Vincent's Word Studies
The Epistle to Philemon
This epistle is the only private letter of Paul which has been preserved, and the only one in the New Testament except 3John.
Onesimus, a slave, had run away from his master, Philemon, of Colossae, and had hidden himself in Rome, where he came under Paul's influence and was converted to Christianity.
In his loyalty to the civil law, Paul felt that Onesimus, in fulfillment of his Christian duty, should return to his master. He had probably robbed Philemon, and should make at least this restitution. He therefore sent Onesimus back to Colossae under the escort of Tychicus, who carried this letter to Philemon.
Paul did not attack slavery as an institution. He did not charge Philemon to emancipate his slave. For the final extinction of slavery he relied on the spirit of the Gospel, and on its principle that all men are brethren in Christ and alike servants of the one heavenly Master.
After salutations to Philemon and his household, and acknowledgments of Philemon's loving service to the Church and to himself, he introduces the main subject of the letter. He asks as a personal favor that Philemon will kindly receive Onesimus. He praises the ministries of the latter to himself, playing upon his name, "once unprofitable but now profitable," and expressing his desire to keep him with himself. This, however, he will not do without Philemon's consent. If Philemon shall see fit to retain him in his own service, he will find him, as a Christian, far more valuable than he was as a pagan slave. Perhaps his flight was divinely permitted, in order that he might return to his master as a Christian brother. He hints delicately at Onesimus' possible thefts, offering his personal security for the amount stolen, though intimating that Philemon is already in his debt for his own conversion. He is sure that Philemon will comply with his request. He thinks he will soon be released from prison, and asks his friend to prepare him a lodging in view of his visit.
The epistle has always been celebrated as a model of Christian tact and courtesy. Paul waives his apostolic right to command, and throws himself upon the appeal of Christian friendship, backing it with a delicate allusion to his sufferings for the Gospel's sake. Without palliating Onesimus' fault, he throws round him the protection of his own confidence and esteem. He softens the phrases which describe the slave's flight and theft. He does not say "he ran away," but "he was separated from thee." He does not say "he stole," but, "if he hath wronged thee or oweth thee aught." With exquisite tact he assumes that Philemon will regard Onesimus' ministries to the prisoner as his own, and will rejoice in them as an expression of his own affection.
Few sections of Scripture contain within the same space more topics for the preacher. Among these may be noted, Fellowship in Christian service (Plm 1:1, Plm 1:2, Plm 1:11, Plm 1:12, Plm 1:13, Plm 1:19): Friendship founded in faith (Plm 1:3, Plm 1:5-7, Plm 1:20): The practical quality of love and faith (Plm 1:2, Plm 1:5, Plm 1:6, Plm 1:7): The true method of Christian persuasion: The power of the Gospel to deal with the worst: The Christian method of dealing with bad social institutions: The union of all classes and conditions in Christ.
The letter has often been compared with the younger Pliny's epistle to Sabinianus, written under similar circumstances. Doddridge remarks that although antiquity furnishes no example of the epistolary style equal to Pliny's letter, Paul's letter to Philemon is far superior as a human composition. Dr. Davidson says: "It puts Paul's character in a light which none other of his writings exhibit. The qualities which dictated its composition are eminently attractive. Dignity, generosity, prudence, friendship, politeness, skillful address, purity, are apparent. Hence it has been called, with great propriety, 'the polite epistle.' True delicacy, fine address, consummate courtesy, nice strokes of rhetoric, make it a unique specimen of the epistolary style. It shows the perfect Christian gentleman." Ewald: "Nowhere can the sensibility and warmth of tender friendship blend more beautifully with the higher feeling of a superior mind, nay, of a teacher and apostle, than this brief and yet so eminently significant letter." Renan: "A little chef-d'oeuere of the art of letter-writing." Calvin: "Though he handleth a subject which otherwise were low and mean, yet after his manner he is borne up aloft unto God. With such modest entreaty doth he humble himself on behalf of the lowest of men, that scarce anywhere else is the gentleness of his spirit portrayed more truly to the life." Maclaren: "Without thought of effect, and with complete unconsciousness, this man beats all the famous letter-writers on their own ground. That must have been a great intellect, and closely conversant with the Fountain of all light and beauty, which could shape the profound and far-reaching teachings of the epistle to the Colossians, and pass from them to the graceful simplicity and sweet kindliness of this exquisite letter; as if Michael Angelo had gone straight from smiting his magnificent Moses from the marble mass, to incise some delicate and tiny figure of Love or Friendship on a cameo."
