The Epistle to Philemon


Ph1lemon was perhaps a native, and certainly a resident, of the city of Colosse, one of the Colossian Christians, therefore, to whom the Epistle to the Colossians was written. Colosse was a city in the southwest of Asia Minor, upon the banks of the river Lycus.

Philemon apparently was a convert of the apostle Paul, though Paul had never made a visit to Colosse. It would almost seem as if, led by trade, he had visited Ephesus, perhaps with Epaphras, and there come under the influence of the apostle's preaching during Paul's two or three years' stay in that great city. Being converted to Christ, he seconded the efforts of Epaphras to preach the gospel to his fellow townsmen; and being a man of wealth and hospitable instincts, he seems to have opened his house for the meetings of the church. So the apostle, in the Epistle, sends his salutations to the church that is in that house.

Some have thought, from a word that is used in the Epistle, namely, the word "partner," that the relations between Paul and Philemon were partly relations of business; and there is a curious use of commercial or business terms in the Epistle. A noted English interpreter, by the name of Plumptre, has actually written an essay upon the apostle Paul as a man of business, and has put together a number of allusions in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul's various Epistles, which seem to show that the apostle was not at all ignorant of business life. He thinks that, during those two or three years in Ephesus, when the apostle Paul was dependent, as he ordinarily was, upon the labor of his hands, he possibly made a sort of business connection with Philemon; that they had business transactions together; and that when Paul writes to him as his partner, he is using that term in a business sense. All this is somewhat precarious, and we may better conclude that the relation between Paul and Philemon was that of partnership in the Christian faith rather than of partnership in commercial enterprises. At any rate, it seems that Philemon was a fellow helper or fellow laborer of the apostle's, for Paul applies this term to him in the Epistle. Philemon was evidently engaged in the spreading of the gospel, and did everything he could to advance the cause of Christ.

In the salutations of the Epistle to Philemon, two other persons are mentioned. One of them is Apphia; and Apphia was without question, I think, the wife of Philemon. The third who is mentioned is Archippus; and since both these names are mentioned before the church is mentioned that worshiped in their house, it seems altogether possible that Archippus was their son. So we have three members of this Christian family brought to our attention: Philemon, Apphia his wife, and Archippus their son.

Archippus seems to have held some sort of official position in one of the churches of the neighborhood, probably the church of Laodicea, which was in walking distance of Colosse; and in the Epistle to the Colossians we have exhortations to Archippus that he take heed with regard to the office which he held, to fulfil it. It is possible that Archippus was the elder, or presbyter, or pastor, of the neighboring church of Laodicea, although he may not have resided there. Since he was the son of Philemon and Apphia, and salutations of the apostle were extended to him in this letter to Philemon, it would seem that he still lived with his parents at Colosse.

There was another member of this family whom I have not yet mentioned. With these three, Philemon, his wife Apphia, and their son Archippus, that household included also a man of the lowest social stratum— the slave Onesimus. Onesimus was not only a slave; he was also a thief and a runaway. Apparently finding that the burdens and responsibilities of his position as slave were irksome to him, he fled from Colosse and from this relation of servitude; and in order to provide the means of his journeying he robbed his master, and so made his way to Rome. It may seem strange that a slave like Onesimus should have gone so far from his master and from his town; but we must remember that a city like Rome, where all nations congregated, furnished the very best hiding-place for a criminal. Rome was the easiest place to get at; for, as the old proverb reads, "All roads lead to Rome"; and at Rome he might most easily find employment. In Rome, moreover, there was the most to see and the largest experience of the world to be gained, so that there were many reasons why this runaway slave should have made his way as quickly as possible to the Imperial City.

