(Philemon 1:1) Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,
Paul wrote this letter from prison. Likely he dictated his prison letters to someone else who wrote them down. In prison he would need people to take care of his needs and also likely to bribe the guards and officials to allow him certain comforts and freedoms. Prisons back then were inhumane.
(Philemon 1:2) And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:
Not only did Philemon have servant-slaves, he also hosted a church in his home. Probably he was an elder, perhaps even a bishop. It is likely that the same people who had large homes and money were also church leaders. Matthew the tax collector is another example of this. Why would Paul and those with him lavish such greetings on those who were not doing the work of the ministry with them?
I find it odd that this letter is intended for the Christians at large since it is obviously intended for Philemon and addresses a personal matter. Perhaps Paul intended that Philemon would read it privately but pass on the greetings to the others.
I wonder if this Archippus is the same person as in the letter to the Colossians? Assuming so, this implies Philemon lived in Colosse and was, in fact, a leader of the Colossian Church; perhaps its bishop.
Some translations say, "Apphia our sister". It is impossible that Paul and Timothy and Apphia were all from the same parents. Therefore, the word "sister" means more than having the same parents. The same for the word "brother".
Notice how many people lived in Philemon's house: Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus. This is not an open letter to a Church so these people probably were all related to Philemon; perhaps Apphia was his wife, and Archippus his son. In addition, Philemon had slaves. Obviously he was well-to-do. Paul often attracted well-to-do successful business people.
(Philemon 1:3) Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(Philemon 1:4) I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,
(Philemon 1:5) Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;
(Philemon 1:6) That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.
(Philemon 1:7) For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.
(Philemon 1:8) Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,
(Philemon 1:9) Yet for love's sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.
(Philemon 1:10) I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
(Philemon 1:11) Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
(Philemon 1:12) Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:
(Philemon 1:13) Whom I would have [wished] retained [kept] with me, that in thy stead [place] he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of [imprisonment for] the gospel:
This ministering probably included such unpleasant tasks as cleaning excrement; bringing food, possibly the only food Paul had; massaging him to relieve the pain from being in iron shackles; being the scribe of this letter (and possibly others such a the letter to the Philippians). Likely, there was a risk for Onesimus that he would himself be imprisoned, perhaps if Paul said something controversial to him that offended the Roman witnesses surely present at every meeting.
Paul implies Philemon would have wanted to minister Paul while he was imprisoned but that, instead, he sent Onesimus for the task. It is as if Paul is thanking Philemon for sending his slave to Paul to help him.
What a sacrifice for Paul to give up Onesimus as his helper. His quality of life, already bad, likely decreased significantly after this.
(Philemon 1:14) But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.
(Philemon 1:15) For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;
(Philemon 1:16) Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?
Paul is asking Philemon to release Onesimus as his servant-slave and to not take legal action against him. Paul has decreed that Onesimus should no longer be a servant-slave and should be forgiven his wrongdoings against Philemon and hopes Philemon will do the same. Paul is also asking Philemon to accept Onesimus as a fellow brother in the Lord, as an equal. He is really making demands on Philemon, using Philemon's loyalty to Paul as leverage. I wonder if Philemon's loyalty to Paul is as great as Paul hopes it is. Apparently, Philemon and Paul have worked together in ministry before, or at least Philemon has provided a place for Paul to stay when he was in town.
Paul gives two reasons why Philemon should accept Onesimus as a free man as Paul has done. The first is because he is a fellow human. Perhaps Paul is teaching that slavery is inhuman and unrighteous and should not be practiced by Christians? The second reason is because Onisemus has become a Christian. If this means that as soon as the slave of a Christian becomes a Christian they should be released, this should be of concern to any Christian slaveowner; they should prevent their slaves from hearing the gospel, but this of course goes against their obligation to share the gospel with everyone, including their slaves. In any case, the slave owners of the southern states of the U.S.A. who claimed to be Christian didn't heed Paul's request to let their newly-converted slaves go free.
(Philemon 1:17) If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.
(Philemon 1:18) If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
(Philemon 1:19) I Paul have written it [am writing this] with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.
Paul wrote this letter himself. Apparently it was a common practice for people to write by speaking aloud with transcribers to write it down.
It seems Onesimus stole something from Philemon, perhaps so he would have the means of escaping. Perhaps also, Paul is referring to Onesimus owing Philemon for the lost labor and that this was owed to him. Paul will pay it all back for Onesimus — well, he isn't really going to pay it back. He probably doesn't have the means to pay it back. Instead, he is suggesting that Philemon actually owes him (Paul) for having heard the gospel from him and become redeemed; that he owes Paul his very life. Paul will therefore draw from that account to pay him back. This kind of thinking is similar to the Catholic notion of the treasury of merit which provides the basis for indulgences.
(Philemon 1:20) Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.
(Philemon 1:21) Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.
(Philemon 1:22) But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.
Perhaps Epaphras was also imprisoned in Rome, but more likely he had chosen to spend time in prison ministering to Paul.
(Philemon 1:25) The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
King James Version