Unlike most of Paul's letters, his letter to Philemon has little directly to do with Christian doctrine or the pastoral care of believers. The letter, rather, is a personal missive sent from Paul to a friend in Colossae.
It is important for three reasons. It is first a primary history source for Roman history in the first century. Second, it reveals the way Paul's faith in Christ pervades his every thought and act. Third, it speaks to questions of social inequality within the church.
The circumstances surrounding the letter are quite interesting. It seems that Philemon was both a prominent member of the church in Colossae; it is thought that services may even have been held in his home. He was also a slave holder. Evidence within the letter reveals that a certain slave, Onesimus, had stolen money from Philemon and fled Colossae for Rome. At some point the runaway slave contacted Paul while Paul was imprisoned in the capitol city.
Paul tutored Onesimus in Christianity and Onesimus in turn made himself useful to Paul. Paul felt he could not honorably keep Onesimus with him while he remained a runaway slave of a friend. Paul determined to reconcile Onesimus to his master, Philemon. Thus he sent Onesimus back to Philemon and with him sent this letter. In the letter Paul asks Philemon to receive the prodigal slave in the same way he would receive Paul himself. He even hints that Philemon might want to release Onesimus for service in the church.
No written evidence tells what actually happened as a result of this letter. However, tradition has it that Onesimus was freed by Philemon and later rose to become bishop of Berea.
The Letter to Philemon is an excellent short study. However, material is scarce for an extended series of classes. Philemon is often studied in conjunction with other letters (usually 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus).
Thessalonians and Philemon: A Life Application Bible Study is inexpensive and contains 13 lessons, charts, maps, study questions and notes. Visit our Life Application page for more information on how to use this work in a Bible study.
Timothy, Titus and Philemon, by William Barclay is great both as an in-depth study for a group and as a daily guide for individuals. Visit our page on Barclay for more information on how to use Barclay's works in a Bible study.