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by Thomas Constable
Philemon appears to have been a comparatively wealthy Colossian who owned slaves, as did most of the rich in his day. As many as a third of the inhabitants of most large urban centers, including Rome, would have been slaves, who, in the Roman Empire, were more like household servants in Victorian Britain than like slaves in antebellum North America. [Note: James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, pp. 252 and 302; G. W. Barker, W. L. Lane, and J. R. Michaels, The New Testament Speaks, p. 211. He estimated that ] One writer claimed that about one third of the populations of Greece and Italy were slaves. [Note: See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, pp. 25-33, for an excursus on slavery in antiquity.]
Philemon evidently came to faith in Christ as a result of Paul’s influence (Phm_1:19), perhaps when Paul was residing at Ephesus. Onesimus was one of Philemon’s slaves and was probably a native Phrygian. He ran away from his master, perhaps not because Philemon treated him cruelly but because he dealt with him graciously. Onesimus may have been a runaway slave, or he may simply have been involved in some domestic trouble with Philemon. [Note: Ibid., pp. 17-19.] He eventually made his way to Rome where he could have hidden in the crowd. There, as a result of divine providence, he came into contact with Paul and became a Christian (Phm_1:10).
Following his conversion Onesimus became a valuable helper of the apostle (Phm_1:11). Paul desired to keep Onesimus with him but felt a greater responsibility to return the slave to his Christian master (Phm_1:13-14). Onesimus had to make things right with Philemon whom he had wronged. Paul and Onesimus both knew the danger the slave faced in returning since slave owners had absolute authority over their slaves and often treated them as property rather than as people. [Note: See Arthur A. Rupprecht, " Philemon," in Ephesians-Philemon, vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 460.]
Paul wrote this brief appeal to pacify Philemon and to effect reconciliation between the slave and his master. His other purposes were to commend Philemon for showing compassion to other believers (Phm_1:1-7), to announce his plans to visit Philemon following his anticipated release (Phm_1:8-22), and to send greetings from his associates (Phm_1:23-25). The only disputers of Pauline authorship have been members of the Tübingen School. [Note: Donald A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 589.]
". . . Philemon provides insight both into the social realities of ancient society, in this case the relations between master and slave, which is surpassed only by 1 Corinthians, and into the way in which influence was brought to bear within the earliest churches between parties of differing social status." [Note: Dunn, p. 299.]
Paul probably addressed the epistle to Apphia, Archippus, and the church meeting in Philemon’s house to rally the support of other Christians to encourage Philemon in his Christian responsibility.
When Paul sent Tychicus with epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, Onesimus probably went with him. Paul intended that this letter, along with Tychicus’ personal entreaty for Onesimus, would secure the slave’s forgiveness and acceptance. Since Paul evidently sent this letter with the Epistle to the Colossians, as comparison of the two documents suggests, he probably wrote them in Rome at the same time (60-62 A.D.). Furthermore, the same persons were with Paul when he wrote his letter to the Colossians, namely, Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Luke, and Demas (Phm_1:23-24; cf. Col_4:10; Col_4:12; Col_4:14).
E. J. Goodspeed suggested that the Epistle to Philemon is the lost letter to the Loadiceans that Paul mentioned in Col_4:16. [Note: E. J. Goodspeed, The Key to Ephesians, pp. xiv-xvi.] John Knox agreed with Goodspeed but believed Archippus lived in Colosse, owned Onesimus, and received this epistle. [Note: John Knox, Philemon among the Letters of Paul, pp. 91-108.] The views of neither of these influential commentators have overthrown the majority opinion that I have expressed above. Some commentators believed Paul wrote this epistle from Ephesus. [Note: E.g., Fitzmyer, p. 11.] But this too is a minority view.
I. Greeting Phm_1:1-3
II. Thanksgiving and prayer for Philemon Phm_1:4-7
III. Plea for Onesimus Phm_1:8-21
A. Paul’s appeal Phm_1:8-11
B. Paul’s motives Phm_1:12-16
C. Paul’s request Phm_1:17
D. Paul’s offer Phm_1:18-20
E. Paul’s confidence Phm_1:21
IV. Concluding matters Phm_1:22-25
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