The Epistle to Philemon - Part 1
John Bennett, Pinxton, Nottingham [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Philemon is one of only four letters written by the apostle Paul to individuals rather than to companies of the Lord’s people. It is, in effect, a letter of commendation for Onesimus to Philemon, and, ultimately, to the assembly at Colossae where Philemon met.
The background of the letter is quite simple. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. However, seemingly unhappy with his situation, Onesimus had stolen from Philemon as a means of funding his escape from slavery and had absconded. It may be a matter of conjecture but it could be that Onesimus wanted to escape from a house where the gospel was known and lived, and, to all intents, preached. However, in escaping from Philemon, God brought the unwilling slave into the company of the apostle Paul and Onesimus was gloriously saved.
What this letter helps us to appreciate is that, as a consequence of Onesimus’ salvation, there are issues that need to be addressed. We rejoice in the truth of 2 Corinthians chapter 5 verse 17, ‘Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new’. But let us not step beyond the bounds of scripture. Onesimus was, indeed, a new creature, a new creation. He had been born again. He had passed out of darkness into God’s marvellous light. He had been delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love. He stood in a new relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. He stood in a new relationship to Paul and to Philemon – he was, as verse 16 says, now ‘a brother beloved’. However, in all the euphoria of this man’s salvation, Paul was cognisant of the fact that certain issues from Onesimus’ past life now needed to be resolved. He needed to make his peace and accomplish restitution with Philemon. It is this that forms the background to this little epistle.
We can divide the epistle into the following sections:
The reader and writer, vv. 1-3; this forms the introduction to the letter.
The remembrance of Philemon and his house, vv. 4-7; the prayerful interest of the apostle.
The reasons for the letter, vv. 8-22; this section forms the bulk of the letter.
The reminders of the work and the workers, vv. 23-25; the salutations and closure of the letter.
The reader and the writer, vv. 1-3
There can be no confusion here. In the first verse, Paul writes, ‘Paul . . . unto Philemon’. Paul is the writer and Philemon is the reader, or recipient of the letter. However, if we stopped there we would miss something of supreme importance in this letter. In a sense, in the age of email, text message, Twitter and Facebook, there is a danger that we lose some of the details.
When letter writing was the standard means of long distance communication we were taught about styles of writing and how to correctly address letters. A very formal letter, perhaps an application for a job, would be addressed with ‘Dear Sir’, and close with ‘Yours faithfully’. You would use this form because, usually, you did not know the person addressed and you wished to show them some degree of respect. Someone you knew a little better, an acquaintance whom you felt confident enough to address by name, you might write to with ‘Dear Mr Smith’, or, even, ‘Dear John’, if you knew him well. You would close the letter ‘Yours sincerely’. However, if you were writing to your wife or husband, all such formality would be discarded and you could write expressing your affection and love, ‘My darling’, etc.
As we read through these opening verses, there is a genuine affection conveyed by the apostle for his reader, Philemon, and his wife and family. ‘Paul . . . unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer, and to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house’, Philem 1-2.
In fact, that love is conveyed throughout this Epistle:
‘dearly beloved’, v. 1;
‘Beloved’, v. 2; [It is to be noted that the RV and JND replace ‘beloved’ with ‘sister’]1
‘thy love and faith . . . toward all saints’, v. 5;
‘For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, v. 7;
‘Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee’, v. 9;
‘a brother beloved’, v. 16.
Yet it is remarkable to think that this bond of affection existed between ‘Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ’, v. 1, and Philemon. They were on such different social planes. Philemon, the wealthy slave owner, in whose home the assembly met, is united in service with someone who has the stigma of being regarded as an enemy of the state. However, this is the wonder of Christianity. It can bring together people from different social backgrounds and unite them in love, as they labour together in the work of the Lord. In essence, this thought is fundamental to this Epistle, as we shall see.
