Philemon 1
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers


The Epistle to Philemon.







I. The Date, Place, and Occasion of the Epistle.—These are all perfectly clear. The Epistle is of the same date as the Epistle to the Colossians, sent by Onesimus, who was one of the bearers of that Epistle (Colossians 4:9); dwelling emphatically on St. Paul’s imprisonment (Philemon 1:1; Philemon 1:9), looking forward confidently to a speedy release and a return to Asia (Philemon 1:22). Even the salutations, with one exception, are the same in both (Philemon 1:23-24, comp. with Colossians 4:10-14). It is written to intercede with Philemon for Onesimus, his slave—formerly “unprofitable,” a runaway, and probably a thief, but now converted to a new life by St. Paul at Rome, and after his conversion becoming at once “profitable” to St. Paul for ministration in his captivity, and likely to be profitable also to his old master, to whom, accordingly, St. Paul sends him back, with this letter of intercession.

II. The Persons to whom it is addressed.—All we know of Philemon is gathered from this Epistle. It is nowhere actually said he was a Colossian; but this is inferred from the fact that Onesimus, his slave, is described as of Colossæ (Colossians 4:9). It is clear that he was St. Paul’s convert; but, as the Apostle had not visited Colossæ (Colossians 2:1), we may probably conjecture that he had been brought under his influence during his long stay at Ephesus. Possibly, like Epaphras (Colossians 1:7), he had been, under St. Paul’s auspices, an evangelist of his native place. For he is evidently a man of mark; “the Church” gathers “in his house;” he is able, by his love, “to refresh the hearts of the saints,” probably by temporal as well as spiritual gifts; to him St. Paul entrusts the charge of preparing a lodging for his hoped-for visit, and describes that visit as “being granted,” “through his prayers,” to him and his. We note also that the Apostle treats him as almost an equal—as a “brother” (not “a son”), as “a fellow-labourer,” and as a “partner.”

This last phrase—used distinctively, and without any words of limitation to some particular work—is unique. It occurs in close connection with the promise on St. Paul’s part to take upon himself the pecuniary responsibility of any default of Onesimus—a promise emphasised by the writing of a bond of obligation in legal form. Accordingly, it has been supposed that Philemon was St. Paul’s partner in the “tent-making” by which he maintained himself with Aquila and Priscilla—first, certainly, at Corinth (Acts 18:3), and afterwards, as it appears (Acts 20:35), at Ephesus; that he may have still had in his hands some of the money earned by that common labour, and that from this St. Paul offers to discharge the obligation taken upon himself for Onesimus. The supposition is ingenious, and certainly quite possible; but it revolts against all our conceptions of St. Paul’s character to suppose that he would work beyond what was actually necessary for maintenance, so as to accumulate money, and keep a regular debtor and creditor account with Philemon. Nor is it easy to see why, if this was so, he should have so urgently needed in prison the supplies sent from Philippi (Philippians 4:10-13). Accordingly, it seems better to refer the “partnership” or “communion” (see Philippians 4:6 of the Epistle) principally, if not exclusively, to some united work of evangelisation or beneficence (possibly devised during the common labour at Ephesus) for the Churches of Asia, and especially for the Church of Colossæ. Ecclesiastical tradition, as usual, makes Philemon the Bishop of Colossæ in the hereafter.

Of Apphia we know nothing, except that tradition, and the style in which the Epistle mentions her, both support the idea that she was Philemon’s wife. Archippus, a minister of the Church, either of Colossæ or Laodicea (see Note on Colossians 4:7), is on the same ground supposed to have been his son. The tone of the whole Epistle gives the impression of some wealth and dignity in the family, nobly used for the relief of necessity and the knitting closer of the bonds of Christian unity.

III. The Genuineness of the Epistle.—It is notable that, unlike the other two personal Epistles—the Second and the Third of St. John, if, indeed, the Second be really personal—this Epistle found its place in all catalogues, from the Muratorian Canon downwards, and in all the ancient versions. We might have supposed that, in respect of such reception, it would have suffered from the improbability of any public reading in the Church, from the want of adaptability to theological or ecclesiastical uses, and from the idea which seems to have prevailed—which is noticed by St. Chrysostom on the Epistle, and which St. Jerome in his preface to the Epistle (vol. vii., p. 742, ed. Vallarsii, 1737) refutes with his usual strong sense and trenchancy—that the occasion and the substance of the Epistle were too low for the Apostolic inspiration. “They will have it,” St. Jerome says, “either that the Epistle which is addressed to Philemon is not St. Paul’s, or that, even if it be his, it has nothing in it tending to our edification; and that by many of the ancients it was rejected, since it was written for the purpose merely of commendation, not of instruction.’ But this kind of criticism did not prevail against the common acceptance of its authenticity. Even Marcion did not tamper with it, as Tertullian (adv. Marc. v. 42) and St. Jerome expressly declare. Origen, the great critic of the East, as St. Jerome of the West, quotes it without hesitation. In the Church generally it remained unshaken as one of the Epistles accepted by all.

