THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO PHILEMON.
This 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. Phm 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 master’s 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, Phm 1:10. “He 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, Phm 1:12 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. Phm 1:1-3.
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 Philemon’s 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 Christ’s 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.
Paul’s Thankfulness and Sympathy on Account of Philemon’s Christian State. Phm 1:4-7,
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.
Paul’s 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 Paul’s 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 Christian’s 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 Paul’s 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 apostle’s 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 Philemon’s 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 “brother,” 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.
Paul’s Intercession for Onesimus. Phm 1:8-14.
V.8. Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, v.9. yet for love’s 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 love’s 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 Philemon’s attention to a duty which he should perform in agreement with God’s 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 Philemon’s part a matter of piety. The persuasive, the appealing character of the entire letter is apparent especially in Paul’s 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 emperor’s 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 “beseech” stands out strongly in opposition to Paul’s 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 “profitable.” 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 Paul’s faithful instruction, realized his wrong, he was ready, more than ever, to serve his old master for conscience’ 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: “Here we see how Paul takes to himself poor Onesimus, and makes his case his own, as if he himself were Onesimus.” 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 Philemon’s substitute. This inclination of Paul’s 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 Philemon’s 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. Phm 1:15-20,
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 spirit.
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. Phm 1:21-25.
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 Paul’s 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 Paul’s 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 power always.
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 God’s 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: “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.” 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.