THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO
letter is a remarkable example of a tender and tactful intercessory appeal. It
is addressed to Philemon, probably a convert of Paul, a wealthy citizen of
Colossae in Phrygia, and a prominent member of the Christian congregation in
that city. Vv. 1. 2. 5-7. 19: Col. 4, 9. 17. He had not only earned a reputation
for faith and love, but had also gladly offered his house to the Christians of
Colossae as a place of worship, as was the custom of the early Christians.
Onesimus was a slave belonging to Philemon, who had, probably after a theft
committed in his masterís house, run away from Colossae and gone to Rome. Here
he was providentially brought under the influence of the great apostle and was
converted by him, v.10. ďHe was very profitable to the aged apostle, who was
still a prisoner, ministering to him in the bonds of the Gospel. By his grateful
and devoted services he greatly endeared himself to Paul. The latter cells him
his own heart, a brother beloved, a faithful and beloved brother, vv. 12. 16;
Col. 4. 9. As he was Philemon's lawful slave, Paul could not think of retaining
him permanently in his service. He therefore took the opportunity afforded by
the mission of Tychicus to Colossae, Col. 4, 7, to send him back to his master.
Thus the apostle establishes the principle that the Gospel does not invalidate
human ordinances that are not in themselves against the Moral Law. On the other
hand, he reminds Philemon that he must now recognize his slave Onesimus as a
brother in Christ."
Practically the entire letter treats of this one matter. After the opening
address and salutation Paul expresses his great joy over Philemon's faith and
Christian work. He then states the object of his letter, namely, the appeal to
the addressee to accept his runaway slave as a brother in Christ and his o m
dear friend. Personal matters, greetings, and the apostolic blessing conclude
the letter. It was written at Rome, during the apostle's first imprisonment,
probably in 62, and at the same time as that to the Colossians, Col. 4, 7-14.
Address and Salutation. Vv.
V.1. Paul, a prisoner of
Jesus Christ, and Timothy, our brother, unto Philemon, our dearly beloved and
fellow-laborer, v.2. and
to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus, our fellow-soldier, and to the church in
thy house: v.3. Grace to you and peace
from God, our father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. In this intimate letter the apostle does not emphasize his apostolic
commission, that being unnecessary in the case of a man who recognized the
authority of his teacher: without reservation. Instead, he brings out another
factor, namely, that of his being in prison for the sake of the Gospel: Paul, a
prisoner of Christ Jesus, and brother Timothy, to Philemon, the beloved, and our
fellow-laborer. It was a precious privilege which Paul enjoyed, that of bearing
shackles and chains for the sake of his Lord and on behalf of the Gospel which
he had proclaimed so fearlessly. Though he was a prisoner, he was still in the
hand of the exalted Christ, the Lord of His Church, wherefore it was not
necessary for him to apprehend any evil for himself except that which the Lord
Himself permitted to come. He names Timothy, as in the case of the letter to the
Colossians, not as coauthor, but as his associate in the great work of saving
souls for Christ and as a brother, both in the faith and in the work of
salvation. Philemon the apostle addresses as the beloved, the common love in
Christ Jesus uniting them in bonds of such intimacy as exceed the closest
earthly relationship in strength. Paul addresses Philemon as a friend,
preferring to entreat through love rather than to use the lofty tone of command.
And he puts a special distinction upon him by designating him a fellow-laborer,
a term otherwise reserved chiefly for preachers of the Gospel, but applied to
Priscilla and Aquila, Rom. 16, 3. Not only because Philemon had offered the use
of his house, but also because he showed his interest in other ways and was
actively engaged in spreading the Gospel by every means at his disposal was he
thus honored by the apostle. The work of the Church is not confined to the
pastors and teachers, but is entrusted to all Christians.
