This letter is a remarkable example of a tender and tactful intercessory appeal. It is addressed to Philemon, probably a convert of Paul, a wealthy citizen of Colossae in Phrygia, and a prominent member of the Christian congregation in that city. Phm_1:1-2; Col_4:9-17. He had not only earned a reputation for faith and love, but had also gladly offered his house to the Christians of Colossae as a place of worship, as was the custom of the early Christians. Onesimus was a slave belonging to Philemon, who had, probably after a theft committed in his master's house, run away from Colossae and gone to Rome. Here he was providentially brought under the influence of the great apostle and was converted by him, Phm_1:10. "He was very profitable to the aged apostle, who was still a prisoner, ministering to him in the bonds of the Gospel. By his grateful and devoted services he greatly endeared himself to Paul. The latter cells him his own heart, a brother beloved, a faithful and beloved brother, Phm_1:12-16; Col_4:9. As he was Philemon's lawful slave, Paul could not think of retaining him permanently in his service. He therefore took the opportunity afforded by the mission of Tychicus to Colossae, Col_4:7, to send him back to his master. Thus the apostle establishes the principle that the Gospel does not invalidate human ordinances that are not in themselves against the Moral Law. On the other hand, he reminds Philemon that he must now recognize his slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ."
Practically the entire letter treats of this one matter. After the opening address and salutation Paul expresses his great joy over Philemon's faith and Christian work. He then states the object of his letter, namely, the appeal to the addressee to accept his runaway slave as a brother in Christ and his own dear friend. Personal matters, greetings, and the apostolic blessing conclude the letter. It was written at Rome, during the apostle's first imprisonment, probably in 62, and at the same time as that to the Colossians, Col_4:7-14.