Question: "Who was Philemon in the Bible?"
Answer: Philemon was a first-century Christian and a slave owner who also hosted a church in his home, most likely in Colossae. His name means “affectionate” in Greek, and, from all we know about Philemon, he lived up to his name. Paul had led Philemon to faith on one of his visits to Asia Minor and had stayed in Philemon’s home when in that region. The only mention of Philemon in the Bible is in the book by that name. The book of Philemon is a personal letter from the apostle Paul to his friend Philemon whom he calls a “dear friend and fellow worker” (Philemon 1:1).
In the book of Philemon, Paul appeals to his friend on behalf of a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had somehow connected with Paul, who was imprisoned in Rome. Onesimus became a believer, but, because he was the property of Philemon, Paul sent him back to his owner with a letter.
Through Paul’s heartfelt appeal, we learn the following about Philemon:
• he owned at least one slave, as did most affluent people in that region of the world, now known as Turkey.
• he hosted a church in his home, along with “Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier” (Philemon 1:2). These were probably Philemon’s wife and son.
• he regularly prayed for Paul and his ministry.
• he loved the church and its people.
• he would most likely do more than Paul asked in receiving Onesimus back with grace.
• he had a guest room in his home where Paul was welcome to stay.
The relationship between Paul and Philemon is clearly warm and respectful. Paul is comfortable enough with the friendship to gently remind his friend that Philemon owed Paul his “very self” for introducing him to Jesus (Philemon 1:19).
The book of Philemon gives us a template for appealing to our Christian brothers and sisters about issues of disagreement. While Paul never criticizes Philemon for owning slaves, he gently reminds him that Onesimus is now a brother in Christ and that truth should now define the relationship. It is probable that Philemon freed his returned slave, as he heeded Paul’s instruction that, under the covenant of grace, both master and slave have equal standing in the body of Christ.