Paul includes also other members of the Colossian church in his address:
And to Apphia, our sister, and Archippus, our fellow-soldier, and the
congregation in thy house. Apphia, or Appia, was apparently the wife of
Philemon, distinguished also by her interest in the work of the Lord, like other
women whose names stand out in the history of the early Church, such as Nary,
Tryphena, Tryphosa, Priscilla, Euodia, Syntyche, Lydia. Archippus seems to have
occupied an even more important position than Philemon in the congregation, Col.
4, 17, and is therefore believed by many to have been the bishop, or pastor, of
the congregation at that time. A fellow-soldier Paul calls him, using the figure
of speech which appealed to him very strongly. 2 Cor. 10, 3. 4; 1 Tim. 1, 18; 2
Tim. 2, 3. 4. In a general way. Paul addressed his letter to the entire
house-congregation of which Archippus was the head. It is by no means improbable
that the entire congregation at Colossae was housed in the inner court of
Philemonís dwelling, since this afforded considerable space, if built after
the manner of Greek or Roman houses.
The greeting is that of most Pauline epistles: Grace to you and peace from
God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. By the grace of God as it was
revealed and manifested in Jesus Christ the right relationship between God and
man has been reestablished. The Father having been reconciled to lost and
condemned mankind through the blood of His Son, peace between the two contending
parties had been established, or rather, the righteous and holy God, for the
sake of Christís merits, has again accepted the children that had left Him in
disobedience. Thus to us, as believers, God is our Father; we have been restored
to sonship through the vicarious satisfaction of Christ, and we are united in
fellowship under the banner of our exalted Lord. Jesus Christ, these two persons
of the Godhead being equal in majesty and deity.
Paulís Thankfulness and Sympathy on
Account of Philemonís Christian State. Vv.
V.4. I thank my God, making
mention of thee always in my prayers, v.5. hearing of thy love and
faith which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, v.6.
that the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the
acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. V.7.
For we have great joy and consolation in thy love because the bowels of
the saints are refreshed by thee, brother. Paulís may of finding reasons for thankfulness to God is illuminating as
to his character and may well serve as an example to all Christians: I thank my
God, always making mention of thee in my prayers. The fact that the apostle
found so much to be thankful for in the life of Philemon as he knew it, would be
sure to make a strong impression upon the latter and incline his heart all the
more readily to grant Paulís request, especially since this appeal was
intended to stimulate a further evidence of the proper condition of mind. The
apostle was united with his God, with Him whom he knew to be his highest gift,
in daily prayer. This prayer included, above all: also thanksgiving for the
gifts of grace which had been bestowed upon Philemon, which he could not help
but mention. Note: It is a fine and laudable thing for all church-members to
live such lives as will stimulate similar prayers of thanksgiving in the hearts
of their pastors, just as it is a praiseworthy custom for a pastor to make daily
mention of his parishioners in his prayers to his God.
The reason for this grateful prayer Paul now mentions: Hearing of thy love
and the faith which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus and toward all saints.
Whether Onesimus, after his conversion, had come to see many things in a
different light than before and accordingly had related these facts to the
apostle, or whether the latter had other sources of information, he knew, at any
rate, that the report was true. There was evidence before the eyes of all that
cared to investigate that Philemon bore in his heart a fervent love toward his
Lord Jesus Christ and, in consequence of this, also toward all the brethren, the
believers, or saints, as Paul calls them by reason of the fact that they have
been consecrated to God by faith and are serving Him in lives of sanctification.
This love was the result or outgrowth of faith, in itself a proof of the faith
which had been wrought in his heart by the Gospel. The love which lives in the
Christianís heart and finds expression in his life is a proof both to himself
and to others that faith has been enkindled in him by God, a fact which should,
in turn, prove an incentive to him to nourish this flame with all carefulness.
