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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Philemon 1

Verse 1

1. Prisoner of Jesus Christ Note on Ephesians 3:1. A playful parody here on his higher title of apostle of Christ. We may safely assume that St. Paul habitually applied this phrase to himself with genial pleasantry, while imprisoned, as a title at once of humility and honour. Bp. Wordsworth piquantly remarks, “There was some appropriateness in introducing himself as a ‘bondsman of Christ,’ in a letter where he pleads the cause of a bond-slave.” Timothy our (or, rather, the) brother. Timothy, when addressed by Paul, was a son; when named to others, was elevated to the style of brother.

Fellow labourer In noting St. Paul’s play upon the names of these friends, observe that Philemon means friendly, Archippus means cavalry captain, and Onesimus means profitable. Hence the first is his co-worker, the second is his fellow soldier, and the third was once (Philemon 1:11) unprofitable. Cowper, the poet, rebuking the witticisms of clergymen, places St. Paul before them as a model of perpetual seriousness; giving them leave, if they can find one playful passage in his writings, to preach jokes forever. The pleasantries of this epistle suggest that Cowper’s taste was slightly over-puritanical, and give us the idea that, in his circle of private friends, St. Paul, while holding his apostleship ever visible in the background, was often a cheery companion. Genial pleasantry, avoiding broad levity, vulgarity, indecency, and malignity, is an amiable and Christian quality. It is healthful to mind and body, takes repulsiveness from piety, and sheds a rightful happiness around the circle. How, where, and when Philemon had been Paul’s fellow labourer, is unknown. It is not clear that Paul had ever been at Colosse; but Philemon may have been his convert, and subsequent assistant in establishing Christianity in the neighbouring city of Ephesus.

Verse 2

2. Apphia The Roman name Appia; doubtless designating Philemon’s wife. Tradition honours her as a martyr with her husband.

Archippus Signifying “master of horse,” and so Paul’s fellow soldier. This heroic title confirms the belief that Colossians 4:17 (where see note) was a word of cheer to him, and not of reproof.

Church in thy house Notes on Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; and Colossians 4:15. From the last passage it is certain that there were at least two house-churches in Colosse. Probably there were several, each with its own churchly organization, and collectively forming the Church of Colosse addressed by St. Paul’s epistle. A number of house-congregations would require several sets of elders and deacons; which would naturally require a president-presbyter or bishop for the city, including suburbs. A wealthier member supplied a room, or, perhaps, the court of his house; and his home became a “meeting-house,” a “church.” The Greek commentator, Theodoret, fifth century, says: “Philemon was a citizen of Colossae, and his house still remains in that city.” Its double character as church and residence might render it memorable and traditional. Though the matter of Onesimus was personal between St. Paul and Philemon alone, yet it would possess an interest for the entire coterie that met for worship in Philemon’s court. An epistle from the great apostle, and glad news from the fugitive Onesimus, would raise a stir in the hearts of the little band, and form rich topic for listening ears and praying lips.

Verse 4

4. My God Note, Acts 27:23. Always qualifies thank.

Verse 5

5. Hearing This participle is, in the Greek, a continuous present; constantly hearing, and so moved to make mention of you in my prayers. Thanks for his convert’s present piety prompted prayer for his higher spiritual attainments. Philemon, he heard, manifested faith, not only toward the Lord Jesus, but he manifested his faith in Jesus toward all saints.

Verse 6

6. That Depending on prayers in last verse, showing for what St. Paul prayed in Philemon’s behalf.

Communication Rather, communion, or common sharing with others in some one interest.

Thy faith Greek, the faith, showing the interest in which the communion was. Render the phrase thus: The communion of the faith.

You The proper reading is us, referring to the body of participators in the common faith.

Acknowledging Rather, knowing by experience, or experiencing. In us depends upon experiencing. Render the whole: That thy sharing of the faith may be efficient in (or to) the experiencing in us of all that is good, unto (the glory of) Christ Jesus.

Verse 7

7. Bowels A term thrice used in this epistle. Because the bowels are very sensitive to our deep emotions, and are a central part of the man, the term is used to signify our strongest affections and movements of feeling.

The saints Not only of Colosse, but of other parts, visiting and entertained at Philemon’s hospitable home.

