the Fourth Week of Lent
Whedon's Commentary on the Bible Whedon's Commentary
by Daniel Whedon
THIS epistle is a beautiful pendant to Colossians. It is written from the same Roman prison, sent by the same messengers, to the same Asiatic city. Philemon is not greeted among the greeted Colossians, because he has an entire epistle devoted to himself and his. We know, therefore, the date and the circumstantials of this letter.
Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, of high qualifications, having run away from his master took refuge at Rome, and was there converted under the ministry of St. Paul. Nothing could be more forlorn than the condition, or more desperate than the associates, of a loose slave in the slums of the Roman capital; and as Onesimus was acquainted, doubtless, with Paul, at least by reputation, it was quite natural that the fugitive should take refuge with him, feel contrition for his sins, and accept the religion of the apostle and of his master. The apostle’s heart was deeply touched by the penitence of Onesimus, feeling for him a parental affection as a spiritual father, and realizing his future value in consequence of his conversion. This feeling of valuation is evinced by the fact that Paul named him, slave as he was, with honour in his Epistle to Colosse, as “a faithful and beloved brother.” He, nevertheless, foregoes the advantage of his ministry with himself at Rome, and sends him back to Philemon with this letter. As it is a great boon he is asking of Philemon nothing less than reception, pardon, and emancipation the letter tasks the strongest powers and deepest feelings of the apostle’s head and heart. He opens with a cordial greeting to Philemon and his associates; passes a high eulogy on the Christian character of his friend; earnestly supplicates that Onesimus may be received as a brother, not as a slave; indicates his hopes of his future usefulness; pledges himself to right all the wrong he had done; and implores Philemon, by his own spiritual debt of conversion, to receive Onesimus as he would Paul himself. Perfectly aware, as we are, that the current of commentators denies that St. Paul indicated emancipation, we see not the first good reason to doubt the fact. To suppose that it required all this energy of expostulation on the part of our great apostle to induce the devout and generous Philemon to receive his returned and converted fugitive without inflicting death, torture, or the branding iron, according to Roman law, is, on the face of it, to suppose him worse than a respectable heathen slaveholder. On the contrary, the reverse view throws a luminous beauty over the whole epistle. And in connexion with this should be taken the clear and more than ordinarily trustworthy traditions in regard to the honourable subsequent history of Onesimus. Says Alford: “In the apostolic Canons he is said to have been emancipated by his master, and in the apostolic Constitutions to have been ordained by Paul himself Bishop of Beraea in Macedonia, and to have suffered martyrdom in Rome. Niceph. A.E., 3:11. In the Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians, we read, chap. i, p. 645, ‘I have received, therefore, your whole community in the name of God, through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop in the flesh, whom I pray you by Jesus Christ you would love, and that you would all seek to be like him. And blessed be He who has granted unto you, being worthy, to obtain such a bishop.’ It is just possible that this may be our Onesimus. The earliest date which can be assigned to the martyrdom of Ignatius is A.D. 107; that is thirty-five years after the date of this epistle, supposing Onesimus to have then been only sixty-five. And even setting Ignatius’s death at the latest date, A.D. 116, we should still be far within the limits of possibility. It is at least singular that in chap. ii, p. 645, immediately after naming Onesimus, Ignatius proceeds, ‘I would be refreshed of you always.’ Compare Philippians 20.”
Eusebius classes this epistle among the unquestioned in antiquity, and it is quoted by Tertullian, Origen, and Jerome. The fact that, as noted on the first verse, it was addressed not only to Philemon but to the Church at his house, gave this epistle a churchly reading, (see on vol. iii, p. 5,) and thereby secured its publicity and its perpetuation in the New Testament canon. It has ever been held to be a rare specimen of the epistolary for its skilful address, its delicacy, and the depth of its Christianity.