In the larger criticism of modern times the very reasons which induced doubt in the fourth and fifth centuries will be accepted as the strongest internal evidence of its genuineness. The utter improbability of the forging of such an Epistle, which admits of no controversial or directly theological use, the exquisite beauty and naturalness of the whole style, even the vivid picture which it gives of an ancient Christian family—all have been felt to preclude any except the most wanton scepticism as to its genuineness. It is hard to conceive how any one can read it without feeling that we have in it a picture of the Apostle of the Gentiles, which we could ill afford to lose, but which no hand, except his own, would have ever ventured to paint.

IV. The Substance of the Epistle.—The great interest of this Epistle is two-fold—(1) in its personal relation to St. Paul’s life and character, and (2) in the light which it throws on the attitude of the gospel towards slavery.

(1) It is the only strictly private Letter of St. Paul—the one survivor, we may suppose, of very many—preserved to us in the Canon of Holy Scripture. For all the other Epistles are either Letters to the Churches, or Pastoral Epistles of authoritative direction. Accordingly it exhibits the Apostle in a new light. He throws off, as far as possible, his Apostolic dignity, and his fatherly authority over his converts. He speaks simply as Christian to Christian. He speaks, therefore, with that peculiar grace of humility and courtesy, which has, under the reign of Christianity, developed the spirit of chivalry, and what is called “the character of a gentleman”—certainly very little known in the old Greek and Roman civilisations—while yet in its graceful flexibility and vivacity it stands contrasted with the more impassive Oriental stateliness. It has been customary and natural to compare with it a celebrated letter of the younger Pliny on a like occasion (Ep. ix. 21, quoted in Dr. Lightfoot’s Introduction). But in Pliny himself there was a tone of feeling differing very much from the more ancient Roman character, approaching more nearly to the modern type. It would be curious to inquire, whether in this tone of character, as in the actual tenets of the later Stoicism, there might not be some unknown and indirect influence of the Christianity, which as yet would have been probably despised. Nor will the comparison for a moment place even the highly accomplished and cultivated Roman on a level with the Jewish tentmaker of Tarsus.

There is to us a vivid interest in the glimpse thus given into the private and personal life of St. Paul. We note, for example, the difference of tone—the greater pathos and the less unqualified rejoicing—in which he speaks of his captivity. We observe the gladness with which, when he rightly may, he throws off the isolation of authority, and descends into the familiarity of equal intercourse, lingering with an obvious delight in the very word “brother,” which breathes the very spirit of freedom and equality. We see how, under the Apostolic mission, as under the Apostolic inspiration, free play of personal character and of familiar companionship could still live and flourish. We seem to know St. Paul better, even as an Apostle, because we are allowed to see him when he chooses not to be an Apostle, but a “partner,” and, moreover, “such an one as Paul the aged, and the prisoner of Jesus Christ.” But, even beyond this, we may fairly draw from this Epistle a priceless lesson, as to the place which true courtesy and delicacy occupy in Christian character, and especially as to their entire compatibility with high Apostolic enthusiasm, with a keen insight into realities as distinct from forms, and with the greatest possible plainness of speech in due season. We feel, as we read, how little it accords with the idea that Christian men and Christian ministers “have nothing to do with being gentlemen.” We understand how true courtesy, as distinct from artificial and technical culture of manners, is the natural outgrowth of the “lowliness of mind” in which “each esteems other better than himself,” and of the sympathy of love which “looks not only upon our own things,” but, even in greater degree, “upon the things of others.”

(2) But of far greater interest still is the illustration of the attitude assumed in the New Testament, and in the early Church, towards the monstrous institution of slavery.

