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Notes on

Philemon

2017 Edition

Dr. Thomas L. Constable

 

Introduction

 

Historical background

 

Philemon appears to have been a comparatively wealthy Colossian who owned slaves, as did most of the rich in his day. As many as a third of the inhabitants of most large urban centers, including Rome, would have been slaves, who, in the Roman Empire, were more like household servants in Victorian Britain than like slaves in antebellum North America.[1] One writer claimed that about one third of the populations of Greece and Italy were slaves.[2]

 

Philemon evidently came to faith in Christ as a result of Paul's influence (v. 19), perhaps when Paul was residing at Ephesus. Onesimus was one of Philemon's slaves, and he was probably a native Phrygian. He ran away from his master, perhaps not because Philemon treated him cruelly, but because he dealt with him graciously, by giving him unusual freedom. Onesimus may have been a runaway slave, or he may simply have been involved in some domestic trouble with Philemon.[3] He eventually made his way to Rome, where he could have hidden in the crowd. There, as a result of divine providence, he came into contact with Paul and became a Christian (v. 10).

 

Following his conversion, Onesimus became a valuable helper of the apostle (v. 11). Paul desired to keep Onesimus with him, but felt a greater responsibility to return the slave to his Christian master (vv. 13-14). Onesimus needed to make things right with Philemon, whom he had wronged. Paul and Onesimus both knew the danger the slave faced in returning, since slave owners had absolute authority over their slaves, and often treated them as property rather than as people.[4]

 

Paul wrote this brief, 25-verse appeal, to pacify Philemon, and to effect reconciliation between the slave and his master. His other purposes were: to commend Philemon for showing compassion to other believers (vv. 1-7), to announce his plans to visit Philemon following his anticipated release (vv. 8-22), and to send greetings from his associates (vv. 23-25). The only disputers of Pauline authorship have been members of the Tübingen School.[5]

 

". . . Philemon provides insight both into the social realities of ancient society, in this case the relations between master and slave, which is surpassed only by 1 Corinthians, and into the way in which influence was brought to bear within the earliest churches between parties of differing social status."[6]

 

"Nowhere is the social influence of the Gospel more strikingly exerted; nowhere does the nobility of the Apostle's character receive a more vivid illustration than in this accidental pleading on behalf of a runaway slave."[7]

 

Paul probably addressed the epistle to Apphia, Archippus, and the church that was meeting in Philemon's house, in order to rally the support of other Christians to encourage Philemon in his Christian responsibility.

 

When Paul sent Tychicus with his epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, Onesimus probably went with him. Paul intended that this letter, along with Tychicus' personal entreaty for Onesimus, would secure the slave's forgiveness and acceptance. Since Paul evidently sent this letter along with the Epistle to the Colossians, as a comparison of the two documents suggests, he probably wrote them in Rome at the same time (60-62 A.D.). Furthermore, the same persons were with Paul when he wrote his letter to the Colossians, namely: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Luke, and Demas (vv. 23-24; cf. Col. 4:10, 12, 14).

 

E. J. Goodspeed suggested that the "Epistle to Philemon" is the same as the lost letter to the Loadiceans, that Paul mentioned in Colossians 4:16.[8] John Knox agreed with Goodspeed but believed Archippus lived in Colosse, owned Onesimus, and received this epistle.[9] The views of neither of these influential commentators have overthrown the majority opinion that I have expressed above. Some commentators believed Paul wrote this epistle from Ephesus.[10] But this too is a minority view.

 

Outline

 

I.          Greeting VV. 1-3

II.         Thanksgiving and prayer for Philemon VV. 4-7

III.       Plea for Onesimus VV. 8-21

 

A.        Paul's appeal vv. 8-11

B.        Paul's motives vv. 12-16

C.        Paul's request v. 17

D.        Paul's offer vv. 18-20

E.         Paul's confidence v. 21

 

IV.       Concluding matters VV. 22-25

 

Message

 

As is true of so many of the shorter Bible books, this one too is an illustration (cf. Ruth and Esther). Philemon, in particular, illustrates the outworking in life of the great doctrines taught in the other Pauline writings, especially the other Prison Epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. In Philemon, there are pictures of individuals, pictures of social relationships, pictures of Christian doctrine, and pictures of ethical obedience.

 

Note first the pictures of individuals.

 

"Paul" is the first main individual in Philemon. This letter reveals much about Paul's character. We see him here as a man triumphing over circumstances (vv. 1, 9). Paul behaved supernaturally by Christ's power in him. He was a prisoner in Rome. He may have felt frustrated as he sought to fulfill his calling as a pioneer missionary. However, he viewed himself as "Christ's prisoner." He was where he was by Christ's appointment. Fellowship with Christ enables one to triumph over circumstances.

 

We also see Paul triumphing over the temptation to flaunt personal authority (vv. 8-9). Paul had the authority to command as an apostle, but he chose instead to beseech ("appeal") in love. This is how God deals with us (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; 2 Cor. 5:20). This is how love behaves.

 

Paul also triumphed over personal wishes. Paul's personal preference was to keep Onesimus with him (v. 13, "I wished"). Nevertheless, he let what he knew to be right overrule his preference (v. 14, "I did not want"). He did what was best for all concerned, not just what he wanted. Paul's great intellect and extreme devotion to the Lord often come to mind when we think of him. But the qualities of character illustrated in Philemon are most profound. They show the supernatural work of Christ in his life. So all in all, Paul's life illustrated the triumph of Christianity in those three ways.

