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Introduction to Philemon

AUTHOR: PAUL, the apostle of Jesus Christ (Phm 1,9,19)

PLACE OF WRITING: ROME, about the same time the epistle to the Colossians was written. This deduction is based upon the following:

  1. Like the epistle to the Colossians, the epistle to Philemon was written when Paul was in chains (Phm 1,10,13,23)
  2. Timothy joined Paul in both epistles (Phm 1; Co 1:1)
  3. Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke joined in the salutation of both (Phm 23,24; Co 4:10-14)
  4. Onesimus, the subject of this epistle, was one of the messengers by whom the epistle to the Colossians was sent (Co 4:7-9)
  5. Archippus, to whom this epistle is partially addressed (Phm 2), is also addressed in the epistle to the Colossians (Co 4:17)

TIME OF WRITING: If the epistle to Philemon was written about the time Colossians and the other "prison epistles" (Ephesians and Philippians) were written, then it was written during Paul's imprisonment at Rome, sometime during the period of 61-63 A.D.

BACKGROUND OF THE EPISTLE: Philemon was a member of the church at Colosse (cf. Phm 1,2, with Co 4:17), and a very hospitable one at that (Phm 1,2,5,7). It is possible that he was one of Paul's own converts (Phm 19). It is also plausible that Apphia was his wife, and Archippus his son (Phm 1,2).

Onesimus had been one of Philemon's slaves (Phm 16), who had run away (Phm 15). It appears that he somehow traveled to Rome where he found Paul and was converted to Christ (Phm 10). He had become very dear to Paul, and was proving to be very useful (Phm 11-13).

But Paul did not think it right to keep Onesimus in Rome, and was sending him back to Philemon (Phm 12-14). This letter to Philemon is an appeal for him to receive Onesimus now as a brother in Christ, and for him to forgive Onesimus if he had done any wrong (Phm 15-21).

PURPOSE OF WRITING: From the content of the epistle, it appears that Paul had both a primary and secondary purpose:

1) Primarily to secure forgiveness for Onesimus
2) But also to provide from himself a place of lodging after his release from imprisonment (Phm 22)

THE VALUE OF THIS EPISTLE: This short, but valuable epistle has been described as:

  • A Model Of Christian Courtesy
  • A Manifestation Of Christian Love
  • A Monument Of Christian Conversion

Perhaps this is why the Holy Spirit deemed it proper to preserve it for our benefit.

KEY PASSAGE: "I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me." (Phm 10-11)

Brief Outline

A detailed outline of the epistle can be found in the material on Chapter One.

Review Questions for the Introduction
  1. Who is the author of this epistle?
    • Paul
  2. Where was he writing from?
    • Rome
  3. Approximately when was this epistle written?
    • Sometime between 61-63 A.D.
  4. What other epistles were written by Paul about the same time?
    • Colossians, Ephesians, and Philippians
  5. What church possibly met in Philemon's home?
    • The church at Colosse
  6. Who was Onesimus?
    • A runaway slave that had belonged to Philemon
  7. What was Paul's purpose in writing this epistle?
    • To secure forgiveness for Onesimus
    • To provide for himself a place of lodging after his release from imprisonment
  8. What are the key verses to this epistle?
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