How deeply that institution of slavery was engrained in all the history of antiquity, both Eastern and Western, we know well. Nor will this surprise any one who remembers that inequality—physical, mental, and spiritual—is, quite as truly as equality, the law of human life. Service and lordship, in some sense, there must always be; and it is absurd to deny that this law is, because we wish that it were not, or perhaps think that it ought not to be. But equality is the law of the primary qualities and rights of human nature; inequality only of the secondary qualities and rights. If this relation be reversed in practice, we pass from what is natural to that which, however frequent, is yet fatally unnatural. Slavery is just such a reversal. Because one race is stronger, abler, more commanding, more civilised than another, this is made a ground for crushing out, in the weaker race, all the essential attributes of humanity. Primarily by the unnatural agency of war, secondarily by systematised organisation in peace, the slave is made to cease to be a man: he is treated simply as a brute beast of somewhat higher organisation and usefulness than his fellows, or even “as a living chattel or machine”—having no rights whatever, except those which humanity may teach towards the lower creatures, or expediency enforce in relation to the machinery of the prosperity and progress of the master. Since, in some sense, freedom of action and cultivation bring out natural inequalities more and more strikingly, slavery, in the absence of some counterbalancing power, rather advanced than receded with the progress of heathen civilisation. Under the Roman empire, depending mainly on organised force rather than on intellectual cultivation, it presented this characteristic and intolerable incongruity, that it held in bondage men at least as noble in race as their conquerors, men even more highly cultivated, and heirs of more ancient civilisations.

That the Old Testament should recognise the existence of slavery, especially in inferior and degraded races, was only to be expected. That slavery under the patriarchal simplicity should have been lighter than under the higher civilisation of the nation of Israel, though at first sight startling, is yet, on more careful thought, seen to be natural. That the Mosaic law should attempt only to mitigate the irresponsible despotism of the master, and that in this respect it should make a marked distinction between the Israelite and the foreigner, is thoroughly accordant with our Lord’s declaration, that it was made “for the hardness of men’s hearts,” and with the exclusiveness of privilege which it claimed in all things for the chosen race. Slavery, accordingly, continued in the Jewish people, though—thanks to those mitigations of the Law, to the protest against oppression and cruelty so familiar to us in prophecy, and to the very influence of a spiritual religion, wherever this was really accepted—it was actually very far milder than under Greece or Rome. Still it did exist. Nor will this surprise those who have duly weighed—what advocates and opponents of slavery, in dealing with the Old Testament, nave constantly failed to weigh—the essentially imperfect and preparatory character of the Jewish covenant.

But what line would Christianity take? Nothing, of course, could be clearer than that it was radically opposed in principle to the whole conception and practice of slavery. For it brought out the fundamental equality or brotherhood of all, in the regenerate human nature, in which “there was neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free.” It devoted itself with a very special earnestness to redress all existing inequalities, by exalting the humble, by glorifying weakness, by restraining the self-assertion of strength. Above all, it consecrated that brotherhood in Jesus Christ; its whole conception of the spiritual life consisted in the union of each individual soul with God in Christ, so giving to individuality a sacredness utterly incompatible with the very possibility of absolute despotism of one Christian man over another. But of carrying out the principle there were two ways. One was, so to speak, “of law,” embodying it at once in a declaration of freedom, abrogating all slavery within the Christian Church, protesting against it, as against all moral evils, in the world at large. The other was “of the Spirit,” proclaiming the great truth of brotherhood in Christ and sonship of God, and then leaving it gradually to mould to itself all institutions of society, and to eradicate whatever in them was against God’s fundamental law, reasserted in the word of Jesus Christ. Now of these two ways it is not hard to see that to adopt the former way would have been to revolutionise suddenly the whole of society, to preach (though unwillingly) a servile war, and to arm all existing governments by the very instinct of self-preservation against the infant Church, which, even as it was, excited their suspicion and alarm. Independently of all thought of consequences, we could not but anticipate that by its very nature Christianity would take the way of the Spirit, rather than the Law. But there can be no doubt that, historically, this was the way which it did take without hesitation or reserve. The principle laid down broadly by St. Paul (1Corinthians 7:20-24) was that “every man should abide” in the outward condition “in which he was called,” only “with God,” in the new spiritual unity with God sealed to him in the blood of Jesus Christ. He applied that principle to the cases of circumcision and uncircumcision, marriage and celibacy; he did not shrink from applying it for the Christian community to the case of submission to “the powers that be,” even to death, and for the individual to the crucial and extreme case of slavery and freedom. However we may interpret his words in 1Corinthians 7:21 (where see Note), they clearly imply that to one who is at once “the Lord’s freeman” and “Christ’s slave” the outward condition matters comparatively little. It may be that in this case, as in the case of marriage, St. Paul was partly influenced by the consideration that “the time was short.” Yet his teaching really depended, not on this expectation, but on the fundamental principle and method of Christianity. The declaration, “Not now a slave but a brother,” a “brother beloved,” and “a brother beloved in the Lord,” brought the forces of human duty and human affection, under the inspiration of religious faith, to bear on the prison-house of slavery. Deeply founded as its walls were, and cemented by the use of centuries, they could not but fall under the combined attack of these three irresistible powers.