 

"Onesimus" is the second individual pictured in Philemon. His name literally means "Useful" (v. 11). In his example, we see the radical change that God works in any life that He regenerates. What was unprofitable became profitable. What was waste, God made valuable. God can so change any life that it becomes something far different from what it was or what we might expect it to become.

 

"Philemon" is the third individual pictured (vv. 5, 7). Two principles governed Philemon: faith and love. "Faith" in the Lord should result in "love" for the saints. This is what God desires to produce in every Christian.

 

This epistle also contains illustrations of social relationships.

 

Paul's relationship with Philemon illustrates what "love seeks not its own" (1 Cor. 13:5) means (v. 14). If Philemon had responded out of necessity, it would have been good, but if he responded out of his own free will, it would be better. Paul desired the best for Philemon. Paul was always seeking to develop the best in others, and so should we.

 

Paul's relationship with Onesimus pictures what "love bears all things" (1 Cor. 13:7) means (v. 18). Paul acted like a roof over Onesimus' head, sheltering his friend beneath. That is the relationship Christ desires to create between people (cf. Gal. 6:2; 1 Pet. 4:8).

 

The relationship between Onesimus and Philemon shows what "love suffers long ('is patient') and is kind" (1 Cor. 13:4) means (vv. 16-17). Onesimus was willing to go back to Philemon, in order to accept the consequences for his actions and to fulfill his obligations, because of Christ's work in him. Furthermore, Philemon was able to receive the runaway slave kindly and graciously, because of Christ's work in him. Reconciliation is a painful process sometimes, but it is very important.

 

The relationship between the Christians in the church that met in Philemon's house demonstrates what "love never fails" (1 Cor. 13:8) means (v. 2). When one member suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice. When one repents, all repent and receive the errant back. When one forgives, all forgive and enter into greater unity than ever before. The picture of this runaway slave being received back into the church, as a brother and partner with all, is the ideal of the church. All walk together in common life, common light, and common love. Acceptance after repentance is also important. Love does not keep a record of offenses. Unfortunately, some Christians do.

 

This epistle also contains illustrations of Christian doctrine.

 

Paul's plan that Philemon would accept Onesimus, in the same way he would accept Paul, illustrates the doctrine of our acceptance in Christ (v. 17). Even though we have offended God, He accepts us as He accepts His own Son, because Christ stands behind us. He is our Sponsor.

 

Paul's offer to Philemon, to charge Onesimus' debt to Paul's account, illustrates the doctrine of God imputing our guilt to Christ (v. 18). Christ volunteered to pay our debt of sin in our place. He is our Substitute.

 

Paul's reminder of what Philemon owed him, because God's grace had reached Philemon through Paul, illustrates the doctrine of the obligation imposed on every recipient of Christ's grace (v. 19). Because Christ has brought us God's grace, we have an obligation to obey Christ (Rom. 12:1-2). He is our Sovereign.

 

How does Philemon (book and character) illustrate the great ethical obedience emphases of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians?

 

This epistle illustrates what it means to "be filled with the Spirit," the great command in Ephesians (5:18). It also illustrates what it means to "be controlled by the mind (attitude) of Christ," the great command in Philippians (2:5). Furthermore it illustrates what it means to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly," the great command in Colossians (3:16). Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus illustrated all these actions in this short epistle. All the necessary resources are in Christ.

 

Philemon teaches us that life in Christ changes every relationship. It also teaches us that our relationships to others test and demonstrate our relationship to Christ. It further teaches us that the transformation of the hearts of individuals can overcome social evils, such as slavery. We need this reminder today in view of rising crime rates, overcrowded prisons, and increasing lawlessness.

 

In view of this revelation, I would state the message of the book as follows: Life in Christ can and should change every relationship. The purpose of this book is to provide instruction regarding basic Christian conduct in interpersonal relationships.[11]

 

"The power of the Gospel and the noble character of St. Paul are the two notes sounded throughout [this epistle] . . ."[12]

 

 

Exposition

 

I. GREETING VV. 1-3

 

Paul began this letter by introducing himself and Timothy, by naming the recipients, and by wishing them God's grace and peace. He did so in order to clarify these essential matters, and to set the tone for his following remarks.

 

v. 1                  Paul described himself simply as "a prisoner of Jesus Christ (Christ Jesus)." He was in prison because he served Christ, and it was God's will for him to be there (cf. Rev. 1:9).

 

"As himself the Lord's bondsman he will plead for another bondsman whose story is the burden of this letter. In begging mercy for this bondsman he points to his own bonds. No less than six times in this brief letter does Paul make reference to his imprisonment (vv. 1, 9, 10, 13, 22, 23)."[13]

 

"He is not asking for a measure of sacrifice from Philemon, as one who knows nothing of sacrifice. He has forfeited his freedom for Christ's sake and so has a ground for appealing. This is a principle involved in any true pastoral work. The pastor can only appeal to his people for self-sacrifice and discipline if he himself knows the meaning of discipline in his own life. Otherwise his call is empty and lifeless."[14]

 

Paul probably did not refer to his apostleship this time, because of the personal nature of the appeal contained in this epistle. "Philemon" undoubtedly knew "Timothy" by reputation, if not personally. The mention of his name implies that Timothy agreed with Paul concerning what follows in the letter. Philemon's name does not appear elsewhere in Scripture.

 

v. 2                  "Apphia" was evidently a family member, probably Philemon's wife. Paul may have addressed her specifically, because normally the wife had the day-to-day responsibility for the household slaves.[15]

 

"Archippus" may have been their son,[16] or perhaps Philemon's physical brother, or his friend. He seems to have been old enough to be responsible for some kind of ministry (Col. 4:17). He may very well have been the leading man in the church that met in Philemon's house.[17] Paul also addressed the letter to the other Christians meeting with Philemon's family in their Colossian home (Col. 4:17).

 

"Christian congregations were dependent upon the hospitality of wealthy members who could furnish their own houses for this purpose. This note then contains an indication of the social status of Philemon. In a large city there would be several such assemblies. (Cf. Rom. 16:5, 10, 11, 14, 15.) Whether the church at Colossae had more than one place of assembly is not known. Probably they did."[18]

 

v. 3                  Paul's benediction is the same as the one in the Colossian epistle, except that he added the name of "the Lord Jesus Christ" here (cf. Col. 1:2). Perhaps Paul intended that this addition would remind the recipients (plural "you" in Greek) of their union in Christ, and of God's "grace" to them in Christ.

 

II. THANKSGIVING AND PRAYER FOR PHILEMON VV. 4-7

 

Paul commended Philemon for the fruit of the Spirit (his "love" and "faith" for Christ and "all the saints") that he permitted the Spirit to manifest in his life. He also prayed that Philemon's demonstration of love and faith would continue to abound, so that Philemon would be encouraged to respond to the request that follows in a manner consistent with God's will.

 

vv. 4-5                         "When Paul states he gave thanks 'continually' he means that he did not forget Philemon in his regular prayers . . ."[19]

 

"Again we should not regard this as mere literary flourish . . . . Paul must have had an extensive prayer list and presumably spent some time each day naming before God all his churches, colleagues, and supporters. This would help maintain and strengthen the sense of a faith shared with 'all the saints' (5-6)."[20]

 

Whenever Paul remembered Philemon in prayer, he gave thanks for him. Evidently his testimony had been consistently honoring to the Lord. The basis of this thanksgiving was Philemon's "love" and "faith." Reports of these qualities had undoubtedly reached Paul through Epaphras (Col. 1:7-8), and probably others as well. The objects of Philemon's love and faith were "all the saints" and "the Lord Jesus" (v. 5) respectively. The Greek construction is chiastic (cf. Eph. 1:15; Col. 1:4). That is, the first and fourth elements in verse 5 go together, as do the second and third. This construction emphasizes the unity of the entire thought: love for the saints grows out of faith in Christ.

 

v. 6                  We should probably understand Paul's prayer petition for Philemon to be that his sharing with others, which was an outgrowth of his faith, would become even more energetic (cf. Phil. 1:5; 2 Cor. 8:4). Paul would give him an opportunity shortly. This interpretation includes another possible interpretation, namely, that Christ might be increasingly visible through his life. As Philemon's appreciation of God's grace toward him grew ("the knowledge of every good thing which is in you"), he would naturally want to demonstrate more grace toward others in his interpersonal relationships ("the fellowship of your faith may become effective").[21] Paul had in mind Onesimus, particularly, as the special recipient of Philemon's demonstration of grace.

 

"In the present context epignosis ["knowledge"] conveys both the ideas of understanding and experience. The apostle's prayer was not simply that Philemon might understand or appreciate the treasures that belonged to him, but that he might also experience them."[22]

 

"In all the epistles of the Roman captivity St Paul's prayer for his correspondents culminates in this word epignosis . . . This epignosis is the result and the reward of faith manifesting itself in deeds of love . . ."[23]

 

v. 7                  Paul felt "much joy and comfort" as he heard of Philemon's "love." The Greek word translated "hearts" (splagchna) designates total personality at the deepest level.[24] Philemon had already demonstrated the kind of behavior that Paul was going to call on him to manifest again. Paul's request of Philemon would test his response. However, Paul was confident of Philemon's cooperation. He appealed to him on an equal level of authority: as a "brother" (cf. v. 2 where Paul called Apphia a "sister").

 

"Paul must have put Philemon in a precarious position indeed. In pleading for forgiveness and restitution for Onesimus without a punishment that was obvious to all, he was confronting the social and economic order head on. While he does not ask for manumission, even his request for clemency for Onesimus and hint of his assignment to Paul defied Roman tradition. By this plea Paul is also giving new dignity to the slave class."[25]

 

III. PLEA FOR ONESIMUS VV. 8-21

 

Paul appealed to Philemon to receive Onesimus back and to forgive him. The reason for this appeal was to enable Onesimus to fulfill his obligations to Philemon, and to encourage Philemon to benefit from Onesimus' conversion, rather than to be stumbled by it.

 

A. Paul's appeal vv. 8-11

 

v. 8                  Paul's "confidence" (Gr. parresia) was his assurance that if he commanded Philemon to do as he requested, since Paul had the authority of an apostle, Philemon would do it.

