Authorship, date, and background
Philemon is the shortest of Paul's letters. It is one of the "prison letters" along with Philippians, Colossians and Ephesians. It was written during the same period as the other letters and can be dated around A.D. 60-61. Paul wrote these letters while imprisoned in Rome. At that time, slavery was a recognized institution. Nowhere in the New Testament is there any specific injunction against it. Indeed, slavery was a common practice in the Old Testament and explicit Mosaic instructions were given concerning it. For example, the people of Israel were permitted to own non-Jewish slaves. In any case, even slaves had some rights and were protected by Jewish law. There is general agreement that the teaching of Jesus was responsible for doing away with slavery, since it was inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount, and most certainly, so far as Christians were concerned, the Pauline teaching that there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, struck at the root of the system. Yet, in one form or another, slavery persists to this day in certain part of the world.
The letter addressed to Philemon arose out a situation in which his slave Onesimus had fled with some of his master's money or property. Apparently he came into contact with Paul, who brought him to salvation through Jesus Christ. What should Onesimus do now that he was a Christian, inasmuch as his master Philemon was a believer? Since salvation includes repentance and restitution, it was apparent that Onesimus could do nothing else than return to his master and reassume his role as a slave. Philemon had the right of life and death over Onesimus and could have had him executed for stealing his property and running away. It was against this background that the apostle Paul wrote not only to Philemon but also to the church which met in his home. This made the letter something more than a personal note to a friend. It brought the church into the picture and with it the moral suasion of other believers who would watch the decision Philemon was called upon to make.
Characteristics and content
The letter centers on the motif of forgiveness. Onesimus had committed a crime and this was a sin against God too. Paul acknowledges that Onesimus was not much use to Philemon in the past (11), and makes it clear that he was also a thief, for he says: "If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught, put that on my account" (18). He pleads for compassion and intercedes by saying he will pay it all back for Onesimus, which is nothing less than the biblical idea of substitution (18, 19). He notes that the relationship of Onesimus to Philemon has changed from that slave to "a beloved brother" (16). He pleads with Philemon to treat Onesimus kindly, to remember what Philemon owes to Paul, and he encourages him by saying, "Having confidence I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say" (21). He really wants to retain Onesimus, but sends him back because it is the right thing to do. The letter breathes out Paul's unspoken hope that Philemon will set him free. By adding greetings from his other fellow workers, he lets Philemon know that they are also watching to see how he will react to the apostle's appeal.