The authenticity of the epistle is conceded. The assaults of Baur and Holtzmann require no notice.
Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,
A prisoner of Jesus Christ (δέσμιος)
A prisoner for Christ's sake. This is the only salutation in which Paul so styles himself. The word is appropriate to his confinement at Rome. Apostle would not have suited a private letter, and one in which Paul takes the ground of personal friendship and not of apostolic authority. A similar omission of the official title occurs in the Epistles to the Thessalonians and Philippians, and is accounted for on the similar ground of his affectionate relations with the Macedonian churches. Contrast the salutation to the Galatians.
Timothy, our brother
Lit., the brother. Timothy could not be called an apostle. He is distinctly excluded from this office in 2 Corinthians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; compare Philippians 1:1. In Philippians and Philemon, after the mention of Timothy the plural is dropped. In Colossians it is maintained throughout the thanksgiving only. The title brother is used of Quartus, Romans 16:23; Sosthenes, 1 Corinthians 1:1; Apollos, 1 Corinthians 16:12.
An inhabitant, and possibly a native of Colossae in Phrygia. The name figured in the beautiful Phrygian legend of Baucis and Philemon, related by Ovid ("Metamorphoses," viii., 626 sqq. See note on Acts 14:11). He was one of Paul's converts (Plm 1:19), and his labors in the Gospel at Colossae are attested by the title fellow-laborer, and illustrated by his placing his house at the disposal of the Colossian Christians for their meetings (Plm 1:2). The statements that he subsequently became bishop of Colossae and suffered martyrdom are legendary.
And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:
Our beloved Apphia (Ἁπφίᾳ τῇ ἀγαπητῇ)
Read τῇ ἀδελφῇ the (our) sister. Commonly supposed to have been Philemon's wife. The word is not the common Roman name Appia, but is a Phrygian name, occurring frequently in Phrygian inscriptions. It is also written Aphphia, and sometimes Aphia.
Possibly the son of Philemon and Apphia. From Colossians 4:17 he would appear to have held some important office in the church, either at Colossae or at Laodicaea, which lay very near. In Colossians his name occurs immediately after the salutation to the Laodicaeans.
In christian warfare. Perhaps at Ephesus. Applied also to Epaphroditus, Philippians 2:25.
The church in thy house
See on Romans 16:5.
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,
Thank - always
Making mention (μνείαν ποιούμενος)
Μνεία primarily means remembrance, so that the phrase expresses the two ideas, mentioning thee when I call thee to mind.
In my prayers (ἐπί)
On the occasions of.
Thy love and faith - toward (πρός) the Lord Jesus and toward (εἰς) all saints
The clauses are arranged crosswise, love referring to saints, faith to Christ. Toward. Two different prepositions are thus translated. Practically the difference is not material, but πρός toward, with πίστις faith is unusual. See 1 Thessalonians 1:8. Εἰς is the preposition of contact; to, unto; faith exerted upon.
Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;
That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.
Connect with making mention.
The communication of thy faith (ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου).
Κοινωνία fellowship is often used in the active sense of impartation, as communication, contribution, almsgiving. So Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 9:13; Hebrews 13:16. This is the sense here: the active sympathy and charity growing out of your faith.