 

"The term parresia which literally means 'all speech' was used originally in the sphere of politics to signify the democratic right of a full citizen of a Greek city-state to speak out one's opinion freely. Later it was found as a characteristic of the relations between true friends in opposition to the feigned compliments of flatterers . . ."[26]

 

Paul declined to appeal to Philemon with a command (an "order"). Rather, he appealed on the basis of love (v. 9), the love of Christ that bound all the parties involved in this situation together.

 

"If a slave ran away, the master would register the name and description with the officials, and the slave would be on the 'wanted' list. Any free citizen who found a runaway slave could assume custody and even intercede with the owner. The slave was not automatically returned to the owner, nor was he automatically sentenced to death. While it is true that some masters were cruel (one man threw his slave into a pool of man-eating fish!), many of them were reasonable and humane. After all, a slave was an expensive and useful piece of personal property, and it would cost the owner to lose him."[27]

 

v. 9                  Paul perhaps referred to his aged condition ("Paul, the aged") to remind Philemon of the affliction he had undergone for the gospel, that may have aged him prematurely. Several commentators pointed out that "aged" or "old man" (Gr. presbytes) may have originally read "ambassador" (presbeutes, cf. Eph. 6:20), but there does not seem to be sufficient reason to amend the text. At this time, Paul would have been about 55 years old, which in his day was older than it is in ours, because life expectancies were shorter then. He appealed as a father for his son in the faith. His reference to his present imprisonment, also, would have encouraged Philemon to comply.

 

". . . Paul knew Philemon as modern commentators cannot and no doubt had a good idea of how Philemon was likely to react to such sentiments being read in public in the church of which he was a member as well as leader."[28]

 

This type of appeal would have had much greater force in the honor-shame culture, in which these people lived, than it does in our modern, western, power-weakness culture.

 

vv. 10-11         "Onesimus" means "useful." Paul mentioned his name here (v. 10) for the first time, having prepared Philemon for the unpleasant memories associated with his formerly unfaithful servant by the foregoing comments. He called Onesimus his "child." The figurative parent-child relationship was common in both Judaism and the pagan mystery religions as an illustration of the teacher-pupil relationship or the leader-convert relationship.[29]

 

"In addition to the tender love that is contained in this expression there lies in it the thought of immaturity: Onesimus is only a child as yet and in this condition needs much tender care lest his young spiritual life suffer or die."[30]

 

"This is the one-time self-righteous Pharisee, the heir of Jewish exclusiveness, and he is speaking of a Gentile, and a Gentile slave at that, from the very dregs of Roman society—yet he can refer to him as a son. So his statement (Col. iii. 11) that 'there is neither Greek nor Jew . . . bond or free' [Gal. 3:28] is no empty formula but reflects the attitude of heart to which he himself had been brought by God."[31]

 

"Scripture does not sanction slavery, but at the same time does not begin a political crusade against it. It sets forth principles of love to our fellow men which were sure (as they have done) in due time to undermine and overthrow it, without violently convulsing the then existing political fabric, by stirring up slaves against their masters."[32]

 

Paul had led Onesimus to Christ while Paul was in confinement. The apostle softened the unpleasantness that the mention of Onesimus' name would have produced by making a pun. "Useful" had been "useless" to Philemon, but now he was living up to his name. He had proved "useful" to Paul, and he could be "useful" to Philemon, too. There was no need for Paul to identify exactly what sin Onesimus had committed against Philemon. Instead of magnifying it he minimized it (cf. 1 Pet. 4:8).

 

"Achrestos ["useless"] designates Onesimus with reference to his flight and the time before his conversion. Apparently he was useless even before he ran away. He was a Phrygian slave and as such 'had confirmed the popular estimate of his class and nation by his own conduct'[33] since Phrygian slaves were proverbial for being unreliable and unfaithful."[34]

 

"(The name Philemon means 'affectionate' or 'one who is kind.' If the slave was expected to live up to his name, then what about the master?)"[35]

 

B. Paul's motives vv. 12-16

 

vv. 12-14         Onesimus had so endeared himself to Paul that his departure was an extremely painful prospect for the apostle ("I have sent . . . my very heart"). Paul could have justified keeping the slave with him, but he judged that Onesimus' obligation to return to his owner was more important. Furthermore, Paul did not really have authority over the slave; that rested with his master.

 

"By returning he [Onesimus] would place himself entirely at the mercy of the master whom he had wronged. Roman law, more cruel than Athenian, practically imposed no limits to the power of the master over his slave. The alternative of life or death rested solely with Philemon, and slaves were constantly crucified for far lighter offences than his."[36]

 

If Paul had kept Onesimus with him, Philemon would have felt obligated by his regard for Paul to let his slave stay with the apostle. The service Paul probably had in mind for Onesimus ("he might minister to me") was to proclaim the gospel, not to perform menial prison duties for Paul.[37] Nevertheless, Paul wanted Philemon to respond to his slave freely.

