The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, usually referred to simply as Philemon, is a prison letter to Philemon from Paul of Tarsus. Philemon was a leader in the Colossian church. This letter, which is one of the books of the New Testament, deals with forgiveness.
It is now generally regarded as one of the undisputed works of Paul. It is the shortest of Paul’s extant letters, consisting of only 335 words in the original Greek text and 25 verses in modern English translations.
This short letter addressed to three specific individuals was written by 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 Paul (Philemon 1:10). 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). Paul uses very strong arguments (especially Philemon 1:19) in his touching appeal on behalf of Onesimus. It is unlikely that Paul is subtly hinting that he would like to retain Onesimus as his own slave, lent to 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). Paul’s letter deals with an accepted institution of antiquity, human slavery. But 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 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.”
Paul, prisoner for Christ, and our brother Timothy, to Philemon our much-loved fellow-worker, Appia our sister, Archippus our comrade-in-arms, and the church that meets in your house: grace and peace.
In my prayers I often give thanks to God for you, because I hear about your faith and love towards the Lord Jesus, and all God’s people. I pray that our sharing in faith will deepen awareness of all the possibilities for good that come with commitment to Christ. I am greatly pleased and strengthened by your love, brother. You have put new heart into God’s people.
Now it would not be out of place for me, in Christ, simply to remind you of your duty in a particular matter. But I would rather appeal to your love. Yes, I, Paul, ambassador, and now prisoner, for Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten, here, in this prison.
I am talking about Onesimus - in spite of his name not much use to you once, but now very useful indeed, to me as well as to you. I am sending him back to you, and in so doing I am sending a part of myself. I would like to have kept him with me, to look after me just as you would if you were here. But I wouldn’t do that without your permission. I would’nt just take something which would be better freely given.
Maybe the reason why you lost him for a while was simply this: so that you could have him back for good, not as a slave but as a brother - dear to me, even dearer to you, as a person and as a brother in Christ.
So if what you and I share matters to you, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way or is in debt to you, let me pay. Look, I am writing this with my own hand: I, Paul, will pay it back. I will not dwell on the fact that you owe me your very self. My brother, I am counting on you, in Christ. Make me happy! I know that you will be generous!
One more thing - please get a room ready for me. I am hoping that in answer to your prayers God will let me come to you.
Epaphras, prisoner here with me for the sake of Christ Jesus, sends his greetings, as do my fellow-workers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit!