When the apostle Paul wrote this letter (in about AD.61) he was in Rome. (See Acts 28.) He was not free, because he expected to appear before the Emperor, Nero. (See Acts 24: 11; 25: 21; 27: 24; 28: 19.) Roman soldiers came to watch him every day. No doubt many of them heard the Good News and they believed in Jesus. (See Philippians 1: 12,13.) But Paul was not in a prison (Acts 28: 16,23 and 30,31). He calls himself a prisoner (verse 1) not of Nero, the Emperor, but 'of Christ Jesus'. (See verse 9.) This means three things.
Rome was a large city and Paul lived in one or more rooms there. There were many large wooden buildings used in this way in Rome. Paul was able to preach the Good News and to receive visitors. So although Paul was not a free man, he was as busy as ever in the work of Christ.
Timothy was with Paul; Philemon: 23 and 24 gives the names of other people who were with him. Notice that Mark and Luke were together there. They both wrote 'Gospels', that is, accounts of the life of Jesus.
In those days, you sent a letter when there was someone to take it. There was no 'post'. The letter to Philemon was one of three letters, which Paul sent at this time. The others were the Epistle (or letter) to the Colossians and a letter to Laodicea. (See Colossians 4: 16.) We do not have the Letter to Laodicea. [1.2] From Colossians we can learn several things. Epaphras was now with Paul (Col 1: 8) and was not free, but he had worked for Christ faithfully in the cities of Colosse, Laodicea and Hierapolis. However, Tychicus would take the letters (Col 4: 7-9). Onesimus was to go with Tychicus: notice carefully what Paul says about Onesimus in verse 10!
All that we know about Philemon is what we can learn from the letter. He owned slaves and he had a home with several guest rooms. (verse: 22). Paul writes to him with great respect. He takes great care to honour Philemon and to be polite to him. Paul could have called himself an apostle in verse 1, but he speaks only of his low position. (See: verses 9,13,23.) On the other hand, verse 19 suggests that Philemon had become a Christian as a result of Paul's work, and so Philemon as a Christian ought to show honour to Paul.
We can only guess that Apphia (verse 2) was the wife of Philemon. Archippus (see also Colossians 4: 17) may have been their son. Paul calls him a 'fellow soldier' because they had worked together to spread the Good News. [1.3] A group of Christians met in Philemon's home; perhaps he had a large farm somewhere near Colosse. Paul does not seem to have visited Colosse (see Colossians 2: 1) so he must have met Philemon elsewhere. This was probably during his ministry at Ephesus, (Acts 19:10) about eight years earlier.
Colosse was a city in what is now Turkey, (Anatolia or Asia Minor), but it was then in the Roman province of Asia. Tychicus would probably follow the Roman road, the Appian Way, from Rome through south Italy. He would then have to cross the Adriatic Sea by ship and follow another great Roman road, the Egnatian Way, over the mountains of northern Greece to the Aegean Sea. He might cross the sea from Neapolis to Troas by another ship. (Acts 16: 11; 20: 6) The whole journey was about 1600km. From Troas to Colosse was still about 400km probably on foot. Even from Ephesus it was about 160km eastward up the Lycus Valley to Colosse.
Colosse was less important in New Testament times than it had been; the cities of Hierapolis and Laodicea were growing faster. Colosse had the best water supply, but it suffered even more damage from 'earthquakes' (violent shaking of the earth) than the other cities did. [1.4]
There is no letter to Colosse among the letters to the seven churches in 'Asia' in Revelation 2 -3. The church may have died out at an early date. It seems to play little part in the life of the early Church in later times.
'Grace' (verse 3) is God's love and favour to us: He is kind and good and forgives our sins. When we know this, we have peace in our hearts. The fighting inside us about sin and our fears does not come to an end when we first believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died to save us. But we do know now that we shall win the fight in the end.
In verses 4 - 7, Paul speaks of the goodness of Philemon. Then after that in verse 8 he turns to his real reason for writing the letter.
