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EXPOSITION OF THE EPISTLE TO PHILEMON.
SECTION 1. — PAUL’S GREETING TO PHILEMON. Philemon 1:1-3.
Paul a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy, our brother, to Philemon, our beloved one and fellow-worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the Church in thy house; grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philemon 1:1. Prisoner: same word in Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 4:1; 2 Timothy 1:8, Matthew 27:15-16; Acts 16:25; Acts 16:27.
Of Christ: not necessarily that He has put Paul in prison, but that in his captivity, and as a captive, the prisoner at Rome stands in special relation to Christ and belongs to Him. Writing a private letter to a friend and asking a favour, Paul refrains from all mention of his apostolic authority. And, while begging mercy for a bondman, he points to his own bonds. This silent plea is urged again in Philemon 1:9-10; Philemon 1:13. That Timothy is, as in Colossians 1:1, joint-author of the letter, gives weight to it as touching a matter in which another besides Paul feels interest.
PHILEMON: a not uncommon Greek name. Of this Philemon we know nothing except from this Epistle. He was certainly a Christian and almost certainly (cp. Philemon 1:19) converted by Paul. That Onesimus was (cp. Colossians 4:9) a native or former inhabitant of Colossæ and was also Philemon’s slave, and that, when this letter was written, he was going back to Philemon and also (Colossians 4:9) about to visit Colossæ, suggests that Philemon was an inhabitant of that city. But although he was a fellow-worker of Paul and Timothy, he is not mentioned in Colossians 1:7 as taking part with Epaphras in founding the Church there. He must therefore have been converted elsewhere: for Paul had never visited Colossæ. Possibly he came to live there already a Christian, or was converted by Paul elsewhere, after the Church had been founded by Epaphras. That Philemon had a slave and had apparently (Philemon 1:18) been robbed by him, suggests that he was a man of social position; one of the few implied in 1 Corinthians 1:26.
Our fellow-worker; suggests that Philemon had joined with both Paul and Timothy in Christian toil and thus gained their special love. Contrast Romans 16:9, where the same terms beloved and fellow-worker are used, but to different men; and the pronoun is changed from plural to singular.
Philemon 1:2. Apphia: a woman’s name found on several inscriptions in the country around Colossæ, and therefore probably of native origin. There is no reason to identify it with the Roman name Appia. The connection suggests strongly that she was Philemon’s wife. And this is the more likely because the letter deals with a domestic matter. On behalf of a runaway slave Paul appeals both to master and mistress. Thus both the Phrygian name and Apphia’s mention here are notes of genuineness.
Our sister: implies that she was a Christian and therefore under Christian obligations.
If Apphia be Philemon’s wife, the immediate mention of Archippus in a letter touching only a domestic matter suggests that he also was a member of the same family, and probably Philemon’s son. This agrees with Colossians 4:17, which seems to imply that he was an officer of the Church at Colossæ. If Archippus was son of Philemon, the latter must have been elderly, not much if any younger than Paul.
Fellow-soldier: as in Philippians 2:25. It is perhaps not safe to infer from this title that Archippus had in some special conflict stood bravely by Paul. For the whole Christian life, especially in those days of storm, was a conflict. And if, as we inferred from Colossians 4:17, Archippus held official rank in the Church, this description would be the more appropriate. Paul recognises both Philemon and Archippus as comrades, the one in toil, the other in the ranks of battle. Doubtless, for reasons unknown to us, this distribution of titles was appropriate.
The Church in thy house: a smaller gathering within the Church at Colossæ, like that at Laodicea (Colossians 4:15) in the house of Nymphas. The singular number, thy, pays honour to Philemon in his own family as head of the household. This greeting seeks to interest in the case of Onesimus the company accustomed to gather for worship in the house of Philemon. The greeting of grace and peace (see under Philippians 1:2) is sent to each member of the family and to the Church meeting in their home.
SECTION 2. — PAUL’S JOY AT PHILEMON’S CHRISTIAN LOVE.
I thank my God always, making mention of thee in my prayers, hearing of thy love and the faith which thou hast towards the Lord and for all the saints, in order that the fellowship of thy faith may become effectual, in knowledge of every good thing that is in you, for Christ. For I had much joy and encouragement at thy love; because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through thee, brother.