Meanwhile the gospel set itself to two immediate works. First, to raise the self-respect of the slave, to comfort his sorrow, to nerve him to bear the hardships of his cruel lot. This it did sometimes by glorifying suffering, in the bold declaration to the slave that his suffering, whatever it was, was a brotherhood in the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself “took upon Him the form of a slave,” and “suffering for us left an ensample,” in which even the helpless and despised slave could “follow His steps” (1Peter 2:18-25). Sometimes, on the other hand, by setting forth to him the spiritual freedom, which no “master after the flesh” could take away, and by declaring that all service was ultimately a service to the Lord, to be rendered not only “from the heart,” but “of good will,” and rewarded here and hereafter with the heavenly prize (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25). Under both these convictions it taught the slave still to be patient under “subjection,” till the end should come. Next, Christianity turned to the masters. It bade them remember their responsibility to the same Master in heaven, under whom their slaves served, and who would certainly make, in His strict retribution, no “respect of persons;” it claimed that they should “do the same things” to their slaves, recognising a mutual duty, and giving them all that was “just and equal,” due to the indefeasible rights of humanity; above all that they should recognise in them a common brotherhood in Christ.

Now this is precisely the line which St. Paul pursues in respect of Onesimus. He, the runaway slave of Philemon, apparently an idler and a thief, had made his way to Rome, “the sink,” as its writers bitterly complained, “of the civilised world.” There St. Paul had somehow found him, and had regenerated the true humanity which had been degraded in him. He had found him a dear son; he had felt the comfort of his affectionate ministration. How deeply this had impressed on his mind the whole question of slaves and masters we see by the strong emphasis, marked by almost verbal coincidence, with which, in the Ephesian and Colossian Epistles, he dwells on the subject generally. But, coming to the particular case, he bids Onesimus acknowledge the mastership of Philemon, and go back to submit to him, and to offer atonement for his past misdeeds and flight. He will not even interpose by authority, or, by keeping Onesimus at Rome, put any constraint on Philemon’s freedom to use his legal power. But he shows, by his own example, that the slave is to be treated as a son. He sends him back, not as a slave, but as “a brother beloved in the Lord.” He “knew that Philemon would do even more than he said.” He may have looked forward in prophetic foresight to the time when the whole Christian community, like Philemon, should draw the inference, unspoken but irresistible, and set absolutely free those who were not slaves, but brethren.

That expectation has been realised. It is remarkable that from very early days the iron cruelty of this Roman slave law began to give way. We may allow much in this respect to the growing dominion of universal law, and to the influence of the nobler philosophies; but we may be permitted to doubt whether the unacknowledged principes of Christianity were not already leavening public opinion, and beginning to make the change even in law, which was afterwards seen in the codes of Christian emperors. But one thing is certain historically, that in the abolition, certainly of ancient serfship in Europe, and perhaps of modern serfship in Russia, in the prohibition of the slave trade, in the great sacrifices for emancipation made by England in the last generation, and the United States of America in this, it was Christianity, and not simple philanthropy, which actually did the beneficent work. The battle was the battle of humanity; but it was fought under the banner of the Cross. Even while we wonder that the victory should have been so long in coming, we must confess that it has been won; and against all forms of mitigated slavery in modern society, experience certainly warns us to trust, not to the sense of common interest, the conviction of mutual duty, or even the enthusiasm of philanthropy, but to the faith which recognises in the poorest and the weakest, even in the idler and the sinner, “a brother beloved in the Lord.”

[This Epistle divides itself naturally into—

(1)SALUTATION to Philemon and his house (Philemon 1:1-3).

(2)THANKSGIVING for their faith and love (Philemon 1:4-7).

(3)INTERCESSION, FOR ONESIMUS, as now the Apostle’s “son” in the faith, and “the brother,” not slave, of his master Philemon, with promise to make good any default of his in times past (Philemon 1:8-15).

(4)CONCLUSION, expressing St. Paul’s confidence in Philemon, his hope of visiting them, and final salutation (Philemon 1:21-25).]

Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,
(1) A prisoner of Jesus Christ.—It is interesting to note the substitution of the name “prisoner,” appealing to sympathy, for the usual title of “Apostle,” embodying a claim to authority. In the other Epistles of this period (see Ephesians 3:1-13; Ephesians 4:1; Ephesians 6:20; Philippians 1:12-20; Colossians 4:18) the Apostle’s captivity is dwelt upon mainly as a ground of glory and thankfulness, only secondarily as a cause for sympathy. Here, on the contrary, in this personal Epistle, and in accordance with St. Paul’s courteous determination “not to command, but for love’s sake to entreat,” the latter aspect assumes an almost exclusive prominence.

