Section 1. The History of Philemon
On Philemon, to whom this Epistle was addressed, almost nothing more is known than can be ascertained from the Epistle itself. It is short, and of a private character; but it is a bright and beautiful gem in the volume of inspiration.
From Col 4:9, it may be inferred that the person to whom it was addressed was an inhabitant of Colossae, since Onesimus, concerning whom this Epistle was written, is there mentioned as “one of them.” See the notes on that verse; compare the ingenious remarks of Paley, Hor. Paul., on Colossians, No. IV. He is said by Calmet and Michaelis to have been wealthy; but this cannot be determined with certainty, though it is not improbable. The only circumstances which seem to indicate this, are, that Onesimus had been his “servant,” from which it has been inferred that he was an owner of slaves; and that he appears to have been accustomed to show hospitality to strangers, or, as Michaelis expresses it, “traveling Christians;” see Phm 1:22 of the Epistle. But these circumstances are not sufficient to determine that he was a man of property. There is no evidence, as we shall see, that he was a slave-holder; and Christians in moderate circumstances were accustomed to show hospitality to their brethren. Besides, it is not said in Phm 1:22 that he was accustomed to show general hospitality; but Paul merely asks him to provide for him a lodging. It is probable that he had been accustomed to remain with him when he was in Colossae.
It is quite clear that he had been converted under the ministry of the apostle himself. This appears from what is said in Phm 1:19; “I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self.” This cannot be understood otherwise than as implying that he had been converted under his preaching, unless the apostle, on some former occasion, had been the means of saving his life, of which there is no evidence. Indeed, it is manifest, from the general tone of the Epistle, that Philemon had been converted by the labors of the author. It is just such a letter as it would be natural and proper to write on such a supposition; it is not one which the apostle would have been likely to write to any one who did not sustain such a relation to him. But where and when he was converted, is unknown. It is possible that Paul may have met with him at Ephesus; but it is much more probable that he had himself been at Colossae, and that Philemon was one of his converts there. See the introduction to the Epistle to the Colossians.
It is evident from the Epistle that Paul regarded him as a sincere Christian; as a man of strict integrity; as one who could be depended on to do right. Thus Phm 1:5-7, he says that he had heard of his “love and faith toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;” thus he confidently asks him to provide for him a lodging when he should come Phm 1:22; and thus he expresses the assured belief that he would do what was right towards one who had been his servant, who, having been formerly unfaithful, was now converted, and, in the estimation of the apostle, was worthy of the confidence and affection of his former master.
In regard to his rank in the Christian church, nothing whatever is known. Paul calls him Phm 1:1 his “fellow-laborer;” but this appellation is so general, that it determines nothing in regard to the manner in which be co-operated with him in promoting religion. It is a term which might be applied to any active Christian, whether a preacher, an elder, a deacon, or a private member of the church. It would seem clear, however, that he was not a traveling preacher, for he had a home in Colossae Phm 1:2, Phm 1:22; and the presumption is, that he was an active and benevolent member of the church, who did not sustain any office. There are many private members of the churches, to whom all that is said of Philemon in the Epistle would apply. Yet there have been various conjectures in regard to the office which he held. Hoffmann (Introduction a.d. Lection. Eph. a.d. Colossenses, 18) supposes that he was bishop of Colossae; Michaelis supposes that he was a deacon in the church; but of either of these, there is no evidence whatever.
Nothing is known of his age, his profession, or of the time and circumstances of his death. Neither is it certainly known what effect this Epistle had on him, or whether he again received Onesimus under his roof. It may be presumed, however, that such a letter, addressed to such a man, would not fail of its object.
Section 2. The Occasion upon which the Epistle was written
This can be learned only from the Epistle itself, and there the circumstances are so marked as to make a mistake impossible.
(1) Philemon had had a servant of the name of Onesimus. Of the character of this servant, before Paul became acquainted with him, nothing more is known than that he had been “unprofitable” to Philemon Phm 1:11, and that he bad probably done him some wrong, either by taking his property, or by the fact that he had escaped from him; Phm 1:18. It is not necessary to suppose that he was a slave: for all that is implied of necessity in the word which is employed to designate his condition in Phm 1:16 (δοῦλος doulos), and all that is stated of him in the Epistle, would be met by the supposition that he was bound to Philemon, either by his parents or guardians, or that he had bound himself to render voluntary service; see the notes at Phm 1:16.
