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by John Dummelow
The Epistle of Paul to Philemon is a personal letter to a friend, called out by a situation probably not infrequent in antiquity. A letter of Pliny on a similar occasion (’Ep.’ ix. 21, see translation in Lightfoot, ’Comm. on Philemon,’ pp. 316f.) has been preserved.
1. Recipients and Occasion. Philemon was a resident of Colossae in Phrygia (cp. Colossians 4:9 with Philemon 1:11). He owed his conversion to Paul (Philemon 1:19), having perhaps heard the gospel on some visit to Ephesus during the three years of Paul’s stay there (Acts 19). A man of wealth, he had distinguished himself by deeds of charity (Philemon 1:5-7), as well as by zeal in spreading the gospel (Philemon 1:1), and his house was the habitual meeting-place of a group of Colossian Christians (Philemon 1:2). He may be compared with Stephanas of Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:15-18). Apphia (Philemon 1:2), also a Christian, bearing a characteristic native Phrygian name, was doubtless Philemon’s wife, and the subject of the letter concerned her too. Archippus may have been their son. He had a ’ministry’ (perhaps as presbyter or evangelist) at Laodicea (Colossians 4:15-17). Onesimus (a name often borne by Greek slaves at this period) was a slave (doubtless a house-slave) of Philemon, who had run away, probably robbing his master at the same time. Reaching Rome (or, according to some, Csesarea), he had somehow found his master’s friend Paul. Such a chance would not be surprising in a great and compactly populated city. In his desperate case, liable to arrest and the severest punishment, he may have voluntarily sought the Apostle’s aid. At any rate he met with kindness, was brought to faith in Christ, and served Paul with grateful devotion. When Tychicus went to Asia Minor (Colossians 4:7-9), Paul took the occasion to send back Onesimus, now ’the faithful and beloved brother,’ with general commendation to the Colossian Christians, and with this special letter of intercession to Philemon.
The letter was thus written in the same circumstances, and sent at the same time, as Colossians (cp. Colossians 4:9 with Philemon 1:12, Philemon 1:17): see, however. Colossians 4:10, and on Philemon 1:23. The place of writing was probably Rome, where Paul was imprisoned. The escaped slave may well have tried to lose himself in the throngs of the capital, and would have been at least as well able to secure transportation thither as to Cassarea.
2. Attitude to Slavery. Paul in this letter is in accord with early Christianity generally in accepting slavery without criticism, and he assumes the property right of the slave-owner; but he recognises the slave as a brother in Christ, to whom is due not merely forgiveness but Christian friendship. Compare what he says of a sphere of life in which neither bondage nor freedom has any place (1 Corinthians 7:20-24; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11), and his directions to masters and slaves in Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22 to Colossians 4:1. Whether or not in 1 Corinthians 7:21 he meant to advise a slave to use lawful opportunities of securing his freedom, is a disputed question. The effect of Jesus Christ’s principle of the essential worth of the human soul (Matthew 6:26. Matthew 10:30. Matthew 12:12; Luke 15) a principle which Paul recognised, is to be seen in the attitude of the modern Christian world toward slavery itself. On ancient slavery, which, especially under Roman law, gave the owner absolute authority over the person and life of the slave, and was full of cruelty, vice, and every horror, see Becker, ’Gallus’; Lecky, ’History of European Morals,’ chs, ii. and iv.; Vincent, ’Commentary on Philemon,’ pp. 162-168.
3. Genuineness. Philemon was included in Marcion’s collection of Pauline Epistles, circ. 150 a.d. Its perfect adaptation to the concrete situation everywhere consistently presupposed, its freshness and charm, and the rare delicacy and tact which it reveals are good grounds for holding it genuine; and when to these considerations is added its close resemblance in style and expression to the other Epistles of Paul, the evidence supporting its own claim (Philemon 1:1) to Pauline authorship is conclusive. On this view, the interest of this beautiful little Epistle is immensely increased, as affording a glimpse into the Apostle’s private life, and exhibiting his great tenderness and delicacy of feeling.
The intimate connexion of Philemon with Colossians has led some scholars to deny its genuineness, but neither by the frigid allegories suggested (e.g. ’What man. loses in this world he regains for ever in Christianity’), nor by the theory that it is an ethical tract on slavery, has it been possible satisfactorily to explain the origin of the Epistle. For an account of such views see art. ’Philemon, Epistle to,’ in ’Encyclopaedia Biblica.’
I. Philemon 1:1-3. Greeting.
II. Philemon 1:4-7. Epistolary thanksgiving (for Philemon’s faith and love) and prayer (that these may be crowned with understanding of the significance of God’s gift to men).