Timothy.—Comp. Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:1. Here, as in the other Epistles, the salutation includes Timothy, as desiring to imply in him, St. Paul’s “own son in the faith,” a closeness of connection and sympathy with the Apostle not found in others. But in all cases, and especially in this, the Letter is emphatically the Letter of St. Paul alone.

Philemon.—See Introduction.

And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:
(2) Apphia.—The name is usually taken to be the Roman name Appia. But the occurrence of such a name in a Græco-Asiatic family, though of course possible, is perhaps improbable; and Dr. Lightfoot has shown that it occurs in the form Apphia in many Phrygian inscriptions, and may therefore be naturally supposed to be a native name. There seems little doubt that Apphia was Philemon’s wife, like himself “the beloved,” though not the “fellow-labourer” or “partner” of St. Paul.

Archippus our fellow soldier.—From this mention of Archippus we may certainly conclude that he was a member of Philemon’s family; the ordinary conjecture makes him his son. The name “fellow-soldier,” applied elsewhere only to Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), as the name “soldier of Jesus Christ” to Timothy (2Timothy 2:3), appears to denote ministerial office in Archippus, which agrees with the charge to him in Colossians 4:18 to “take heed to his ministry and fulfil it.”

Church in thy house.—See Note on Colossians 4:15. The specially domestic and personal character of the Epistle need not induce any limitation of the phrase to Philemon’s own family. As the joining of Timothy’s name in giving the salutation did not prevent the Letter from being St. Paul’s only, so the joining the Church in the house in the receiving of the salutation does not prevent its being addressed only to Philemon and his family, who were, like himself, interested in Onesimus.

I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,
(4) I thank my God . . .—Note the almost exact verbal coincidence with the salutations in Ephesians 1:15-16; Philippians 1:3-4; Colossians 1:3-4, with, however, the natural distinction that this is briefer and simpler in style.

Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;
(5) Thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints.—This description of a faith directed not only to the Lord Jesus, but to all the saints, has perplexed commentators, and called out various explanations. (1) One is that “faith” here (as in Romans 3:3; Galatians 5:22) is simply fidelity; but this can hardly be accepted as an explanation of so well-known and almost technical a phrase as “faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2) Another, noting the distinction in the original between the two prepositions here—the former (pros) signifying direction towards, and the latter (eis) actual contact with, its object—explains the phrase as signifying “the faith which has as its object the Lord Jesus Christ, but which shows itself practically towards all saints.” But this, even if the word “hast” will bear this gloss, seems too artificial for such a Letter as this. (3) The comparison with the contemporaneous Letter to the Colossians—where we read, “your faith in the Lord Jesus, and your love toward all the saints” (Colossians 1:4)—seems to clear up the matter. We have here an equivalent phrase, in which, however (by what the grammarians called chiasmus), the extremes and means correspond to each other. The idea which runs through the Letter is Philemon’s “love to the saints.” In writing of that love St. Paul cannot refrain from (4) referring it to its true origin—the faith towards the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence the broken phrase. The sense seems therefore to be that which in some MSS. has been brought out by a natural correction, “thy faith towards the Lord Jesus, and thy love to all the saints.”

That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.
(6) That the communication of thy faith . . .—The general idea of St. Paul’s prayer for Philemon is clear—that his “faith may become effectual,” i.e., energetic and perfected, “in full knowledge.” This is exactly the prayer which, in different forms and degrees of emphasis, opens all the Epistles of the Captivity. (See Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 1:9; Colossians 1:9.) It describes the true order of Christian life, so fully and beautifully drawn out in Ephesians 3:17-19, beginning in faith, deepened by love, and so growing to knowledge.

