"The epistle to Philemon is a special letter of intercession on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus, who had earlier fled his master Philemon, and possibly taken with him some of the latter's money or property. Ordinarily, under contemporary law, a runaway slave could be subject to frightful penalties. However, while in Rome Onesimus was converted to the gospel by Paul and had proved himself 'profitable' (Philem. 1:10-11); therefore, when Tychicus went to Colosse (bearing the epistle to the Colossians), Paul sent Onesimus along, with an appeal to Philemon to receive him in the spirit of forgiveness as 'a faithful and beloved brother.' (See Col. 4:7-9.)
"Aside from the fact that it is a remarkable example of a tactful appeal, this epistle shows that the gospel of Jesus Christ is an equalizing force in the lives of men regardless of differences in social status. Because Onesimus had come repentant into the gospel brotherhood, Philemon was asked to receive him, not as a servant, but as 'a brother beloved, ... both in the flesh, and in the Lord.' (Philem. 1:15, 16.) (Lane Johnson, "New Testament Backgrounds: Philemon," Ensign, Apr. 1976, 58)
Spencer W. Kimball
I have always been uplifted by reading the short epistle of Paul to Philemon; it teaches us a principle and a spirit concerning gospel brotherhood. Philemon's servant, Onesimus, had run away from his master and joined Paul in Rome. Paul converted Onesimus to the gospel and in sending him, a changed man, back to Philemon. Paul took the occasion to teach both men some important truths. Paul wanted to teach Onesimus, the servant, the necessity of being obedient to law, and he wanted to teach Philemon the need for greater love, a love sufficient to make his servant free, even his equal: I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
(Quotes Philem. 1:10-12, 15-18, 20-21.)
What a spirit of brotherhood is taught by this great missionary, this apostle of Jesus who also spoke elsewhere to the Corinthians that he would even change his eating habits if that would mean the difference between keeping someone with the Lord or turning him away through misunderstanding! (See 1 Cor. 8.)
It is an inspiration and joy to see this same spirit at work throughout the Church, to see the Saints embrace and help and assist and pray for those who daily enter the kingdom of our Lord. Continue to reach out to each other-and the many more who will enter the Church. Welcome them and love and fellowship them. (Spencer W. Kimball, "Always a Convert Church: Some Lessons to Learn and Apply This Year," Ensign, Sept. 1975, 4)
Philemon 1:2 to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus
"Philemon, a friend of Paul and a faithful member of the church in Colosse; also to Apphia, probably Philemon's wife, and to Archippus, possibly their son. (Philem. 1:1-2.) The branch of the church that met in Philemon's house is also mentioned. (Philem 1:2; compare Rom. 16:5, Col. 4:15.)" (Lane Johnson, "New Testament Backgrounds: Philemon," Ensign, Apr. 1976, 58)
Philemon 1:10-11 Onesimus... Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable
"Onesimus had indeed wronged his master (Philem. 1:18) but providentially had 'ministered unto [Paul] in the bonds of the gospel' (Philem. 1:13). If Philemon had lost for Paul's gain, now Paul was reluctantly returning Onesimus for restitution to Philemon. Paul plays on the name Onesimus, which means 'profitable'; with another adjective Paul says Onesimus had not been useful to Philemon but now was useful to both his master and the Church leader (Philem. 1:11)." (Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 239 - 240.)
Philemon 1:12 Onesimus... Whom I have sent again
"What were Philemon's options when Onesimus returned? Merely probing them shows why Paul protected his new convert with letters to Philemon and to the Colossian branch of the Church... The fragments of preserved laws on the subject show Paul's legal duty to send Onesimus back: 'Anyone who has hidden a runaway slave is guilty of theft.' There were legal options to report to authorities or to return 'to the owners.' The process of formal return hints at how masters might treat returning slaves: 'Carefully guarding them may even include chaining them up.' Second-century laws prevented owners from killing their slaves, but first-century masters seem to have been free to inflict almost anything to break a slave from deserting.
"'Do not torment him,' the senator Pliny wrote a friend, asking for leniency for an offending household servant. 'Make some concession to his youth, his tears, and to your own kind heart.' Such an appeal is admirable but superficial when comparing that request for human decency with Paul's bold testimony of equality: '[Onesimus] departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother' (Philem. 1:15-16, NKJB). Such a request would not work unless Philemon really believed in eternal brotherhood. So Paul labors deftly but plainly for Philemon's conversion to that principle. He writes with the obvious goal of softening Philemon's heart." (Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 241 - 242.)
Philemon 1:13-16 Paul Paraphrased
"Onesimus has been a great help to me during my imprisonment, so I would love to keep him here. (Of course, I am obliged to return him to you.)
Besides, I would never want to do something without your consent. Nor do I want you to receive Onesimus (or do anything else for that matter) by constraint, but with a willing heart and mind.
Perhaps it was the will of the Lord that he ran away in that it led to his conversion to the gospel here in Rome. Although he may have been absent from you for a short time, now he can be received as an eternal brother in the gospel of Christ.
No longer a servant, better than a servant, he is a beloved brother. He has been a brother to me, but now he can be a beloved brother to you as well, speaking both temporally and spiritually."
Philemon 1:16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother
"The church equalized society in a unique fashion. It leveled rich and poor by insisting that wealth was merely an accident and that wealth or appearance must not cause discrimination in worship. (See James 2:1-4.) The gospel created a feeling of brotherhood and emphasized that true achievement was righteousness before God, rather than status with men. Paul and Peter consistently treated the slave as a brother, while asking him to fill his legal obligations to his master. Yet Paul did more than hint at a better way in his short letter appealing for mercy to the master Philemon, insisting that as a missionary he loved the slave as much as the master, both of whom owed their conversion to Paul." (Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Church and the Roman Empire," Ensign, Sept. 1975, 22)
Philemon 1:17 If thou count me therefore as a partner, receive him as myself
"Sincere repentance certainly involves righting the wrong, giving satisfaction to the person sinned against. And when that is done, the major duty shifts to the person wronged. Revelation warns the person sinned against to overcome his resentment through forgiveness: 'He that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin' (D&C 64:9). This is the principle dramatized by Jesus in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35), and Paul's letter calls on Philemon to forgive. Paul and Onesimus did their duty to return Philemon's 'property.' But Paul makes perfectly clear that the master legally owns only the slave's service, not his person. This tension between mortal law and God's higher morality makes this short letter a fascinating challenge to complacency. For it highlights the duty of every believer in God to respect every child of God, of whatever age, sex, race, or social or economic level. The letter to Philemon admits the wrongdoing of the runaway slave but guards against the further sin of the master in how he takes him back. In short, the letter is really about potential offenses to others from those who have been in the right.
"Slavery was a reality in Paul's world. Cruel war had produced heartless enslavement of enemies, but Paul was on the high end of the social spectrum with the privilege of Roman citizenship. This meant that he was personally untouched by slavery and could have comfortably ignored it. But his Christian convictions did not allow that, for several of his letters command righteous treatment of slaves. Nevertheless, the legal system supported slavery as an institution. (Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 240 - 241.)
Footnote Written from Rome to Philemon, by Onesimus, a servant
"The problem in the subscription at the end of Philemon is caused by the translation of the Greek word dia-rendered as 'by' in English-which suggests that Onesimus may have composed the letter. Actually, in the context of this Greek passage and in its genitive case, dia means 'through' or 'by means of' Onesimus. Hence, the subscription in Greek does not state that Onesimus composed the letter (which would contradict verse nineteen), but that the letter was written by means of or through Onesimus-as Paul's... messenger who delivered it." (Max H Parkin, "I Have a Question," Ensign, Sept. 1991, 61)