Bible Commentaries

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary

- Philemon

by Joseph Benson



Onesimus a servant, or slave rather, to Philemon, an eminent person in Colosse, having run away from his master, came to Rome, where, hearing some of the discourses, as is probable, which Paul delivered in his own hired house, he became a sincere convert to the faith of the gospel. After his conversion, he abode with the apostle for some time, and served him as his son in the gospel, with the greatest assiduity and affection. But being made sensible of his fault in running away from his master, and of its being his duty to return to him, the apostle sent him back with this letter, in which, “with the greatest softness of expression, warmth of affection, and delicacy of address, he not only requests Philemon to forgive and receive him again into his family, but to esteem and put confidence in him as a sincere Christian.” And when we consider the earnestness with which the apostle solicited Onesimus’s pardon, and the benevolence and generosity of Philemon’s disposition, we cannot doubt that the latter readily received him again, and even gave him his freedom, in compliance with the apostle’s insinuation, Philemon 1:21, that “he would do even more than he had asked.”

This certainly must have been the case, if this Onesimus was the person of the same name mentioned by Ignatius, in his epistle to the Ephesians, as one of their bishops, as Grotius thinks he was.

Some have thought this letter not worthy to be ranked among the epistles of St. Paul, as being written upon an occasion of no great moment. But it must be acknowledged to contain instructions of great importance to both ministers and people. For therein, as Chrysostom has observed, the apostle has left to the former an excellent example of charity, in endeavouring to mitigate the resentment of one in a superior station toward his inferior, who had injured him, and to restore the inferior to the favour of the other, which he had lost through his unfaithfulness; and that not only by arguments drawn from reason, but by generously binding himself to repay all the loss which the superior had sustained by the injury of the inferior. It also sets before all ministers, even those of the highest dignity in the church, a proper example of attention to the people under their care, and of affectionate concern for their welfare, which, if it were imitated, would not fail to recommend them to the esteem and love of their people; consequently it would give them a greater capacity of doing them good. To these uses of this epistle, Macknight adds that it is therein intimated, “1. That all Christians are on a level. Onesimus, the slave, on becoming a Christian, is the apostle’s son, and Philemon’s brother. 2. That Christianity makes no alteration in men’s political state. Onesimus, the slave, did not become a freeman by embracing Christianity, but was still obliged to be Philemon’s ‘slave for life,’ unless his master gave him his freedom. 3. That slaves should not be taken nor detained from their masters without their masters’ consent, Philemon 1:13-14. Philemon 1:4. That we should not contemn persons of low estate, nor disdain to help the meanest, when it is in our power to assist them; but should love and do good to all men, Philemon 1:15-17. Philemon 1:5. That, where an injury hath been done, restitution is due, unless the injured party gives up his claim. 6. That we should forgive sinners who are penitent, and be heartily reconciled to them, Philemon 1:17-19. Philemon 1:7. That we should never despair of reclaiming the wicked, but do every thing in our power to convert them. Indeed, if this epistle had served no other purpose but to show the world what sort of man the Apostle Paul was in private life, it would justly have merited a place in the canon of Scripture. For, in it the writer hath displayed qualities which by men are held in the greatest estimation; such as consummate prudence, uncommon generosity, the warmest friendship, the most skilful address, and the greatest politeness as well as purity of manners; qualities not to be found either in the enthusiast or in an impostor.” “Indeed,” as Doddridge observes, “it is impossible to read over this admirable epistle, without being touched with the delicacy of sentiment, and the masterly address, that appear in every part of it. We see here, in a most striking light, how perfectly consistent true politeness is, not only with all the warmth and sincerity of the friend, but even with the dignity of the Christian and the apostle. And if this letter were to be considered in no other view than as a mere human composition, it must be allowed a master-piece in its kind. As an illustration of this remark, it may not be improper to compare it with an epistle of Pliny, that seems to have been written upon a similar occasion; (lib. 9. Leviticus 21:0;) which, though penned by one that was reckoned to excel in the epistolary style, and though it has undoubtedly many beauties, yet must be acknowledged, by every impartial reader, vastly inferior to this animated composition of the apostle.” As to the date of this epistle, it appears from Philemon 1:1; Philemon 1:10; Philemon 1:13; Philemon 1:23, that it was written when St. Paul was a prisoner, and when he had hopes of obtaining his liberty; (Philemon 1:22;) and as Timothy joins him in this epistle, and also in that to the Colossians, it is probable it was written about the same time with the latter, especially as in both epistles Epaphroditus, Mark, Demas, and Luke join in the salutations; and Onesimus, the bearer of this, was one of the messengers by whom the epistle to the Colossians was sent, Colossians 4:9. It must therefore have been written at Rome, about the end of A.D. 63, or in the beginning of 64.