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Bible Commentaries

Contending for the Faith

Philemon 1

Verses 1-3

Salutation

Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer, And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house: Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ: Paul is a prisoner in Rome when this letter is written. MacKnight explains that the word "prisoner" does not convey an accurate idea of Paul’s state at the time. He translates the original language as "confined with a chain" (496). For Paul to be in such a state seems likely because Luke tells us he was in his own rented house for two years and able to receive all who came unto him (Acts 28:30), and in Ephesians 6:20 Paul calls himself an "ambassador in bonds" (chains). Note that Paul does not identify himself as an apostle to Philemon but immediately draws on Philemon’s sympathy by mentioning his imprisonment.

and Timothy our brother: Timothy was well-acquainted with Philemon, for Paul refers to them as fellowlaborers. Timothy was with Paul at the time; and, as he often does, the apostle adds Timothy’s name to his in this epistle.

unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer: Philemon evidently was a resident of Colosse because Onesimus, his slave, is called "one of them" (Colossians 4:9). While he worked in that area, Paul became close to this brother, referring to him as "our beloved and a fellow-labourer."

It is important to note that Paul makes no distinction between the "clergy" and the "laity" in the New Testament church. Philemon was known to be an active worker in the church. He was not just a worker occasionally, but one who was a fellow worker with Paul.

And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier: Since Paul names these individuals after he mentions Philemon and just prior to mentioning "the church in thy house," it is likely Apphia was Philemon’s wife and Archippus was his son. Since Archippus is also called a fellow-soldier, he, no doubt, was a preacher of the gospel (Philippians 2:25).

and to the church in thy house: The early church frequently met in the houses of prominent brethren who were active in the work of the church. The congregation in Colosse worshipped in Philemon’s house. As Paul writes this brother concerning the delicate matter of his runaway slave, he strengthens his appeal by making mention of Philemon’s family and the congregation in his house.

Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: This greeting is the apostle’s usual one in his epistles. Grace is the unmerited favor of God, and peace is the satisfaction and tranquillity that comes with His blessings.

Verses 4-7

I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, 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. For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.

I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers: It appears from this passage and others that Paul was in the habit of mentioning churches and individuals by name during his prayer time (Ephesians 1:16). Though he was burdened with many cares and much sorrow and was soon to be on trial for his life, he remembers always a distant brother and calls his name before the throne of God. With so many brethren in so many congregations, Paul must have been a man with an active prayer life.

Hearing of thy love and faith: These are the two great pillars of the Christian life. Onesimus obviously had discussed Philemon with Paul and had spoken favorably of him. When resolving problems either within oneself or in one’s relationships with others, it is important to go to the most basic principles of Christianity. None are more basic than love and faith.

which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints: Onesimus had told Paul that Philemon had a strong faith in Jesus Christ and a great love for all the brethren. Notice that this love was for all saints with no partiality toward any.

That the communication of thy faith: The "fellowship of thy faith" (ASV) refers to the sharing of one’s faith with another. Paul knows that one’s ability to share his faith hinges upon the example he sets before others. His hope is that Philemon will be able to share his faith more effectively if he exhibits the proper spirit in the matter at hand.

may become effectual: Vine defines the term "effectual" as "active, powerful in action" (19). Paul’s prayer was that their faith would become more active, a faith having the power to produce.

by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus: Based on what Paul has heard of Philemon, he has been praying that the sharing of his faith would have the power not only to produce fruits or good works for others’ benefit but also to serve as an example for other Christians to follow. Barnes explains that Paul felt this case was an opportunity for Philemon "to show the world how much he was governed by the faith of the gospel" (1206).

Some Christians are glad to follow the principles of Christ in their church-related activities and moral life; but when it begins to cost them money or affect their business, they often find it difficult to obey the Lord. They justify their behavior by simply saying, "But this is business." This matter with the slave is a business decision and involves a loss of money (verse 18), but Paul wants Philemon to know the world is watching! We must let our light shine in all areas of life, including in our business and finances. (See Luke 6:30-36.)

For we have great joy and consolation in thy love: Paul continues to lay a solid foundation in this letter by expressing a firm confidence in Philemon’s love for other Christians. Shortly, he will appeal to Philemon to put that love into practice.

because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother: The "bowels of the saints" probably means the affections of their hearts and is an expression about their most vital needs. Because of his love for the saints, Philemon had shown them kindness and helped poor Christians with their needs. These brethren had been refreshed and, therefore, were happy.

Verse 8

Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,

Wherefore: After this introduction, Paul is now ready to state the purpose of his letter.

though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient: As an apostle, Paul had been invested with authority by the Lord to command what should be done concerning the case he is about to present to Philemon. The word "convenient" here means that which would be proper in the circumstances.