Philemon 1:4. As in Philippians 1:3, Romans 1:8, Paul’s first words after a Christian greeting are his own personal thanks to his own God. And, as in 1 Corinthians 1:4, Ephesians 1:16, these thanks are ceaseless: I thank my God always.
Making mention of you in my prayers: as in Romans 1:9. These constant thanks for Philemon are offered in the course of Paul’s regular devotions.
Philemon 1:5. Hearing: day by day, perhaps from frequent references to Philemon by Epaphras and Onesimus. This continual hearing prompted continual thanks. Contrast having heard in Colossians 1:4, referring to one definite recital.
The faith which thou hast: parallel to thy love: so Colossians 1:4. Nowhere else do we read of faith… towards all the saints; except probably in Ephesians 1:15. And there is, before the Lord Jesus, probably (for the reading is doubtful) a preposition not elsewhere used in this connection. That love is put before faith, is also remarkable. It has been suggested that the order of words is inverted, and that Paul really meant love towards all the saints and faith towards the Lord Jesus. But such inversion is not elsewhere found in the Bible. [And it seems to be forbidden by the relative singular which thou hast, which connects with faith all the words following.] Another suggestion is that whereas the Lord Jesus is the immediate object of faith, the saints are in some way a more distant object in the sense that Philemon’s faith took practical form in kindness towards them. But such use of [
Philemon 1:6. Purpose of the prayer which in Paul’s mind is always associated with thanks to God. So, very clearly, in Ephesians 1:17. For good things already received do but reveal the need for further blessings.
Fellowship: see under Philippians 1:5 : the spirit of brotherhood, that which prompts us to share with others our joys and their burdens.
Of thy faith, or faithfulness: brotherliness springing from, and thus belonging to, his loyalty to Christ and to all Christians. Paul prays that Philemon’s good-fellowship may become effective, i.e. may produce results.
In the knowledge: or rather full perception and recognition.
Every good thing: every form of Christian excellence or spiritual enrichment: cp. Hebrews 9:11; Hebrews 10:1.
In you, or in us: (the reading is quite uncertain:) in Philemon and the Christians around, or in Christians generally including Paul.
For Christ: to advance His purpose and kingdom. Paul desires that the spirit of brotherhood which belongs to Philemon’s faithfulness may produce results, and these so abundant and various as to evoke, as their surrounding element, a recognition by others of every excellence which dwells in Christians, and thus tend to the glory of Christ; or, in other words, that Philemon’s loyalty to Christ may assume form in a manifestation of Christian brotherhood, and thus secure recognition of all the excellences with which Christ has enriched His people. The special form of brotherliness here in view, we shall learn in § 3. If Paul’s request be not granted, one form of Christian excellence will not be recognised. And the closing words of this verse remind us that in this full recognition the honour of Christ is involved.
Philemon 1:7. Reason, primarily for Paul’s thanks, and then for the prayer naturally following those thanks. His gratitude is prompted by joy… and encouragement (as in Philippians 2:1) caused by Philemon’s action.
I had: when Paul heard about Philemon’s love. Then follow proofs of it.
Hearts: same word in Philippians 1:8; Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12. It denotes always the seat of the emotions, where influences from without evoke feelings within. Here the emotion was that of being refreshed: same word in 1 Corinthians 16:18; 2 Corinthians 7:13; Matthew 11:28. [The Greek perfect denotes the abiding result of this act of kindness.] Paul refers to matters of fact, viz. acts of kindness by Philemon to Christians. These facts were narrated to him doubtless by Epaphras and Onesimus. They moved him to thanksgiving, and to prayer that the disposition thus manifested might reveal itself still further and thus secure recognition of the excellence of Christianity. This remembrance of Philemon’s brotherliness elicits the endearing title, brother.
SECTION 3. — THE REQUEST ABOUT ONESIMUS.
