This short letter addressed to three specific individuals was written by St. Paul during an imprisonment, perhaps in Rome between A.D. 61 and 63 (see the Introduction to Colossians for other possible sites). It concerns Onesimus, a slave from Colossae (Col 4:9), who had run away from his master, perhaps guilty of theft in the process (Philemon 1:18). Onesimus was converted to Christ by St. Paul (Philemon 1:10).
St. Paul sends him back to his master (Philemon 1:12) with this letter asking that he be welcomed willingly by his old master (Philemon 1:8-10, 14, 17) not just as a slave but as a brother in Christ (Philemon 1:16). St. Paul uses very strong arguments (especially Philemon 1:19) in his touching appeal on behalf of Onesimus. It is unlikely that St. Paul is subtly hinting that he would like to retain Onesimus as his own slave, lent to St. Paul by his master. Rather, he suggests he would like to have Onesimus work with him for the gospel (Philemon 1:13, 20-21).
There is, however, little evidence connecting this Onesimus with a bishop of Ephesus of the same name mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch (ca. A.D. 110). St. Paul's letter deals with an accepted institution of antiquity, human slavery. But St. Paul breathes into this letter the spirit of Christ and of equality within the Christian community. He does not attack slavery directly, for this is something the Christian communities of the first century were in no position to do, and the expectation that Christ would soon come again militated against social reforms. Yet St. Paul, by presenting Onesimus as "brother, beloved . . . to me, but even more so to you" (Philemon 1:16), voiced an idea revolutionary in that day and destined to break down worldly barriers of division "in the Lord".
|At the heart of this letter is the theme of reconciliation. Onesimus is reconciled to God, and now he is in the process of being reconciled to a fellow believer.
|The basis for Paul's appeal to Philemon is the supreme Christian virtue of love (not Roman social convention). Paul commend Philemon for the love he has shown not only to him but also to all of the believers in that area.