Verse 9

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.

Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee: Because of the love they have one for another and for the love of their common cause, Paul prefers asking Philemon concerning this matter rather than commanding him. Paul sets an example here of how to address issues in both the home and the church. The Christian should use no more authority than is necessary to achieve a specific purpose.

being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ: So that his request may be more sure to obtain the sympathy of Philemon, Paul reminds him that he is an aged veteran who is now suffering as a prisoner for the Lord’s Cause. Many writers try to figure out the age of Paul, but age is not the issue here. Paul wants his brother to know that he is an experienced veteran who understands what is best for the Cause of Christ, and so he guides Philemon to the right conclusion and does not command him.

Verse 10

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

I beseech thee for my son Onesimus: The approach Paul uses in the passage is worthy of consideration. He does not say he beseeches him for "Onesimus" but for "my son Onesimus." In that brief statement, he tells Philemon not only that Onesimus has been begotten by the gospel but also that he has a close relationship with him. He writes concerning a family member, not just a slave.

whom I have begotten in my bonds: Onesimus was converted while Paul was a prisoner in Rome. There is no mention how they became acquainted.

Verse 11

Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

Which in time past was to thee unprofitable: Onesimus was a slave, the possession of Philemon. But when he rebelled and ran away, he was unprofitable to his master.

but now profitable to thee and to me: What a difference Christianity makes in a man’s life, changing him from unprofitable to profitable. Paul says he was profitable to the writer and to the owner. Now he will serve his master with Christian fidelity.

Verse 12

Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

Whom I have sent again: Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon so he can make amends for any wrong he has done. Onesimus, made new by the gospel, appears willing to go back and make things right with his master. In so doing, he obeyed God’s law requiring servants to obey their masters in all things according to the flesh (Colossians 3:22-24).

thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: This very tender statement shows Paul’s real feelings in this matter. Paul does not say just "receive him," but he asks Philemon to receive him as he would Paul himself. Paul, obviously, was attached to this servant. To be unkind to Onesimus would have been a wound to Paul’s "own bowels" or his own heart.

Verse 13

Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:

Whom I would have retained with me: Paul found Onesimus useful in his work and would have liked to have kept him in Rome. The apostle had put this new convert to work in the Lord’s service immediately.

that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: The things that Onesimus was doing for Paul were the very things Philemon would have done if he had been with the apostle during his imprisonment. Paul also may be saying that he regarded the works of this servant the same as if Philemon had done them himself.

Verse 14

But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.

But without thy mind would I do nothing: As much as Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him, he says he would not do it without Philemon’s permission. Paul wanted the two to work out their problem first before he would agree to keep Onesimus in the work. He wanted him, but only with Philemon’s blessing. Christians today need to learn this valuable lesson. When a brother causes trouble in a congregation or has problems with brethren in one congregation and decides to attend services at another place, a second congregation often wants to receive him unquestioned because of the "good" he can do for the church. But this passage suggests we should send him back to be reconciled with his other brethren. Jesus, in teaching about the importance of brethren getting their problems resolved, gave us a plan to assist in the accomplishment of this vital matter.

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican (Matthew 18:15-17).

If the individual still wishes to go to the second congregation after the problem is resolved, he will be profitable for the Cause. Keeping Onesimus without Philemon’s permission could have caused serious problems between the two brethren, and Paul’s influence could have been damaged.

that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly: If Onesimus should return to Paul in Rome, the apostle wanted it to be with Philemon’s free consent and not an act he felt forced into doing.

Verse 15

For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;

For perhaps he therefore departed for a season: This thought is another beautiful and delicate stroke in Paul’s masterpiece. Paul suggests the providence of God may have been at work here. He says that perhaps Onesimus left for a short time so that he might be brought under the influence of the gospel and be saved. Onesimus departed a slave, an unprofitable slave, and returns a faithful, beloved brother in Christ. Again we are made to stand in awe of God!

that thou shouldest receive him for ever: In Christ, these two brethren, master and servant, not only have a closer relationship during this present life but are bound by love in a world that shall never end.

Verse 16

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 as a servant, but above a servant: This expression indicates this man is no longer to be an ordinary servant because he is much more. He is above a servant. The unfaithful servant led to Christ becomes most trustworthy, his life having been changed by the glorious gospel.

a brother beloved: This man is above a servant because he is a Christian. There must be a special relationship among brethren in the Lord, regardless of their position in life.

specially to me: Paul felt a special brotherly love for this man. Though he does not tell us why they became so close, he speaks of this love in almost every line. Perhaps it has something to do with the circumstances of Onesimus’ conversion during Paul’s imprisonment.

but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?: Paul was bound to Onesimus spiritually through Jesus Christ. But Philemon had more. He was bound to him in their fleshly relationship of master and servant as well as in their spiritual relationship in the Lord.