Who are ‘our beloved Apphia, and Archippus’, v. 2? Many commentators see them as Philemon’s wife and son.2 They are included as those that must have shared in the offence and injury caused by Onesimus’ departure. This might suggest that Onesimus was a household slave, rather than someone employed in whatever business Philemon engaged in.
‘And to the church in thy house’, v. 2. It is interesting that what is essentially a personal letter should include this reference to the local church. However, what affects individual Christians can often have a significant impact upon the local church to which they belong. Philemon’s experience was clearly known amongst his fellow believers. Apart from the implications for Philemon of Onesimus’ departure, it may well be that the testimony of the church was also affected. If slaves absconded from Philemon, what sort of master was he? Equally, what sort of Christian was he?
‘Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’, v. 3. As this is so often the greeting that Paul uses in his letters it would be easy to pass over it. However, it is particularly appropriate as a greeting here. Reminding Philemon of the grace that God has shown him, and of the grace that God continues to minister, is timely. Philemon will need to find significant grace to deal with the matter of his erstwhile slave. Be assured, writes Paul, resources are available! As he opens this letter with grace, so he closes it, v. 25.
Similarly, there is a desire to bring peace. Onesimus needs to make his peace with Philemon. What a reminder that we have peace with God,3 and, in that chapter that addresses the discord between two sisters, we can experience the peace of God!4
The remembrance of Philemon and his house, vv. 4-7
In offering an analysis of any book it is easy to make artificial divisions. This might be the case here. The expression of Paul’s affection for Philemon, seen in verses 1-3, is genuine, and is seen in his prayer life. Paul loved them, so he prayed for them. Equally, it might improve our love for all saints if we determined to pray for them as Paul did.
Notice, he prayed:
Appreciatively, ‘I thank my God’, v. 4.
How good to think of something about a fellow saint for which we can give thanks to God! We are often too quick to find things that are wrong or irritating, but this is not the case here. Note, too, that Paul has something specific to give thanks for: ‘the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother’, v. 7.
It is important to appreciate the balance that should characterize our prayer life. So often we approach God with an extensive list of issues to be resolved. How often do we give thanks?5 The scope of that thanksgiving is indicated by Paul in 1 Timothy chapter 2 verses 1-3, together with the fact that such an attitude is ‘good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour’, v. 3. The personal relationship that Paul had with his God, ‘my God’, lies at the basis of that statement to Timothy. ‘Paul knew God in personal experience . . . God was a vital reality to him and instinctively Paul turned to Him in joy as well as in sorrow’, Hiebert.6
Personally, ‘making mention of thee’, v. 4.
It is important to pray for people personally. It is always encouraging when, in a weekly prayer meeting, a believer brings the name of a particular individual. So often it indicates that this is not just a passing acquaintance but someone that they are getting to know.
Regularly, ‘always in my prayers’, v. 4.
How important to keep people in our prayers!7 It helps us to focus on their circumstances at the time. It might encourage us to get in touch with them again and renew fellowship so that we can continue to pray.
It is interesting that this should be one of the exhortations of Paul to the church at Colossae.8 Paul is consistent. He does not ask of others what he does not practise himself.
Specifically, or intelligently, ‘hearing of thy love and faith’, v. 5.
It is one thing to pray for someone regularly but it is quite another to have something specific to pray about. We might pray for a brother but how much better, in days of such fast communication, to have something specific to pray about – his health, his wife’s health, some meetings in which he might be involved, his family who are passing through difficulties, etc.
We should note the tense of the word ‘hearing’. Wuest translates as ‘hearing constantly of your love and faith’.9 The fact that these significant characteristics of Philemon were mentioned on a regular basis says something about Philemon as well as indicating a topic of conversation – believers in the first century discussed the positive features of fellow believers, rather than the negative!
What is also instructive is that Philemon’s love and faith was ‘toward all saints’. He did not display a partisan spirit, having some that he favoured more than others. As he had love and faith ‘toward the Lord Jesus’, so those features produced love for all the saints!