But he made his way to the Imperial City only to be apprehended by the Lord Jesus, and to be made the Lord's freedman. How it was that, in the city of Rome, he was brought into contact with the apostle Paul we do not know. The story is not told us. Perhaps hunger drove him to Paul for help. Perhaps conscience drove him to Paul for consolation. Perhaps Epaphras of Colosse, who was visiting Rome as a helper of the apostle Paul, met him in the street and persuaded Onesimus to accompany him to the house where the apostle was in surveillance, chained to a Roman soldier. Some way or other, Onesimus, the runaway slave, was brought into the presence of the apostle Paul; and Paul did not disdain to preach to him the gospel, just as he preached it to the low and the high, people of all ranks and all conditions; and the result of it seems to have been very quickly that Onesimus became a convert to the gospel of Christ, that his heart was changed and his whole temper and spirit and purpose were altered. Now he desired nothing so much as to make recompense for the past and to begin an entirely new Christian life. Paul seems to have been testing the reality of his conversion for a little while, for he declares in this very Epistle that Onesimus has been very helpful to him.

There were many services that Onesimus could render, and Paul commends him for those services; declares that he is loath to part with him; he would much prefer to keep him. But there were many reasons why Onesimus should not remain in Rome. Roman slavery was an awe-inspiring institution, and many a slave was crucified for smaller offenses than that which Onesimus had committed. Paul evidently thought that, for Onesimus' sake, and for the gospel's sake, it was desirable that the gulf between him and his master should be filled up; and so, as Tychicus was going back to Ephesus and Colosse, and was to bear a letter to the church in Colosse, Paul sent Onesimus back with him. Into Onesimus' hands he placed what one might call a letter of introduction and commendation to his former master, urging that master to receive him kindly and in a Christian way, for Paul the apostle's sake. So, in the year 61, perhaps five years after the first foundation of the church at Colosse, Paul, in his first Roman imprisonment, writes the Epistle to Philemon. Onesimus takes it to Philemon, and presents it to his former master. What the result of that presentation is we do not know, but I think it cannot be doubtful that the letter was successful in accomplishing its end; that Philemon received Onesimus as a Christian brother; that Onesimus became his faithful servant again; and that so the breach was healed.

The course of thought in this Epistle is very touching and instructive. Although it is one of the shortest Epistles of the New Testament, it is most worthy of our consideration. Let us see how Paul treats this peculiar case that has come under his notice and has so engaged his interest.

The Epistle is not written for the purpose of touching any great point of doctrine. It is not intended to rebuke any serious crime or sin of Philemon's, to whom it is addressed. It is a private letter. And yet, because it is a private letter, unlike any other of the Epistles in the New Testament, unless it be the Second and Third Epistles of John, it has lessons of great importance for us. As the Epistle to the Ephesians has been called the hymn of Christianity, this Epistle to Philemon may be called the idyl of Christianity.

The introduction to the Epistle contains a salutation from Paul and Timothy to Philemon of Colosse. How Timothy should be mentioned in the salutation I think may be made comprehensible if we remember that during the two or three years when Paul was preaching in Ephesus, Timothy was his helper, and Philemon may have made the acquaintance and have gained the friendship of Timothy in that place. When Paul writes from his Roman prison to Philemon, it is a very natural thing to include in his address the name of Timothy, his helper. After the first salutation, there come a few words of commendation. The apostle shows his gentlemanliness of spirit by the gracious and kindly way in which he begins his Epistles. He always takes men upon their most favorable side. He always mentions in a kindly and appreciative way what there is that is good in them. At the very beginning he praises Philemon's benevolence and faith, which had been a great comfort to the church of God, and had furnished instructive lessons to the world as to the reality and power of Christianity.

That was a good way to begin an Epistle in which he had a very serious and important request to make; and after having thus prefaced his Epistle by mentioning, what he could mention with great heartiness, the great benevolence and faith of Philemon, he next waives all claims upon Philemon based upon the fact of his apostleship. He leaves that all out of account; takes the place of the humble servant of Christ before him; and writes to him not as an apostle now, but as

Paul, the aged, a prisoner of Jesus Christ. In other words, he presents himself before Philemon as one marked by the shipwrecks and scourgings he had endured, and aged before his time; as one now suffering imprisonment; and as one who has before him possible martyrdom for the sake of Christ. But the great apostle does not presume upon his own authority, nor even upon the fact that Philemon owes to him his conversion; he does not threaten or command; he simply appeals to Philemon as a servant of Christ who had suffered much for the Master, and who might, on that account, have a tender place in Philemon's heart. Only after this gracious introduction does Paul come to the fact of Onesimus' fault.