For which cause, having much boldness in Christ to command thee that which is fitting, because of this love I rather exhort, being such a one as Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus; I exhort thee about my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus, “who formerly was to thee unprofitable but now profitable to thee and to me, whom I have sent back to thee himself that is, my own heart, whom I was minded to keep with me that on thy behalf he might minister to me in the bonds of the Gospel. But without thy mind I was not willing to do anything, that thy good thing may be, not of necessity, but of free will. For perhaps because of this he was separated for a time that for ever thou mightest hold him; no longer as a servant but more than a servant, a brother beloved, especially so to me, but how much more to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then thou hast me as a partner, receive him as me. Moreover, any injustice he has done thee, or is in debt, reckon this to me. I, Paul have written with my own hand, I will repay; in order that I may not say to thee that also thyself to me thou owest besides. Yes, brother, I would have help of thee in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Trusting to thy obedience I have written to thee knowing that also beyond the things which I write thou wilt do.
Special matter of this letter. We have an appeal, Philemon 1:8-9 : a request, Philemon 1:10-17 : a detail pertaining to it, Philemon 1:18-19: a further appeal, Philemon 1:20-21.
Philemon 1:8-9 a. For-which-cause: because of thy kindness to the saints.
Boldness in Christ: confidence of unrestrained speech arising from Paul’s relation to Christ.
To command: as if by superior authority: same word in Luke 4:36; Luke 8:25.
That which is fitting: action agreeing with the position and circumstances of the actor. Same word in Ephesians 5:4; Colossians 3:18. It suggests slightly that the request following is what Philemon ought to do.
Because of thy love, or for love’s sake: literally because of the love. The definite article refers either to Philemon’s love mentioned in Philemon 1:7 or to the well-known Christian virtue of love. In view of the express mention (Philemon 1:5) of thy love, and of the introductory particle for-which-cause, of which these words seem to be an exposition, the former reference seems the more likely. The two expositions are closely allied. By allowing himself to be influenced by Philemon’s love, Paul was paying deference to the central Christian virtue of which this was a concrete example.
Exhort: as in Philippians 4:2. Instead of speaking to Philemon with authority as from above, Paul speaks to him as a brother by his side using language calculated to encourage to action.
Philemon 1:9 b. Two points about Paul, his age and his bonds, strengthening the request which he makes when he might have used words of command. Since this Epistle was probably (see Introd. v.) written about A.D. 64 and Paul’s conversion took place apparently (see my Galatians p. 193) about A.D. 35, it is quite possible that a man who in Acts 7:58 is spoken of as young at the stoning of Stephen may here have spoken of himself as old.
For life is reckoned by deeds rather than by years. After thirty years of hardship and toil for Christ, and this preceded by hard work of another kind, a man of sixty might well seem to himself to have already lived a long life. And the weakness of advancing years gave him a claim upon Philemon, his son in Christ.
Prisoner of Christ Jesus: as in Philemon 1:1. It is here added to old age as a second plea. Paul stands in special relation to Christ, his relation to Him is that of one who for His sake has been put in prison, and the prisoner is old. Such is the man who now forbears to use his indisputable authority and merely makes a request.
[Some commentators separate such-a-one from the words following and make it refer to Philemon 1:8, where Paul suggests his right to command. But this back-reference is not grammatically necessary: and it is unlikely that Paul would lay stress upon his authority by thus referring to it twice. It is best to take together such a one as, these words introducing and picturing old men as a class to which the writer belongs. And the mention of Paul’s old age at once recalls his hard surroundings.]
Philemon 1:10. The matter of the Epistle, viz. Onesimus: see note under Philemon 1:21.
I exhort; takes up the same word in Philemon 1:9 a, and adds the object of Paul’s exhortations.
My own child: close harmony with Philippians 2:22; 1 Corinthians 4:17, where Timothy is so called. These words are at once expounded and amplified by those following, whom I have begotten etc.: a close parallel to 1 Corinthians 4:15. They prove that Onesimus was converted by Paul. So apparently was Timothy.
In my bonds, or in these bonds: the dark surroundings of a father’s Joy. Thus for the third time Philemon is made to hear the clanking of the prisoner’s chain. And it pleads irresistibly for Paul and for Onesimus.
Philemon 1:11. Details about Onesimus. Note the double contrast: formerly… profitless… to thee; but now… profitable… to thee and to me. There is here probably a play upon the name Onesimus, which is a not uncommon Greek word meaning useful or helpful, and which, though different in form, has practically the same sense as the word here rendered profitable. Formerly the character of Onesimus contradicted his name: but now, in reference both to Philemon and to Paul, the name describes the man. The words profitless to thee are explained by Philemon 1:18 which suggests or implies that Onesimus bad robbed Philemon. And in any case a runaway slave would be, from his master’s point of view, profitless.
