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.

Here I Am Again, Lord

I wrote this in the Summer of 2010. It was originally intended to be a song, but I couldn’t work out a tune that would fit. Eventually I sat down with a friend to see if we could ‘fix’ it together and make it work with music, but I then realised that I was going in the wrong direction, and instead I needed to let it breathe as poetry. So here it is, and I hope it blesses you. It takes you through a journey that I think will be recognised by many Christians…

Long time ago
When I first heard You call me
I could feel Your joy fill my heart
And I knew You would never forsake me
Every hour of every day
I would bow before You and say
Here I am again, Lord
Here I am.

Then my faith was tested
When I lost some battles
And I lost some friends
And the enemy would scorn me
Without You I might have given in
But I loved You and I called on You
Here I am again, Lord
Here I am.

But Jesus, I let You down
Somehow I messed up
Moved my heart away from You
Followed my will, not Yours
I could have died – I deserved to
But You kept calling me
And thank you Jesus – I heard You
And on my knees I wept
Here I am again, Lord
Here I am.

Now I’m calling to You Jesus
I’ve been praying long and hard
You know my situation
It’s been going on so long
I know You hear me
I know You love me
I don’t know why You don’t answer me
When I cry from my soul
Here I am again, Lord
Here I am.

But how can I doubt when You’re faithful
And why can’t I trust when You’re truthful

I remember the days when I thought I was alone
And then I felt You here at my side
I remember the nights when my breaking heart would moan
But You wiped away the tears I cried

You never left me
Though I left You
You’re my rock
And You’re my rescue
You’re my beginning and my end
You’re my true and faithful friend
I believe You have a plan
For You are God – I’m just a man
I surrender all to You
You’re the One who makes things new
And every hour of every day
I will bless Your holy name and say
Here I am again, Lord
Here I am.
Here I am.
Here I am.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
      You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ – Isaiah 58:9

Belief and Understanding

I don’t know the preacher’s name but he said something last Sunday that I want to share with you because its truth struck me so forcefully. I won’t be as eloquent as he was but I’ll do my best to get his point across.

“I’m not here to explain God to you,” he said, “because I’m not able. God is too marvellous, too amazing and too mysterious. But He can explain himself. If you believe in Him then He will help you understand. But if you try to understand before you believe then you are putting a barrier between you and Him.”

I know it’s easy to scoff at people of faith who can’t explain why God would do this or allow that. But if you just for a minute accept the possibility of a Creator, then you have to immediately see how far beyond our intellect and understanding He must be. And hence how small and lacking we are in comparison. How futile it is to try sometimes, like an insect trying to figure out what a human being is all about.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8, 9 NIV)

Of course we want to understand, but let’s start from a position of humility, first understanding our limitations and His sovereignty.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10 NIV)

There is so much to learn, but there is one truth to hold in your heart, one blessing in God’s word that will transform your life and release you from all kinds of shackles.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NIV)

Believe, and then be amazed and delighted by the new understanding you are given.

The Truth That Hurts

I’ll be deliberately vague about the details of this story. They don’t matter, and they could cause embarrassment to others.

Yesterday there was a light-hearted conversation in my office, concerning someone who wasn’t there, and I made a contribution. It was a small thing, and it raised a laugh as I’d hoped, and no harm was done.

Then one of my colleagues said “That wasn’t very Christian of you, Gavin!”

I was upset. I got defensive. I claimed that what I’d done wasn’t to put this person down, but to lift my friends up. I was still speaking in a light-hearted tone. The conversation fizzled away, as they usually do, and was soon enough forgotten.

Except that I couldn’t forget it because the “not very Christian” phrase kept niggling at me, convicting me.

Because it was true. I’d been negative when I should have been positive, or at the very least stayed out of the conversation.

My colleagues know about my faith, and what I showed them yesterday was the very opposite of the light of Christ. My salt had lost its savour. I let down myself, and more importantly God.

This morning I prayed about it. I repented, determined not to make such a mistake again. And I asked God’s forgiveness.

There was one thing left to do – thank my friend for pointing out my error, even though she probably had no idea how right she was.

But when I got to the office, I couldn’t do it. I’m ashamed to say it, but I think it’s true for many of us. It’s much easier to confess to almighty God, who already sees and knows all things, than to speak honestly to a friend and reveal my hidden weakness to them.

Foolish Talk

The fool has said in his heart,
“There is no God.”

Both Psalm 14 and Psalm 53 begin with this blunt statement, and I’m just going to explain very briefly today why I believe completely in this fundamental truth.

I would (and did) acknowledge God’s existence before accepting Christ as my Lord and Saviour. But even if you can’t go as far as accepting that there is a God, how can you possibly, with certainty, believe that there isn’t?

