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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Philemon 1

Verse 1


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

Prisoner ... In his very first words, Paul stressed his bonds, an appealing and appropriate means of enlisting the sympathetic hearing of the appeal he was about to make. Although technically a prisoner of Rome, Paul always considered that he was actually imprisoned for the gospel, and therefore the prisoner of the Lord.

Timothy our brother ... If Timothy accompanied Paul on his campaign of evangelism in Phrygia, which is likely, then Timothy is mentioned here because he was well known to Philemon and other Christians in the city of Colossae.

Philemon ... See introduction. The word Philemon means "beloved," which might have prompted Paul's use of it in this manner.

And fellow-worker ... Paul used many words to describe his associates in the work of the gospel; and it is precarious to pursue the meaning of these words as if they were technical designations of various qualities and degrees of service. There is absolutely no evidence that Paul used such words as "fellow-worker," "fellow-soldier" (Philemon 1:1:2), and "partner" (Philemon 1:1:17), etc., otherwise than as synonyms.

Verse 2

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

As noted in the introduction, above, these are thought to be the wife and son of Philemon. The church in their house was one of many household churches so characteristic of the apostolic age of the church.

Verse 3

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

This greeting used repeatedly at the beginning of Paul's epistles expresses the thought that Paul wishes, desires and prays that those greeted may possess that spiritual state "which is the result of a right relationship between God and man."[14] The bringing of such a state of tranquillity was viewed by the Jews as being one of the main functions of the Messiah (Luke 2:14).

Verse 4

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

Paul's prayer life was overwhelmingly abundant. He must have been constantly praying for thousands of people all over the ancient world. But did Philemon, who was such a true Christian, and whose gifts abounded to the work of the Lord, did he need to be prayed for? Indeed, yes. No soul is so pure or devout as to be beyond the need of prayers. As Jones said:

The best of all men know only in part, love only in part; and therefore we need to pray for them that their defects may be corrected and their lack supplied. On earth we are but wayfaring men who have not yet come to the end of the journey; therefore we need to be prayed for that we may persevere to the end and finally receive the crown of life.[15]

Verse 5

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

As testified by the ASV margin, the alternate reading of this verse is "the love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints." Of course, as may have been expected, the preferred reading by the translators was designed to favor their usual understanding of the meaning of faith. The meaning of "faith" in this place is fidelity or faithfulness, a quality which is to be manifested first "toward the Lord Jesus" (vertically), and then "toward all the saints" (horizontally). Nielson said, "This sequence is especially significant because there is no proper human relationship unless there is first a right relationship with God."[16] To get around this obvious meaning, it is claimed that Paul here mixed up his words in a figure of speech called "chiasm"; and thus getting rid of what he said here, they rewrite the verse making it speak of "faith in Christ" and "love toward the saints." As even Lenski admitted, "The phrases are not arranged as a chiasm."[17]

Hearing of thy love, and of the faith ... A similar expression in Colossians 1:4 is made an excuse for affirming that Paul had never been to Colossae; but here the same thing is said of one whom Paul knew personally and had even converted. It is likewise true that the same is probably the case with the Colossians.

[16] John B. Nielson, Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol. IX (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1965), p. 703.

[17] R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 955.

Verse 6

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

The meaning of this verse is somewhat difficult to understand, but perhaps Hendriksen's paraphrase of it is adequate:

The more thoroughly Philemon recognizes how greatly he himself has been benefited, the more inclined will he be to extend mercy and pardon to others, especially to Onesimus. And the very fact that Philemon has manifested such a fine spirit in the past convinces the apostle that he is not writing in vain.[18]

Whether Hendriksen's view is completely accurate or not, one thing is certain. The name of Onesimus, not yet mentioned by Paul, is nevertheless in the background of all that Paul wrote in these verses. A part of the delicacy and charm of the epistle lies in the very hesitation on the part of Paul in bringing up what must have been considered to be a very unpleasant subject with his friend Philemon. Paul cleared the ground and cultivated the soil very carefully planting the name of Onesimus in Philemon 1:1:10.

Verse 7

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

Fundamentally, Paul's only hope for Onesimus had its fountain in the kind of man Paul knew Philemon to be; therefore, he dwells upon that before making his request. In the last analysis, he will ground his appeal on the fact that Philemon is "a brother." "No higher compliment can be accorded to any Christian."[19] "In the Greek, the warm address, brother, comes at the end, throwing even greater emphasis upon it."[20]

[19] R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 959.

[20] Donald Guthrie, New Bible Commentary, Revised (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 1189.

Verse 8

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

Paul never for a moment relinquished his right of command as an apostle of Jesus Christ; but this verse, with the next, has the effect of saying, "Please do not consider the request that I am about to make as an order; it is not that at all, but an earnest plea from brother to brother."