III. Philemon 1:8-21. Request for kind treatment to Onesimus.
IV. Philemon 1:22. Paul hopes to be set free and to visit Colossæ.
V. Philemon 1:23, Philemon 1:24. Salutations from friends.
VI. Philemon 1:25. Farewell benediction.
1. A prisoner of Christ Jesus] Paul thus describes himself because his bonds (which are to be here understood literally) have been incurred in the service of Christ: cp. Philemon 1:9 (and Philemon 1:23) and Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 4:1. The usual claim to be an Apostle is here unnecessary; so Philippians 1:1, in that Epistle of Paul which stands next to Philemon in its tender intimacy.
Timothy] with Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:22), and doubtless known to Philemon: cp. Philippians 1:1; Philippians 2:19; Colossians 1:1. Our brother] ’my fellow-Christian’: cp. 1 Corinthians 5:11, also 2 Corinthians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:2. So Philemon 1:2, ’sister’; cp. Romans 16:1. Beloved] as in the English epistolary ’My dear.’ Here probably with a certain emphasis: cp. 3 John 1:1.
Fellowlabourer] RV ’fellow-worker’: i.e. in the gospel: cp. Philemon 1:2, Philemon 1:24, Romans 16:3; 2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:25, etc.
2. Fellowsoldier] i.e. of Christ: cp. Philippians 2:25 and 2 Timothy 2:3. The church in thy house] see on Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; (Laodicea), Acts 12:12. A constituent part of the body mentioned in Colossians 1:2.
3. Paul’s usual greeting: see on Romans 1:7. You] the whole group of Philemon 1:1-2: cp. Philemon 1:22, Philemon 1:25. Note Philemon 1:4-23, ’thee,’ ’thy,’ ’thou,’ referring to Philemon only.
4. I thank my God.. always, etc.] the usual thanksgiving, congratulation, and prayer: cp. Romans 1:8. Ephesians 1:3, Ephesians 1:15-17; Philippians 1:3-5, Philippians 1:9; Colossians 1:3; Colossians 1:9 f; etc; and see on Philemon 1:20. For illustrations of this conventional element of a Greek letter, see J. R. Harris, ’A Study in Letter-writing,’ ’Expositor,’ 5th series, vol. viii. 1898, pp. 161-167.
5. Hearing] introduces the special reasons for thanksgiving, viz. Philemon’s love and faith. Of thy love and faith] RM ’of thy love, and of the faith’ is a better rendering. The faith is toward the Lord Jesus, the love toward all the saints. The order of clauses is inverted (as in Galatians 4:4.): cp. Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 1:15; Colossians 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 3:6. Faith.. toward] the same as ’faith in.’
6. That] introduces mention of that for which Paul prays (Philemon 1:4), viz. recognition by Philemon of the greatness of God’s gift to men. The communication (RV ’fellowship’) of thy faith is perhaps best taken in the sense, ’the generous charity which has proceeded from thy faith.’ So in Philippians 1:9 love is to culminate in knowledge; and in the parallel to our v. in Colossians 1:9-11, references to conduct and to knowledge are interwoven: cp. Colossians 3:10. The word for fellowship (koinônia) is used of a charitable contribution: cp. Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 2 Corinthians 9:13; Hebrews 13:16. in ’the fellowship of thy faith’ both the love and the faith of Philemon 1:5 are included. The love is emphasised again in Philemon 1:7. Another possible rendering is, ’thy participation (i.e. with us and all Christians) in our (Gk. ’the’) faith’: cp. Philemon 1:17. Effectual by the acknowledging (RV ’in the knowledge’), etc.] means, ’effectual in leading to the recognition on Philemon’s part of all the blessings which Christians have.’ ’In you’ (or, better, RM ’in us’) includes both ’already in your possession’ and ’within your reach.’ What Paul has in mind is made clear by the parallel, Ephesians 1:18: cp. Ephesians 3:18., also Philippians 1:9. Colossians 1:9. An. understanding of how exalted is the privilege of salvation through Christ is the crown and culmination of faith, and involves a knowledge of the deeper mysteries of God. It is, moreover, essential to soundness of Christian life and to the Christian enthusiasm on which security against temptation depends. In (RV ’unto’) Christ] loosely added, without exact indication of relation to the preceding, in order to point out that as the object of faith is Christ, so only through a relation to Christ is love active or knowledge possible, or ’every good thing,’ which is the object of knowledge, to be valued.
7. For] introduces another statement of Paul’s reason for thanking God (Philemon 1:4).
Bowels.. are refreshed] RV ’Hearts.. have been refreshed’; i.e. through the charitable acts prompted by Philemon’s ’love.’ The ’heart’ (Gk. ’bowels’) is the seat of grief and despondency and of joy and courage: cp. Philemon 1:20.
The Saints] means merely ’the Christians,’ without regard to eminent attainments in character.