 

"The principle of consideration for others here manifested by Paul is a factor of vital importance today for effective Christian leadership. Many are the difficulties which might be avoided if those in places of authority in Christian work would follow Paul's example in this."[38]

 

"In the eastern part of the Roman Empire [including Asia Minor] during this period, fugitive slaves who sought sanctuary in a household were likely to be given temporary protection by the householder until either a reconciliation with the master had been effected or else the slave had been put up for sale in the market and the resulting price paid to the owner . . ."[39]

 

vv. 15-16         Paul suggested that God may have permitted the events that had taken place to result in greater good (Rom. 8:28), and he urged Philemon to view them in that light. The master should now regard his slave "not (no longer) as a slave," but as "a beloved brother" in Christ, which he was.[40] This does not mean that he would necessarily give Onesimus his freedom, though he might, but that he would treat him lovingly at least. It is possible that, when Paul wrote verse 15, he had in mind the Jewish law of the slave's voluntary return to his master in order to remain his servant "forever" (i.e., for the rest of his life; Deut. 15:16-17).[41]

 

"Lest Philemon should dislike Onesimus being called 'brother,' Paul first recognizes him as a brother, being the spiritual son of the same God."[42]

 

There is evidence that, long before Christianity, a slave who became an initiate into a mystery religion ceased to be regarded as a slave, but lived with his former owner as a free man.[43] In Onesimus, Philemon would receive one with whom he could share the fellowship of Christ, and one who would render him more conscientious service than he could expect from a non-Christian.

 

"The supreme work of Christianity is to transform men, so that out of their transformed lives shall come the transformation of all social conditions, and the victories of righteousness and of love."[44]

 

"The principles of the gospel worked into the conscience of a nation destroy slavery."[45]

 

"Christianity is not out to help a man to escape his past and to run away from it; it is out to enable a man to face his past and to rise above it."[46]

 

"It is quite clear that in this letter Paul is not really dealing with the question of slavery as such or the resolution of a particular instance of slavery. In this verse, at least, he treats the question of brotherly love. Although Onesimus' earthly freedom may be of positive value, in the last analysis it is of no ultimate significance to him as a Christian as to whether he is slave or free. Finally what matters is to have accepted God's call and to follow him . . ."[47]

 

C. Paul's request v. 17

 

Finally, Paul articulated his request. He based it on his relationship with Philemon as a Christian brother, "a partner" in union with Christ.

 

"Paul's term 'partner' must not be weakened to mean merely an intimate friend or companion. It suggests the fellowship or partnership of those who have common interests, common feelings, common work. It is a spiritual fellowship and has a double aspect, Godward as well as brotherward. It is the partnership of mutual Christian faith and life. It is upon Philemon's acceptance of this fellowship that Paul bases his appeal. The form of the conditional sentence assumes the reality of that fact. Philemon's refusal of Paul's request would be inconsistent with his acknowledgment of this partnership."[48]

 

One writer believed that fellowship is the major concept in this epistle.[49]

 

"Onesimus, in the lowest social status in the Roman world—a slave with no rights—was on a spiritual plane equal with his owner Philemon and with the leading apostle!"[50]

 

D. Paul's offer vv. 18-20

 

v. 18                Paul then hastened to remove a possible obstacle. Pilfering was common among slaves (cf. Titus 2:10). Paul seemed to be unaware of anything specific that Onesimus owed Philemon, but he offered to pay whatever might be indebted if such a condition existed. Onesimus may have stolen from Philemon ("if he . . . owes you anything").[51] Or he may simply have run away, and so caused his master inconvenience ("if he has done you any wrong").[52] "Charge that to my account" means the same as "impute it to me." Paul's offer is a beautiful illustration of biblical forgiveness based on imputation (cf. Rom. 5:13; 2 Cor. 5:21).[53]

 

"It is of interest to note that Paul was able and willing to pay Onesimus' debts. Every now and again we get glimpses which show that Paul was not without financial resources [sometimes; cf. Phil. 4:12; Acts 24:26; 28:30]."[54]

 

v. 19                Evidently Paul wrote this whole epistle with his "own hand," rather than through a secretary as was his custom.[55] Alternatively, Paul may have signed his name at this point, and then personally written out this guarantee.[56] Paul reminded Philemon of his own debt to the apostle (v. 19). Apparently Philemon had become a Christian through Paul's ministry, either directly or indirectly.

 

The phrase in parentheses in this verse is a rhetorical device called paraleipsis. In it, a writer states that he is reluctant to say something ("not to mention to you that . . .") that he does, nevertheless, say. It is a way of inserting information delicately.[57] "Not to mention to you that . . ." means "Not to stress the fact that . . ."[58]

 

v. 20                By receiving and forgiving Onesimus, Philemon would be repaying Paul and encouraging him. Another play on words occurs with the Greek word translated "benefit," which is the root word for "Onesimus." One writer rendered this clause, "Let me get help as well as you get Helpful."[59] As Philemon had refreshed the hearts of the saints (v. 7), so Paul asked him to "refresh" his own (Paul's) "heart," by forgiving and accepting Onesimus.

 

E. Paul's confidence v. 21

 

"Obedience" is a strong word to use to describe acquiescence to a request from a friend. Perhaps by using it, Paul indirectly reminded Philemon of his apostolic authority. Doing "even more than" Paul requested probably implied Philemon's wholehearted, enthusiastic acceptance of Onesimus, rather than just compliance with the letter of Paul's request.