Having registered the reason for his thankfulness, the apostle now states
the content of his prayer: That the communication of thy faith may become
effective by the knowledge of every good thing in you toward Christ Jesus. That
is Paulís intercession, that the same faith which lived in Philemon might be
communicated to all the other Christians that heard of his example and that the
effect of this transmission or communication might serve or help them all to
understand all that was good in them toward Jesus Christ. A complete and
accurate knowledge, an ever-growing and better understanding of the capabilities
for good which faith in Jesus Christ works in the hearts of all believers gives
them a calm reliance upon the power of God in them, a cheerful confidence to
furnish to the world the outward proof of the faith which lives in them. All
this, of course, contributes to the promotion of the cause and work of the Lord
here on earth. Even here the apostleís tactful diplomacy directs the attention
of Philemon toward the fulfillment of the appeal which he was about to broach.
To this the apostle adds another ground for his attitude of thanksgiving
as noted above: For I had great joy and encouragement on the basis of thy love,
because the hearts of the saints are refreshed through thee, brother. The report
regarding the excellent state of Philemonís faith and love filled the apostle
with great joy, it gave him much consolation and encouragement, just as similar
accounts of their parishioners or experiences in which they figure serve to
lighten the burden of faithful pastors in our days. The evidences of the love
which lived in the heart of Philemon and was the motive in his work in the
congregation were of a nature to relieve, to refresh the hearts of the saints.
St. Paul probably has reference to everything that Philemon did for the
Colossian Christians that met in his house, in dispensing both temporal and
spiritual goods. The appreciation of the great apostle is most strongly brought
out in the emphasis upon the word ďbrother,Ē placed at the end of the
sentence. It is by no means an objectionable ruse or a sordid trick to introduce
a request to a Christian brother in this manner, provided always the statements
that are made are in conformity with the truth. There ought to be more of this
frank appeal to the love which lives in the hearts of the Christians by faith.
Paulís Intercession for Onesimus. Vv.
V.8. Wherefore, though I
might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, v.9.
yet for loveís sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul
the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. V.10. I beseech thee for my
son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds; v.11. which in time past was
to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me; v.12.
whom I have sent again. Thou, therefore, receive him, that is, mine own
bowels; v.13. whom
I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto
me in the bonds of the Gospel; v.14.
but without thy mind would I do nothing, that thy benefit should not be
as it were of necessity, but willingly. Having prepared the way for his request with all gentle delicacy, the
apostle now voices his intercession; and pet not abruptly, but with its own
little introduction: Therefore, though I might have great boldness in Christ to
command thee that which should be done, yet for loveís sake I rather beseech,
being in such a condition, Paul, the old man, but now also the prisoner of
Christ Jesus. Since Paul was sure in advance of the heart and mind of the man to
whom he was addressing this letter, he had no hesitation about voicing his
request. He might even have been quite bold and frank about the matter, he might
have made use of the joyous confidence which he had in the Lord, based upon his
apostolic authority and upon the fact of his inward personal communion with Him
through faith; he might simply have called Philemonís attention to a duty
which he should perform in agreement with Godís will, of a moral obligation
which rested upon him by virtue of his Christian profession. Instead of that,
however, and for the sake of the love which he bore him, he preferred this
method of beseeching Philemon, of making an appeal to him. This made the
granting of his request on Philemonís part a matter of piety. The persuasive,
the appealing character of the entire letter is apparent especially in Paulís
reference to himself as the aged Paul and now also the prisoner of Christ Jesus.
The authoritative teacher steps back to make way for the warmhearted,
affectionate friend interceding with an absent friend for a beloved convert.
Paul was at this time an elderly man and bore the designation which he applied
to himself properly. And he was feeling the weight of his age especially in his
imprisonment, in which he was bearing the reproach of his Master, since it was
for His sake that he had been arrested and brought before the emperorís court.
Thus Paul brought his own person as concretely and as vividly as possible before
the eyes of Philemon, in order to screen the figure of Onesimus from the anger
of his master.