Exactly what verse 6 means is not easy to find out. But Paul says something like this: 'This is what I ask God for when I pray for you. You already have a faith in Jesus, which you share with me and with other Christians. If you were one Christian on your own, you could do little for Christ. But because you share your faith, your faith can work. Now the other thing, which you need to know, is how much good God has given to us. If we do not fully know the good things, which God has given to us to use in His service, we shall not get on very well. But if we do fully know these things, God will bring us much closer to Jesus.' [1.5]
Philemon has faith in (or rather 'towards') the Lord Jesus. Our faith not only rests in Him: that is trust. It moves us 'towards' Him all our lives until we see Him in glory. Philemon has love, not only to Jesus as his Saviour, but to all His people: and some of these may be Christian slaves. Paul prays that Philemon may be busy. He is to share his faith with other people. When we give we grow stronger in the Christian life. There are many good things that belong to us when we become Christians. Even a man like Philemon who had so many good things in life gained many more when he became a Christian. Paul says (verse.7) that the good Philemon has done to other people has been a real help to him far away in Rome. [1.6]
When we see the good things in other people we should talk about them just as Paul does here. This is one way to make what is good even better. The good that we do to other people may spread much further than we expect it to.
Paul now comes to the reason why he has written the letter.
For any man to be the slave of someone else is wrong. We need to remember that in some parts of the world, great numbers of people, some of them Christians are still no better off than slaves are. The efforts of Christian people ended the slave trade about two hundred years ago. Since then, most countries have set their slaves free, but they have not done enough to help them to enjoy their freedom. Slavery is an evil, which we need to watch against. (See Paul's teaching in Colossians 3: 22-25. If slaves do not obey, it will do no good, but verse 25 says that master and slave will both be judged by God's Law.)
It is said that there were 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire. One man might have 400 or even more. Tens of thousands of slaves worked, suffered and died in the silver mines of Spain. A slave held the highest office under the Emperor. Slaves of the Emperor might travel on his business with great sums of money. Some slavery was cruel, but Roman slavery was sometimes a way by which a man could rise in society. [1.7] A slave had no rights: the only name he had was the name his master chose to give to him. The horrible cruelty of ancient slavery grew less when the Good News of Jesus spread, but it took far too long - almost 1800 years - before the Church worked to do away with slavery altogether.
Onesimus was a slave: Philemon was his master. Onesimus had run away from Colosse and found his way to Rome. A slave who had run away was charged with stealing his master's property. He had stolen himself! Very often, however, a slave who ran away would steal as much as he could carry. He would then hide most of it. If the slave catchers caught him, he might be able to do a deal with them.
The slave catchers' cruelty was horrible, but they were wicked and they might buy freedom for a slave with what he had stolen. The danger facing a runaway slave was very great. The Romans said: - 'Slaves should always be sent back to their owner, whether before they have fought with wild beasts or after'. Their masters would ill-treat them to find out where any money they had stolen was. Then they might put them to death, or have them fed to hungry wild animals in front of crowds of cheering Romans.
At Rome, Onesimus had met Paul. Perhaps his master, Philemon, had spoken about Paul. Onesimus became a Christian too. That meeting, as well as Onesimus' faith, was God's doing in a large and crowded city. The only way he could prove that his faith was real was to go back to his master, Philemon. He must do what the Prodigal Son did - go back home. (Luke 15: 11-24) So he travels with Tychicus, who can keep him safe from the slave catchers. But also Paul writes this letter. 'What you ought to do' may not be to set him free, [1.8] but to welcome him back without cruel punishment. Paul could have said: 'I am an apostle: you are an ordinary Christian. You must do as I ask you'. Paul says: 'Show love!' (Verse 9) This will make Philemon act in love.
We often try to get people to do things for poor or wrong reasons. Then we wonder why they will not do what we want them to do. If we show other Christians that we expect nothing less than Christian love from them, they cannot refuse to do what we ask of them.
