A Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to Philemon

Yesterday evening it was my privilege to lead our small group in a study of the book of Philemon. I must have read the book a couple of times before, when I’ve completed Bible reading plans, but it hadn’t stuck in my mind, so when I started preparing for the small group study it was like the first time. And I admit that after my first read-through I thought “Is that it? What is this book saying that can’t be found elsewhere? What was the point of including this as canon?” But then as I read the text more carefully, and the accompanying commentaries, I saw depths of meaning that impressed me greatly. I know that many of my brothers in Christ felt the same yesterday, so today I want to talk about the book – in my own words as much as I can, but leaning heavily on commentaries such as the NKJV Study Bible, Reformation Study Bible, and the IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Many of these resources can be accessed freely on Bible Gateway. I am also indebted to my friends who offered their own insights, some of which weren’t found in any of the experts’ notes, but which are equally valid in my eyes. I will include the full text of the book from the American Standard Version, which is in the public domain worldwide.

The Epistle To Philemon

1 – Background Information

There is some debate amongst scholars regarding the time and place where the Epistle to Philemon was written. The general consensus is that it was written by the apostle Paul around 60AD from prison in Rome. It should be understood that the form of prison Paul was subjected to at this time was more like house arrest – see Acts 28:16. So he would have been able to receive visitors, including a man called Onesimus, a slave who had escaped from his master, Philemon.

At that time in Roman society a usual punishment for a runaway slave was death. However, Onesimus converted to Christianity through Paul’s ministry, as Philemon had also done previously, and Paul urges Onesimus to return to his master, sending with him this letter in which he requests that Philemon accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ.

2 – The Greeting

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved and fellow-worker,

and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in thy house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We should first note that Paul refers to himself immediately as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. This is a motif that will be repeated many times throughout the short letter. In fact he is both a prisoner of Christ in a spiritual sense, and for Christ in the physical. He mentions Timothy who is with him, and then addresses Philemon. Many of Paul’s letters are written to church communities as a whole, and indeed he does mention the church here, but the letter is in fact a very direct and personal one, and the intended audience is Philemon. Philemon is a wealthy man, a Roman citizen and slave-owner in the city of Colossae. His house is large enough to host a church (we do not know how large the church is). Of the other individuals mentioned in the greeting, it is believed that Apphia is Philemon’s wife, and Archippus may be their son. Archippus is likely the pastor of the church. Paul’s greeting – “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” – is quite standard for him, but nevertheless it is deeply reassuring, and a verse that is worth meditating on often. It includes the Greek charos, or grace, and the Jewish eirene shalom, or peace, and so articulates that both Greeks and Jews are welcome in the Lord’s family.

3 – Paul’s Thanksgiving and Prayer

I thank my God always, making mention of thee in my prayers,

hearing of thy love, and of the faith which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints;

Paul thanks God for Philemon. He knows that he is a man of great faith and love, and these are the qualities to which he will appeal later in his letter. His prayer here is an encouragement to Philemon.

that the fellowship of thy faith may become effectual, in the knowledge of every good thing which is in you, unto Christ.

For I had much joy and comfort in thy love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through thee, brother.

The word fellowship, sometimes translated partnership, is the Greek koinonia, referring to a community with a common and vital shared faith; and the word translated knowledge, or understanding, is epignosis – a knowledge acquired by experience. Through living a Christian life, we can attain a deeper knowledge of Christ. Another interesting word Paul uses here is translated most often as heart(s). The word is splanchna, which actually means guts. This expresses well the visceral nature of the compassion stirred in the people of God by Philemon. The word splanchna is used twice more in later verses.

4 – Paul’s Plea for Onesimus

Wherefore, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin thee that which is befitting,

yet for love’s sake I rather beseech, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now a prisoner also of Christ Jesus:

Paul now says that he could command Philemon to do what is right in God’s eyes. But he will not command, instead, in love, he appeals, he requests. There is a subtle sting in the tale of this request though. Paul refers to himself not only as a prisoner again, but as an old man, Paul the aged. The culture of that time is one where the request of an elderly man should be granted or the person denying it would be shamed. This is not the last time that Paul will use both a carrot and a stick in his approach to the slave-master.

10 I beseech thee for my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus,

11 who once was unprofitable to thee, but now is profitable to thee and to me:

Finally, Onesimus is brought into the plea. Notice that he is not referred to as Philemon’s slave, but as Paul’s child. This is of utmost importance. As the man responsible, through God’s grace, for Onesimus’s conversion, Paul is his spiritual father. The same could be said of Paul’s relationship to Philemon, so in a very real sense, Paul is saying that the two are brothers. Paul also uses a pun in verse 11. The name Onesimus means usefulbeneficial or profitable. As a slave who has escaped from his master, and possibly stolen from him too, Onesimus had certainly shown himself to be unprofitable. But now he is a new creation in Christ and can live up to his name.