The apostle now states his request: I beseech thee with regard to my son,
whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus, who formerly was useless to thee,
now, however, is very useful both to thee and to me, whom I have returned to
thee. The very words are here chosen with such careful regard for the situation
that they cry out their appeal. Thus the repetition of the word ďbeseechĒ
stands out strongly in opposition to Paulís right to command. Then, also, he
does not refer to Onesimus as the runaway slave, but as his son, whom he has
begotten in his bonds, his spiritual child, whom the Lord led to him in Rome,
and whose heart had been renewed by the power of the Gospel as proclaimed by
Paul. It certainly was a strange dispensation of the Lord according to which the
slave from Colossae met the imprisoned apostle at Rome. In a fine play upon the
meaning of the word Onesimus, which is ďprofitable.Ē St. Paul tells his
friend that his slave has indeed, since leaving his service in such an
unceremonious manner, been unprofitable, useless, to him; now, however, he was
useful, very valuable, not only to Philemon, but also to Paul, who was sending
him back to his master. Onesimus had been of great service to the apostle,
trying to further his convenience and happiness in many ways. But having, under
Paulís faithful instruction, realized his wrong, he was ready, more than ever,
to serve his old master for conscienceí sake.
Paul, sending, or having sent, Onesimus with this letter, pleads for him
as he might for himself: Thou, however, receive him, that is, mine own heart.
Luther remarks: ďHere we see how Paul takes to himself poor Onesimus, and
makes his case his own, as if he himself were Onesimus.Ē He refers to the
slave with an expression of the most tender love, as his own flesh, his own
heart, with whom he is connected by the bonds of the most tender affection. And
in order to remove all unwillingness, the last vestige of resentment, from the
heart of Philemon, Paul adds: Whom I would have kept back in my own company,
that in thy stead he might serve me in the bonds of the Gospel, but without thy
knowledge I wanted to do nothing, lest that which is good for thee come from
restraint rather than from thy own free mill. It had really been the purpose of
Paul to have Onesimus stay in Rome for a while, to take the place of his master
in serving the apostle; for Philemon was deeply indebted to Paul for the
spiritual blessings which he now enjoyed. It stood to reason, also, that, so
long as the apostle was hindered in moving about freely, a service such as the
slave had given him was in the interest of the Gospel. It was not only the fact
that he could perform many little forms of ministry for Paul, whose place of
lodging required some care and attention, but also that he could do many errands
for him in keeping up the communication with the members of the congregation at
Rome. Thus Paul had regarded Onesimus as Philemonís substitute. This
inclination of Paulís mind was changed, however, when he considered the prior
and weightier claims which the master had upon his slave; he wanted to do
nothing without Philemonís knowledge and consent. Any service which the latter
might undertake in his behalf, whether personally or through his slave, was to
be a voluntary service, flowing from his own free will and desire, and not in
any way forced upon him by a constraint suggested by Paul.
Another Point Urged by the Apostle. Vv.
V.15. For perhaps he
therefore departed for a season that thou shouldest receive him forever; v.16.
not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially
to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord! V.17.
If thou count me, therefore, a partner, receive him as myself. V.18.
If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught, put that on mine account; v.19.
I, Paul, have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it; albeit I
do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. V.20.
Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord; refresh my bowels in
the Lord. The apostle here adds a
thought as though it had just occurred to him: For perhaps he for this reason
departed for a while that thou mightest have him back for good, no longer as a
slave, but above a slave, as a beloved brother, most of all to me, but how much
more to thee, in the flesh as well as in the Lord! This is a reference to the
dispensation of God, who thus arranged and directed matters that Onesimus was
not only led to Rome, but there became personally known to Paul and thus
received the knowledge of his salvation. Philemon was to consider the entire
affair as though his slave had taken a journey of a few months, and had now
returned for good, more closely connected with his master than before. Though
still a slave in his station, yet he no longer bore the character of a slave
according to the world's acceptation of the term, The disgraceful, degrading
element had vanished from the relation. He was now, so far as Paul was
concerned, a dearly beloved brother, being the sharer of his bonds and his son
in the faith. Much more closely should Philemon, then, consider himself united
with his slave by the twofold bond of the material and the spiritual relation.
Onesimus, the slave, served the temporal interests of his master, being employed
in such work as was of use to his body; Onesimus, the Christian, was bound to
him by the ties of a common faith, a much more intimate and cordial relationship
than that afforded by any earthly connection.