 

"Freedom of slaves, like all freedom, must come from the heart of Christ-inspired men. Under this compulsion, slavery must ultimately wilt and die. That it took so long for it to do so, that slavery was practiced by many Christians in America until the Civil War ended it, that it is still, in one form or another, in the world today—these humbling facts show the tenacity of socially entrenched sin and the failure of Christendom to deal with it. While all ethical behavior for Christians should arise out of love, rather than regulation or constraint, yet it takes fully committed disciples to put it into practice."[60]

 

"Paul has been criticized for not denouncing slavery in plain terms. But, when one considers the actual conditions in the Roman empire, he is a wise man who can suggest a better plan than the one pursued here for the ultimate overthrow of slavery."[61]

 

"As we read between the lines it seems best to interpret the 'more' as a desire of the apostle for Onesimus to be returned to him for the service of the gospel . . ."[62]

 

Matthew Henry cited 14 arguments, that Paul used in verses 8 through 21, to convince Philemon to receive and forgive Onesimus:[63]

 

1.       Philemon's love for all the saints (v. 8)

2.       Paul's authority (v. 8)

3.       The basis of Paul's appeal being love, rather than authority (v. 9)

4.       Paul's age and his condition as a prisoner (v. 9)

5.       Paul's spiritual relationship to Onesimus (v. 10)

6.       Philemon's own interest (v. 11)

7.       Paul's love for Onesimus (v. 12)

8.       Paul's self-denial in parting with Onesimus (vv. 13-14)

9.       The assurance that Onesimus would not run away again (v. 15)

10.      Onesimus' relationship to Philemon as his spiritual brother (v. 16)

11.      Onesimus' identification with Paul (v. 17)

12.      Paul's promise to pay Onesimus' debt to Philemon (vv. 18-19)

13.      The joy that Paul would receive by Philemon's acquiescence (v. 20)

14.      Paul's good opinion of Philemon (v. 21)

 

IV. CONCLUDING MATTERS VV. 22-25

 

v. 22                Paul expected release from his house arrest in Rome soon (cf. Acts 23:29; 24:13; 25:25-27; 26:31-32; Phil. 2:24). This happened, but we have no record that Paul did or did not fulfill his desire to visit Philemon. The prospect of this visit would have motivated Philemon even more to accept Onesimus. Paul believed the "prayers" of the Christians in Philemon's church could result in his being released.

 

"Paul held that prayer had an objective as well as a subjective value. He believed in prayer as a mighty working force in the spiritual universe. As such he sought and valued the prayers of others on his behalf, and he himself faithfully exercised such intercession for the saints."[64]

 

vv. 23-24         "Epaphras" was the evangelist of the Lycus Valley, and a leading man in the church at Colosse, probably the leading pastor (Col. 1:7; cf. Phil. 2:25). He was probably not in prison with Paul (Col. 1:8; cf. 4:10). "Fellow prisoner" is more likely a figurative expression referring to the Christian's spiritual warfare. Another view is that he simply resided in the same house, in Rome with Paul, who was the prisoner.[65] Paul mentioned his other four companions—"Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke"—also in Colossians 4:10 and 14.

 

v. 25                The final benediction is typical of Paul. The "your" is plural in the Greek text and refers to the whole church in Philemon's house. This is the only occurrence of pneuma ("spirit") in the epistle, and it clearly refers to the human spirit.

 

What happened as a result of this letter? Did Philemon forgive Onesimus? We have no direct record of his response to this letter. However, the fact that Philemon preserved this epistle and allowed it to circulate among the churches, strongly suggests that he did behave as Paul had requested. In Colossians 4:9, Paul referred to Onesimus as "our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number," which would have encouraged reception of him in Colosse. According to Christian tradition, Onesimus later became bishop of Ephesus.[66] However, another "Onesimus" may have been this bishop.[67] Later church legends also identified Philemon as bishop of Berea,[68] and bishop of Colosse.[69]

 

Paul's bringing pressures of various kinds to bear on Philemon, to respond as he requested, while verbally appealing in humble terms, has created problems for some students of this epistle. Was Paul being manipulative? Was he guilty of emotional blackmail? I do not think so. It would have been obvious to Philemon, as it is to us, that Paul definitely wanted a certain response to this letter. Nevertheless, it would have been equally clear that Paul was making his appeal on the basis of love, rather than apostolic authority. Motivation promotes the self-interest of the hearer, but manipulation promotes the self-interest of the speaker.

 

"Those who see in Paul's earlier appeal a form of emotional manipulation should also acknowledge here [in v. 14] that Paul in effect confesses his vulnerability and complete dependence on Philemon's goodwill. In the social relationships of a church existing in an unequal society there is a particular responsibility on the part of the powerful to act toward others in a spirit of goodness rather than standing on their rights."[70]

 

It is not inconsistent with love to motivate by pointing out obligations, opportunities, and consequences.[71]

 

 

Bibliography

 

Alford, Henry. The Greek Testament. 4 vols. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, n. d.

Bailey, Mark L., and Thomas L. Constable. The New Testament Explorer. Nashville: Word Publishing Co., 1999. Reprinted as Nelson's New Testament Survey. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.

Barclay, William. The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon. The Daily Study Bible series. 2nd ed Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1962.

Barker, G. W., W. L. Lane, and J. R. Michaels. The New Testament Speaks. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Baxter, J. Sidlow. Explore the Book. 6 vols. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1965.

Bock, Darrell L. "A Theology of Paul's Prison Epistles." In A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, pp. 299-331. Edited by Roy B. Zuck. Chicago: Moody Press, 1994.

Bruce, F. F. Paul. Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977.