Profitable to thee and to me: explained by Philemon 1:10; Philemon 1:16. In Onesimus Philemon had gained a brother in Christ: and Paul another son in the Gospel. Therefore, to each of them be was an enrichment.
Philemon 1:12. Another detail about Onesimus.
Whom I have sent back: evidently as bearer of this letter. Thus the runaway but now returning slave comes to Philemon with a character certified by Paul.
Himself: laying stress upon the personal return of Onesimus. So strongly did Paul’s affection cling to him that to send him away was to tear out and send to Philemon his own heart: same word as in Philemon 1:7.
Philemon 1:13. Another detail.
Was-minded: mere inclination. Paul’s contrary resolution and action are stated in Philemon 1:14.
I: emphatic, giving prominence to the personal inclination which Paul refused to gratify.
To keep with me: literally to bold fast by myself. These words emphasise still further Paul’s personal feeling in this matter.
On thy behalf: assuming that assistance rendered by Onesimus to Paul would be looked upon by Philemon as service done for himself. Paul thus delicately recognises Philemon’s great care for him. [This simple exposition of the preposition
Minister: render friendly service of any kind: see under Romans 15:25. This wish of Paul suggests that Onesimus had already shown kindness to him in prison. Possibly such kindness explains the epithet beloved brother applied to Onesimus in Philemon 1:16 and Colossians 4:9. Then follows a fourth mention of Paul’s imprisonment. His bonds made more needful to him the help of Onesimus. And they were caused by his endeavour to maintain and spread the Gospel. Indeed his arrest at Jerusalem was occasioned by his outspoken proclamation at all hazards of the unalloyed Gospel of salvation through faith. That Paul’s captivity stood in this close relation to the Gospel, gave him a special claim to the help of Onesimus, even though his help to Paul might occasion some inconvenience to Philemon. And his bonds explain and justify his wish to retain Onesimus.
Philemon 1:14. In contrast to his inclination, Paul now states his actual resolve; and a reason for it, this last in the form of a purpose.
Without thy mind: same word in 1 Corinthians 7:25; 1 Corinthians 7:40. Not having Philemon’s judgment about his retaining Onesimus, Paul resolved not to retain him. For, had he done so, the service rendered to Paul by Philemon’s slave would have been, so far as he was concerned, done by way of necessity.
Thy good thing: any act of kindness by Philemon, including the help to Paul in prison. Rendered by Philemon’s slave, this help would have been a good thing from Philemon to Paul: but it would have been done by way of necessity, Philemon having no choice in it. Paul desired that it should be by way of freewill, i.e. of his own free choice.
Philemon 1:15-16. A reason for this refusal to act without Philemon’s consent, viz. that perhaps God had another purpose about Onesimus. And Paul wishes to act in harmony with this Divine plan.
Perhaps: introduces this reason timidly, by way of suggestion.
For this cause: explained by in order that for ever etc.
He was separated: a gentle way of describing the flight of Onesimus.
For a time: literally for an hour. It does not imply that Onesimus had left Philemon very lately. For, contrasted with an eternal possession, a separation otherwise long would seem short.
Thou mightest have, or hold for thy own: explained in Philemon 1:16.
No longer as a servant, or slave: according to the common use of the word; see under Romans 1:1. This implies clearly that Onesimus had been a slave of Philemon. Not as such does God intend him to be for ever, but as something much more than or beyond a slave, viz. a beloved brother in Christ. Paul suggests that perhaps God permitted Philemon, through the flight of Onesimus, to lose a slave in order that, through his conversion at Rome, the runaway slave might become to him a beloved brother in Christ and thus an eternal possession. So would a small and temporary loss become a great and abiding enrichment.
Especially to me: added by Paul because already, as his child in the Gospel, Onesimus was dearer to him than to any one else. Yet Paul foresees and suggests an endearment stronger even than this superlative endearment: how much more to thee? Philemon’s closer relation in days gone by to Onesimus should make so much the greater his joy now at the conversion of his once worthless slave. And this in two relations: in flesh and in the Lord. Paul assumes that the returning runaway will remain with Philemon, and thus be his in outward bodily life; and be his also as a fellow-servant of the one Lord. Therefore in this double relation Onesimus will be dear to Philemon; and through this closer relation dearer to him than even to Paul, to whom he is so specially dear.