This being the true state of affairs, the circumstances of the slave's
return being such as just pictured, the apostle could urge: If, then, thou
considerest me a partner, receive him as myself. Paul here reminds Philemon that
their own relationship was not merely that of friends or companions according to
the manner of the world, but that of partakers of a common faith. This fact
alone placed Philemon under obligation to Paul; for to deny his request was to
declare the termination of the fellowship which united them in Christ. Such a
contingency, however, being unthinkable, the apostle pleads that Philemon accept
Onesimus as though he himself were standing there. This included that he should
not think of inflicting the penalty which the laws permitted him to inflict,
namely, that of branding the fugitive and even putting him to death, but that he
should make a free and unequivocal confession of Christian brotherhood by
forgiving the wrong which he had suffered, and receiving Onesimus in that
Following up the advantage which this argument gave him with another, the
apostle writes: But if he has done thee any wrong or owes anything, charge that
to my account. I, Paul, have written it with my own hand, I will repay; without
mentioning the fact to thee that thou owest even thyself to me. Here St. Paul
removes a possible difficulty that might stand in the way of a reconciliation
such as he wished it. Undoubtedly the offense of Onesimus was that he had
embezzled or stolen some of his master's goods before absconding. At the same
time, of course, he had deprived Philemon of his services during his absence, a
fact which naturally resulted in some damage to the master. But Paul, with
characteristic energy, removed this difficulty. He personally guaranteed the
payment of the money, if Philemon wanted to insist upon indemnity; let it be
charged to his personal account: he pledged himself, with his own handwriting:
to make good the shortage. At the same time, however, by a figure of speech
which brought out the indebtedness of Philemon to himself in the strongest
possible manner: he urged his Colossian friend to remember his obligation to
him, namely, that it was due to his work in the Gospel that Philemon was now the
possessor of the highest and greatest blessings in life, those guaranteed by the
redemption of Christ. In reality St. Paul means to sap, Philemon owed him far
more than Onesimus stood in debt for, and could therefore well afford to
overlook the transgression of the slave. Pleadingly, therefore. the apostle
adds: Yes, brother, let me have profit of thee; refresh my heart in Christ. Here
again there is a play on the name of Onesimus, as the apostle asks Philemon to
accord him the filial services which he may well expect, and thus to refresh his
heart which has been troubled on account of this matter. The real source of the
relief afforded by such an action on the part of Philemon would, of course, be
the Lord, who would make him willing to perform the duty that lay before him
with a willing heart.
Concluding Remarks and Greeting. Vv.
V.21. Raring confidence in
thy obedience, I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I
say. V.22. But
withal prepare me also a lodging; for I trust that through your prayers I shall
be given unto you. V.23. There salute thee Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus; v.24.
Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellow-laborers. V.25.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit! Amen. There
is no doubt in Paulís mind as to the satisfactory settlement of the matter
which he has set forth with such persuasive pleading: Relying firmly upon thy
obedience, I have written to thee, knowing that thou wilt also do beyond what I
write. There is a hint here of the authority which the apostle might wield
should he so choose, and of the obedience which Philemon must feel that he owes
to the will of God at all times. There was no question in Paulís mind: he was
absolutely confident that the solution of the problem would be satisfactory in
every way, that Philemon would probably find wars of showing Onesimus a kindness
even beyond the suggestions which lie ventured to make. For that is the way of
true lore flowing from faith: it seeks new ways and means of demonstrating its
Knowing that the bond of friendship would become firmer and more secure
than ever in consequence of this episode, the apostle asks Philemon, in
conclusion, to make ready, to keep prepared, a place or room where he may lodge
as guest. All indications at this writing pointed to his speedy release from his
imprisonment, a situation which Paul properly ascribed to the effect of the
prayers which had been sent to the throne of God in his behalf, also by his
Colossian friends. He puts it so that his return to their midst would be in
answer to their prayers, as an act of divine favor, which they should look upon
with a proper realization of their indebtedness to the Giver of all good gifts.