Developmentally, ‘that the communication of thy faith may become effectual’, v. 6.
Paul continued to pray for spiritual development in the saints. He has their spiritual health and welfare in mind. It is a significant step forward. We can become occupied with the temporal, the physical, and the material, when our focus should be upon the spiritual. How important that saints progress in their spiritual lives. To stand still is, in effect, to regress. ‘Paul is devoutly thankful for the blessings bestowed upon Philemon, but he cannot rest satisfied with them without asking for more’, Hiebert.10
Verse 6 teaches us that spiritual progress in the individual is to be shared.11 There should be a subsequent evidence of growth that will be seen in effective witness amongst the lost and work amongst the saints. To some extent this was happening, ‘the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother’, v. 7. Wuest’s translation clarifies the meaning, ‘because the hearts of the saints have been cheered and revived through you’.12 There was a need for that refreshing to develop. It is a word that means ‘to cause or permit one to cease from any labour or movement so as to recover strength. It implies previous toil and care’.13 In the toil and burden of the Christian life, when the way gets tough, it is important to have men like Philemon who are able to bring cheer, and revive the flagging spirits of fellow believers.14 It is clear from verse 20 that Paul also needed such refreshment.
There is a practical lesson in Paul’s situation too. He was a prisoner in bonds for the gospel, chained to a Roman guard, languishing in Rome. Similarly, there are often saints who have run well. Their spiritual life has been a productive one. They have been engaged in service for the Lord over years. Now, because of weakness brought on by illness, or in old age, they feel they can do nothing. The frailty of the body has limited the scope of their service. Now it takes all their effort to get to a few meetings. Think of ‘Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ’, v. 9. He is one who has borne such trials and persecutions for the Saviour and, to all intents, his ministry is now, at best, curtailed, and, at worst, over completely. May we, like Paul, become more involved in this most vital of ministries given here – prayer! The assembly may not know but their work for the Lord will prosper the more as a consequence of the continual prayers of the saints.
Verses 4 to 7 provide a suitable context for what Paul is about to deal with. As Hiebert notes, ‘the paragraph begins and ends upon the note of grateful thanksgiving for the nobleness of Philemon’s character’.15 That character is about to be put to the test! The love towards all the saints would be needed now that the bearer of this letter, Onesimus, stood before him.
The reasons for the letter, vv. 8-22
The apostle’s approach – ‘I beseech thee’, vv. 9-10.
I think it is deeply significant that the apostle does not mention his status, or apostleship, in this epistle. This is what Scroggie calls ‘the tact of the apostle’.16 When the truth is being assailed the apostle will be as stout as any defender of its cause. Here, however, how lovely to see the grace of the man when seeking to deal with matters on a personal level.
As he indicates in verse 8, ‘I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee’. He could have pressed Philemon to take back Onesimus. The word ‘enjoin’ meaning ‘to put upon one as a duty’.17 He could have exerted his apostolic authority, but he doesn’t want Philemon to accept Onesimus back grudgingly. Rather, he wants Philemon to realize that taking Onesimus back is ‘convenient’, the right thing to do, in harmony with his confession as a believer.
But what we also see here is one of the spiritual characteristics of the apostle. He did not have a high opinion of himself or his position. There is no pretence. He was prepared to ‘beseech’, to implore, to plead.18
On what basis does the apostle make his appeal?
(i) ‘for love’s sake’, v. 9. This is agape love, love that sacrifices for the good and blessing of others. There is a special bond between Paul and Philemon and some commentators suggest that this is because Philemon had been saved as a consequence of the ministry of the apostle; the idea is suggestive. As Paul had come alongside Philemon to speak to him of his soul’s need of salvation, so he now comes alongside Philemon to appeal for Onesimus.