He tells Philemon that he is well aware of the crime which Onesimus has committed. He speaks of him, however, as having become a convert of Christ, as having repented of his fault, as being now a changed man, and, as a proof of this change, he speaks of Onesimus' helpfulness to the apostle in his Roman imprisonment. He urges this as a proof that, in the future, he may be profitable both to Paul and Philemon again. The changed spirit of the man furnishes the basis of an appeal to Philemon, and there follows the one thing for which the Epistle was written, namely, an earnest entreaty on the part of Paul that Philemon will forgive Onesimus what he has done, forgive him the act of robbery that he has committed, forgive him that he has broken away from his master and run away to Rome, and that he will receive him back, not simply as the slave he was before, but as a brother in Christ.

It is a very beautiful thing that, in the Epistle to the Colossians, which was written at just this time, and which was sent by the hand of Tychicus along with Onesimus, Paul commends to the whole Colossian church this runaway but converted slave, declaring, "He is a faithful and beloved brother who is one of you." In other words, he sends him back to the Colossian church with his warm affection and strong recommendation; and then, at the same time, he sends this Epistle to Philemon, urging him not only to take Onesimus back into his service, but also to take him now into his heart, as a brother beloved in Christ. Then follow expressions of confidence on the part of Paul that Philemon will do this thing that he is asked to do, and a declaration that, if Onesimus is indebted to Philemon, Paul himself will undertake to pay that debt. He will take upon himself the burden of repaying the pecuniary loss that Philemon has sustained, if Philemon requires it. Yet he reminds Philemon that, being his convert to Christ, he owes to Paul all that he has, owes to him something of infinite value, owes to him his hope in Christ and his hope of heaven. It is as much as to say: " If you think it well, I will pay to you all you have lost by this act of robbery on the part of Onesimus; but still you will remember how much you owe to me." All is left to Philemon's good will. Philemon shall do just as he pleases, but, at any rate, Paul wants him to receive Onesimus back; and. as to any pecuniary loss, Paul will sustain that, if there is any pecuniary loss to be borne. Paul asks Philemon to prepare a lodging for him, in prospect of his coming visit, which evidently shows that, in this first imprisonment, Paul expected that his appeal to Caesar would be successful, and that he would be released. That visit he undoubtedly did pay; some time thereafter he was arrested and taken back to Rome to his second imprisonment; that second imprisonment ended with his trial, condemnation, and execution.

The Epistle to Philemon consists of only eighteen or twenty verses, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful private letters that have come down to us from all antiquity. There is a letter written by the elder Pliny to a friend of his, which is just about as long as this Epistle, and is written on behalf of a slave who has also run away from his master, and whom Pliny seeks to restore; and these two Epistles— the heathen and the Christian—have been put side by side with one another. In the heathen epistle the arguments for the restoration of the slave are all based upon the consideration of friendship, and there is no appeal to Christian love. There is no request that the master will take the slave back to his heart, and will consider him as a Christian brother; there is no appeal to religious considerations, but simply an appeal to the good temper and kindness and personal friendship of the person addressed; so that, as compared with this Epistle to Philemon, the whole spirit of it is a very different one. Although it is a noble example of heathen kindness and benevolence, it shows no trace of the principle which actuates this Epistle of Paul to Philemon. It is a very curious fact that in the fourth century there were Fathers of the church who were inclined to deny this Epistle a place in the canon, simply because they thought it was so trivial and unedifying. How they mistook the meaning and importance of it! To them, the battle of the creeds, as Bishop Lightfoot said, was of more importance than the fate of a single slave. Those were the days of slavery, and these Christian Fathers could hardly conceive how the apostle could have taken so much interest in the fate of a man so far beneath him in social standing. We do not need to go back to antiquity to find illustrations of the indifference of prominent Christians to the wants and woes of the illiterate and the poor. In the last century, Whitefield, the great evangelist, did not hesitate to be the owner of slaves, even at the time when he was preaching the gospel of Christ with the greatest power and success. It took a great while to convince Christendom that to have a fellow man your chattel and property is inconsistent with the equal brotherhood of the gospel of Christ. History has justified the position and. rank of this Epistle in the New Testament, and I think there are two respects in which it is exceedingly instructive to us.