Though I have all boldness ... to enjoin ... "This is a distinct assertion of the right to command."[21]

Why did not Paul utter that command? There can be no doubt the Philemon would have obeyed it, whether as a formal command or an earnest entreaty. The answer must lie in the fact that had any apostle written a commandment for Christian slave owners to free their slaves, the whole posture of Christianity with regard to the loathsome institution of slavery would have been altered. Persecutions, already looming, would have been a thousand times more vindictive and destructive; and slaves by the thousands would have "accepted" Christianity whether converted or not, and a revolution would have been precipitated. Yet, we do not believe that it was fear of the consequences that caused Paul to make the approach he made here. He did so because it was right; it was the way of the Lord; for Christianity does not operate in the social order as dynamite, but as leaven.

Verse 9

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

In Paul's times, ambassadors were practically all "old men"; therefore the word for "old men" came to mean also "ambassador." Some distinguished scholars have translated it that way, and it is given as an alternative reading in the ASV margin. However, we believe Lenski is right in saying:

We prefer the reading "old man" to the inferior reading "ambassador," which some commentators prefer by appealing to Ephesians 6:20. The whole idea of ambassadorships is, however, incongruous to the present connection; no commentator has been able to work it into Paul's thought in a convincing way.[22]

Some have objected to the fact that at the approximate age of sixty years when this was written, Paul was not old. In a relative sense, however, he was old. And for one Whose life had been marked by the toils and hardships endured by the beloved apostle, it is not unlikely that many of the visible signs of old age were exhibited in his person.

Verse 10

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

See introduction for background material on Onesimus. Many conjectures have been made as to how he came in contact with Paul, but all of them are mere guesses. It should be remembered who Onesimus was. He was a runaway slave, and the heartless Roman law demanded the most awesome penalties. "For the smallest offense he might be scourged, mutilated, crucified or thrown to the wild beasts."[23] But Philemon was a Christian. Yes, but a Christian nevertheless influenced by the laws and customs of his day, and it was by no means certain that the spirit of the holy gospel would enable him to rise above it; hence the pleading, pathetic urgency of this precious intercession.

My child, whom I have begotten ... This was a metaphor well known to the Hebrews. "If one teaches the son of his neighbor the Law, the Scriptures reckon this the same as if he had begotten him" (quotation from the Jewish Talmud).[24] By such words as these Paul identified himself with the cause he was pleading upon behalf of the slave.

[23] J. B. Lightfoot, op. cit., p. 321.

[24] Newport J. D. White, op. cit., p. 214.

Verse 11

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

Since the word Onesimus means "profitable," many have supposed that Paul's play upon words here was intended as a pun, as if he had said, "Well, at last this profitable slave is living up to his name." However, Lenski pointed out that the two words for "profitable" derive from different roots. "This mars the supposed pun ... In a real pun the words must have at least a similar sound; not even that is the case here."[25] We also agree with Lenski in his further observation on this that "A pun at this place in Paul's letter would be a mistake."[26]

[25] R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 963.

[26] Ibid.

Verse 12

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

As a runaway slave in Rome, Onesimus was in constant danger of falling into the hands of the slave-catchers; and it would have been dangerous to have sent him alone; therefore Paul utilized the opportunity for having Onesimus, accompanied by Tychicus the bearer of Colossians, in the journey back to Colossae. "Although Tychicus is not mentioned in Philemon, he in the company of Onesimus is bearer of it (Colossians 4:7-9)."[27]

Verse 13

whom I would fain have kept with me, that in thy behalf he might minister unto me in the bonds of the gospel: but without thy mind I would do nothing; that thy goodness should not be of necessity, but of free will.

I would have kept ... I would do nothing ... There is a double usage of the word "would" in this. "The former denotes natural but indeterminate impulse; the latter denotes a deliberate conclusion of the will."[28] Two different words are used in the Greek.

That he might minister unto me ... This seems to be a hint that Paul hoped Philemon would send Onesimus back to help the apostle during his imprisonment, a wish that, in all probability, Philemon might have granted.

But of free will ... The principle of compulsion is not a valid option in the advancement of Christianity, or the principles of Christianity. "In Christ there is a completely new frame of reference that completely transforms all earthly relationships. Brotherhood is the focus in which all other relationships must be evaluated."[29]

[28] S. J. Eales, op. cit., p. 3.

[29] E. Earle Ellis, Wycliffe New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 891.

Verse 15

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

By this Paul affirms that perhaps the whole unfortunate event of the flight of the slave was providential, after all. Did not Joseph say to his brothers in Egypt, "God did send me before you to preserve life" (Genesis 45:5)?

That thou shouldest have him forever ... means simply that Philemon would now have his slave permanently, but there may also be included the thought of all the redeemed having fellowship with their own eternally in heaven. In the case at hand, both meanings are appropriate. Barry believed that "It is better to take it in the absolute sense of fellowship in the life eternal."[30]

Verse 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.

The new relationship did not mean that Onesimus would be no longer a slave in the legal sense, for that was unaltered. The sense of the first phrase is thus, "no longer a servant only."

