Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.
Not a great deal is obvious about Paul’s letter to Philemon, yet a few things can be gleaned by the names mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Colossian church. It would seem from the Philemon text that Onesimus is a slave belonging to Philemon who ran away from involuntary servitude and somehow ended up in Paul’s presence and came to accept grace through Jesus Christ. In our day, we might have a knee-jerk reaction against Philemon when armed with this information, but we would misunderstand things a bit if we did. Remember that Paul wrote this letter in the Roman world of the first century, and that this world was based entirely upon a slave economy.
Historians give estimates of a slave population that made up from 25 to 50 per cent of the entire population of the Empire and for the people in the letter, it was not an issue.
You are probably aware that there are people in our time who claim that the Bible advocates human slavery and that Christianity is bad because it approves of slavery, and I suppose if all you are looking for is something to be critical of, and if you do not desire to understand what you are talking about, then this is as good an issue to bring up as any… but you would be missing the point entirely. Paul was not sending an Abolitionist rant to Philemon in this letter− what would be the point of that? Had he done so all he would have done was to anger him and have that anger taken out on Onesimus. Paul wrote to Philemon to ask him to forgive Onesimus and allow him to return, as a brother, to Paul.
In all likelihood, this letter was sent off to Philemon at the same time his letter to the Colossian church was sent to Colosse, and so we infer that Philemon must have lived somewhere in the vicinity of that church. Perhaps the group which met in Philemon’s home was directly associated with that congregation, or it was a close-by one. It is clear however, that Paul had gotten to know Philemon when he had been in that region on his third missionary tour.
The issue that makes this letter a valuable one for us is how Paul approached Philemon with his request. He did so with skill and sensitivity that we all need to take note of, for he approached the subject with love and without judgment− would we do the same under those circumstances?
Let’s move on, and begin our investigation in earnest…