Brother Emphatic, from final position in the paragraph, as it is the last word in the Greek of the Epistle to the Galatians.

Verse 8

Request for the kind reception of Onesimus, Philemon 1:8-21.

8. Wherefore The request is made in view of the high Christian character of Philemon, as described in the preceding paragraph.

Enjoin thee Paul holds his apostolic authority in reserve, lest he deprive Philemon of the honour of doing the noble thing freely, and from the fountain of his own Christian feeling.

Convenient An obsolete sense of the word for the becoming, the befitting, the suitable to thy Christian character. And, for the Christian, the highest befitting is the highest right, pure, generous, and magnanimous. Philemon must do the befitting to the high picture Paul has given of him.

Verse 9

9. Being such Alford, and others of the best class of commentators, place a period before being, a comma after such, and a comma after Christ. The following as, then, does not correspond with such; and such refers to Paul as being entitled to enjoin, as above. Being such, (as might enjoin thee,) being Paul the aged, being also Christ’s prisoner for these three motives he does beseech. He is thus triply a supplicator for Onesimus, placing his own personality as pleader in front of his client.

The aged The veneration for his own age, for his long antecedents of toils, imprisonments, and martyrdoms, must plead for Onesimus. Paul was “a young man” at the martyrdom of St. Stephen, (Acts 7:58,) but as he was then clothed by the Sanhedrin with plenary authorities, and was himself a member of the Sanhedrin, he was, probably, not less than thirty years of age. Supposing this to have been A.D. 37, and the letter to Philemon A.D. 63, Paul must now be near sixty. But bearing the weight of only sixty years, he bore the load of a life of labours and excitements, and the prestige of a great history, so as to have possessed the venerability of near seventy. But his age of sixty would imply that Philemon, from whom St. Paul claims the deference due to age, was a much younger man, so that Archippus could hardly have been, as some commentators suggest, his son.

Verse 10

10. My son Onesimus The Greek order of words is, for my son, whom I have begotten in my bonds Onesimus. The English order loses the reluctant delay of Paul to mention to Philemon the offensive name of the culpable runaway. The reader will trace the skill of Paul in his progressive approach to this point from the beginning of his epistle. Philemon, as he reads along, is led through a train of soothing preparatories, the object of which he does not suspect until he reaches this central word. All the circuitous prelude is in behalf of Paul’s own bond-begotten son.

Verse 11

11. Unprofitable A play upon the name Onesimus, which signifies profitable.

Verse 12

12. Sent again Sent back to thee. If all slaves sent back had been sent with a like spirit and result, a “fugitive slave law” might have been almost a Christian institution. The phrase thou therefore receive, is a reading of doubtful authority.

Own bowels My own soul and vitals. There is no allusion to paternity in the words.

Verse 13

13. In thy stead His ministry to Paul would not, therefore, be a servile one a waiting on the apostle’s bodily wants but such a ministry as Philemon would have rendered, namely, aid in the Gospel. Slavery in ancient times often held cultured men in its bonds. Tyro, the bondsman of Cicero, was a literary aid to the orator. And there is quite a probability that Onesimus was a more competent apostolic assistant than Philemon. This accounts, in some degree, both for St. Paul’s profound interest in his case, and for the traditions of his subsequent episcopate. The service was such a subordinate ministry as John Mark, and Timothy in his early days, rendered to Paul.

Verse 14

14. Without thy mind… willingly The same reserve as above, both as apostle and spiritual father, leaving to Philemon the chance of a free-will obedience.

Verse 15

15. Departed… season… for ever A beautiful apologetic for the fugitive. He sinned, but even his sins are divinely overruled and transformed into an instrument for the good of you both.

For ever A word suggestive of an immortal fellowship, and so intimating that it does not imply a perpetual servitude.

Verse 16

16. Not now Literally, no longer as a slave, but above a slave; words obviously signifying, both negatively and positively, an end of the serfdom. To be no longer as a slave, is to cease to be a slave; and to be above a slave, is to be out of a servile rank. This view is slightly diminished by the as, but that word is used to soften the boldness of his asking the abdication, by Philemon, of a legal right. We cannot believe that Paul uses so much solicitude to secure a mere receiving and exempting from torture of a penitent slave by a deeply Christian man. A short time previously to this, Paul’s attention was called to the atrocity of Roman slavery by a notorious public event. The prefect, or “mayor,” of Rome was murdered by one of his slaves, and the whole body of his slaves, embracing a large multitude, including women and children, were publicly slaughtered, in obedience to Roman law.

