon 1and 2). Philemon was a man of some means. At least he was rich enough to own slaves. Apphia was his wife. While the letter is in many ways a personal letter to Philemon and his wife, it was also written to Archippus an evangelist for the church in Colossae and for all other Christians in that city. This shows that the communication was more than a private correspondence; it has a lesson for all people of all generations.
On the Lycus River, in the Roman province of Asia, (which is a part of modern-day Turkey) Colossae, where Philemon lived, was strategically located in a valley along the great highway that ran from Ephesus (which was located about 90 miles to the west) to the Euphrates valley. Although in its early existence it was a prosperous city, having been visited by Xerxes (481 B.C.) and Cyrus the Younger (401 B.C.), by the first century A.D. Colossae was on the decline and was being overshadowed by its neighbors, Laodicea (see Colossians 2:1, 4:13 and 16, Revelation 1:11 and 3:14) and Hierapolis (Colossians 4:13). Shortly after Paul wrote his letters to Philemon and the Colossians, an earthquake devastated the city in 61 A.D. Although the city was rebuilt, it remained insignificant in the development of that part of the world.
Little is known about the beginning of the church in Colossae. It is not mentioned in the book of Acts. Paul mentions the fact that he had never seen the members of the church at Colossae “face to face” (Colossians 2:1) thus eliminating the possibility that he had established the church in that city. It is assumed by most Bible scholars and church historians that a preacher named Epaphras, who was from Colossae and is referenced in the book (Colossians 1:7 and 4:12-13), was probably the man who first evangelized the area. Another possibility would be some of the preachers Paul trained while he was at Ephesus (see Acts 19:10 and I Corinthians 16:9-10).
At the time of the writing of the book of Philemon (about 60 A.D.) the apostle Paul was in prison in Rome, Italy. He mentions this in Philemon 1, 9, 12 and 23 (see also Colossians 4:3 and 18). This imprisonment is described in Acts 28:16-31.
While in prison, Paul had somehow met and converted a man by the name of Onesimus. Onesimus was a runaway slave from Colossae who had evidently stolen from his master, Philemon, who was a Christian. After his conversion, Paul believed that the right thing to do was to send Onesimus back to his owner. Paul did this by writing a letter and sending it with Onesimus and a preacher named Tychicus to Philemon, encouraging him to accept Onesimus back as a brother, not just a slave.
Besides the personal letter to Philemon, Paul used this opportunity to further instruct the Christians in the city of Colossae by writing a letter to the whole church. As one reads the letter known to us as the book of Colossians, it is obvious that Paul had some concerns about the teaching that was going on at the church in Colossae and was using his letter to instruct them about Jesus and how they should not be taken in by the false teaching that was occurring.
The book of Philemon is about relationships between Christians and how to handle disagreements, including ones where one of the parties has been wronged. It is about forgiveness and acceptance of others. It is about how relationships change when both are Christians.
I. Greetings – Philemon 1-2
II. Prayers and thanksgiving for Philemon’s love and faith – Philemon 3-7
III. Paul’s plea for Onesimus – Philemon 8-12
IV. Paul’s considerations when sending Onesimus back – Philemon 13-16
V. Paul’s appeal to Philemon to accept Onesimus back – Philemon 17-20
VI. Paul’s confidence in Philemon – Philemon 21-22
VII. Greetings from the others with Paul – Philemon 23-25
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