That both here and in Colossians 4:9 Onesimus is described by the same word beloved, and the warm affection expressed in Philemon 1:12, suggest that be was specially amiable. This may have shown itself in the kind attention (Philemon 1:13) which Paul would like to have retained.
Philemon 1:17. A final appeal, summing up all that precedes; followed by a full and definite request about Onesimus which has been delayed till now that it may come with the accumulated force of the foregoing appeals.
A partner: companion in the service of Christ and in the blessings of the New Covenant. Same word and sense in 2 Corinthians 1:7; 2 Corinthians 8:23. A similar appeal in Philippians 2:1, if any partnership of the Spirit.
Receive him; implies that Onesimus was returning to Philemon in order to seek his favour, and apparently to remain with him. But the words him as me show that Paul is not asking him to receive back Onesimus as a slave. Rather Paul begs for him a Christian welcome, leaving undetermined all future relationships, If you look upon me as a comrade, welcome Onesimus whom I love so much as you would welcome me. For whatever you do to him you do to me.
Philemon 1:18-19. Another matter about Onesimus which might seem to stand in the way of the welcome just asked for.
Done thee any injustice: same word in the same sense in Colossians 3:25; Galatians 4:12. The kind of injustice is indicated by the words following: or-is-in-debt. This makes almost certain that Onesimus had been dishonest, either by direct robbery or by unfaithful use of money committed to his charge. For, had not Paul had strong reason to suspect this, he could not have used these words. Probably the hypothetical form of the sentence was only a slight veil thrown over what Paul knew to be fact. If so, he could not ask Philemon to receive back the runaway without referring to this worst feature of the case. The words reckon this to me suggest that Onesimus was unable to pay back the stolen money. For, had he been able, Paul would certainly have required him to do so.
I Paul: see under Colossians 1:23.
I have written with my own hand: same words in Galatians 6:11. Cp. 1 Corinthians 16:21; 2 Thessalonians 3:17. Whether the whole Epistle was thus written, or at this point Paul took up the pen, we do not know. He binds himself by his own hand to pay back what Onesimus owes to Philemon.
Thou owest me besides: another debt owing in addition to that which Paul promises to pay back. In other words, even if Philemon remits the debt, he will still owe himself to Paul. But this Paul does not wish to say to Philemon, and to avoid saying it prefers to bind himself to pay what Onesimus owes.
Owe thyself: cp. Luke 9:25. This can only mean that Paul led Philemon to Christ. Thus while binding himself to pay, he reminds Philemon of a debt on the other side which cannot be paid.
Philemon 1:20-21. Concluding appeals.
Yes, brother: expression of brotherly confidence.
Would-have-help, or let-me-have-help: a verb cognate to the adjective Onesimus or helpful: see under Philemon 1:10. It is common in classic Greek in the sense of receive-help or pleasure; but is not found elsewhere in the New Testament. This suggests that Paul selected it as a play upon the name Onesimus; as though he said to Philemon, be thou an Onesimus to me.
I… of thee: both words emphatic. Paul makes the case of Onesimus his own; and begs pleasure or help for himself from Philemon by his acquiescence in the request of this letter.
In the Lord: the joy for which Paul begged would be an outflow of Christian life, and therefore to him a means of spiritual good. Cp. Philippians 1:14, where confidence evoked by Paul’s bonds is called confidence in the word.
Refresh my heart: same words as in Philemon 1:7, with emphasis on the word my. Paul begs for himself what Philemon has already done for the saints. The word heart is added to suggest that Onesimus was so near to the heart of Paul that forgiveness to the slave will be relief and refreshment to the Apostle. This second request, which is a repetition of the first, receiving emphasis from the repetition, belongs as does the first request to the Christian life: it is in Christ.
Trusting to thy obedience; silently assumes Paul’s right to command, a right already suggested in Philemon 1:10 and one which Philemon could not but recognise. Similar obedience to an apostolic command 2 Corinthians 7:15.
Beyond the things which I say: viz. the request to receive Onesimus, in spite of his fraud. Paul is sure that Philemon will do more than this. How much more, he is left himself to judge. To us these words suggest, as probably they did to Philemon, the manumission of the converted slave, who though still beyond his master’s reach was about to return to him. But for this Paul does not ask. It was left for Philemon’s generosity.