The apostle includes greetings from Epaphras, whom he calls a
fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, Col. 1, 7. from Mark, undoubtedly John Mark,
whose services he valued very highly in the last years of his life, 2 Tim. 4,
11, from Demas, very likely the same one that afterward became a backslider and
denied the faith, 2 Tim. 4, 10. and from Luke, the beloved physician and
companion of the apostle. All these are designated as fellow-laborers, being
active with the apostle in behalf of the Gospel of Christ. The apostolic
blessing is apparently addressed to the entire congregation. not only to
Philemon and his family. The grace, the unmerited favor and love of Christ. as
it found expression in the eternal counsel of love and in the entire work of
redemption, is the highest and most precious blessing of the believers, assuring
them, as it does, of the inheritance above, for which they are being kept by the
power of God. This is most certainly true.
There can be little doubt, as a prominent writer (Brace, Gesta Christi)
has pointed out, that the spread of Christianity was the cause of the increasing
sentiment among the nations against slavery. It is true that the position of the
slaves among the Jews was not attended with such shameful degradations as among
the heathen, where slavery was a canker and the lot of the average slave was
worse than that of a beast of burden. As the influence of Christianity
increased, the hold of slavery gradually weakened, and where it was still
maintained, the inhuman cruelties which were formerly practiced were gradually
abandoned. Slavery in the Eastern Empire was abolished at the end of the
fourteenth century, in Greece in 1437. The serfdom which arose from the
universal disorder and chaos of society in the Latin Empire was looked upon with
disfavor from the first by men that realized whither it tended. In modern times
enlightened states have abrogated both serfdom and slavery, the latter being
abolished in England in 1833, 1846 in Sweden, 1849 in Denmark, 1348 in France,
1855 in Portugal, 1863 in the United States, 1871 in Brazil.
Though the question has, therefore, ceased to be a burning one, yet it is
well to remember, in view of the numerous passages throughout the Bible which
treat of slavery, that the institution of slavery is not intrinsically and
fundamentally wrong from the Biblical standpoint. While a Christian may hold the
opinion that it is far better, from a social and economic viewpoint, that
slavery should not be tolerated in a state or country, he will still maintain
that, according to the clear expression of Godís will in His Word, even
Christians could possess slaves or sanction their holding. Against men stealers,
against dealers in slaves, we have a plain passage of Scriptures, 1 Tim. 1, 10,
but there is no word of the Lord forbidding slavery itself. What the apostle
writes Eph. 6, 5-8; Col. 3, 22-25; 1 Tim. 6. 1; Titus 2, 9. 10. and in the
letter to Philemon. agrees with what the Lord had spoken in the Old Testament,
Lev. 25, 44-46; Gen. 30, 43; Job 1, 3 ff.
It is true, of course, that God inflicted slavery upon men as a punishment for their sins, Deut. 25, 15-69; Jer. 5, 19; 17, 4, that He made whole nations the abject and spurned servants of others, but it is equally true that vile treatment of slaves is not a necessary concomitant of the state, and would not be thought of if all the masters had at all times feared God and heeded what the Lord says Eph. 6, 9 and Col. 4, 1: ďMasters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.Ē That slaves were a piece of property without rights and could be treated and disposed of by their masters as the latter chose, is an idea which nowhere finds confirmation in Scriptures. What the apostle taught in all the passages in which he treated of the institution of slavery was this, that slaves are not only human beings like their masters, having the same Lord and Creator in heaven above, but that they are also included in an equal measure in the salvation which was earned by Christ, that the gracious will of God concerns also them, that He desires them to be saved through the knowledge of the truth. Slaves must therefore be considered as possessing the full dignity of men, a fact which, together with the certainty of their salvation, gives them full equality before God with their masters. Had these truths of Scripture always received the recognition which they deserve, there would be no chapter concerning the inhuman cruelties of many slaveholders in the history of most civilized countries. These are the facts to be remembered regarding slavery.