Verse 17

If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.

If thou count me therefore a partner: Christians are partners, sharing common principles and goals; above all, they share the hope of heaven.

receive him as myself: Paul and Philemon had a new partner in the Christian life: Onesimus. The apostle tells Philemon to receive Onesimus in the same way he would receive Paul.

Verse 18

If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;

If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought: The scriptures provide a splendid example of intercession. Onesimus had been disobedient by running away, costing Philemon the benefit of his servitude. Paul, fully understanding the problem, seeks to resolve it by interceding on behalf of the changed slave.

put that on mine account: Whatever Philemon expects of the servant in restitution, Paul says to put it on his account.

Verse 19

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 it with mine own hand, I will repay it: Although it is not his custom in his epistles, the author takes the quill in hand and signs it to assure Philemon that he will repay whatever the debt is.

albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides: Paul now reminds Philemon that he owes the writer his own salvation. Paul undoubtedly had converted Philemon and his household. Philemon’s spiritual self, his Christian life, his eternal hopes, all came to him through Paul. Whatever Onesimus owes is small by comparison.

Verse 20

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

Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: Paul asks Philemon to make him happy by receiving Onesimus, his brother and friend. The phrase "in the Lord" seems to show that the Lord has a hand in love and forgiveness and that it is not just a matter of canceling or paying debts.

refresh my bowels in the Lord: It is always a refreshing feeling when the messenger of the Lord can see God’s will concerning love and forgiveness work in the lives of people.

Verse 21

Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

A heart modeled after the love of Christ does not seek the lower limits of duty but desires to do all that is possible for the Lord’s Cause. So Paul is confident Philemon will do even more than he has been asked. Perhaps Paul is hinting for the complete freedom of Onesimus.

Verse 22

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

But withal prepare me also a lodging: Paul is confident that he will be released from his imprisonment (Philippians 2:24) and that he soon will enjoy Philemon’s hospitality as perhaps he had before.

for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you: Paul has more confidence in the power of prayer than he does in the most powerful government in the world. He has no doubt that Philemon is praying for his release, which would come as a result of the prayers of those who loved him.

Verse 23

Salutations

There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;

There salute thee Epaphras: The same individuals who are listed as sending their greetings to Philemon are also mentioned at the close of Colossians, reinforcing the idea that Philemon lived in Colosse and was a member of the congregation there. It also shows that these two letters are written at the same time and place because the same people are with the apostle.

Epaphras was a member of the church in Colosse (Colossians 4:12); in fact, he probably is largely responsible for the establishment of the church in that city (Colossians 1:6-7).

my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus: In Colossians 1:7, Epaphras is called "my fellowservant." In this passage he is called "my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus." There is some discussion among writers whether the imprisonment was at that time or some other, but it seems clear the two are presently prisoners, else they would not be "fellowprisoners." However, Paul gives no reason why he was a prisoner.

Verse 24

Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.

Marcus: Marcus, who was related to Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey. Marcus decided to leave the journey and later caused a serious breach between Paul and Barnabas when Barnabas wanted him to rejoin them (Acts 13:13; Acts 15:36-41). Later Paul forgave Mark and counted him useful in the work (2 Timothy 4:11). Here Mark, who later would write the Gospel of Mark, is still with the apostle and is called a fellowlaborer.

Aristarchus: Aristarchus was a Macedonian from Thessalonica (Acts 27:2) who had been one of the brethren selected to go with Paul to carry the financial aid from Macedonia to the poor saints in Jerusalem (Acts 20:4). Paul also calls him a "fellowprisoner" in his letter to Colosse (Colossians 4:10).

Demas: Demas is now is a fellowlaborer, but later he forsakes Paul, "having loved this present world" (2 Timothy 4:10).

Lucas: Luke, "the beloved physician" (Colossians 4:14), is the author of the Gospel of Luke and also the book of Acts. He traveled with Paul in his journeys and was with him during his second imprisonment in Rome. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, the reader can almost hear Paul cry as the lonesome apostle says "Only Luke is with me" (2 Timothy 4:11).

my fellowlabourers: All of these men are fellow workers with Paul in the kingdom of Christ.

Verse 25

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

This conclusion is typical of Paul’s epistles. It is sent to all addressed in the letter: Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church in their house. He wishes for them the rich and unmerited favor of the Lord’s blessing in their lives.

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Bibliographical Information
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on Philemon 1". "Contending for the Faith". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ctf/philemon-1.html. 1993-2022.