That ONESIMUS had been a slave of Philemon, is made quite certain by Philemon 1:16 : no longer a slave. Since he is said in Colossians 4:9 to belong in some sense to Colossæ, and to be then going back there, we infer that the home of Philemon in which Onesimus formerly lived as a slave was at Colossæ. Evidently the slave had first defrauded, and then run away from, his master. Probably, like many fugitives from many lands, he had found his way to the great metropolis in order to hide there among others like himself. At Rome he came under the influence of the imprisoned Apostle, heard the Gospel from his lips, and found in it a liberty which mere escape from earthly bondage cannot give. A complete change took place. The dishonest runaway is now a faithful brother: Colossians 4:9. And he is now, possibly through some special amiability of character, an object of Paul’s marked affection. This amiability he seems to have shown by attentive help rendered to Paul in prison. This kind attention of the slave recalls to the prisoner pleasant memories of his master’s kindness to many Christians and kindly feeling towards himself. He would like to have had this help still longer: but other considerations determine otherwise. Onesimus has not only run away from Philemon but has robbed him. It would seem that he was so poor as to be unable to repay what he had taken. But the debt must be recognised. Paul bids the fugitive, whom he would much like to retain, to return to his master at Colossæ. A favourable opportunity of doing so presents itself. Tychicus is going there with a letter of congratulation and warning to the Church prompted by the varied news brought by Epaphras.
It is decided that Onesimus shall go with Tychicus. Going thus at Paul’s bidding, in company with a well-known and trusted helper of the Apostle, he will receive a better welcome from those who perhaps knew him as a runaway thief. And he takes with him a recommendation even better than this, the letter before us.
Paul reminds Philemon that as all apostle of Christ (cp. 1 Thessalonians 2:6) he might give commands as a superior. But Christian love moves him to make request as an equal. His age and chain must plead for him. He is writing about a child in the Gospel whose conversation has gladdened the hardships of his prison, for a man whose name is now, from the point of view both of Philemon and of Paul, as appropriate as it was once from Philemon’s point of view inappropriate. So great is Paul’s love for his convert that to send him back is to rend his own heart. But this he has done; not wishing to take from the hands of Philemon, by retaining his slave, a kindness he has not opportunity to refuse. There must be a Divine purpose in the flight of Onesimus. God designs the master and slave to be united in bonds which will survive all human relationships. In harmony with this Divine purpose Paul has sent back the fugitive, whom he begs Philemon to receive as he would receive the Apostle himself.
Another point demands mention. Probably the runaway had told Paul that he had in some way robbed his master. This debt, moreover, the slave cannot repay. But Paul promises himself to repay it; and reminds Philemon of a debt on the other side which cannot be paid. Again, the prisoner begs acquiescence; and concludes the matter of Onesimus with confidence that Philemon will not only grant his request but will go beyond it.
This story of Onesimus is wonderfully characteristic of Christianity. No other religion can reach and save and raise the dregs of society. A less hopeful case than a runaway thief hiding himself among the outcasts at Rome, there could not be. But the Gospel both found and transformed him; and made one proved to be untrustworthy into a beloved and trusted brother. The rescue and complete restoration of Onesimus, as attested by this letter, reveals the power of the Gospel and thus gives hope for the outcasts around us. Like Paul (1 Timothy 1:16) the fugitive from Colossæ is a pattern of what Christ will do for all who receive Him. As a pedestal on which stands, within sight of all men, this monument of the mercy and power of God, this Epistle is of priceless worth.
SECTION 4. — CONCLUSION.
At the same time also prepare me a lodging: for I hope that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.
Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets thee: as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow-workers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Philemon 1:22. At the same time; suggests that Paul may be expected soon after the arrival of Onesimus.
A lodging: either at an inn or in a private house. All details are left to Philemon’s hospitality. This intimation adds force to the main request of the letter. For if Paul comes to Colossæ he will see for himself whether it has been complied with.
For I hope etc.: to be released from prison, as implied in the foregoing request.
Through your prayers: a close and important coincidence with Romans 15:30; 2 Corinthians 1:11; Ephesians 6:19; Colossians 4:3; 2 Thessalonians 3:1. This confidence in his readers’ prayers, even for bodily preservation, is a marked feature of Paul’s thought.