8. Wherefore] In view of this evidence of faith and love Paul adopts a tone of request, not of command. All (Gk. ’much’) boldness in Christ] means, ’abundant readiness to adopt freedom of speech, by reason of my own and of thy relation to Christ and so of our relation to each other’
9. For love’s sake] or, ’in the name of love’. Philemon’s response is to be a matter of love, not of mere obedience. Paul chooses to put the matter on the highest possible plane. Paul the aged] Paul may have been over sixty years old at this time. At the time of his conversion, about thirty years earlier, he is called a ’young man’ (Acts 7:58), a term applied to persons between the ages of twenty-four and forty. With this rendering these and the following words have a touch of pathos befitting the whole tone of the passage. If the rendering of RM ’an ambassador’ is preferred (cp. Ephesians 6:20), the words would seem to imply an attitude of command. Also a prisoner of Christ Jesus] cp. Philemon 1:1.
10. My son] RV ’my child’; cp. 1 Corinthians 4:14-15, 1 Corinthians 4:17; Galatians 4:19; Cp. Mishna, ’Sanhedrim,’ fol. 19, 2, ’If one teaches the son of his neighbour the law, the Scripture reckons this the same as though he had begotten him.’
11. Unprofitable.. profitable] A play on the name Onesimus, which means ’helpful,’ ’profitable.’ To me] valuable to Paul, as to Philemon, because of both his personal service (Philemon 1:13) and his Christian friendship.
12. I have sent] better, ’I send,’ as the same tense is translated in Philemon 1:19, Philemon 1:21, ’I write.’
13. In thy stead (RV ’behalf’)] Since Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, his service to Paul was a gift from Philemon. ’In thy behalf’ does not mean ’in thy place.’ In the bonds of the gospel] ’in this imprisonment incurred through preaching the gospel’: cp. Philemon 1:1, Philemon 1:9, Philemon 1:23.
14. Without thy mind] a common Greek expression for ’without thy consent.’ As.. of necessity] Paul shrinks from saying outright that if he had kept Onesimus that would have been extracting from Philemon an obligation which he would have resented or grudged.
15. For] introduces a further consideration in favour of sending the slave back. He therefore departed] RV ’was therefore parted from thee’; in the providence of God: cp. (so Chrysostom) Genesis 45:5, Genesis 45:8. ’Therefore’ refers to the divine purpose, ’that thou shouldest have him for ever.’ For ever] an eternal possession, not by legal bond, but by Christian friendship.
16. Servant] ’slave.’ In the flesh] ’in human relations’: cp. Romans 1:3; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22. This seems to imply that in the past Onesimus had had kindly treatment and friendship. These old associations should now, in his repentance, make him even more dear to Philemon than he can be to Paul. This is said in order to make bitterness toward the former ungrateful runaway an impossibility. In the Lord] ’through your common relation to Christ.’
17. A partner] one who shares: cp. 2 Corinthians 8:23. This partnership is further described in 1 Corinthians 1:9, ’partnership in common relation to His Son Jesus Christ’; 2 Corinthians 13:14, ’participation in the Holy Spirit’; Philippians 2:1; 1 John 1:3, 1 John 1:7.
19. I Paul have written it with mine own hand] This formal language is meant to suggest the phraseology of a legally binding note. ’I Paul’ corresponds to the usual method of an ancient signature: cp. 1 Corinthians 16:21; Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17. The whole letter was probably an autograph: see on Galatians 6:11.
20. Let me have joy of thee] a somewhat common Greek expression, especially with reference to children and friends. Here in the Lord marks the relation as a Christian one. So in Christ, Philemon 1:23. Refresh my bowels (RV ’heart’)] see on Philemon 1:7.
21. Do more than I say] RV ’even beyond what I say.’ This need not imply the actual releasing of Onesimus from slavery.
22. A lodging] cp. Philippians 1:25; Philippians 2:24 for Paul’s plan for a journey to the East. The ’lodging’ might be at Philemon’s house or at an inn.
Through your prayers] cp 2 Corinthians 1:11.
23. Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner] in Colossians 4:10; Aristarchus was Paul’s fellow-prisoner. Apparently his friends took turns in sharing his imprisonment and ministering to his needs. Epaphras (Colossians 4:12) was of Colossae, and had brought the gospel to that city (Colossians 1:7).
24. Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke] cp. Colossians 4:10, Colossians 4:14. Jesus Justus, perhaps as not personally known to Philemon and his circle, is here passed over. For Mark, cp. also Acts 12:12, Acts 12:25; Acts 13:5, Acts 13:13; Acts 15:37-39; 2 Timothy 4:11; 1 Peter 5:13; Aristarchus (of Thessalonica), Acts 19:29; Acts 20:4; Acts 27:2; Demas, Luke, 2 Timothy 4:10-11, My fellowlabourers] see on Philemon 1:1.
25. Farewell benediction. Cp. Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23 also 2 Timothy 4:22.
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34