May become effectual (ἐνεργὴς)
See on James 5:16. This adjective, and the kindred ἐνεργέω to work, be effectual, ἐνέργημα working, operation, and ἐνέργεια energy, power in exercise, are used in the New Testament only of superhuman power, good or evil. Compare Ephesians 1:19; Matthew 14:2; Philippians 2:13; 1 Corinthians 12:10; Hebrews 4:12.
In the knowledge (ἐν ἐπιγνώσει)
In denotes the sphere or element in which Philemon's charity will become effective. His liberality and love will result in perfect knowledge of God's good gifts. In the sphere of christian charity he will be helped to a full experience and appropriation of these. He that gives for Christ's sake becomes enriched in the knowledge of Christ. Knowledge is full, perfect knowledge; an element of Paul's prayer for his readers in all the four epistles of the captivity.
Read in us.
In Christ Jesus (εἰς Χριστὸν Ἱησοῦν)
Connect with may become effectual, and render, as Rev., unto Christ; that is, unto Christ's glory.
For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.
For we have (γὰρ ἔχομεν)
Read ἔσχον I had. Connect with I thank in Plm 1:4, giving the reason for thankfulness as it lay in his own heart; as, in Plm 1:5, he had given the reason which lay in outward circumstances.
Rev., hearts. See on 1 Peter 3:8.
Are refreshed (ἀναπέπαυται)
Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,
Seeing that I have these proofs of thy love. Connect with I rather beseech (Plm 1:9).
I might be much bold (πολλὴν παῤῥησίαν ἔχων)
As holding apostolic authority from Christ.
That which is convenient (τὸ ἀνῆκον)
Rev., befitting. Convenient is used in A.V., in the earlier and stricter sense of suitable. Compare Ephesians 5:4. Thus Latimer: "Works which are good and convenient to be done." Applied to persons, as Hooper: "Apt and convenient persons." The modern sense merges the idea of essential fitness. The verb ἀνήκω originally means to come up to; hence of that which comes up to the mark; fitting. Compare Colossians 3:18; Ephesians 5:4. It conveys here a delicate hint that the kindly reception of Onesimus will be a becoming thing.
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.
Being such an one as Paul the aged (τοιοῦτος ὦν ὡς Παῦλος πρεσβύτης)
Being such an one, connect with the previous I rather beseech, and with Paul the aged. Not, being such an one (armed with such authority), as Paul the aged I beseech (the second beseech in Plm 1:10); but, as Rev., for love's sake I rather beseech, being such an one as Paul the aged. The beseech in Plm 1:10 is resumptive. Aged; or ambassador (so Rev., in margin). The latter rendering is supported by πρεσβεύω I am an ambassador, Ephesians 6:10. There is no objection to aged on the ground of fact. Paul was about sixty years old, besides being prematurely aged from labor and hardship. For aged see Luke 1:18; Titus 2:2.
I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
Resuming the beseech of Plm 1:9. I beseech, Irepeat.
The name is withheld until Paul has favorably disposed Philemon to his request. The word means helpful, and it was a common name for slaves. The same idea was expressed by other names, as Chresimus, Chrestus (useful); Onesiphorus (profit-bringer, 2 Timothy 1:16); Symphorus (suitable). Onesimus was a runaway Phrygian slave, who had committed some crime and therefore had fled from his master and hidden himself in Rome. Under Roman law the slave was a chattel. Varro classified slaves among implements, which he classifies as vocalia, articulate speaking implements, as slaves; semivocalia, having a voice but not articulating, as oxen; muta, dumb, as wagons. The attitude of the law toward the slave was expressed in the formula servile caput nullum jus habet; the slave has no right. The master's power was unlimited. He might mutilate, torture, or kill the slave at his pleasure. Pollio, in the time of Augustus, ordered a slave to be thrown into a pond of voracious lampreys. Augustus interfered, but afterward ordered a slave of his own to be crucified on the mast of a ship for eating a favorite quail. Juvenal describes a profligate woman ordering a slave to be crucified. Some one remonstrates. She replies: "So then a slave is a man, is he! 'He has done nothing,' you say. Granted. I command it. Let my pleasure stand for a reason" (vi., 219). Martial records an instance of a master cutting out a slave's tongue. The old Roman legislation imposed death for killing a plough-ox; but the murderer of a slave was not called to account. Tracking fugitive slaves was a trade. Recovered slaves were branded on the forehead, condemned to double labor, and sometimes thrown to the beasts in the amphitheater. The slave population was enormous. Some proprietors had as many as twenty thousand.