(ii) ‘being such an one as Paul the aged’. Age doesn’t always command respect but it should when applied to the apostle here.19 Although most estimate Paul’s age to be somewhere between fifty-five and sixty-five, this was still a good age for men in that day.
(iii) ‘now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ’. There is an added appeal in these last two statements. Paul is an aged man and a suffering man. He appeals on the basis of the bond of affection between these two men, and he appeals to the sympathy and spiritual concern that Philemon should manifest towards the aged apostle in his extremity.
The apostle’s relationship – ‘my son . . . whom I have begotten in my bonds’, v. 10.
The English doesn’t quite indicate the structure of the verse. The name of Onesimus comes at the end. What this structure does is highlight the different perspectives on the man who now stood before Philemon.20
It would be easy for Philemon to see Onesimus for what he had been – a thief, a runaway, a worthless slave. Paul describes him in a wholly different way. He is my spiritual son, one born again during the time of Paul’s imprisonment. Grace has lifted him from the status of a runaway slave in the prison in Rome to the realm of a child of God. Although Onesimus remained a slave, and his earthly prospects had not changed significantly, his prospects of heaven most certainly had! As a spiritual son he occupies a privileged position, alongside such men as Timothy, and Titus. There is significance to the position of son in a spiritual context. It is not merely that he is brought into the family of God, but that he has been brought into a special relationship with Paul.
But it is important to notice too what grace has done from Paul’s perspective. Think of that once proud Jew, that Pharisee of the Pharisees, one of the elite amongst Jewish society. He is now prepared to call this slave, one of the dregs of Roman society, his son. It is James who says, ‘My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons’, Jas. 2. 1. What a challenge to all our hearts as to how we view our brethren and sisters in Christ!
There is also something remarkable in this verse. ‘I have begotten in my bonds’ tells us of a most unlikely event. The incarceration of the apostle might be seen as an insurmountable obstacle to him continuing a work for God. Yet, in the prison, Onesimus was saved. As Scroggie puts it, ‘If we believe that our lives are plans of God, we shall look differently at our troubles, and more often turn them into triumphs’.21
The apostle’s humour – ‘but now profitable to thee and to me’, v. 11.
Perhaps it is difficult for us to see the play on words here, but it is worth noting how the relationship described in verse 10 has affected the service of Onesimus. Paul says, he is ‘profitable . . . to me’, v. 11. In that sense, Paul would have retained Onesimus as one who ‘ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel’, v. 13. Although Onesimus means ‘profitable’, he had hardly lived up to his name in the past. Now, Paul confirms the change that has been brought about in the life of this man. Such is the grace of God – it has transformed the unprofitable to the profitable; it has changed a sinner into a saint.
We might pause here to ponder what has been wrought in the life of Onesimus and what Christ-like features are now evident in his life. We can see:
- The faithfulness of his ministry – ‘profitable to thee and to me’, v. 11.
- The unselfishness of his service – ‘whom I have sent again’, v. 12.
- The humility of his service – ‘ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel’, v. 13.
There is a pattern for us all. What Christ-like features are there in my life? Equally, I doubt that Onesimus’ service was what we might call glamorous. In a prison in Rome, or even in Paul’s hired house, it would not be auspicious, yet he fulfils it faithfully and humbly.
Notice, too, how Paul adds to the commendation of Onesimus: ‘Whom I have sent again . . . that is, mine own bowels’, v. 12. Onesimus was a profitable servant of Paul. He was one who had ministered to the apostle, even in the prison in Rome. But Paul can also say what deep affection he has for this man. One commentator describes Paul’s sending of Onesimus back to Philemon as, in effect, tearing his own heart out of his chest.22 To confirm this high praise, Paul says in verse 16, ‘Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me’.
1 J. B. Lightfoot states that ‘the preponderance of ancient authority is very decidedly in favour of sister’.
2 Matthew Henry, Hiebert, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown’s Commentary, Rienecker and Rogers, Scroggie, Walvoord and Zuck all suggest this idea. Scroggie’s comment here is worth mentioning: ‘The degraded classes of the Greek world were slaves and women. This epistle touches both and shows us Christianity in the very act of elevating both. So Paul sets the wife by the side of her husband, yoked in all exercise of noble end’.