But it may be asked, “Why the communication of thy faith?” (1) The phrase is unique, but the word rendered “communication” is the well-known word generally rendered “communion,” or “fellowship,” except where (as in Romans 15:26; 2Corinthians 8:4; 2Corinthians 9:13; Hebrews 13:16) it is used technically and derivatively of “the communication” of almsgiving. The phrase, therefore, should probably be rendered the “communion of thy faith,” i.e., “thy fellowship in faith.” (2) But, again, the question arises, “With whom is this fellowship? With God or man?” The answer probably is, “With both.” Perhaps for growth in divine knowledge the communion need only be with God. But we observe that the knowledge is not merely “of every good thing,” i.e., of all that is of God, but of “every good thing which is in you (or, better, in us) towards Christ Jesus.” It is, therefore, the knowledge of good—that is, of God’s gift—as dwelling in man by the unity which binds all to Christ Jesus. (3) Now for knowledge of this, fellowship with man is needed, as well as fellowship with God. The soul which dwells alone with God, even in the holiest seclusion, knows what is good in the abstract, but not what is good in man in the concrete reality. But Philemon’s house was a centre of Christian life. St. Paul might, therefore, well speak of this his two-fold “fellowship in faith,” and pray that it might grow into full knowledge at once of God and of man as in Him. (4) That all such growth must be “towards Christ Jesus,” dependent on unity with Him and serving to deepen such unity, is the characteristic doctrine of all this group of Epistles, especially of the Colossian Epistle, of which Onesimus was one of the bearers.

For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.
(7) The bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee.—The same idea is here carried on. St. Paul declares his special joy to have been that “the bowels (i.e., the hearts) of the saints, have been refreshed through thee.” The word “refresh” is the very word used by our Lord in His gracious promise: “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you” (Matthew 11:28). It is ultimately in Him that the hearts of the saints are refreshed. But in this case it was through the instrumentality of Philemon, by “the communion of faith,” to which his active love was the means of welcoming them, and in which they had fellowship in Christ, both with the Father and with His children. (Comp. 1John 1:3.) St. Paul uses the word “refresh” not unfrequently to express the relief and rest given by Christian fellowship on earth. (See below, Philemon 1:20; and comp. 1Corinthians 16:18; 2Corinthians 7:13.) We find it in the Apocalypse applied to the rest with Christ in heaven (Revelation 6:11; Revelation 14:13).

Brother.—The name is given to Philemon here and in Philemon 1:20 with a marked emphasis of affection, evidently implying some special intimacy of friendship, not apparently at Colossæ (for see Colossians 2:1); but perhaps at Ephesus, during St. Paul’s long stay there. Probably Philemon (whose son Archippus is supposed to have been) was St. Paul’s equal in age, and although actually his convert is not addressed (as usual) as his “son in the faith.” In this place, moreover, the title “brother” has a peculiar appropriateness: for the Apostle has been speaking of the love of Philemon, which made him a brother indeed to all in the family of Christ.

Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,
(8-20) Here St. Paul enters on the main subject of his Letter—the recommendation to Philemon of his runaway slave, Onesimus. All thoughtful readers of the Epistle must recognise in this a peculiar courtesy and delicacy of tone, through which an affectionate earnestness shows itself, and an authority all the greater because it is not asserted in command. The substance is equally notable in its bearing on slavery. Onesimus is doubly welcomed into the Christian family. He is St. Paul’s son in the faith: he is to Philemon a brother beloved in the Lord. In that recognition is the truth to which, both in theory and in practice, we may look as being the destruction of slavery.

(8, 9) Wherefore . . . for love’s sake . . .—Still the same idea runs on. Philemon’s love, shown in Christian fellowship, is in the Apostle’s mind; “therefore,” he adds, “for love’s sake”—speaking in the spirit of love, to which he knew there would be a ready response—he will not command, as an Apostle, what is “convenient,” i.e., seemly, in a Christian (comp. Ephesians 5:14; Colossians 3:18), but will “entreat” as a brother.

(9) Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.—At this time St. Paul must have been between fifty and sixty, and after a life of unexampled labour and suffering he might well call himself “aged,” not, perhaps, in comparison with Philemon, but in relation to his need of ministry from his “son” Onesimus. It has been suggested by Dr. Lightfoot that we should read here (by a slight change, or without any change, in the original), the ambassador, and also the prisoner, of Jesus Christ. The parallel with Ephesians 6:20—“for which I am an ambassador in bonds”—and, indeed, with the tone in which St. Paul in the other Epistles speaks of his captivity as his glory, is tempting. But the change seems to take much from the peculiar beauty and pathos of the passage; which from its appeal to love, rather than to authority, suits especially with the thought, not of the glory of ambassadorship for Christ, but of the weakness of an old age suffering in chains.

I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
(10) My son.—Properly, my own child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus. The name is withheld, till Philemon’s interest is doubly engaged, for one who is the Apostle’s “own child” (a name of endearment given elsewhere only to Timothy and Titus), and for one who was begotten under the hardships and hindrances of imprisonment. At last the name is given, and even then comes, in the same breath, the declaration of the change in him from past uselessness to present usefulness, both to the Apostle and to his former master.