Caird, G. B. Paul's Letters from Prison. New Clarendon Bible series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Carson, Donald A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Carson, Herbert M. The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.

Conybeare, William John, and John Saul Howson. The Life and Epistles of St. Paul. London: n.p., 1851; New ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.

Darby, John Nelson. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible. 5 vols. Revised ed. New York: Loizeaux Brothers Publishers, 1942.

Deibler, Edwin C. "Philemon." In Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, pp. 769-75. Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, Victor Books, 1983.

Dunn, James D. G. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary series. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and Carlisle, England: Paternoster Press, 1996.

Ellis, E. Earle. "The Epistle to Philemon." In The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, pp. 1397-99. Edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible series. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Foster, Harry. "'For Love's Sake'." Toward the Mark 12:5 (September-October 1983):97-100.

Gaebelein, Arno C. The Annotated Bible. 4 vols. Reprint ed. Chicago: Moody Press, and New York: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1970.

Goodspeed, E. J. The Key to Ephesians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. By. C. G. Wilke. Revised by C. L. Wilibald Grimm. Translated, revised and enlarged by Joseph Henry Thayer, 1889.

Gromacki, Robert G. Stand Perfect in Wisdom: An Exposition of Colossians and Philemon. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. 3 vols. 2nd ed. London: Tyndale Press, 1966.

Hanson, Craig L. "A Greek Martyrdom Account of St. Onesimus." Greek Orthodox Theological Review 22:3 (Fall 1977):319-39.

Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Philippians and Exposition of Colossians and Philemon. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.

Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible. One volume ed. Edited by Leslie F. Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1961.

Hiebert, D. Edmond. Titus and Philemon. Moody Colportage Library series. Chicago: Moody Press, 1957.

Ironside, Harry A. Timothy, Titus and Philemon. Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1967.

Jamieson, Robert; A. R. Fausset; and David Brown. Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961.

Kent, Homer A., Jr. Treasures of Wisdom: Studies in Colossians & Philemon. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978.

Knox, John. Philemon among the Letters of Paul. New York: Abingdon, 1959.

Lange, John Peter, ed. Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. 12 vols. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960. Vol. 11: Galatians-Hebrews, by Otto Schmoller, Karl Braune, C. A. Auberlen, C. J. Riggenbach, J. J. Van Oosterzee, and Carl Bernhard Moll. Translated by C. C. Starbuck, M. B. Riddle, Horatio B. Hackett, John Lillie, E. A. Washburn, E. Harwood, George E. Day, and A. C. Kendrick.

Lenski, Richard C. H. The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon. Reprint ed. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1964.

Lightfoot, J. B. Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. Reprint ed. London: Macmillan and Co., 1892.

Lohse, Eduard. "Colossians and Philemon." In Hermeneia. Trans. by Poehlmann and Karris. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

Maclaren, Alexander. The Expositor's Bible. Vol. 6. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1947.

Martin, Ralph P. Colossians and Philemon. New Century Bible Commentery series. 3rd edition. London: Oliphants, and Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981.

McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee. 5 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Thru The Bible Radio; and Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1983.

McNeile, A. H. An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament. 2nd ed. revised by C. S. C. Williams. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

Morgan, G. Campbell. Living Messages of the Books of the Bible. 2 vols. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1912.

Moule, C. F. D. The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon. Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary series. Reprint ed. Cambridge: University Press, 1962.

Moule, Handley C. G. Colossian and Philemon Studies. London: Pickering and Inglis, Ltd., n.d.

Müller, Jacobus J. The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon. New International Commentary on the New Testament series. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955.

The Nelson Study Bible. Edited by Earl D. Radmacher. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997.

The NET (New English Translation) Bible. First beta printing. Spokane, Wash.: Biblical Studies Press, 2001.

O'Brien, Peter T. Colossians, Philemon. Word Biblical Commentary series. Waco: Word Books, 1982.

Oesterley, W. E. "The Epistle to Philemon." In The Expositor's Greek Testament. 4 (1910):205-17. 4th ed. Edited by W. Robertson Nicoll. London: 5 vols. Hodder and Stoughton, 1900-12.

Osiek, Carolyn. "Slavery in the New Testament World." The Bible Today 22:3 (May 1984):151-55.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. "For Love's Sake; Part III: An Exposition of Philemon 8-11." Bibliotheca Sacra 129:516 (October-December 1972):344-51.

_____. "Grace for the Sinner; Part II: An Exposition of Philemon 4-7." Bibliotheca Sacra 129:515 (July-September 1972):218-25.

_____. "Paul the Prisoner; Part I: And Exposition of Philemon." Bibliotheca Sacra 129:514 (April-June 1972):134-41.

_____. "Studies in Philemon; Part IV: Charge That to My Account." Bibliotheca Sacra 130:517 (January-March 1973):50-57.

_____. "Studies in Philemon; Part V: The Obedience of a Son." Bibliotheca Sacra 130:518 (April-June 1973):164-70.

_____. "Studies in Philemon; Part VI: Able to Keep You." Bibliotheca Sacra 130:519 (July-September 1973):250-57.

Robertson, Archibald Thomas. Word Pictures in the New Testament. 6 vols. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931.

Rupprecht, Arthur A. "Philemon." In Ephesians-Philemon. Vol. 11 of The Expositor's Bible Commentary. 12 vols. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.

