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Bible Commentaries

Gaebelein's Annotated Bible


- Philemon

by Arno Clemens Gaebelein



This beautiful little letter addressed by Paul to Philemon does not occupy the right place in the New Testament. It should be put after the Epistle to the Colossians, for it was written at the same time as that Epistle. Tychicus carried from Rome the two Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. Onesimus, his travelling companion, received from the prisoner of the Lord this personal letter to Philemon. It was therefore written at the same time as Colossians, during the first imprisonment of the Apostle Paul, about the year 61 or 62. Its genuineness cannot be doubted, though some critics have done so. Dean Alford says: “The internal evidence of the Epistle itself is so decisive for its Pauline origin--the occasion and object of it so simple, and unassignable to any fraudulent intent, that one would imagine the impugner of so many of the Epistles would have at least spared this one, and that in modern times, as in ancient, according to Tertullian and Jerome, ‘Sua illam brevitas defendisset.’ (“Its own brevity would be its defence.”) The objections raised against this Epistle we do not need to state nor investigate, for they are pure inventions and do not require an answer.

The occasion and object are both plainly indicated in the Epistle itself. Onesimus, a slave, probably a Phrygian, who were considered the lowest of all, had run away from his master, Philemon, who was a Christian. It is more than probable that he had stolen money from Philemon (Philemon 1:18 ). He was attracted to Rome, the great world-city, thinking perhaps he would be undetected there. What happened to him in Rome and how he came in touch with Paul is not made known in the Epistle. He may have been in dire want and destitution. Perhaps he had heard Paul’s name mentioned in his master’s house and learning of his presence in Rome as a prisoner, he got in touch with him. This we know, that he heard the gospel preached by the apostle, and believing, he was saved. He then told the apostle his story and Paul sent him back to his master with this precious letter. And Onesimus who returns to Philemon is no longer “unprofitable”; not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved” (Philemon 1:16 ).

The Epistle itself shows the sweet and tender character of the great man of God who penned it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It has been remarked, “Dignity, generosity, prudence, friendship, affection, politeness, skillful address, purity are apparent. Hence it has been termed with great propriety, ‘the polite Epistle.’“

Suggestive are Luther’s words on this letter to Philemon: “The Epistle showeth a right noble, lovely example of Christian love. Here we see how St. Paul layeth himself out for the poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleadeth his cause with his master; and so setteth himself, as if he were Onesimus, and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Yet all this doeth he not with power or force, as if he had right thereto; but he strippeth himself of his right, and thus enforceth Philemon to forego his right also. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, this also doth St. Paul for Onesimus with Philemon; for Christ also stripped Himself of His right, and by love and humility enforced the Father to lay aside His wrath, and to take us to His grace for the sake of Christ, who lovingly pleadeth our cause, and with all His heart layeth Himself out for us. For we are all His Onesimi, to my thinking.”