In the first place, it gives us a beautiful example of the proper spirit and method of Christian intercourse. This private letter of one Christian to another, preferring a request which seems to him of importance, has a spirit and method in it that is of very great value. The apostle had the right to command, but he does not command at all. How humble, how unpretentious, how quiet, how kindly, how pleading is the tone! Everything is put on the ground of Christian love, and of Christian love alone.

If we Christians would bring over our brethren to any project of ours, if we would persuade them to do what we wish, the proper tone on our part is not the tone of command, nor the tone of threatening, nor the tone of remonstrance, but rather the tone of entreaty and persuasion. Christ's method is the quiet and humble method of Christian love. An appeal to the heart, which puts everything upon the basis of love to Christ, will accomplish wonders; when the other way, the hard way, the remonstrating way, the threatening way, will accomplish nothing. Paul gives us in this letter, first of all, a model of the methods of influencing Christian friends and of doing Christian work in the church of Christ.

As a second and last piece of instruction, this Epistle shows us how Christianity undermines and finally does away with the great organized wrongs of human society. It has been said that the word "emancipation" was trembling upon the apostle's lips; and yet he does not utter it. Christianity does not aim to accomplish sudden social revolutions. Christianity does not begin from the outside and work inward; it begins within and works outward. It does not begin with the mass of men and then come to the individual; it begins with the individual and so spreads to the mass. It does not take the great institutions of the world, those creations of organized iniquity, and by one fell swoop destroy them in an instant; it infuses into them a new spirit and temper, and that new spirit and temper permeates them like leaven in the meal. You look, and this great organization of iniquity is a thing of the past. So it was with the despotism of the Caesars. The apostle Paul did not fulminate against the Roman Empire, with its wickedness and tyranny. The powers that be are ordained by God; so long as human government exists he urges us to obey the government; but he puts the spirit of love into human hearts, so that. little by little, it does away with this system of despotism. So he did not utter any denunciation of slavery. Denunciation would have accomplished little. Paul preached Christ; and when people saw that Christ loved the meanest slave so much that he gave his very life to save him, the master could no longer tread that slave under his feet. Among the Hebrews, slavery was not so great an evil, because they themselves had been slaves in times past, and that gave them a feeling of compassion for those who were in bonds to them. Slavery among the Jews could last only six years with any individual. The seventh year was the day of redemption, and the slave was set free. The number of slaves among the Jews was very small; and, where that is the case, the master does not fear the slave, and is not called upon to use measures of cruelty.

How different from the Athenians and Romans! In Athens and Rome, in the days of power and splendor, the number of slaves and freemen was four to one; and in order to keep that vast mass of slaves under the yoke, there were cruelties and restrictions such as were never known among the Hebrews. The slave could be given away; he could be sold; he could be bequeathed by will; he could be put to death; and no one could call his master to account. It was not so among the Hebrews. Slavery had the whole Roman Empire at its back. It would have been useless for Paul to urge its destruction, or to speak against it; he preached Christ and him crucified; he brought men to Christ and filled men's hearts with the love of Christ; and, with that love of Christ within, they became patient and tender toward their slaves, and counted them their brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus; so there was a new spirit infused into society, which gradually led to the liberation of the slave. We see the fruits in these Christian times, in the liberating of two hundred millions of serfs by the Czar in Russia, and in the emancipation of three million slaves in the Southern States of America. The day will come when there will not be one single slave upon this footstool. We see the dawning of that day already. Slavery still exists in Africa, but all the civilized nations of the world are banded together to put it down. When slavery has vanished from the face of the earth, its disappearance will be the result of the preaching of Christ's gospel, and of that era of human liberty and equality this Epistle to Philemon is the prelude and prophecy.