Next up in our study of the Prison Epistles is the letter to Philemon, which is the shortest of all of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. It comprises only 335 words in the original Greek, and, along with the epistles to Timothy and Titus, it is one of the apostle’s few letters to individuals. Actually, to call Philemon a personal letter rather than a letter to a church is not exactly accurate, for verses 1–2 show that Paul intended Apphia, Archippus, and the church meeting in Philemon’s house to read this epistle as well. It is possible that Apphia was Philemon’s wife and Archippus was his son, but we do not know enough about Philemon to be sure.
Philemon is an interesting letter because it is difficult to identify the circumstances that prompted Paul to write it, and because it also has as its background the subject of slavery. On the one hand, we can deduce that Paul wrote to Philemon because he had met Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus, led him to Christ, and wanted to help Philemon and Onesimus be reconciled (vv. 8–22). On the other hand, we do not know why Onesimus ran away. He likely wronged Philemon somehow (v. 18), but did he steal something from his master? Since many first-century slaves were the stewards of household finances, could it be that Onesimus made a big mistake in managing Philemon’s money and feared the repercussions? Did some other dispute arise between the two men with the result that Onesimus, having heard of Philemon and Paul’s friendship (v. 7), ran off to seek Paul’s help as a mediator? There is little in the epistle itself to allow us to decide between these possibilities.
And then there is the issue of slavery itself. Why does Paul not directly command Philemon to set Onesimus free? Moreover, why do all the scriptures seem to wink at slavery? Our study of Philemon will deal with these and related questions.
It is clear that Philemon lived in Colossae, since Onesimus was from that city and Paul sent him back to Philemon (Col. 4:9; Philem. 12). We also infer from the overlap between the opening and closing sections of Colossians and Philemon that both letters were written around the same time, probably the early 60s (Col. 1:1–8; 4:7–18; Phile. 1–7, 23–25). Most importantly, we know that Philemon is God’s inspired Word, and that therefore its teaching bears the authority of the living God (2 Tim. 3:16–17).