We can distinguish three parts in this brief letter:
I. The Introduction, Phm 1:1-7. This contains the address, the customary blessing, and a thanksgiving of the apostle for the charity of Philemon, for the increase of which Paul hopes, because it greatly refreshes the saints.
II. The Request, Phm 1:8-21. Rather than command Philemon the apostle comes to him with a request, viz, that he receive back the converted slave Onesimus and forgive him his wrong-doing. Paul enforces his request by pointing to the conversion of Onesimus, and to his own willingness to repay Philemon what he lost, though he might ask retribution of him; and trusts that Philemon will do more than he asks.
III. Conclusion, Phm 1:22-25. Trusting that he will be set free, the apostle requests Philemon to prepare for him lodging. With greetings of his fellow-laborers and a final salutation he ends his letter.
1. This letter is closely related to the Epistle that was sent to the Colossian church. They were composed at the same time, were sent to the same city and, with a single exception (that of Justus), contain identical greetings. At the same time it is distinguished from Colossians in that it is a private letter. Yet it is not addressed to a single individual, but to a family and to the believers at their house.
2. The letter is further characterized by its great delicacy and tactfulness. It bears strong evidence to Christian courtesy, and has therefore been called “the polite epistle.” In it we see Paul, the gentleman, handling a delicate question with consummate skill. Though he might command, he prefers to request that Philemon forgive and receive again his former slave. Tactfully he refers to the spiritual benefit that accrued from what might be called material loss. In a delicate manner he reminds Philemon of the debt the latter owed him, and expresses his confidence that this brother in Christ would even do more than he requested.
Marcion included this letter in his Pauline collection, and the Muratorian Fragment also ascribes it to Paul. Tertullian and Origen quote it by name, and Eusebius reckons it among the Pauline letters.
Moreover the Epistle has all the marks of a genuine Pauline production. It is self-attested, contains the usual Pauline blessing, thanksgiving and salutation, reveals the character of the great apostle and clearly exhibits his style.
Yet even this short and admirable Epistle has not enjoyed universal recognition. Baur rejected it because of its close relation to Colossians and Ephesians, which he regarded as spurious. He called it “the embryo of a Christian romance,” like that of the Clementine Recognitions, its tendency being to show that what is lost on earth is gained in heaven. He also objects to it that it contains seven words which Paul uses nowhere else. Weizsacker and Pfleiderer are somewhat inclined to follow Baur. They find proof for the allegorical character of the letter in the name Onesimus =profitable, helpful. The latter thinks that this note may have accompanied the Epistle to the Colossians, to illustrate by a fictitious example the social precepts contained in that letter. Such criticism need not be taken seriously. Hilgenfelds dictum is that Baur has not succeeded in raising his explanation to the level of probability. And Renan says: “Paul alone can have written this little masterpiece.”
The letter is addressed to “Philemon our dearly beloved and fellow-laborer, and to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus, our fellow-soldier, and to the church in thy house,” Phm 1:1-2. Little is known of this Philemon. He was evidently an inhabitant of Colossae, Col 4:9, and apparently belonged to the wealthy class. He had slaves, received a circle of friends in his house, and was able to prepare a lodging for Paul, Phm 1:22. His munificence was generally known, Phm 1:5-7, and he made himself useful in Christian service. He was converted by Paul, Phm 1:19, most likely during the apostles three years residence at Ephesus. Apphia is generally regarded as the wife of Philemon, while many consider Archippus as their son. We notice from Col 4:17 that the latter had an office in the church. Probably he was temporarily taking the place of Epaphras. The expression “the church in thy house” undoubtedly refers to the Christians of Colossae that gathered in the dwelling of Philemon for worship.
1. Occasion and Purpose. The occasion for writing this Epistle is clearly indicated in the letter itself. Onesimus, the slave of Philemon absconded and, so it seems, defrauded his master, Phm 1:18-19. He fled to Rome, where in some way—it is useless to guess just how—he fell in with Paul, whom he may have known from the time of his Ephesian residence. The apostle was instrumental in converting him and in showing him the evil of his way, 10, and although he would gladly have retained him for the work, sent him back to Colossae in deference to the claims of Philemon. He did not send him empty-handed, however, but gave him a letter of recommendation, in which he informs Philemon of the change wrought in Onesimus by which the former slave became a brother, bespeaks for him a favorable reception in the family of his master and in the circle that gathered at their house for worship, and even hints at the desirability of emancipating him.
2. Time and place. For the discussion of the time and place of composition cf. what was said respecting the Epistle to the Ephesians.
This Epistle is rarely quoted by the early church fathers, which is undoubtedly due to its brevity and to its lack of doctrinal contents. The letter is recognized by Marcion and the Muratorian Fragment, and is contained in the old Latin and Syriac Versions. Tertullian quotes it more than once, but no trace of it is found in Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria. Eusebius classes it with the Homologoumena and Jerome argues at length against those who refused to accept it as Pauline. The Church never doubted its canonicity.
The permanent value of this little letter is both psychological and ethical. It shows us Paul as he corresponds in a friendly way with a brother in Christ, and thus gives us a new glimpse of his character, the character of a perfect gentleman, unobtrusive, refined, skillful and withal firm,—a character worthy of imitation. Moreover it reveals to us how Paul, in view of the unity of bond and free in Jesus Christ, deals with the perplexing question of slavery. He does not demand the abolishment of the institution, since the time for such a drastic measure had not yet come; but he does clearly hint at emancipation as the natural result of the redemptive work of Christ.