Paul is somewhere in prison, possibly Rome, when he meets a runaway slave named Onesimus (oh-NESS-uh-muhs), from what is now Turkey. The two become good friends. Paul says he thinks of Onesimus as a son. Paul loves him so much that he sends Onesimus back to his slave master, Philemon (fi-LEE-muhn)—at a time when Roman law would have allowed the slaveowner to execute the young man. Which sounds like a bad idea.
But Paul sent a cover letter, which ended up in the Bible as the one-chapter book of Philemon.
It’s a strange letter that seems to reveal some of the complex layers of Paul’s odd personality. I’m being polite. It’s possible that Philemon didn’t much like the letter.
Softening up a slavemaster
Paul starts off by softening up Philemon with sincere compliments. Then he asks Philemon for a favor, but he does it in a way that could come across as, “I’ve heard you’re a good Christian. Now prove it.”
Paul wants Philemon to forgive Onesimus for running away, welcome him back like he’s Paul’s real son, and then return him to Paul as a freed man.
To which Philemon might have mumbled, “Would you like me to throw in my youngest daughter?”
Paul says he could order Philemon to free Onesimus because Paul is Christ’s apostle, which makes him Philemon’s boss. But he wants Philemon to decide for himself to do the right thing. And Paul, using all his persuasive skills, makes sure Philemon knows what the right thing is.
Paul offers to pay Philemon for any losses Onesimus may have caused him. Then, with no subtlety whatsoever, Paul reminds Philemon that he owes Paul his spiritual life.
If that’s not enough—and apparently, it’s not—Paul copies in the entire church that meets in Onesimus’ home. Some might call that peer pressure.
Paul wraps up the letter by telling Philemon to fix up a guest room for him because he’s coming to town. Some might call that chutzpah.
For the record, about 50 years later a church leader named Ignatius wrote a letter to the bishop at the church in Ephesus, about a five-day walk from Colossae. The bishop’s name: Onesimus. It’s anyone’s guess if he’s the man Paul wanted to see freed to help him during his last few years of ministry.
“From: Paul, a prisoner for the sake of the Messiah Jesus, and from Timothy” (Philemon 1:1).
Paul seems to have written this letter during his two years under arrest in Rome, while he waited for his trial in the emperor’s supreme court (Acts 28:30). That would have been from about AD 60-62.
Paul is “a prisoner” (1:1), apparently in Rome. But it’s possible he was writing from jail somewhere else. Some argue that Rome, 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Philemon’s home in Colossae in what is now Turkey, would have been too far for a runaway slave to travel.
Destination of letter
Paul wrote to a slave-owning believer named Philemon, who let Christians meet in his home in Colossae, a city in what is now Turkey. Paul apparently sent the letter with runaway slave Onesimus, accompanied by one of Paul’s associates: Tychicus (Colossians 4:9).