Have begotten in my bonds
Made a convert while I was a prisoner.
Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
A play on the word Onesimus profitable. Compare unprofitable (ἀχρεῖος) servant, Matthew 25:30. These plays upon proper names are common both in Greek and Roman literature. Thus Aeschylus on the name of Helen of Troy, the play or pun turning on the root ἑλ, hel, destroy: Helene, helenaus, helandras, heleptolis: Helen, ship-destroyer, man-destroyer, city-destroyer ("Agamemnon," 671). Or, as Robert Browning: "Helen, ship's-hell, man's-hell, city's-hell." So on Prometheus (forethought): "Falsely do the gods call thee Prometheus, for thou thyself hast need of prometheus, i.e., of forethought" ("Prometheus Bound," 85, 86). Or Sophocles on Ajax. Aias (Ajax) cries ai, ai! and says, "Who would have thought that my name would thus be the appropriate expression for my woes?" ("Ajax," 430). In the New Testament, a familiar example is Matthew 16:18; "thou art Petros, and on this petra will I build my church." See on Epaenetus, 2 Corinthians 8:18.
"Christianity knows nothing of hopeless cases. It professes its ability to take the most crooked stick and bring it straight, to flash a new power into the blackest carbon, which will turn it into a diamond" (Maclaren, "Philemon," in "Expositor's Bible").
And to me
The words are ingeniously thrown in as an afterthought. Compare Philippians 2:27; Romans 16:13; 1 Corinthians 16:18. A strong appeal to Philemon lies in the fact that Paul is to reap benefit from Onesimus in his new attitude as a christian brother.
Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:
I have sent again (ἀνέπεμψα)
Thou therefore receive
Omit, and render αὐτόν him as Rev., in his own person; his very self.
Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:
I would (ἐβουλόμην)
Rev., I would fain. See on Matthew 1:19. The imperfect tense denotes the desire awakened but arrested. See on I would, Plm 1:14.
With me (πρὸς εμαυτὸν)
The preposition expresses more than near or beside. It implies intercourse. See on with God, John 1:1.
In thy stead (ὑπὲρ σοῦ)
Rev., correctly, in thy behalf. A beautiful specimen of christian courtesy and tact; assuming that Philemon would have desired to render these services in person.
In the bonds of the Gospel
Connect with me. Bonds with which he is bound for the sake of the Gospel: with which Christ has invested him. A delicate hint at his sufferings is blended with an intimation of the authority which attaches to his appeal as a prisoner of Christ. This language of Paul is imitated by Ignatius. "My bonds exhort you" (Tralles, 12). "He (Jesus Christ) is my witness, in whom I am bound" (Philadelphia, 7). "In whom I bear about my bonds as spiritual pearls" (Ephesians, 11). "In the bonds which I bear about, I sing the praises of the churches" (Magnesians, 1).
But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.
I would (ἠθέλησα)
Compare I would, Plm 1:13. Here the aorist tense and the verb meaning to will denote a single, decisive resolution.
As it were of necessity (ὡς κατὰ ἀνάγκην)
Ὡς as it were, Rev., as, marks the appearance of necessity. Philemon's kindly reception of Onesimus must not even seem to be constrained.
