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Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible


- Philemon

by Thomas Coke



PHILEMON seems to have been a substantial man at Colosse, who had a spacious house, in which part of the Christian church assembled, and in which travelling Christians were entertained. The want of public inns among the ancients, made this hospitality needful, and it was particularly enjoined upon Christians to receive one another hospitably; but, as every individual was not in a condition to entertain Christian strangers, the churches seem to have appointed one or more of their principal members for this purpose; Romans 16:2. This was the office of deacons; so that Philemon had an office in the church, and indeed he is by some of the ancients entitled, "Bishop of Colosse." Whatever his ministerial office was, St. Paul calls him his fellow-labourer. His son Archippus, to whom this Epistle is also addressed, had just before been deacon in the church of Colosse, Colossians 4:17. He is accordingly mentioned with honour by St. Paul, who not only styles him his fellow-labourer, like his father, but also his fellow-soldier. Philemon is thought to have been one of St. Paul's first-fruits of the church of Ephesus, and not to have been converted, like the rest, by the instrumentality of Epaphras, but by that of St. Paul himself; having probably come to Ephesus while St. Paul was there, Philemon 1:19. This Epistle was written from Rome at nearly the same time with the Epistles to the Colossians, Philippians, &c. about the year 61 or 62. The occasion of it was this: Onesimus, Philemon's slave, had robbed him, and fled to Rome; there St. Paul, meeting with him, became the means of his genuine conversion to Christianity; and having kept him some time, to be satisfied of the reality of his profession, sends him back to his master with this letter; which has always been admired for its delicacy of sentiment and masterly address, and may be considered as a fine model of epistolary writing. Nothing gives one a better idea of a man's character, than his letters to his private friends; and in this letter we have the picture of a wise and good man, and a zealous, generous friend; who knew how to condescend to men of low estate, and promote their temporal and spiritual welfare. But there is no reason for looking at this as a mere private letter; for it was all written with the apostle's own hand, (Phm 1:19) which was much more than that which he called the token in all his epistles, 2 Thessalonians 3:17. It has been universally received by the church of Christ as a part of the sacred canon. Whoever carefully reads it, will discern a great number of the doctrines and precepts of Christianity expressed or insinuated: for instance, first, in the religious view, or upon a spiritual account, all Christians are upon a level: Onesimus the slave, upon becoming a Christian, is the apostle's dear son, and Philemon's brother. Secondly, Christianity makes no alteration in men's civil affairs. Onesimus's temporal estate and condition was still the same. Thirdly, We should love, and do good unto all men; we should not contemn persons of low estate, nor disdain to help the meanest slave, when it is in our power. Fourthly, We should not utterly despair of those who are wicked, but should use our best endeavours to reclaim them: though Onesimus had wronged his master, and run away from him, the apostle attempted his conversion, among others, and succeeded under the blessing of God. Fifthly, Restitution is due, where an injury has been done, unless the injured party freely forgive; Philemon 1:18. Sixthty, We should be grateful to our benefactors, this St. Paul touches upon very delicately; Philemon 1:19. Seventhly, We should forgive the penitent, and be heartily reconciled to them. Eighthly, The apostle's example teaches us, to do all we can to make up quarrels and differences, and reconcile those who are at variance. Ninthly, A wise man chooses sometimes to address in a soft and obliging manner, even in cases where there is an authority to command: Titus 3:8-9. Tenthly, The bishops and pastors of the Christian church, and all teachers of religion, have here the most animating example set before them, to induce them to have a most tender regard to the souls of men, of all ranks and conditions; and to endeavour to convert a slave, as well as the rich, and great, and honourable of the earth. He who disdained not to teach a slave, a fugitive, and a thief, but preached the doctrine of salvation to him, and took pains with him, till he had restored him to his master an honest worthy man, and, what was infinitely more, had instrumentally led him into a state of adoption among the children of God.—How disinterested must he have been?—To whom would not he condescend?—Or whose salvation and happiness would he not endeavour to promote?—Would to God there was the same spirit in all the teachers of

Christianity, at all times, and in all places! Eleventhly, Here is a most glorious proof of the good effects of Christianity, where it is rightly understood, and sincerely embraced: it transforms a worthless slave and thief, into a holy, pious, virtuous, amiable, and useful man; makes him not only happier and better in himself, but a better servant, and better in all relations and circumstances whatsoever. See on Phm 1:25 and the Inferences.