Philemon was an inhabitant of Colosse, a person of some note and wealth, and a convert under the ministry of St. Paul. Onesimus was the slave of Philemon: having run away from his master, he went to Rome, where he was converted to the Christian faith, by the word as set forth by Paul, who kept him till his conduct proved the truth and sincerity of his conversion. He wished to repair the injury he had done to his master, but fearing the punishment his offence deserved might be inflicted, he entreated the apostle to write to Philemon. And St. Paul seems no where to reason more beautifully, or to entreat more forcibly, than in this epistle.
The apostle's joy and praise for Philemon's steady faith in the Lord Jesus, and love to all the saints. (1-7) He recommends Onesimus as one who would make rich amends for the misconduct of which he had been guilty; and on behalf of whom the apostle promises to make up any loss Philemon had sustained. (8-22) Salutations and a blessing. (23-25)
Verses 1-7 Faith in Christ, and love to him, should unite saints more closely than any outward relation can unite the people of the world. Paul in his private prayers was particular in remembering his friends. We must remember Christian friends much and often, as their cases may need, bearing them in our thoughts, and upon our hearts, before our God. Different sentiments and ways in what is not essential, must not make difference of affection, as to the truth. He inquired concerning his friends, as to the truth, growth, and fruitfulness of their graces, their faith in Christ, and love to him, and to all the saints. The good which Philemon did, was matter of joy and comfort to him and others, who therefore desired that he would continue and abound in good fruits, more and more, to God's honour.
Verses 8-14 It does not lower any one to condescend, and sometimes even to beseech, where, in strictness of right, we might command: the apostle argues from love, rather than authority, in behalf of one converted through his means; and this was Onesimus. In allusion to that name, which signifies "profitable," the apostle allows that in time past he had been unprofitable to Philemon, but hastens to mention the change by which he had become profitable. Unholy persons are unprofitable; they answer not the great end of their being. But what happy changes conversion makes! of evil, good; of unprofitable, useful. Religious servants are treasures in a family. Such will make conscience of their time and trusts, and manage all they can for the best. No prospect of usefulness should lead any to neglect their obligations, or to fail in obedience to superiors. One great evidence of true repentance consists in returning to practise the duties which have been neglected. In his unconverted state, Onesimus had withdrawn, to his master's injury; but now he had seen his sin and repented, he was willing and desirous to return to his duty. Little do men know for what purposes the Lord leaves some to change their situations, or engage in undertakings, perhaps from evil motives. Had not the Lord overruled some of our ungodly projects, we may reflect upon cases, in which our destruction must have been sure.
Verses 15-22 When we speak of the nature of any sin or offence against God, the evil of it is not to be lessened; but in a penitent sinner, as God covers it, so must we. Such changed characters often become a blessing to all among whom they reside. Christianity does not do away our duties to others, but directs to the right doing of them. True penitents will be open in owning their faults, as doubtless Onesimus had been to Paul, upon his being awakened and brought to repentance; especially in cases of injury done to others. The communion of saints does not destroy distinction of property. This passage is an instance of that being imputed to one, which is contracted by another; and of one becoming answerable for another, by a voluntary engagement, that he might be freed from the punishment due to his crimes, according to the doctrine that Christ of his own will bore the punishment of our sins, that we might receive the reward of his righteousness. Philemon was Paul's son in the faith, yet he entreated him as a brother. Onesimus was a poor slave, yet Paul besought for him as if seeking some great thing for himself. Christians should do what may give joy to the hearts of one another. From the world they expect trouble; they should find comfort and joy in one another. When any of our mercies are taken away, our trust and hope must be in God. We must diligently use the means, and if no other should be at hand, abound in prayer. Yet, though prayer prevails, it does not merit the things obtained. And if Christians do not meet on earth, still the grace of the Lord Jesus will be with their spirits, and they will soon meet before the throne to join for ever in admiring the riches of redeeming love. The example of Onesimus may encourage the vilest sinners to return to God, but it is shamefully prevented, if any are made bold thereby to persist in evil courses. Are not many taken away in their sins, while others become more hardened? Resist not present convictions, lest they return no more.
Verses 23-25 Never have believers found more enjoyment of God, than when suffering together for him. Grace is the best wish for ourselves and others; with this the apostle begins and ends. All grace is from Christ; he purchased, and he bestows it. What need we more to make us happy, than to have the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ with our spirit? Let us do that now, which we should do at the last breath. Then men are ready to renounce the world, and to prefer the least portion of grace and faith before a kingdom.
Philemon 1:1-25 . ADDRESS. THANKSGIVING FOR PHILEMON'S LOVE AND FAITH. INTERCESSION FOR ONESIMUS. CONCLUDING REQUEST AND SALUTATIONS.