Paul then adds that he is old and worn out in Christ's service: that he is not free: and that just as Philemon had become a Christian through his ministry, so has Onesimus. (Verse 10) The name Onesimus means 'useful'. He had been 'useless' to Philemon when he ran away: or perhaps Apphia had called him a 'useless slave'. [1.9]
The Good News has not only given this slave a new freedom in Christ. It has also changed the man .Now he knows how to use his freedom as he should (verse 11). Christ makes us free. But we must use our new freedom to bring honour to Jesus.
Paul says that the change in Onesimus is so real that he would like him to stay in Rome. (Verse 13) but really it is Paul who is useful. He is useful to Philemon, when he asks him to show love to a slave. He is useful to Onesimus, when he tells him to prove his faith by going back to the master who had the right to do horrible things to him.
Verse 15 is important to us. Paul says 'Perhaps...' He does not say: 'I know why God let this happen'. He says: 'God had a wise reason for all this. I cannot yet be sure what it is'. Let us learn to talk like Paul. Something strange, or something we do not expect, happens to us. God does bring good out of what is bad. (Judges 14 : 14) Let us not be too quick to say: ' This is what God is doing'. We may be found wrong. Paul says (verse 16) that God's reason may be so that the two men may now be Christian brothers as well as master and slave.
So (verse 17) although Paul is an apostle, Onesimus is a slave and Philemon is wealthy, they are now all brothers because they are all Christians. We must not allow what we are to divide us from other Christians. In verse 18, Paul offers to pay Philemon anything that Onesimus owes to him. Did Paul have enough money? or did he trust his God to provide it? Or perhaps he was so sure that Onesimus had not robbed Philemon that he could safely say this. A child's debt is its father's debt: and Paul thinks of Onesimus as his son.
Notice verse 19. It was usual in those times to get some one to write your letters for you (an 'amanuensis"'). I have seen this happening in the streets of the Chinese part of Kuala Lumpur in what was then Malaya. In the case of Paul's Letter to the Romans we even know the name of the writer (Rom 16: 22). But Paul liked to write a few lines himself. (See 1 Corinthians 16: 21-24; Colossians 4: 18; 2 Thessalonians 3: 17; Galatians 6: 11. It may be that Paul had bad eyesight. See Galatians 4: 15. His big letters would have taken up too much space on the paper, which was not cheap). He says again that he will make good anything that Philemon has lost. Still, he adds that Philemon has Paul to thank for his Christian faith. So really he owes everything to Paul. Philemon has done good to others. (verse 7) Now he can do good to Paul also by being kind to Onesimus. (verse 20)
The prayer, which we make in faith, does not try to force our will on God. It is rather that we bend our will to His. But Philemon had prayed for Paul, and Paul expects those prayers to be answered. (verse 22) So he asks Philemon to get a room ready for him. Paul hopes to be set free soon, and then he too will make the long journey from Rome to Colosse.
(Verse 23) We have already spoken of Epaphras. (Verse 24) For Aristarchus, see Acts 19: 29; 20: 4; 27: 2; Colossians 4: 10. He seems to have been one of the best of the group of men who worked with Paul. The same cannot be said of Demas. (See 2 Timothy 4: 10, which was written several years later.) No one ever goes wrong in the church of Christ unless he has a false heart. We are not to love the world, but Demas did (1 John 2: 15-17). A final prayer (verse 25) closes this little letter. It is famous for its beauty and for the truly Christian way in which Paul deals with a difficult matter.
We do not know what happened when Philemon read it. However, if he had torn it up, it would not have been in our New Testament now. No doubt Paul wrote many letters like this one, but the others have been lost.
So what happened to Onesimus? No one knows.
However, about thirty five years later, a man called Ignatius wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus. Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch. He was on his way to Rome to die for his faith 'to become food for the lions'. He speaks highly of the Bishop of Ephesus. He had met him, and prayed that everyone in the church at Ephesus may be the sort of man that he was. His name? It was Onesimus. Had the slave who ran away from Colosse and became a Christian when he met Paul in Rome, now become the leader of one of the greatest churches in the early age of the Church? We shall never know, but I would like to think so.