Paul was a prisoner in Rome when he wrote to Philemon. Therefore, it is often referred to as one of the “prison epistles."
It is a personal note written to a friend about a private matter.
This letter was written to Philemon, who was evidently a wealthy resident of Colossae who had a home large enough to house the local church (v. 2).
Paul had evidently led Philemon to the Lord when he ministered in that area a few years before, and they had become good friends.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a masterpiece of diplomacy and tact in dealing with a festering social sore in the Roman empire: human slavery.
Slavery was very common in the Roman Empire, and evidently some Christians had slaves.
Onesimus was a domestic slave of Philemon who was a member of the church in Colossae. He had run away and evidently robbed his master when he left (v. 18).
He made his way to Rome and somehow came in contact with Paul, who led him to the Lord.
Paul convinced Onesimus that running from his problems wouldn’t solve them, and he persuaded Onesimus to return to his master.
There were approximately sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire when Paul wrote this letter.
Roman law that governed slavery in that day considered slaves nothing more than property to be bought and sold and even beaten or killed if they did not obey. It is with this background in mind that we find Paul sending Onesimus, as a fugitive, back to his master Philemon.
Paul’s intercession for Onesimus illustrates what Christ has done for us. As Paul interceded for a slave, so Christ intercedes for us who are slaves to sin. As Paul offered to pay the debts of a slave, so Christ paid our debt of sin.