This Epistle affords a specimen of the highest wisdom as to the manner in which Christians ought to manage social affairs on more exalted principles.
1. prisoner of Jesus Christ--one whom Christ's cause has made a prisoner (compare "in the bonds of the Gospel," ( Philemon 1:13 ). He does not call himself, as in other Epistles, "Paul an apostle," as he is writing familiarly, not authoritatively.
our . . . fellow labourer--in building up the Church at Colosse, while we were at Ephesus. Colossians.
2. Apphia--the Latin, "Appia"; either the wife or some close relative of Philemon. She and Archippus, if they had not belonged to his family, would not have been included with Philemon in the address of a letter on a domestic matter.
Archippus--a minister of the Colossian Church ( Colossians 4:17 ).
fellow soldier--( 2 Timothy 2:3 ).
church in thy house--In the absence of a regular church building, the houses of particular saints were used for that purpose. Observe Paul's tact in associating with Philemon those associated by kindred or Christian brotherhood with his house, and not going beyond it.
4. always--joined by ALFORD with, "I thank my God."
5. Hearing--the ground of his thanksgiving. It is a delicate mark of authenticity, that he says "hearing" as to churches and persons whom he had not seen or then visited. Now Colosse, Philemon's place of residence, he had never yet seen. Yet Philemon 1:19 here implies that Philemon was his convert. Philemon, doubtless, was converted at Ephesus, or in some other place where he met Paul.
love and faith--The theological order is first faith then love, the fruit of faith. But he purposely puts Philemon's love in the first place, as it is to an act of love that he is exhorting him.
toward . . . toward--different Greek words: "towards" . . . "unto." Towards implies simply direction; unto, to the advantage of.
6. That--The aim of my thanksgiving and prayers for thee is, in order that the, &c.
the communication of thy faith--the imparting of it and its fruits (namely, acts of love and beneficence: as Hebrews 13:16 , "to communicate," that is, to impart a share) to others; or, the liberality to others flowing from thy faith (so the Greek is translated, "liberal distribution," 2 Corinthians 9:13 ).
effectual by--Greek, "in"; the element in which his liberality had place, that is, may be proved by acts in, &c.
acknowledging--Greek, "the thorough knowledge," that is, the experimental or practical recognition.
of every good thing which is in you--The oldest manuscripts read, "which is in US," that is, the practical recognition of every grace which is in us Christians, in so far as we realize the Christian character. In short, that thy faith may by acts be proved to be "a faith which worketh by love."
in Christ Jesus--rather as Greek, "unto Christ Jesus," that is, to the glory of Christ Jesus. Two of the oldest manuscripts omit "Jesus." This verse answers to Philemon 1:5 , "thy love and faith toward all saints"; Paul never ceases to mention him in his prayers, in order that his faith may still further show its power in his relation to others, by exhibiting every grace which is in Christians to the glory of Christ. Thus he paves the way for the request in behalf of Onesimus.
7. For--a reason for the prayer, Philemon 1:4-6 .
we have--Greek, "we had."
joy and consolation--joined in 2 Corinthians 7:4 .
saints are refreshed by thee--His house was open to them.
brother--put last, to conciliate his favorable attention to the request which follows.
8. Wherefore--Because of my love to thee, I prefer to "beseech," rather than "enjoin," or authoritatively command.
I might . . . enjoin--in virtue of the obligation to obedience which Philemon lay under to Paul, as having been converted through his instrumentality.
in Christ--the element in which his boldness has place.
9. for love's sake--mine to thee, and (what ought to be) thine to Onesimus. Or, that Christian love of which thou showest so bright an example ( Philemon 1:7 ).
being such an one--Explain, Being such a one as thou knowest me to be, namely,
Paul--the founder of so many churches, and an apostle of Christ, and thy father in the faith.
the aged--a circumstance calculated to secure thy respect for anything I request.
and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ--the strongest claim I have on thy regard: if for no other reason, at least in consideration of this, through commiseration gratify me.
10. I beseech thee--emphatically repeated from Philemon 1:9 . In the Greek, the name "Onesimus" is skilfully put last, he puts first a favorable description of him before he mentions the name that had fallen into so bad repute with Philemon. "I beseech thee for my son, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus." Scripture does not sanction slavery, but at the same time does not begin a political crusade against it. It sets forth principles of love to our fellow men which were sure (as they have done) in due time to undermine and overthrow it, without violently convulsing the then existing political fabric, by stirring up slaves against their masters.
11. Which . . . was . . . unprofitable--belying his name Onesimus, which means "profitable." Not only was he "unprofitable," but positively injurious, having "wronged" his master. Paul uses a mild expression.
now profitable--Without godliness a man has no station. Profitable in spiritual, as well as in temporal things.
12. mine own bowels--as dear to me as my own heart [ALFORD]. Compare Philemon 1:17 , "as myself." The object of my most intense affection as that of a parent for a child.