Onesimus.—Of Onesimus we know absolutely nothing, except what we read here and in Colossians 4:9. Tradition, of course, is busy with his name, and makes him Bishop of Berœa, in Macedonia, or identifies him with the Onesimus, Bishop of Ephesus, mentioned in the Ignatian Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 1:2-6). The name was a common one, especially among slaves.

Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
(11) In time past . . . unprofitable, but now profitable.—The name Onesimus means “useful,” or “profitable,” though derived from a different root from the words here used. It is hardly possible not to see in this passage a play on words, though (curiously enough) this is not noticed by the old Greek commentators. St. Paul seems to say, “He belied his name in days past; he will more than deserve it now.”

To thee and to me.—St. Paul says “to thee,” for he was sending back Onesimus. He adds “to me,” in affectionate notice of his kindly ministrations already rendered to his spiritual father.

Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:
(12) Thou therefore receive him.—The word “receive” is not in the best MSS. It is supplied here from Philemon 1:17 (apparently rightly in respect of sense) to fill up a broken construction in the original.

Mine own bowelsi.e., my own heart, dear to me as my own soul. There is, indeed, an usage of the word which applies it to children as begotten of our own body. But this is hardly St. Paul’s usage (see 2Corinthians 6:12; Philippians 1:8; Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12; and Philemon 1:7; Philemon 1:20 of this Epistle), though it suits very well with the phrase “whom I have begotten” above.

Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:
(13) Whom I would have retained.—In the original we have here a graceful distinction in two points between the two clauses. The verb in the first clause is “to wish;” in the second “to will.” The tense in the first clause is the imperfect: “I was wishing,” or “prepared to wish” (just as in Acts 25:22; and, in the case of a cognate verb, Romans 9:3), implying, perhaps, a suppressed condition; in the second it is the past definite: “I willed,” or “determined” finally.

In thy stead.—Here, again, there is a certain delicacy of suggestion. A slave was his master’s property; he could act only on his master’s behalf and by his consent. St. Paul is sure that Philemon’s love for him would have gladly given that consent, and so made Onesimus an instrument of willing service to St. Paul.

But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.
(14) That thy benefit should not be . . .—The benefit derived from the service of Onesimus St. Paul acknowledges as coming from Philemon, because given with his consent. He will not keep Onesimus and ask that consent by letter, lest it should be “as it were of necessity:” i.e., lest it should wear even the semblance of constraint.

For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;
(15) For perhaps he therefore departed (or, was parted).—This is a further reason for sending Onesimus back. St. Paul now touches on Onesimus’ “being parted” from Philemon, using a phrase not only (as has been noted) euphemistic, but also one which suggested that his running away was, however unconsciously, overruled by a higher hand. God, in His wisdom, “parted” him from Philemon “for a season, that he might receive him for ever.” The phrase “for ever” is the word always used for “eternal.” The contrast with “for a season” might be satisfied here by the merely relative sense of “perpetual” or “life-long service;” but, considering that the phrase is used in direct reference to the brotherhood of the Communion of Saints, it is better to take it in its absolute sense, of fellowship in the life eternal.

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?
(16) Not now as a servant, but . . . a brother beloved . . . in the Lord.—In these words we have at last the principle which is absolutely destructive of the condition of slavery—a condition which is the exaggeration of natural inferiority to the effacement of the deeper natural equality. (1) The slave—the “living chattel” of inhuman laws and philosophies—is first “a brother,” united to his master by natural ties of ultimate equality, having, therefore, both duties and rights. (2) But he is also a “brother beloved.” These natural ties are not only strengthened by duty, but made living ties by the love which delights indeed to respect the rights of others, but is not content without willingness to sacrifice even our own rights to them. (3) Above all, this is “in the Lord.” The slave is bought by Christ’s blood, made a son of God, and therefore a brother to all who are members of the family of God. To reject and to outrage him is a rejection and outrage towards Christ. Compare St. Peter’s striking comparison of the sufferings of the slave to the passion of the Divine Sufferer (1Peter 2:18-24). They suffer with Him, and He suffers in them. It has been proved historically that only by the aid of this last and highest conception has the brotherhood of love too slowly, indeed, but yet surely—assumed reality. (See Introduction.)

Specially to me, but how much more unto thee?—St. Paul first emphasises his own love for Onesimus, which, indeed, breathes in every line of the Epistle; but then goes on to infer in Philemon a yet greater affection—a natural love towards the nursling of his house, a spiritual love towards the brother “in the Lord,” lost and found again.