Brother ... beloved ... Any person obeying the gospel of Christ becomes the brother beloved of every other Christian, to whom all the rights, honors, privileges and love of Christian fellowship accrue as a right derived from their being "in the Lord"; and this is the heart of the great ethic which Paul here hurled in the face of a'slave-owner. The institution of slavery would in time wither and fade away under the impact of such a concept as this. The apostle doubtless foresaw this; and yet, as Lenski said, "We fail to find the least hint here that Philemon ought to set Onesimus free."[31] Some, of course, do find such a hint. See under Philemon 1:1:21.

Verse 17

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

See under verse 1, above, where is noted the reason for rejecting the notion that some kind of business partnership is implied by this. This is a further appeal to Philemon based upon the premise that, after all, he is a partner with the apostle in the furtherance of the gospel. Also, Ellis is right in seeing here a reference to "the many experiences Paul and Philemon had shared."[32]

Verse 18

But if he hath wronged thee at all, or oweth thee aught, put that to mine account; I Paul write it with mine own hand, I will repay it: that 50say not unto thee that thou owest to me even thine own self besides.

Many believe that Onesimus robbed his master before he ran off, "but of this there is no evidence. Why then impute crimes to men where there is no proof?."[33] "Had the apostle been sure that Onesimus had robbed his master, he certainly would not have spoken in this hypothetical way."[34]

I Paul write it ... This legal-type bond in which Paul assumed any debt Onesimus might have incurred was for the purpose of clearing away any obstacle that might yet have stood in the way of his appeal. "It is likely that the whole of the letter was written by Paul himself, which was not his usual custom."[35]

This magnanimous action upon Paul's part in taking unto himself the whole debt of Onesimus is similar to the fact of Christ's assumption on the part of any sinner saved by grace the whole of the sinner's debt, which, as in the case of Onesimus, is utterly beyond the power of the sinner to discharge himself. No more wonderful lines were ever written of one brother's action upon behalf of another. It is of this supremely important truth that Paul here speaks in somewhat of a veiled manner, reminding Philemon of the debt which once he the master owed, and how it was all discharged in Christ.

[33] James Macknight, op. cit., p. 396.

[34] Adam Clarke, op. cit., p. 666.

[35] Ibid.

Verse 20

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

"Here the apostle relaxes into his friendly familiar manner after the grave and touching language of the last few verses."[36]

In the Lord ... in Christ ... These characteristic Pauline expressions mean the same thing, summarizing the whole conception of Paul's theology of the salvation of men "in Christ."

Verse 21

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

Here is the passage where it is thought Paul had in mind the manumission of Onesimus, and indeed it may well be true. Barry commented thus:

This can hardly refer to anything except the manumission of Onesimus, and possibly his being sent back again to Paul. Exactly in this way Christianity was to work out the release of the slave - not by command, but by free and natural inference of its emphatic declaration of the true brotherhood in Christ.[37]

Verse 22

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

This statement of Paul's purpose of visiting again in Colossae would seem to be added here as further persuasion in Paul's appeal. It carries the weight of "Of course, you will eventually have to face me in regard to your handling of this request." It is not necessary to suppose that Paul had given up his stated intention of going to Spain, because some kind of fund-raising trip would probably have been antecedent to the actual trip anyway. There would have been no better place for Paul to have gone on such a mission than Asia Minor.

Through your prayers ... Although Paul seemed to be optimistic concerning his forthcoming release, he nevertheless willed that the matter should continue to be the object of fervent prayers on his behalf of the Christians. As Ellis said:

It is noteworthy that the apostle who is most insistent about the sovereignty of God is equally convinced that God accomplish his purposes through human instruments. He did not request prayers of Philemon, but assumed them.[38]

Verse 23

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

Epaphrus, my fellow-prisoner ... As Nielson suggested, "The reference may be to a physical imprisonment or it may mean captured by Christ."[39] There is no way of knowing certainly just what was meant. Macknight offers the following opinion regarding this fellow-worker of Paul's:

This person is called the "faithful minister of Christ" (Colossians 1:7) ... of whom the Colossians had learned the gospel. He is also called one of themselves, and one who had a great zeal for them (Colossians 4:12,13). I think therefore that he was a converted Gentile, who had assisted the apostle in preaching at Colossae, and who was ordained by him to the office of the ministry in that church.[40]

[39] John B. Nielson, op. cit., p. 708.

[40] James Macknight, op. cit., p. 412.

Verse 24

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

For discussion of Mark, see my introduction to the Gospel of Mark in my Commentary on Mark; for discussion of Luke, see in the introduction to the Gospel of Luke in my Commentary on Luke; Aristarchus is discussed in my Commentary on Acts, p. 375; in fact all four of these characters are discussed in my Commentary on Galatians, ..., pp. 420-423, to which reference is made. All of these are well-known New Testament names.

Verse 25

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

Your ... is plural. Therefore, "The plural reference is to the whole group included in the salutation. Spirit appears to be a term for the whole man in his `new age' outlook."[41] There are many examples of this conclusion of the Pauline letters.

[41] E. Earle Ellis, op. cit., p. 895.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Philemon 1". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.