For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;
I sent him back, for, if I had kept him, I might have defeated the purpose for which he was allowed to be separated from you for a time. "We are not to be too sure of what God means by such and such a thing, as some of us are wont to be, as if we had been sworn of God's privy council.... A humble 'perhaps' often grows into a 'verily, verily' - and a hasty, over-confident 'verily, verily' often dwindles to a hesitating 'perhaps.' Let us not be in too great a hurry to make sure that we have the key of the cabinet where God keeps his purposes, but content ourselves with 'perhaps' when we are interpreting the often questionable ways of His providence, each of which has many meanings and many ends" (Maclaren).
He therefore departed (διὰ τοῦτο ἐχωρίσθη)
The A.V. misses the ingenious shading of Paul's expression. Not only does he avoid the word ran away, which might have irritated Philemon, but he also uses the passive voice, not the middle, separated himself, as an intimation that Onesimus' flight was divinely ordered for good. Hence Rev., correctly, he was parted. Compare Genesis 45:5.
For a season (πρὸς ὤραν)
Thou shouldst receive (ἀπέχῃς)
The compounded preposition ἀπό may mean back again, after the temporary separation, or in full, wholly. The former is suggested by was parted, and would fain have kept: but the latter by Plm 1:16, no longer as a servant, but more. The latter is preferable. Compare the use of ἀπέχω in Matthew 6:2, they have received. (see note); Matthew 6:16; Luke 6:24; see on Philippians 4:18; and ἀπολαμβάνω receive, Galatians 4:5.
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?
Not now (οὐκέτι)
Rev., more correctly, no longer. The negative adverb οὐκέτι states the fact absolutely, not as it may be conceived by Philemon (μηκέτι) However Philemon may regard Onesimus, as a fact he is now no longer as a slave.
Rev., more than. More than a slave - a whole man.
Connect with beloved. Especially to me as compared with other Christians.
How much more (πόσῳ μᾶλλον)
Beloved most to Paul, how much more than most to Philemon, since he belonged to him in a double sense, as a slave and as a Christian brother: in the flesh and in the Lord. "In the flesh Paul had the brother for a slave: in the Lord he had the slave for a brother" (Meyer).
If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.
Resumptive from Plm 1:12.
Thou count (ἔχεις)
More than an intimate friend. One in Christian fellowship.
If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
If he hath wronged (εἰ ἠδίκδσεν)
The indicative mood with the conditional particle may imply that what is put hypothetically is really a fact: if he wronged thee as he did.
Perhaps indicating that Onesimus had been guilty of theft. Notice the general word wronged instead of the more exact specification of the crime.
Put that on my account (τοῦτο ἐμοι ἐλλόγα)
For the verb, compare Romans 5:13 (note).
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.
I Paul have written, etc.
Rev., write. A promissory note. The mention of his autograph here, rather than at the end of the letter, may indicate that he wrote the whole epistle with his own hand, contrary to his usual custom of employing an amanuensis.
Albeit I do not say (ἵνα μὴ λέγω)
Lit., that I may not say. Connect with I write. I thus give my note of hand that I may avoid saying that thou owest, etc. Rev., that I say not unto thee.
Thou owest (προσοφείλεις)
Lit., owest in addition. I have laid you under obligation, not only for an amount equal to that due from Onesimus, but for yourself as made a Christian through my ministry.
Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.
Let me have joy (ὀναίμην)
Or help. Lit., may I profit. Again a play upon the name Onesimus. The verb is frequently used with reference to filial duties. Ignatius employs it, in one instance, directly after an allusion to another Onesimus (Ephesians, 2).
Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.
More than I say (ὑπέρ)
Beyond. Possibly hinting at manumission.
But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.
Simultaneously with the fulfillment of my request.
Paul is expecting a speedy liberation. His original plan of going from Rome to Spain has apparently been altered. Lightfoot observes that "there is a gentle compulsion in this mention of a personal visit to Colossae. The apostle would thus be able to see for himself that Philemon had not disappointed his expectations."
I shall be given (χαρισθήσομαι)
A beautiful assumption of his correspondent's affection for him, in that his visit to them will be a gracious gift (χάρις) The word is also used of granting for destruction, Acts 25:11; or for preservation, Acts 3:14.