If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.
(17) A partner.—The title is peculiar. In the singular number (in which it is naturally more distinctive) and in absolute use, unconnected with explanatory words (such as we read in 1Peter 5:1), it is nowhere else found, except in 2Corinthians 8:23, where Titus is called St. Paul’s “partner and fellow helper;” and even there the context defines the partnership as relating to the collection and ministration of alms. Here it can hardly refer to general Christian fellowship, which would require some such words as “in Christ,” or “in the Spirit,” and would not fully justify the strong personal appeal of the passage. It must indicate some peculiar bond of fellowship between St. Paul and Philemon. Philemon was his convert (see Philemon 1:19); yet we notice that he writes to him not as a son, but as a brother. Evidently he was a leader in the Church at Colossæ. Tradition, as usual, makes him its bishop. He must have been St. Paul’s partner in some common work or special communion of familiarity. (See Introduction, sect. 2.)

If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
(18) If he hath wronged thee.—Properly, If he wronged thee, evidently referring to the time of Onesimus’ escape. “If he oweth thee ought” is similarly, in all probability, an allusion to some theft at the same time, couched in a hypothetical form, but implying no doubt as to the fact.

Put that on mine account.—Comp. a similar commercial metaphor in Philippians 4:15-17, and see Note there. It is strangely out of character with the whole tone of the Apostolic life to imagine (as some commentators have done) a regular debtor and creditor account between Philemon and St. Paul.

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.
(19) I Paul have written it with mine own hand.—St. Paul actually introduces here a regular bond couched in legal form, written (as, perhaps, the whole Letter was written) with his own hand. In so doing he still continues the idea of the preceding verse; but the following words show that, though willing to stand to his bond, he knew Philemon too well to suppose that he would accept it.

It is clear from this passage that the Apostle had money which he could rightly call his own. At Ephesus, where he probably first knew Philemon, it would probably be earned in the work with Aquila and Priscilla, as at Corinth, and it is possible that some of it might still remain. In Rome now, it could hardly be from any other source than the offerings from the Church at Philippi. They were given him freely; he might fairly spend them on his own “son in the faith.”

Albeit I do not say to thee . . .—Literally, not to say to thee. Here St. Paul escapes from the business-like promise of the last verse to the freer Atmosphere of spiritual relations. He knew that this promise it was right for him to offer, but wrong for Philemon to accept. Philemon owed his own self—his new self in Christ—to the Apostle. In that was a debt which he could not repay, but would rejoice even in this smaller matter to acknowledge.

Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.
(20) Let me have joy of thee.—Properly, may I have pleasure, or profit, from thee: a phrase used especially of the mingled pleasure and help derived from children. (See Dr. Lightfoot’s Note on this passage.) The word “I” is emphatic. St. Paul puts himself forward to plead for Onesimus, what he himself could not plead. Nor can it be accidental that the word “profit” is the root of the name Onesimus. St. Paul says, in effect, “May I find thee (as I have found him) a true Onesimus.”

Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.
Philemon 1:21-25 contain the conclusion of the Epistle—hope to visit Philemon soon, salutation, and blessing.

(21) Confidence in thy obedience.—It is curious to notice how, in this conclusion, St. Paul seems to glide, as it were insensibly, out of the tone of entreaty as to an equal, into the authority of a superior. The word “obedience” is found in 2Corinthians 7:15, there in connection with “fear and trembling.” He preferred to appeal to Philemon’s love; he knew that in any case he could rely on his deference.

Do more than I say.—This can hardly refer to anything except the manumission of Onesimus, and possibly his being sent back again to St. Paul. Exactly in this way Christianity was to work out the release of the slave—not by command, but by free and natural inference from its emphatic declaration of his true brotherhood in Christ.

(22) A lodging.—The word often signifies “hospitality” generally, which Philemon might naturally offer in his own house, but which St. Paul would not suggest or ask.

I shall be given unto you.—Literally, as a favour from supreme authority. Comp. the technical and forensic use of the word in Acts 3:14; Acts 25:11 : for good in one case, in the other for evil. If he was so “granted,” it would be by Cæsar instrumentally, by God’s overruling will ultimately. The passage, like Philippians 2:24, but even more definitely, expresses St. Paul’s expectation of a release which might enable him to visit the East again. It is curious that there is no similar allusion in the Colossian Epistle, sent with this.

(23) My fellowprisoner.—Comp. Colossians 4:10, and see Note there. The salutations here correspond exactly in substance (though more condensed in style) with that passage, except that “Jesus, called Justus” (probably unknown to Philemon) is here omitted.

(25) The grace . . .—This form of St. Paul’s usual blessing is found also in Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23; 2Timothy 4:22. We notice by the word “your” that, like the opening salutation, it is addressed to all Philemon’s family and “the church in his house.”

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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