Philemon was a Christian who lived in Colossae in Asia Minor.
The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to him from Rome at the
same time that he wrote the letter to the Colossians. The
letter shows that Philemon was greatly respected for his acts
of kindness to the "saints" (v.5).
[Note: the word "saints" means people who are "set
apart". It is used of people who truly serve God and
so are different or "set apart".]
Onesimus was Philemon's household slave who had fled to Rome
from Colossae. Under Roman law such runaway slaves could be
severely punished or even put to death, but while in Rome,
Onesimus had met the Apostle Paul, with the result that he
repented of his previous ways and beliefs and became a Christian.
While in Rome, Onesimus helped Paul a good deal and began
to live up to the meaning of his name Onesimus - which is
"profitable" or "useful". Paul mentions
this in the letter: "formally he was useless to you,
but now he is indeed useful to you and to me"
Paul was grateful for the help he had from Onesimus but he
realised that this slave really belonged to Philemon. On the
other hand, Onesimus was a Christian and so a "brother"
of both Paul and Philemon! So what should Paul do?
He decided to send Onesimus back to his master but to send
with him also another Christian, Tychicus, to help to explain
how sincere Onesimus was in his new way of life, as well as
to carry this letter to Philemon and another to the church
at Colossae (Colossians 4:7).
Philemon will surely have reacted graciously to Paul's kindly
letter, and will have welcomed back Onesimus - not only as
a slave but also as a brother.