3 Rom. 5. 1.
4 Phil. 4. 7.
5 That this was a regular feature of Paul’s prayer life can be seen from: Rom. 1. 8; 1 Cor. 1. 4; Eph. 1. 16; Phil. 1. 3; Col. 1. 3; 1 Thess. 1. 2; 2 Thess. 1. 3; 2 Tim. 1. 3.
6 D. Edmond Hiebert, Titus and Philemon, Moody Press, Chicago, 1957, pg. 97.
7 Matthew Henry wrote: ‘usually, not once or twice only, but frequently. So must we remember Christian friends much and often’.
8 Col. 4. 2-4.
9 Kenneth S. Wuest, The New Testament, an Expanded Translation, William B. Erdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1961.
10 D. Edmond Hiebert, Titus and Philemon, Moody Press, Chicago, 1957, pg. 102.
11 ‘The relationship of the second clause to the first [in this verse] is difficult to translate. The NIV suggests that the second is a result of the first: so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Philemon’s sharing of his faith would then lead to a full understanding of his spiritual blessings. However, the NIV words “so that you will have” are simply the one Greek word en (“in”). This hints that the first clause results from the second. As Philemon would gain a fuller understanding of his blessings in Christ he would become more active in sharing Him. He would share Christ in (i.e., in the sphere of) his full understanding of his blessings. The more a believer comes to comprehend all he has in Christ the more eager he is to share Him with others’, Edwin C. Diebler, Philemon, in Walvoord and Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Dallas Theological Seminary [electronic edition]
12 Kenneth S. Wuest, The New Testament, an Expanded Translation, William B. Erdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1961.
13 W. E. Vine, M. F. Unger, and W. White, Jr., Vol. 2: Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Nelson, 1996.
14 See also 1 Cor. 16. 18; 2 Cor. 7. 13.
15 D. Edmond Hiebert, Titus and Philemon, Moody Press, Chicago, 1957, pg. 105.
16 W. Graham Scroggie, Studies in Philemon, Kregel, 1977.
17 W. E. Vine, M. F. Unger, and W. White, Jr., Vol. 2: Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Nelson, 1996.
18 ‘Authority is the weapon of a weak man . . . or of a selfish one . . . Love is the weapon of a strong man who can cast aside the trappings of superiority’, Maclaren, quoted by: W. Graham Scroggie, Studies in Philemon, Kregel, 1977, pg. 41.
19 There is some disagreement between translators as to the word used here. Some take it to be ‘aged’, as KJV, NKJV, RV, JND, YLT, Alford, ESV, NIV, and Robertson, others to be ‘ambassador’, so Wuest, RV margin, Lightfoot, Vincent. In itself either meaning gives excellent sense. The Cambridge Greek Testament comments: ‘(1) In favour of “Paul (the) old man” . . . is the important fact that, with the possible exception of Theophylact in the eleventh century . . . all writers accepted this rendering . . . If this be right the sentence [should read] . . . “I appeal to you, and remember that I am old and also a prisoner”; or possibly “I appeal, for it is not so fitting for an old man and a prisoner to command.” (2) But it must be confessed that “ambassador” makes a far stronger sentence . . . He is an ambassador (probably “Christ’s ambassador”), even though in bonds . . . and yet he does not use his power’.
20 ‘In the Greek, the name “Onesimus” is skillfully put last, he puts first a favourable description of him before he mentions the name that had fallen into so bad repute with Philemon’, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown’s Commentary.
21 W. Graham Scroggie, Studies in Philemon, Kregel, 1977, pg. 50.
22 D. Edmond Hiebert, Titus and Philemon, Moody Press, Chicago, 1957, pg. 112.