Schenck, Charles L., Jr. "Paul's Epistle on Human Rights." His 26:8 (May 1966):1-4.

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich. Translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. 1964-76 ed. 10 vols. S.v. splagchnon, by Helmut Köster, 7(1971):548-59.

Thiessen, Henry Clarence. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962.

Vincent, Marvin R. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians and to Philemon. International Critical Commentary series. 1897; reprint ed., Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1972.

Webb, William J. Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary. 2 vols. Wheaton: Scripture Press, Victor Books, 1989.

 



[1]James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, pp. 252 and 302; G. W. Barker, W. L. Lane, and J. R. Michaels, The New Testament Speaks, p. 211. He estimated that

[2]See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, pp. 25-33, for an excursus on slavery in antiquity.

[3]Ibid., pp. 17-19.

[4]See Arthur A. Rupprecht, " Philemon," in Ephesians-Philemon, vol. 11 of The Expositor's Bible Commentary, p. 460.

[5]Donald A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 589.

[6]Dunn, p. 299.

[7]J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, p. 301.

[8]E. J. Goodspeed, The Key to Ephesians, pp. xiv-xvi.

[9]John Knox, Philemon among the Letters of Paul, pp. 91-108.

[10]E.g., Fitzmyer, p. 11.

[11]Adapted from G. Campbell Morgan, Living Messages of the Books of the Bible, 2:2:91-104.

[12]W. E. Oesterley, "The Epistle to Philemon," in The Expositor's Greek Testament, 4:07.

[13]D. Edmond Hiebert, Titus and Philemon, p. 88.

[14]Herbert M. Carson, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon, p. 104.

[15]Rupprecht, p. 458.

[16]Jacobus J. Müller, The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon, p. 174; William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Colossians and Philemon, p. 210.

[17]Oesterley, 4:211. Cf. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, p. 1907.

[18]Hiebert, p. 94.

[19]Peter T. O'Brien, Colossians, Philemon, p. 277.

[20]Dunn, p. 316.

[21]See Homer A. Kent Jr., Tresures of Wisdom: Studies in Colossians & Philemon, pp. 163-64.

[22]O'Brien, pp. 280-81.

[23]Lightfoot, p. 334.

[24]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. splagchnon, et al., by H. Köster, 7 (1971):555.

[25]Rupprecht, p. 460.

[26]O'Brien, p. 287.

[27]Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, 2:270-71.

[28]Dunn, p. 328.

[29]Eduard Lohse, "Colossians and Philemon," in Hermeneia, p. 200.

[30]Richard C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon, p. 962. Cf. Gal. 4:19; 1 Thess. 2:7.

[31]Carson, p. 108.

[32]Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1392.

[33]J. B. Lightfoot, p. 310.

[34]O'Brien, p. 292.

[35]Wiersbe, 2:271.

[36]Lightfoot, p. 312.

[37]O'Brien, p. 294.

[38]Hiebert, p. 113.

[39]O'Brien, p. 292.

[40]Cf. Lightfoot, p. 341; Hendriksen, p. 220. See also the appendix in ibid.: "Scripture on Slavery," pp. 233-37.

[41]Oesterley, 4:208.

[42]Jamieson, et al., p. 1392.

[43]C. F. D. Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon, p. 147.

[44]Morgan, 2:104. Cf. Müller, p. 168.

[45]Alexander Maclaren, The Expositor's Bible, 6:301. Cf. Lightfoot, p. 323.

[46]William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, p. 321.

[47]O'Brien, p. 298. Cf. 1 Cor. 7:20, 24.

[48]Hiebert, p. 117.

[49]Darrell L. Bock, "A Theology of Paul's Prison Epistles," in A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, p. 307.

[50]Edwin C. Deibler, "Philemon," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, p. 772.

[51]G. B. Caird, Paul's Letters from Prison, pp. 222-23; Lightfoot, p. 341.

[52]F. F. Bruce, Paul. Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 400; Ralph P. Martin, Colossians and Philemon, p. 167; Lohse, p. 204.

[53]See Robert G. Gromacki, Stand Perfect in Wisdom: An Exposition of Colossians and Philemon, pp. 200-201.

[54]Barclay, p. 323.

[55]Cf. Lightfoot, p. 342; Henry Alford, The Greek Testament, 3:434; Hiebert, p. 119; Kent, p. 175.

[56]Dunn, p. 339.

[57]Hiebert, p. 120. Cf. Marvin R. Vincent, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians and to Philemon, p. 190.

[58]Hendriksen, p. 223.

[59]Handley C. G. Moule, Colossian and Philemon Studies, p. 311.

[60]Rupprecht, p. 457.

[61]A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 4:469.

[62]O'Brien, p. 306. Cf. Bruce, p. 406.

[63]Henry, pp. 1907-8.

[64]Hiebert, pp. 123-24.

[65]W. J. Conybeare, in The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, p. 687.

[66]O'Brien, p. 265.

[67]Fitzmyer, p. 15.

[68]See Jamieson, et al., p. 1391.

[69]Fitzmyer, p. 86.

[70]Dunn, p. 333.

[71]See the fine article by Charles L. Schenck Jr., "Paul's Epistle on Human Rights," His 26:8 (May 1966):1-4, which the author wrote during the civil rights movement in the United States.

 


 

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