There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;
Epaphras my fellow prisoner (Ἑπαφρᾶς ὁ συναιχμάλωτός μου).
Epaphras is mentioned Colossians 1:7; Colossians 4:12. Some identify him with Epaphroditus, but without sufficient reason. Epaphroditus appears to have been a native of Philippi (Philippians 2:25), and Epaphras of Colossae (Colossians 4:12). Epaphroditus is always used of the Philippian, and Epaphras of the Colossian. The names, however, are the same, Epaphras being a contraction.
It is disputed whether fellow-prisoner is to be taken in a literal or in a spiritual sense. For the latter see Romans 7:23; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Ephesians 4:8. Compare fellow-soldier, Plm 1:2, and Philippians 2:25. In Romans 16:7, the word used here is applied to Andronicus and Junia. Paul was not strictly an αἰχμάλωτος prisoner of war (see on Luke 4:18). The probabilities seem to favor the spiritual sense. Lightfoot suggests that Epaphras' relations with Paul at Rome may have excited suspicion and led to his temporally confinement; or that he may voluntarily have shared Paul's imprisonment.
Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.
The physician and evangelist. See Introduction to Luke's Gospel.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
Grace - with your spirit
As in Galatians 6:18, with the omission here of brother. See on 2 Corinthians 13:14. Out of many private letters which must have been written by Paul, this alone has been preserved. Its place in the New Testament canon is vindicated, so far as its internal character is concerned, by its picture of Paul as a christian gentleman, and by its exhibition of Paul's method of dealing with a great social evil.
Paul's dealing with the institution of slavery displayed the profoundest christian sagacity. To have attacked the institution as such would have been worse than useless. To one who reads between the lines, Paul's silence means more than any amount of denunciation; for with his silence goes his faith in the power of christian sentiment to settle finally the whole question. He knows that to bring slavery into contact with living Christianity is to kill slavery. He accepts the social condition as a fact, and even as a law. He sends Onesimus back to his legal owner. He does not bid Philemon emancipate him, but he puts the christian slave on his true footing of a christian brother beside his master. As to the institution, he knows that the recognition of the slave as free in Christ will carry with it, ultimately, the recognition of his civil freedom.
History vindicated him in the Roman empire itself. Under Constantine the effects of christian sentiment began to appear in the Church and in legislation concerning slaves. Official freeing of slaves became common as an act of pious gratitude, and burial tablets often represent masters standing before the Good Shepherd, with a band of slaves liberated at death, and pleading for them at judgment. In a.d. 312 a law was passed declaring as homicide the poisoning or branding of slaves, and giving them to be torn by beasts. The advance of a healthier sentiment may be seen by comparing the law of Augustus, which forbade a master to emancipate more than one-fifth of his slaves, and which fixed one hundred males as a maximum for one time - and the unlimited permission to emancipate conceded by Constantine. Each new ruler enacted some measure which facilitated emancipation. Every obstacle was thrown by the law in the way of separating families. Under Justinian all presumptions were in favor of liberty. If a slave had several owners, one could emancipate him, and the others must accept compensation at a reduced valuation. The mutilated, and those who had served in the army with their masters' knowledge and consent, were liberated. All the old laws which limited the age at which a slave could be freed, and the number which could be emancipated, were abolished. A master's marriage with a slave freed all the children. Sick and useless slaves must be sent by their masters to the hospital.
Great and deserved praise has been bestowed on this letter. Bengel says: "A familiar and exceedingly courteous epistle concerning a private affair is inserted among the New Testament books, intended to afford a specimen of the highest wisdom as to how Christians should arrange civil affairs on loftier principles." Franke, quoted by Bengel, says: "The single epistle to Philemon very far surpasses all the wisdom of the world." Renan: "A true little chef-d'oeuvre of the art of letter-writing." Sabatier: "This short epistle gleams like a pearl of the most exquisite purity in the rich treasure of the New Testament."