In the story surrounding Paul’s letter to Philemon, there are three central characters: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Since the letter is written to Philemon, let’s talk about him first.
Despite having a letter written to him, Philemon is only mentioned by name once in the Bible. It is in the book that bears his name.
Paul calls Philemon a “dear friend” and a “fellow worker” (v1). The church also meets in his house (v2). This doesn’t mean that Philemon is the leader of the church, but merely implies that he has the biggest house, thereby providing the most room for people to meet. By virtue of owning the biggest house, it is likely that Philemon is also wealthy. Additionally, Paul notes the Philemon loves others (v5) and is an encourager (v7).
Philemon also has a slave. However, we need to be careful not to vilify Philemon for this. Historians tell us that unlike forced enslavement today, much of the slavery 2,000 years ago was voluntary. Desperate people would voluntarily opt for slavery as a means of survival, either to pay off an insurmountable debt or to avoid starvation. Taking on a voluntary slave could therefore even be seen as an act of mercy. Though we don’t know the exact circumstances between Philemon and Onesimus, what we do know is that Onesimus ran away, leaving Philemon without his services.
Philemon was wronged. Will he seek retaliation or give forgiveness? Will he pursue justice or offer mercy?
Before these questions are answered, however, we must first looks at Paul’s role and Onesimus’s response, which will be in the next two posts.