(2) for some cause, this servant had fled from his master, and had gone to Rome. The cause of his escaping is unknown. It may be that he had purloined the property of his master, and dreaded detection; or that he had, by his base conduct in some other way, exposed himself to punishment; or that he merely desired freedom from oppression; or that he disregarded the bonds into which he himself, or his parents or guardians, had entered, and had therefore escaped. Nothing can be inferred about his condition, or his relation to Philemon, from the fact that he ran away. It is perhaps quite as common for apprentices to run away, as it is for slaves; and they who enter into voluntary bonds to render service to another, do not always regard them.
(3) in some way, when at Rome, this servant had found out the apostle Paul, and had been converted by his instrumentality. Paul says Phm 1:10 that he had “begotten him in his bonds” -ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς μου en tois desmois mou; which seems to imply that Onesimus had come to him, and not that Paul had searched him out. It does not appear that Paul, when a prisoner at Rome, was allowed to go at large (compare Act 28:30), though he was permitted to receive all who came to him. Why Onesimus came to the apostle, is not known. It may have been because he was in want, and Paul was the only one in Rome whom he had ever seen; or it may have been because his mind had become distressed on account of sin, and he sought him out to obtain spiritual counsel. Conjecture on these points is useless, where there is not even a hint that can serve as a clew to find out the truth.
(4) from some cause, equally unknown, Onesimus, when converted, was desirous of returning to his former master. It is commonly assumed that his returning again was at the instigation of the apostle, and that this furnishes an instance of his belief that runaway slaves should be sent back to their masters. But, besides that there is no certain evidence that he ever was a slave, there is as little proof that he returned at the instigation of Paul, or that his return was not wholly voluntary on his part. For the only expression which the apostle uses on this subject Phm 1:12, “whom I have sent again” -ἀνεπέμπσα anapempsa - does not necessarily imply that he even proposed it to him, still less that he commanded it. It is a word of such general import, that it would be employed on the supposition that Onesimus desired to return, and that Paul, who had a strong wish to retain him, to aid him in the same way that Philemon himself would do if he were with him (compare Phm 1:13), had, on the whole, concluded to part with him, and to send him again, with a letter, to his friend Philemon. It is just such language as he would have used of Timothy, Titus, or Epaphroditus, if employed on an important embassy at the request of the apostle; compare Luk 7:6, Luk 7:10, Luk 7:19; Luk 20:13; Act 10:5; Act 15:22; 1Co 4:17; 2Co 9:3; Eph 6:22; Phi 2:19, Phi 2:23, Phi 2:25, Phi 2:28; 1Th 3:2, 1Th 3:5; Tit 3:12, for a similar use of the word “send” (πέμπω pempō).
There is nothing in the statement which forbids us to suppose that Onesimus was himself disposed to return to Philemon, and that Paul “sent” him at his own request. To this, Onesimus might have been inclined from many causes. He may have repented that he left his master, and had forsaken the comforts which he had enjoyed under his roof. It is no uncommon thing for a runaway apprentice, or servant, when he has seen and felt the misery of being among strangers and in want, to wish himself well back again in the house of his master. Or he may have felt that he had wronged his master in some way (compare the notes at Phm 1:18), and, being now converted, was desirous of repairing the wrong. Or he may have had friends and kindred in Colossae whom he was desirous of seeing again. Since any one of these, or of many other supposable causes, may have induced him to desire to return to his master, it should not be assumed that Paul sent him against his will, and thence be inferred that he was in favor of sending back runaway slaves to their masters against their will. There are many points to be proved, which cannot be proved, to make that a legitimate inference; see the notes at Phm 1:12.
(5) whatever were the reasons why Onesimus desired to return to Philemon, it is clear that he was apprehensive of some trouble if he went back. What those reasons were, it is impossible now to determine with absolute certainty, but it is not difficult to conjecture what they may have been, and any of the following will account for his apprehensions - either:
(a) that he had done his master wrong by the mere act of leaving him, depriving him of valuable services which he was bound to render; or
(b) that he may have felt that the mere act of running away had injured the character of his master, for such an act always implies that there is something in the dealings of a master which makes it desirable to leave him; or
(c) that he had in some way injured him in respect to property, by taking that which did not belong to him, Phm 1:18; or
(d) that he owed his master, and he may have inferred from his leaving him that he meant to defraud him, Phm 1:18; or
(e) that the laws of Phrygia were such that Onesimus apprehended that if he returned, even penitent, it would be judged by his master necessary to punish him, in order to deter others from committing a similar offence.
