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Philemon 1:1 . Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, for he knew by revelation that the Lord had sent him as a state prisoner in chains to Rome, whatever the adversaries of truth might have intended.
And Timothy our brother, whom Paul, his spiritual father, ever associated with himself. Timothy was his faithful companion in all his labours, except when the work required a separation. 1 Chronicles 1:1; 1 Chronicles 1:1.
To Philemon, our fellow-labourer. The name is Grecian; with the poets accounted noble.
Philemon 1:2 . And to our beloved Apphia, the wife of Philemon, who equalled her husband in faith and piety, and was worthy of a record in the annals of the church. And Archippus, our fellow-soldier. As his profession is repeated in Philippians 2:25, and not applied to any other apostolic man, cardinal Baronius, a man profoundly learned in the annals of the church, doubts not but Paul, or his father, had held commissions in the Roman service; and it probably was the same with Archippus. The critics mostly turn it to their spiritual warfare with the powers of darkness.
Philemon 1:3 . Grace to you, and peace. See 1 Corinthians 1:2. The manner of the age was to greet one another in epistolary correspondence. So are the letters of Pliny, and of the christian fathers, neat, chaste, and elegant in address.
Philemon 1:5 . Hearing of thy love and faith. These words are very appropriate to the subject which follows; for all the brilliant virtues of the christian temper which shone in Philemon, and in a city full of idolatry, were worthy of eulogy and of thanksgiving.
Philemon 1:8-10 . Wherefore, though I might be bold, as a minister and labourer of the Lord, yet for love’s sake I would rather beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds. Paul, as the prisoner of the Lord, had a right to ask of the churches whatever he needed in his sufferings for the testimony of Jesus, and his requests would come with a thousand welcomes. Aged ministers, destitute of all rectorial revenues, have just claims on the people for whom they have laboured through life. But alas, men warm by their winter fires, are apt too often to forget the cold.
Philemon 1:11 . Who in time past was to thee unprofitable. The conversion of Onesimus was attended with a full confession of his past sins; that he had left the best of masters, after defrauding him of property, with which, no doubt, he had fled to Rome, far beyond the lash of the law. Confession is relevant to the conscience; for after secret sins are once disclosed, a man is not afraid of future discoveries coming against him: and peace of conscience is followed by the fruits of the Spirit. We cannot but remark here, the power and grace of the gospel in making a bad servant a good one, and ultimately, as many allow, a minister of Jesus Christ. It is the power of God to the salvation of every believer.
Philemon 1:14 . But without thy mind would I do nothing. All good things done to the glory of God must be free-will offerings, giving ourselves to him, and then our gifts.
Philemon 1:15 . Perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him (back as thy serf) for ever. The adorable providence of God, ever ready to bring good out of evil, guided Onesimus to Rome, and to hear Paul, the only man that could be the best of intercessors for a fugitive stranger.
Philemon 1:17 . If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself, for though Onesimus was still a servant, and now profitable to his master, he was by grace a son, and a brother beloved in the Lord. Κοινωνον designates not only partner, but fellow traveller in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ. See Philippians 1:2; Philippians 2:1; Philippians 4:14. Revelation 1:9.
Can we then really suppose, as most critics do, that Paul would write with all this frankness to a man, and to his wife, whom he had never seen? St. Luke says, Acts 16:6-8, “when they had gone throughout Phrygia,” the old name for several Roman provinces; and “going throughout” must mean leaving no city of importance unvisited, as Colosse, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, and thence in progress to Troas, on the sea-coast, which in Poole’s synopsis is put for the remains of ancient Troy; can we, I say, really suppose that Paul and Silas would even go out of their road to miss cities so celebrated? Luke, not being with Paul in this northern journey, has merely named the provinces, and not the towns.
Philemon 1:21-22 . Having confidence I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say. Such was christian love in ancient days. Hence followed the confidence that Philemon would provide him a lodging.
Philemon 1:23-24 . There salute thee Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner, sustaining bonds like Timothy for preaching boldly in Rome. Aristarchus, who had come with Paul a prisoner from Asia, Acts 27:2, but now liberated. The five ministers named here, prove that this epistle was written at the same time with that to the Thessalonians; and the injunction to receive Mark, Colossians 4:10, indicates an earlier date than that to Timothy.
Most of the apostolic epistles were composed on special occasions; and this to Philemon would probably not have been written, but for the interest which Paul took in the case of a fugitive servant; and we cannot but admire the kindness and condescension of the great apostle, who though himself a prisoner at Rome, felt so much on behalf of one who had brought himself into difficulty by his own misconduct. Paul forgets himself, and his own sufferings, in his anxiety to promote the happiness of one whom others would have deemed beneath their notice. Such however is the nature of true religion; it is full of benevolence, and knows no blessedness like that of doing good.
Onesimus seems to have left his master clandestinely, and under a suspicion of having purloined some part of his property. Yet he must previously have had some religious convictions, and probably had seen Paul at his master’s house, or he would not have attended his ministry on his arrival at Rome, though whatever were his convictions, he had proved himself an “unprofitable” servant. Mercy however pursued the fugitive, and apprehended him on his arrival at the city. There he heard Paul, who on his conversion sent him back again to his master, now a profitable servant, and also a brother beloved in the Lord.
Onesimus, full of shame and contrition, could not venture to see his master till Paul had written a letter of introduction on his behalf; and Paul with all imaginable courtesy addresses this epistle to Philemon, guaranteeing the renewed character of Onesimus, and even engaging to become responsible for any deficiencies occasioned by his former misconduct. Such are thy virtues, oh religion.
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Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Philemon 1". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26