Scholars have some disagreement around the name of Onesimus. On the one hand, some suggest that he acquired the name after his conversion, as Saul acquired Paul. However others note that Onesimus is actually quite a common name for Roman slaves, so it is likely that it is the one he was born with, or at least given at a much earlier date. But whatever the truth of his name’s origin, there is no doubt about its aptness.

We can see echoes of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son in the way Onesimus is intending to return to Philemon. Paul wants him to be received with joy, as we will read later.

Onesimus’s usefulness is expanded upon as Paul continues.

12 whom I have sent back to thee in his own person, that is, my very heart:

13 whom I would fain have kept with me, that in thy behalf he might minister unto me in the bonds of the gospel:

Paul describes Onesimus as his very heart, his splanchna. He would like to have kept him rather than return him to Philemon, because he has been so compassionate and encouraging to Paul. It is clear that Onesimus has qualities that will be of great benefit to the church.

14 but without thy mind I would do nothing; that thy goodness should not be as of necessity, but of free will.

15 For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season, that thou shouldest have him for ever;

16 no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much rather to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Here, the appeal is made explicit. Again Paul refuses to coerce Philemon, instead insisting that the decision must be made by his free will. Verse 15 recalls Genesis 50:20, where the evil plans of Joseph’s brothers were used for good by God. There is a definite suggestion in the word translated perhaps, which is tacha, used sometimes in Jewish literature to introduce a divine explanation. Also in this verse, Paul compares the temporal nature of Onesimus’s disobedience and escape with the eternal bond he and Philemon will share in Christ. The bond is described beautifully in verse 16.

17 If then thou countest me a partner, receive him as myself.

Paul emphasises here that Onesimus is an equal to both him and Philemon, and that Philemon should receive him as such.

At this point it is worth recalling James 2 and the truth that faith without works is dead. Paul has extolled Philemon for his faith, but it is necessary for that faith to be put into action. The idea of accepting a runaway slave back as a brother is so utterly counter-cultural in Roman society, that it could have wide-reaching ramifications in the whole community. It is hard for us to imagine how difficult it would be for Philemon to grant Paul’s request. But what an amazing example of Christian forgiveness and restoration it would demonstrate.

18 But if he hath wronged thee at all, or oweth thee aught, put that to mine account;

19 I Paul write it with mine own hand, I will repay it: that I say not unto thee that thou owest to me even thine own self besides.

And as an amazing example of Christ-mindedness, these verses are hard to top. Just as Christ who was without sin, became sin for us and paid the price for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), so Paul offers to pay all that Philemon may be owed for Onesimus’s past sin. he is determined that Onesimus’s account should be cleared and that he should be accepted as a new man. The last half of verse 19 can be read in many ways. It sounds like a veiled threat, that Philemon owes Paul his very self. But is it not true that as Christian brothers and sisters we do indeed owe everything to each other? We should be willing to make any sacrifice – greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my heart in Christ.

21 Having confidence in thine obedience I write unto thee, knowing that thou wilt do even beyond what I say.

Paul speaks of the joy Philemon’s right response will give him. We must remember that Paul is imprisoned. As encouraging as his letters are to their recipients, and as strong as Paul’s faith is, there must be times when his spirit weakens. He must have both good and bad days, and he needs encouragement to lift his spirit, just as we all do from time to time. What an encouragement it will be to Paul, for Philemon to receive Onesimus as his beloved brother. And Paul is so confident that this will happen – even more than he asks. There could be no reason for Paul to use that phrase except that he utterly believes it to be true. This is the final confirmation of Paul’s trust in Philemon’s faith and love.

22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I hope that through your prayers I shall be granted unto you.

But just in case Philemon is in any doubt of his own ability to grant Paul’s request, here we have a last push from the apostle. Asking for a guest room to be prepared, because he hopes to be released from prison, and will visit to see how everything has turned out.

5 – Farewell

23 Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, saluteth thee;

24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow-workers.

25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Paul ends his letter with greetings from fellow Christians who are with him in Rome, and a graceful benediction. As an aside, it is sad to note that Demas, who is mentioned here amongst the fellow workers, later abandoned Paul after he found that he ‘loved the world’, see 2 Timothy 4.

6 – Epilogue

The survival of this letter and other evidence suggests that Onesimus did indeed deliver it to Philemon and was accepted by him. His ultimate fate is not certain, but it is possible that he is the same Onesimus who later became bishop of Ephesus.

The Epistle to Philemon was used by both sides in the abolitionist debate of the 18th to 19th centuries, wrongly in my mind because Paul does not make judgements on either side. One thing is clear in this and other writings of his, though, and that is that he expects slaves to be treated as equal human beings, with respect and compassion, and that is certainly not the way they were treated in the Western slave trade at that time, or in modern slavery that continues today in India and elsewhere. We should always consider scripture through the lens of the culture it is being written in, and in this respect Paul is a radical thinker by any measure.

But this letter is not about slavery, it is about relationships. It is about forgiveness and restoration. It is about faith and love. It is about doing what is right for our Lord Jesus Christ when the world around us wants us to do the opposite.

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