The laws of Phrygia, it is said, allowed the master to punish a slave without applying to a magistrate. See Macknight. It should be said also that the Phrygians were a severe people (Curtius, Lib. v. c. 1), and it is not improbable that, from the customs there, Onesimus may have apprehended harsh treatment if he returned. - It is not proper to assume that any one of these was certainly the reason why he feared to return, for this cannot be absolutely determined. We should not take it for granted that he had defrauded his master - for that is not necessarily implied in what is said in Phm 1:18, and we should not impute crimes to men without proof; nor should we take it for granted that he feared to be punished as a runaway slave - for that cannot be proved; but someone or more of these reasons doubtless operated to make him apprehensive that if he returned he would meet with, at least, a cold reception.
(6) to induce his master to receive him kindly again, was the main object of this courteous and kind Epistle. For a view of the arguments upon which he urges this, see the Analysis of the Epistle. The arguments are such, that we should suppose they could not be resisted, and we may presume, without impropriety, that they had the desired effect upon the mind of Philemon - but of that we have no certain evidence.
Section 3. The Time and Place of Writing the Epistle
There can be no doubt that this letter was written from Rome about the time when the Epistle to the Colossians was written; compare the introduction to that Epistle. The circumstances which conduct to this conclusion are such as the following:
(1) Paul at the time when it was written was a prisoner; Phm 1:1. “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ;” Phm 1:10. “Whom I have begotten in my bonds;” compare Phm 1:23. “Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus.”
(2) it was written when he had hopes of obtaining his liberty, or when he had such a prospect of it that he could ask Philemon, with confidence, to “prepare him a lodging;” Phm 1:22.
(3) Timothy was with him at the time when it was written Phm 1:1, and we know that Paul desired him to come to him to Rome when he was a prisoner there as soon as possible; 2Ti 4:9. “Do thy diligence to come shortly unto me.”
(4) we know that Onesimus was actually sent by Paul to Colossae while he was a prisoner at Rome, and it would be morally certain that, under the circumstances of the case, he would send the letter to his master at that time. No other instance is mentioned in which he sent him to Colossae, and the evidence is as certain as the nature of the case admits, that that was the time when the Epistle was written; see Col 4:9.
(5) the same persons are mentioned in the salutations in the two Epistles, at least they are so far the same as to make it probable that the Epistles were written at the same time, for it is not very probable that the same persons would in another place, and on another occasion, have been with the apostle. Thus, Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, and Demas, join in the salutations both to the church at Colossae and to Philemon. Probably at no other time in the life of Paul were all these persons with him, than when he was a prisoner at Rome. These considerations make it clear that the Epistle was written while Paul was a prisoner at Rome and at about the same time with the Epistle to the Colossians. If so, it was about a.d. 62.
Section 4. The Character of this Epistle
This letter is almost wholly of a private character, and yet there is scarcely any portion of the New Testament of equal length which is of more value. It is exquisitely beautiful and delicate. It is a model of courtesy and politeness. It presents the character of the author in a most amiable light, and shows what true religion will produce in causing genuine refinement of thought and language. It is gentle and persuasive, and yet the argument is one that we should suppose would have been, and probably was, irresistible. It is very easy to conceive that the task which the apostle undertook to perform was one which it would be difficult to accomplish - that of reconciling an offended master to a runaway servant. And yet it is done with so much kindness, persuasiveness, gentleness, and true affection, that, as the letter was read, it is easy to imagine that all the hostility of the master was disarmed, and we can almost see him desiring to embrace him who bore it, not now as a servant, but as a Christian brother; Phm 1:16 “It is impossible,” says Doddridge, “to read over this admirable Epistle without being touched with the delicacy of sentiment, and the masterly address, that appear in every part of it. We see here, in a most striking light, how perfectly consistent true politeness is, - not only with all the warmth and sincerity of a friend, but even with the dignity of the Christian and the Apostle. And if this letter were to be considered in no other view than as a mere human composition, it must be allowed to be a master-piece in its kind.
As an illustration of this remark, it may not be improper to compare it with an epistle of Pliny, that seems to have been written on a similar occasion (Lib. ix. Let. 21); which, though penned by one that was reckoned to excel in the epistolary style, though it has undoubtedly many beauties, yet must be acknowledged by every impartial reader vastly inferior to this animated composition of the apostle.” As a specimen of the courtesy and politeness which the Christian ought to practice at all times, as well as furnishing many valuable lessons on Christian duty (see the remarks at the close), it deserves a place in the volume of inspiration; and a material chasm would be produced in the instructions which are needful for us, if it were withdrawn from the sacred canon.
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