Granted, or given-as-a-mark-of-favour: same word as in Philippians 1:29; Romans 8:32; a favourite with Paul.
Granted to you: if, through the favour of God he is set free, this will be a joy and enrichment to those who have prayed for him.
This purpose to visit Philemon is in harmony with the deep interest in the Churches at Colossæ and Laodicea expressed in Colossians 2:1. On what rested Paul’s hope of speedy liberation, we do not know. No trace of it is found in the companion Epistles to the Colossians and the Ephesians. On the other hand, Colossians 4:3 and Ephesians 6:19 suggest very strongly that he had then no fear that his imprisonment would end in death.
Philemon 1:23-24. Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner: see under Colossians 4:10. The significant addition, in Christ Jesus, keeps before us the truth, ever present to the mind of Paul, that this imprisonment stood in special relation to Christ.
Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke: as in Colossians 4:10; Colossians 4:14. All these joined in the greeting to the Church at Colossæ. The only name found there and, for reasons unknown to us, absent here, is Jesus Justus. And all these, like Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus Justus in Colossians 4:10-11 are here called fellow-workers.
Philemon 1:25. Almost word for word as in Philippians 4:23; Galatians 6:18.
CHRISTIANITY AND SLAVERY. It is worthy of note that in this Epistle Paul does not require or ask Philemon to liberate Onesimus. Moreover, while Onesimus was still a slave in the house of Philemon, the latter was apparently a recognised Christian and a beloved friend of Paul. This, together with the silence of the rest of the New Testament, implies that the Apostles did not forbid their converts to hold slaves. Yet, not only has the Gospel put an end to slavery wherever throughout the world it has gained power, but it is the only religious system which has done anything effective in this direction.
The reason of this apparent tolerance of slavery is not far to seek. By asserting the fatherhood of God, the Gospel proclaims the brotherhood of man; and thus asserts a principle utterly inconsistent with one man treating another as his property. On the other hand, had Christ and His Apostles forbidden the holding of slaves, they would have arrayed against the Gospel all those interested in maintaining the existing order of society, and thus have needlessly placed in its way most serious obstacles. And, worse still, by raising a standard of revolt against a social injustice, they would have rallied around themselves multitudes anxious only for relief from a social grievance. An appeal to such classes would have utterly misrepresented Christianity. And their help would have ruined it. Christ therefore offered to men only a spiritual liberation. But this carried with it the living germ of every kind of freedom.
For these reasons the Apostles tolerated slavery. We have no trace of fault found for holding Onesimus as a slave. It does not even lessen Paul’s warm recognition of Philemon’s excellence. And, even if Onesimus resume his former position, Paul will gladly be Philemon’s guest. Yet, while refusing to claim for the slaves a liberty for which they were not yet prepared, and which would have loosened the very framework of Society, Paul taught that in Christ the distinction of bond and free no longer exists, and that a believing slave is already virtually free : Galatians 3:28; 1 Corinthians 7:21. And in Colossians 4:1 he teaches that slaves have just claims upon their masters, claims recognised by a Master in heaven. Such teaching at once improved the lot of the slave, and prepared gradually a way for the emancipation which our day has seen.
From the example of the Apostles in the matter of slavery we may learn an important lesson. There are many things contrary to the Spirit of the Gospel which it is inexpedient at once to forbid by civil or ecclesiastical law. In some few cases such prohibition would appeal to unworthy motives. And verbal prohibition can be effective only when supported by the public conscience. The Gospel works always from within, shedding light upon broad principles of right and wrong, light which ultimately reaches and illumines all the details of practical life. But, for this inner illumination, time is often needful. Legislation is effective only when it registers an inward growth of the moral sentiment.
The result of this letter is unknown. But from 1 Timothy 1:3 we infer that after his imprisonment at Rome Paul again visited Ephesus; though perhaps, as his directions to Timothy suggest, only for a short time. If so, it is not unlikely that Paul’s wish to visit Colossæ was gratified; and that, under the roof of Philemon, the master, the liberated slave, and the Apostle enjoyed sweet fellowship in Christ.
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Beet, Joseph. "Commentary on Philemon 1". Beet's Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26