INTRODUCTION TO THE LETTER TO PHILEMON
by Stephen Ricker
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Before analyzing the text of any book of the Bible, it is well to learn the historical background. Also, it is best to make a mountain top view of its general contents.
- TIME AND AUTHOR
- The following is a time line:
- Paul was arrested in Jerusalem (57 A.D., Acts 21:33)
- Paul is transferred to Rome to stand at trial before Caesar (59-60 A.D., Acts 25:10-28:16)
- Paul awaits for trial in Rome under house arrest. Acts is penned by Luke who was with Paul. (60-61 A.D. Acts 28:17 to end)
- Paul underwent his first Roman imprisonment during which he wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and this letter. (61-62 A.D.)
- Paul was released from prison. (between 62 and 64 A.D.)
- That Philemon is a genuine letter of Paul written during Paul's first imprisonment in Rome is not usually disputed. Paul spent at least two years under house arrest in Rome. (Acts 28:16-31) Paul penned all the Prison Letters (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon). Many believe that Onesimus was the one who collected and kept all the the prison letters.
- Onesimus, a slave of Philemon who lived in Colosse, had stolen some of his master's goods and fled to Rome. (18-19) Somehow he came into contact with Paul who was under house arrest. During that time Paul preached the gospel to him and Onesimus accepted the gospel. (10) It is also possible that Paul, a Roman citizen legally adopted him. Onesimus remained with Paul after accepting the gospel, helping him in some way perhaps as a chef. (11, 13)
- After Paul wrote letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians, Paul wrote this letter. He had planned for Tychicus to deliver the letters as was his usual responsibility. (Eph. 6:21-22; Col. 4:7-8) As mentioned in the letter Paul sent Onesimus with Tychicus.
- PLACE: COLOSEE-The Town and the Church
- Several hundred years before Paul's day, Colosse had been a leading city in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). It was located on the Lycus River and on the great east-west trade route leading from Ephesus on the Aegean Sea to the Euphrates River. By the first century A.D. Colosse was diminished to a second-rate market town, which had been surpassed long ago in power and importance by the neighboring towns of Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 4:13).
- What gave Colosse NT importance was the fact that, during Paul's three-year ministry in Ephesus, Epaphras had been converted and had carried the gospel to Colosse (ef. 1:7-8; Ac 19: 10). The young church that resulted then became the target of heretical attack, which led to Epaphras' visit to Paul in Rome and ultimately to the penning of the Colossian and Ephesian letters.
- Perhaps as a result of the efforts of Epaphras or other converts of Paul, Christian churches had also been established in Laodicea and Hierapolis. Some of them were house churches (Col. 4:15; Phm 2). Most likely all of them were primarily Gentile. Epaphras appears to be the lead pastor (Latin for shepherd) of one if not all three congregations. Paul's letters to the congregations in Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians should be studied with this letter.
- Paul wanted Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery and to not hold him accountable for what he had stolen. Paul said that he would repay whatever was stolen. Paul also reported that he planned to be released from prison and that he would visit Philemon when released.
- On The Basis of Love
- Thanksgiving and Prayer (1-7)
- Paul's Plea for Onesimus (8-25)
As you conclude your overview of Philemon, ponder over the key verses 1:9a: "Yet I appeal to you on the basis of love."
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