Click to donate today!
by Thomas Constable
Philemon appears to have been a comparatively wealthy Colossian who owned slaves, as did most of the rich in his day. As many as a third of the inhabitants of most large urban centers, including Rome, would have been slaves, who, in the Roman Empire, were more like household servants in Victorian Britain than like slaves in antebellum North America. [Note: James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, pp. 252 and 302; G. W. Barker, W. L. Lane, and J. R. Michaels, The New Testament Speaks, p. 211. He estimated that ] One writer claimed that about one third of the populations of Greece and Italy were slaves. [Note: See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, pp. 25-33, for an excursus on slavery in antiquity.]
Philemon evidently came to faith in Christ as a result of Paul’s influence (Phm_1:19), perhaps when Paul was residing at Ephesus. Onesimus was one of Philemon’s slaves and was probably a native Phrygian. He ran away from his master, perhaps not because Philemon treated him cruelly but because he dealt with him graciously. Onesimus may have been a runaway slave, or he may simply have been involved in some domestic trouble with Philemon. [Note: Ibid., pp. 17-19.] He eventually made his way to Rome where he could have hidden in the crowd. There, as a result of divine providence, he came into contact with Paul and became a Christian (Phm_1:10).
Following his conversion Onesimus became a valuable helper of the apostle (Phm_1:11). Paul desired to keep Onesimus with him but felt a greater responsibility to return the slave to his Christian master (Phm_1:13-14). Onesimus had to make things right with Philemon whom he had wronged. Paul and Onesimus both knew the danger the slave faced in returning since slave owners had absolute authority over their slaves and often treated them as property rather than as people. [Note: See Arthur A. Rupprecht, " Philemon," in Ephesians-Philemon, vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 460.]
Paul wrote this brief appeal to pacify Philemon and to effect reconciliation between the slave and his master. His other purposes were to commend Philemon for showing compassion to other believers (Phm_1:1-7), to announce his plans to visit Philemon following his anticipated release (Phm_1:8-22), and to send greetings from his associates (Phm_1:23-25). The only disputers of Pauline authorship have been members of the Tübingen School. [Note: Donald A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 589.]
". . . Philemon provides insight both into the social realities of ancient society, in this case the relations between master and slave, which is surpassed only by 1 Corinthians, and into the way in which influence was brought to bear within the earliest churches between parties of differing social status." [Note: Dunn, p. 299.]
Paul probably addressed the epistle to Apphia, Archippus, and the church meeting in Philemon’s house to rally the support of other Christians to encourage Philemon in his Christian responsibility.
When Paul sent Tychicus with epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, Onesimus probably went with him. Paul intended that this letter, along with Tychicus’ personal entreaty for Onesimus, would secure the slave’s forgiveness and acceptance. Since Paul evidently sent this letter with the Epistle to the Colossians, as comparison of the two documents suggests, he probably wrote them in Rome at the same time (60-62 A.D.). Furthermore, the same persons were with Paul when he wrote his letter to the Colossians, namely, Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Luke, and Demas (Phm_1:23-24; cf. Col_4:10; Col_4:12; Col_4:14).
E. J. Goodspeed suggested that the Epistle to Philemon is the lost letter to the Loadiceans that Paul mentioned in Col_4:16. [Note: E. J. Goodspeed, The Key to Ephesians, pp. xiv-xvi.] John Knox agreed with Goodspeed but believed Archippus lived in Colosse, owned Onesimus, and received this epistle. [Note: John Knox, Philemon among the Letters of Paul, pp. 91-108.] The views of neither of these influential commentators have overthrown the majority opinion that I have expressed above. Some commentators believed Paul wrote this epistle from Ephesus. [Note: E.g., Fitzmyer, p. 11.] But this too is a minority view.
I. Greeting Phm_1:1-3
II. Thanksgiving and prayer for Philemon Phm_1:4-7
III. Plea for Onesimus Phm_1:8-21
A. Paul’s appeal Phm_1:8-11
B. Paul’s motives Phm_1:12-16
C. Paul’s request Phm_1:17
D. Paul’s offer Phm_1:18-20
E. Paul’s confidence Phm_1:21
IV. Concluding matters Phm_1:22-25
Bailey, Mark L., and Thomas L. Constable. The New Testament Explorer. Nashville: Word Publishing Co., 1999. Reprinted as Nelson’s New Testament Survey. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.
Barclay, William. The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Daily Bible series. 2nd ed and reprint ed. Edinburgh: Saint Andrews Press, 1962.
Barker, G. W., W. L. Lane, and J. R. Michaels. The New Testament Speaks. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
Baxter, J. Sidlow. Explore the Book. 6 vols. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1965.
Bock, Darrell L. "A Theology of Paul’s Prison Epistles." In A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, pp. 299-331. Edited by Roy B. Zuck. Chicago: Moody Press, 1994.
Bruce, F. F. Paul. Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977.
Caird, G. B. Paul’s Letters from Prison. New Clarendon Bible series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Carson, Donald A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Carson, Herbert M. The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.
Darby, John Nelson. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible. 5 vols. Revised ed. New York: Loizeaux Brothers Publishers, 1942.
Deibler, Edwin C. "Philemon." In Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, pp. 769-75. Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, Victor Books, 1983.
