Philemon 1 is an interesting letter in many ways. First, it’s short but actually it’s the length of the average letter during the Roman times. Second, the subject matter is fascinating, and answers some of the difficulties we have with other passages written by Paul. In Titus, for example, Paul writes that slaves should obey their masters. However, here we see the same issue but from a different standpoint.
It seems that Philemon is a slave owner (which was exceptionally common in the Roman period), and Paul is writing on the behalf of one of his slaves. Onesimus appears to be Philemon’s slave, that has probably escaped and sought Paul out. Paul, from his imprisonment, has written to Philemon petitioning him to show clemency towards Onesimus and even to secure his release from slavery.
Philemon is a church leader, his wife is probably Apphia and Archippus is possibly a fellow leader in the church. Here we have a short insight into a house church set-up in the Roman Empire.
I think that this letter is particularly helpful in looking at relationships between believers and how to address issues effectively. I think it’s also interesting in how it treats the issue of slavery. He calls a slave his brother. Furthermore, it’s how Paul asks for obedience, which is definitely against our culture, despite the fact that Philemon was probably of a higher social status than Paul. So, it really makes me consider how well we respond to requests from leaders in church today.