13. I--emphatical. I for my part. Since I had such implicit trust in him as to desire to keep him with me for his services, thou mayest.
I would have retained--different Greek from the "would," Philemon 1:14 , "I could have wished," "I was minded" here; but "I was not willing," Philemon 1:14 .
in thy stead--that he might supply in your place all the services to me which you, if you were here, would render in virtue of the love you bear to me ( Philemon 1:19 ).
bonds of the gospel--my bonds endured for the Gospel's sake ( Philemon 1:9 ).
14. without thy mind--that is, consent.
should not be as--"should not appear as a matter of necessity, but of free will." Had Paul kept Onesimus, however willing to gratify Paul Philemon might be, he would have no opportunity given him of showing he was so, his leave not having been asked.
15. perhaps--speaking in human fashion, yet as one believing that God's Providence probably (for we cannot dogmatically define the hidden purposes of God in providence) overruled the past evil to ultimately greater good to him. This thought would soften Philemon's indignation at Onesimus' past offense. So Joseph in Genesis 45:5 .
departed--literally, "was parted from thee"; a softening term for "ran away," to mitigate Philemon's wrath.
receive him--Greek, "have him for thyself in full possession" The same Greek as in Matthew 6:2 .
for ever--in this life and in that to come (compare Exodus 21:6 ). Onesimus' time of absence, however long, was but a short "hour" (so Greek) compared with the everlasting devotion henceforth binding him to his master.
16. No longer as a mere servant or slave (though still he is that), but above a servant, so that thou shalt derive from him not merely the services of a slave, but higher benefits: a servant "in the flesh," he is a brother "in the Lord."
beloved, specially to me--who am his spiritual father, and who have experienced his faithful attentions. Lest Philemon should dislike Onesimus being called "brother," Paul first recognizes him as a brother, being the spiritual son of the same God.
much more unto thee--to whom he stands in so much nearer and more lasting relation.
17. a partner--in the Christian fellowship of faith, hope, and love.
receive him as myself--resuming "receive him that is mine own bowels."
18. Greek, "But it (thou art not inclined to 'receive him' because) he hath wronged thee"; a milder term than "robbed thee." Onesimus seems to have confessed some such act to Paul.
put that on mine account--I am ready to make good the loss to thee if required. The latter parts of philemon 1:19 philemon 1:21 , imply that he did not expect Philemon would probably demand it.
19. with mine own hand--not employing an amanuensis, as in other Epistles: a special compliment to Philemon which he ought to show his appreciation of by granting Paul's request. Contrast Colossians 4:18 , which shows that the Epistle to the Colossian Church, accompanying this Epistle, had only its closing "salutation" written by Paul's own hand.
albeit, &c.--literally, "that I may not say . . . not to say," &c.
thou owest . . . even thine own self--not merely thy possessions. For to my instrumentality thou owest thy salvation. So the debt which "he oweth thee" being transferred upon me (I making myself responsible for it) is cancelled.
20. let me--"me" is emphatic: "Let me have profit (so Greek 'for joy,' onainen, referring to the name Onesimus, 'profitable') from thee, as thou shouldst have had from Onesimus"; for "thou owest thine ownself to me."
in the Lord--not in worldly gain, but in thine increase in the graces of the Lord's Spirit [ALFORD].
my bowels--my heart. Gratify my feelings by granting this request.
in the Lord--The oldest manuscripts read, "in Christ," the element or sphere in which this act of Christian love naturally ought to have place.
21. Having confidence in thy obedience--to my apostolic authority, if I were to "enjoin" it ( Philemon 1:8 ), which I do not, preferring to beseech thee for it as a favor ( Philemon 1:9 ).
thou will also do more--towards Onesimus: hinting at his possible manumission by Philemon, besides, being kindly received.
22. This prospect of Paul's visiting Colosse would tend to secure a kindly reception for Onesimus, as Paul would know in person how he had been treated.
your . . . you--referring to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the Church in Philemon's house. The same expectation is expressed by him, Philippians 2:23 Philippians 2:24 , written in the same imprisonment.
23. The same persons send salutations in the accompanying Epistle, except that "Jesus Justus" is not mentioned here.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner--He had been sent by the Colossian Church to inquire after, and minister to, Paul, and possibly was cast into prison by the Roman authorities on suspicion. However, he is not mentioned as a prisoner in Colossians 4:12 , so that "fellow prisoner" here may mean merely one who was a faithful companion to Paul in his imprisonment, and by his society put himself in the position of a prisoner. So also "Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner," Colossians 4:10 , may mean. Benson conjectures the meaning to be that on some former occasion these two were Paul's "fellow prisoners," not at the time.
25. be with your spirit--( Galatians 6:18 , 2 Timothy 4:22 ).