Philemon is one of the prison epistles...written during Paul's first imprisonment in Rome (around 61 A.D.). Onesimus was a slave who had stolen from his master, Philemon, and then run away to Paul. Philemon was a member of the Colossian church (cf. Colossians 4:9,17). Paul had led him to the Lord (:10). Normally, death would have been Onesimus’ punishment...but Paul intercedes on his behalf.
Philemon was not the only slaveholder in the Colossian church (see Col. 4:1), so this letter gave guidelines for other Christian masters in their relationships to their slave-brothers. Paul did not deny the rights of Philemon over his slave, but he asked Philemon to related the principle of Christian brotherhood to the situation with Onesimus (v. 16)...It has also been suggested that Onesimus became a minister and later bishop of the church at Ephesus (Ignatius, To the Ephesians, 1).
Ryrie Study Bible, Introduction to the Letter of Paul to Philemon
the name of the Christian to whom Paul addressed his epistle in behalf of Onesimus. He was a native probably of Colosse, or at all events lived in that city when the apostle wrote to him: first, because Onesimus was a Colossian (Colossians 4:9) and secondly because Archippus was a Colossian (Colossians 4:17) whom Paul associates with Philemon at the beginning of his letter (Philemon 1:1-2). It is related that Philemon became bishop of Colosse, and died as a martyr under Nero. It is evident from the letter to him that Philemon was a man of property and influence, since he is represented as the head of a numerous household, and as exercising an expensive liberality toward his friends and the poor in general. He was indebted to the apostle Paul as the medium of his personal participation in the gospel. It is not certain under what circumstances they became known to each other. It is evident that on becoming a disciple he gave no common proof of the sincerity and power of his faith. His character as shadowed forth in the epistle to him, is one of the noblest which the sacred record makes known to us.
Smith’s Bible Dictionary,
Philemon 1:1-3-Paul’s Greeting
Philemon 1:2-Paul speaks of the "church in your house". At the time, because the Christianity was still in its infancy, many churches met in homes.
Philemon 1:4-7-Paul’s Affirmation of Philemon
Philemon 1:4-6-Paul tells Philemon that he has heard of their love and faith. And that he prays that these qualities will result in their being involved in good works that are evident to those that know them.
Philemon 1:7-Paul says that his own knowledge of these qualities has brought him “joy and comfort” as he has seen that "the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother." What a wonderful compliment. Philemon has been the source of rest and refreshment to other Christians. How often can that be said of us?
"to give intermission from labor, to give rest, refresh" (ana, "back," pauo, "to cause to cease"), is translated "to refresh" in 1Cr 16:18; 2Cr 7:13; Phm 1:7, 20.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words,
Philemon 1:8-17-Paul’s Appeal to Philemon
Paul appeals to Philemon to welcome Onesimus back without punishment. He gives several reasons for why he suggests this…
• He says that he could refer to his Apostolic authority under such a circumstance…but that instead, he chose to refer to “love’s sake” (:9-on account of love, because of love) as the source of motivation. Another words, don’t receive him back because he feels constrained by authority to do so. But, receive him back because he feels compelled by love to do so. Because of love…it is the right thing to do.
• Previously, Onesimus had not been very useful to Philemon. But now, with the change that had taken place in him, he was useful. The name “Onesimus” means “useful, beneficial”. And now, he could also be useful to Paul (:11).
• Paul appealed to his own needs. He told Philemon that he could use Onesimus in his own work, if he would allow it (:12-14).
• Paul told Philemon that because of what has happened in Onesimus’ life…they now shared in a relationship that was totally different from what previously existed. Now they were brothers in Christ (:15-16).
• Finally, Paul appeals to their friendship as the basis for receiving him back (:17).
Philemon 1:19-21-Paul’s Assurance to Philemon
Paul assures Philemon that if Onesimus’ escape has cost him anything financially…he will personally cover the expenses. Don’t let money be the reason to not receive him back. He tells him that such an act would refresh him the way that he has refreshed others (:20).
Philemon 1:22-24-Paul’s Goodbye
Philemon 1:22-Paul anticipates being released from prison and going to see Philemon.
Philemon 1:24-At this time (around 61 A.D.), Demas is still with him (cf. 2 Timothy 4:10-Timothy was written around 66 A.D.).
Prayer: Father, verse 7 speaks to my heart. I want my fellow saints and believers to be refreshed (to cause or permit one to cease from any movement or labor in order to recover and collect his strength; cf. Matt. 11:28) through me. Please help me to bring that into their lives.