I have always had an inquiring mind, a logical and questioning mind. And I trust scientific methods and evidence. I use rational thought processes to inform and interpret my reading of the Bible, and my understanding of God. I believe that God gave me – and mankind as a whole – the desire to understand His universe.

And here is my ultimate logical reason not to dismiss God: If He exists, as Christianity understands Him, then He is the Creator of the universe. By definition, the Creator is not a part of the creation, so God exists outside of time and space, and the laws that control them.

So when an otherwise brilliant mind like Professor Stephen Hawking jumps to the conclusion that the laws of physics, and specifically gravity, can explain everything, and that this means God is no longer required as a first cause, I have to wonder at how closed that mind is.

Just as a builder can enter and walk around a house he has constructed, so God can, and does, enter His creation to interact with its elements – including us. But the builder is not a part of that house, and the rules, the materials and the construction of that house do not apply to the builder. Even more evidently, the laws of the universe do not apply to God, so to try to understand Him, explain Him, or reject Him using those laws is futile – and foolish.

In the words of Paul, in Romans 1, verse 22:

Professing to be wise, they became fools.

Science is a wonderful way to explore, examine and explain the workings of the universe. But if a scientist believes that his discipline can explain the totality of creation, then he is deluded. There is a difference between science and omniscience. The difference is omni – everything.

A Reflection on Psalm 23

I originally wrote this on 14 July 2009…

Yesterday I was troubled by some of life’s challenges, and on my way into work I was trying to think of scripture that could help me through. Without my Bible to hand, and with a limited memory of specific verses, my mind gravitated towards ‘old faithful’ Psalm 23. Maybe it was the Israel Houghton CD (The Power Of One) playing in my car, that led me to focus on the first part of verse 6:

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”

This has always been such a comforting line in such a comforting Psalm, but now I felt that there was something wrong. It was the phrase “follow me.” Goodness and mercy weren’t “with me” they were following. It was like walking in a rain storm, with the sun’s warmth following some way behind. That’s no good to me! And even worse, they weren’t going to catch up. No, they would follow me all the days of my life. I know that there are better things to come. I know I shouldn’t care too much for the pleasures of this world. But still it didn’t seem right that I should be asked to walk in the rain for the rest of my life.

I wondered whether this was a reference to David’s position as King of Israel. Whether his subjects would be blessed with the Lord’s goodness and mercy as a reward for faithfully following him. But I am not a king, I am just a man needing some words of solace.

So then I asked myself if the translators of the King James Bible had picked that word “follow” for some poetic reason. I wondered what the original text said. I had never delved so deeply before in my quest for understanding, but at http://net.bible.org/ I found the passage in many translations, including the original Hebrew. There the word is “radaf” (or “radaph”), which actually means “to chase, to pursue.” It is usually used in the context of being chased by your enemy. The notes in NETBible suggest that there is a pleasant irony about it being used here to show God, in the form of His goodness and faithfulness, chasing the one He loves.

I still wasn’t satisfied though. The idea of being chased all my days, even by such a wonderful pursuer, didn’t give my heart the peace it needed.

Then I thought about the very first words of the Psalm:

“The Lord is my shepherd”

And suddenly I saw verse 6 very differently. My mind went back to the 1980s, watching “One Man and His Dog” on BBC television. I thought about how the sheepdog would use its instinctive behaviour of stalking, chasing, pursuing the sheep, in order to direct them where they needed to go, and to round up any that went astray. This made so much sense to me, I would have happily just accepted my own interpretation of the scripture without further questioning. But I also wanted to share my insight with others, so I felt it was best that I did some more research.

I wanted to know how long sheepdogs have been used by man. A quick check in Wikipedia suggested that it has been the case for thousands of years. I searched the Bible directly but couldn’t find specific references to sheepdogs. But then through broader enquiries I found a book called “David and the Psalms” by Fr. Joseph Ponessa and Laurie Watson Manhardt. Chapter 5, “David the Shepherd Boy” contains this paragraph:

“The shepherd boy has to keep the sheep together. For this purpose, there may be one or two sheep dogs to assist him. The shepherd boy and the sheep dog are a team, and the boy directs the dog. When a sheep begins to stray, the dog will anticipate the boy’s wishes, pursue the sheep, and proudly deliver it back to the safety of the flock.”

I don’t think I could imagine a more beautiful interpretation of verse 6. Not only is the Lord my shepherd, but His goodness, His mercy, His faithfulness, are his herding dogs. They don’t merely follow me, but they are actively guiding me toward my Father’s house. And when I go astray it is they who pursue me and proudly deliver me back to the safety of the flock.