It may not be the duty of a Christian living in the centre of a slave-holding country, to manumit his slaves; but it is a public sin, in a Christian republic, to maintain a system of slavery, and it is a personal sin in every individual citizen not to use his voice, vote, and influence to do away the system.

Brother… to me Although humanly there had been but a transient relation, yet divinely there was a divine tie between the apostle and his convert.

Specially As my bondage-begotten son.

In the flesh… Lord The human and the divine tie. The human tie is not perpetuated slavery, as commentators pervert the words in the flesh. Onesimus forgiven, emancipated, a bishop, would be humanly most dear to his former master and benefactor; divinely dear as a fellow-labourer in the Gospel. That commentators should cut off, by a series of exegetic violences, a view so obvious and so infinitely more worthy of Paul, of Philemon, and of the Gospel, looks like one-sidedness.

Verse 17

17. As myself Not merely receive him, but receive him as me. Which, of course, does not mean clap the fetters on him again, whether of servile iron or of Roman law; but receive him as a brother, a Christian, and a Christian minister a partner.

Verse 18

18. If A word interposed to soften the positiveness of the charge.

If he hath wronged thee By theft or embezzlement, as he had, doubtless, confessed to Paul.

Or oweth thee aught If there is any pecuniary loss which he should make good in order to emancipation.

Put… mine account St. Paul will square it up.

Verse 19

19. Mine own hand It is unreasonable to suppose, as some commentators do, that Paul took up his stilus and wrote solely this sentence. He may be supposed to have written so brief an epistle with his own hand. And this emphatic mine own hand constitutes a good promissory note, that if Philemon cannot bear the pecuniary loss resulting from pardon, amnesty, and emancipation, I Paul will.

Albeit A slight stay against Philemon’s enforcing the promissory note.

Owest… thine own self And so art bound to what my request and thy duty inspire thee to do.

Verse 20

20. Yea, brother Earnestly and repetitively emphasizing the request.

Refresh Rather, αναπαυσον , compose; stop the anxious commotion of my bowels, my emotions.

Verse 21

21. I wrote As if speaking to Philemon at the moment of his reading this letter.

More than I say Will interpret my softened requests to their fullest meaning, and do even more than I say; will render Onesimus every Christian aid to every Christian duty, looking to a hopeful future. Here (as Dr. Hackett in Lange quotes) Alford, De Wette, Bleek, and others, recognise an allusion to emancipation not before expressed. It is a much richer construing of the whole epistle, to say that this is an allusion to something more than the emancipation already repeatedly but delicately expressed.

Verse 22

Personal Conclusion, Philemon 1:22-25.

22. Withal Literally, But at the same time.

Prepare… lodging A mandate, given with the authority of an apostle, and still more the confidence of a friend who knew that his coming was an object of earnest prayers.

A lodging Which explains Philemon’s hospitality in Philemon 1:7.

Verse 23

23. Epaphras Abbreviated form of Epaphroditus, as Luke of Lucanus. See our life of Luke, vol. ii, p. 11. Perhaps the same person as mentioned Philippians 2:25; Philippians 4:18. The fact of both being with Paul at Rome during his imprisonment indicates this; nor does it at all contradict this sameness, as Dr. Hackett seems to think, that he was part of the time, as it here appears, in prison there. It is also not here said that he belongs in Colosse, and so does not contradict the statement that he really belonged to Philippi. We are not to suppose two persons where one is amply sufficient to fulfil all the conditions of the two.

Verse 24

24. Marcus The evangelist. See his life, prefixed to his gospel in our vol. 1 .

Aristarchus Note Acts 19:29.

Demas Abbreviated form of Demetrius. See notes Colossians 4:14 and 2 Timothy 4:10.

Lucas Luke the evangelist.

Verse 25

25. Your In the plural, indicating that the benediction included all in the greeting of Philemon 1:1-3.

Spirit More solemn than you simply, as it is with the spirit of man that the Spirit of God communes.

The superscription, though not written by Paul, is ancient, and, unlike some of the superscriptions, correct.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Philemon 1". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.