Dictionary of the Apostolic Church. Edited by James Hastings. 1915 ed. S.v. "Philemon, Epistle to," by Henry Cowen.
Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by James Hastings. 1910 ed. S.v. "Philemon, Epistle to," by J. H. Bernard.
Dunn, James D. G. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary series. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and Carlisle, England: Paternoster Press, 1996.
Ellis, E. Earle. "The Epistle to Philemon." In The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, pp. 1397-99. Edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible series. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
Foster, Harry. "’For Love’s Sake’." Toward the Mar_12:5 (September-October 1983):97-100.
Gaebelein, Arno C. The Annotated Bible. 4 vols. Reprint ed. Chicago: Moody Press, and New York: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1970.
Goodspeed, E. J. The Key to Ephesians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. By. C. G. Wilke. Revised by C. L. Wilibald Grimm. Translated, revised and enlarged by Joseph Henry Thayer, 1889.
Gromacki, Robert G. Stand Perfect in Wisdom: An Exposition of Colossians and Philemon. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. 3 vols. 2nd ed. London: Tyndale Press, 1966.
Hanson, Craig L. "A Greek Martyrdom Account of St. Onesimus." Greek Orthodox Theological Review 22:3 (Fall 1977):319-39.
Hendricksen, William. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Philippians and Exposition of Colossians and Philemon. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.
Hiebert, D. Edmond. Titus and Philemon. Moody Colportage Library series. Chicago: Moody Press, 1957.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Edited by James Orr. 1957 ed. S.v. "Philemon, Epistle to," by Charles Smith Lewis.
Ironside, Harry A. Timothy, Titus and Philemon. Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1967.
Kent, Homer A., Jr. Treasures of Wisdom: Studies in Colossians & Philemon. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978.
Knox, John. Philemon among the Letters of Paul. New York: Abingdon, 1959.
Lange, John Peter, ed. Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. 12 vols. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960. Vol. 11: Galatians-Hebrews, by Otto Schmoller, Karl Braune, C. A. Auberlen, C. J. Riggenbach, J. J. Van Oosterzee, and Carl Bernhard Moll. Translated by C. C. Starbuck, M. B. Riddle, Horatio B. Hackett, John Lillie, E. A. Washburn, E. Harwood, George E. Day, and A. C. Kendrick.
Lenski, Richard C. H. The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon. Reprint ed. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1964.
Lightfoot, J. B. Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. Reprint ed. London: Macmillan and Co., 1892.
Lohse, Eduard. "Colossians and Philemon." In Hermeneia. Trans. by Poehlmann and Karris. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.
Maclaren, Alexander. The Expositor’s Bible. Vol. 6. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1947.
Martin, Ralph P. Colossians and Philemon. New Century Bible Commentery series. 3rd edition. London: Oliphants, and Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981.
McNeile, A. H. An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament. 2nd ed. revised by C. S. C. Williams. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.
Morgan, G. Campbell. Living Messages of the Books of the Bible. 2 vols. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1912.
Moule, C. F. D. The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon. Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary series. Reprint ed. Cambridge: University Press, 1962.
Moule, Handley C. G. Colossian and Philemon Studies. London: Pickering and Inglis, Ltd., n.d.
Müller, Jacobus J. The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon. New International Commentary on the New Testament series. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955.
The NET (New English Translation) Bible. First beta printing. Spokane, Wash.: Biblical Studies Press, 2001.
O’Brien, Peter T. Colossians, Philemon. Word Biblical Commentary series. Waco: Word Books, 1982.
Osiek, Carolyn. "Slavery in the New Testament World." The Bible Today 22:3 (May 1984):151-55.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. "For Love’s Sake; Part III: An Exposition of Phm_1:8-11." Bibliotheca Sacra 129:516 (October-December 1972):344-51.
_____. "Grace for the Sinner; Part II: An Exposition of Phm_1:4-7." Bibliotheca Sacra 129:515 (July-September 1972):218-25.
_____. "Paul the Prisoner; Part I: And Exposition of Philemon." Bibliotheca Sacra 129:514 (April-June 1972):134-41.
_____. "Studies in Philemon; Part IV: Charge That to My Account." Bibliotheca Sacra 130:517 (January-March 1973):50-57.
_____. "Studies in Philemon; Part V: The Obedience of a Son." Bibliotheca Sacra 130:518 (April-June 1973):164-70.
_____. "Studies in Philemon; Part VI: Able to Keep You." Bibliotheca Sacra 130:519 (July-September 1973):250-57.
Robertson, Archibald Thomas. Word Pictures in the New Testament. 6 vols. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931.
Rupprecht, Arthur A. "Philemon." In Ephesians-Philemon. Vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 12 vols. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.
Schenck, Charles L., Jr. "Paul’s Epistle on Human Rights." His 26:8 (May 1966):1-4.
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. S.v. splagchnon, by H. Köster, 7 (1971):549-58.
Thiessen, Henry Clarence. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962.
Vincent, Marvin R. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians and to Philemon. International Critical Commentary series. 1897; reprint ed., Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1972.
Webb, William J. Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary. 2 vols. Wheaton: Scripture Press, Victor Books, 1989.
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14