Towards the end of his second mission trip,
Paul said farewell to the believers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had his hair cut, for he was under a vow. When they reached Ephesus, he left them there, but first he himself went into the synagogue and had a discussion with the Jews. When they asked him to stay longer, he declined; but on taking leave of them, he said, “I will return to you, if God wills.” Then he set sail from Ephesus.Acts 18:21 (NRSV)
Paul kept to that promise, as recorded in Acts 19, returning on his third mission trip to spend about two years in Asia Minor, ministering to the people in Ephesus and the surrounding cities. Many people came to saving faith, Paul had occasion to work side-by-side with the esteemed Apollos, and he discipled innumerable Greek converts.
One of those who had come to faith through Paul’s preaching was a wealthy slaveowner from Colossae named Philemon. Reading the letter Paul would later write to this man, we can see they became very close, as Paul called him a beloved brother, and a fellow worker in the Lord—on par with Paul’s traveling companions. It seems Philemon had become a house church host, and a leader among the believers in his city.
Colossae was actually about 120 miles or so east of Ephesus, in a region called Phrygia (now modern-day Turkey), in a valley formed by the Lycus River. Built near the foot of Mount Cadmus, two other satellite cities appeared near enough to Colossae to be associated it, Laodicea eleven miles to the west, and Hierapolis fifteen miles northwest. Though Colossae’s tell has yet to be excavated, surveyed pottery reveals the city was occupied on and off from about 3,500 BC to about 1,100 AD.
During the Persian period, 547-330 BC, Colossae became a politically and economically important metropolis in the area. Herodotus called Colossae “a great city in Phrygia,” and recounted when the Persian king Xerxes mobilized his military campaign against Greece during that time, and visited Colossae. The city must have been large enough and wealthy enough to provide accommodations for the Persian army and their horses.
Xenophon (c. 430–354 BC) also described Colossae as a “populous city, both wealthy and large” (Anabasis 1.2.6)
According to writer and archaeologist Michael Trainor,
“Colossae’s size and wealth would have come from its strategic position on the main east-west trade route, between the Euphrates River and Pisidian Antioch to the east, and Loadicea, Ephesus, and Sardis to the west. Colossae was famous for its unique dyed wool, colossinus, which gave the city its name.”Biblical Archaeology Review, “Colossae—Colossal in Name Only?”
It seems likely Paul penned a letter to the assemblies in Colossae that he intended to be read by Philemon. That letter, Colossians, mentions one of the people who would be delivering the letter, someone who was closely associated with Philemon.
Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.Colossians 4:7-9 (NRSV)
So, Paul wrote a short, personal note to Philemon as a cover letter to accompany the open epistle for the Colossian churches, and to discuss their mutual acquaintance, Onesimus.
Interestingly, especially considering the proximity of the two cities, the circular now called Epistle to the Ephesians bears a striking resemblance in content to Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It is thought Ephesians may also have been written during this time and delivered to the believers in Ephesus as Tychicus and Onesimus (who carried all three missives) journeyed together to Onesimus’ home city.
With many thanks to a really wonderful resource on YouTube called “The Bible Project,” let us begin our study of Philemon with this overview of Paul’s personal appeal.
[Papyrus 87 (Gregory-Aland), recto. The earliest known fragment of the Epistle to Philemon, believed to date to the late 2nd or early 3rd century | By User:Christian bitencourt, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=333073%5D