By Leslie M. Grant
This epistle was written from the Roman prison at the same time as the epistle to the Colossians, these carried by Tychicus and Onesimus (Col.4:7-9), the former a proven servant of the Lord, Onesimus the subject of this epistle, who was the slave of Philemon, and evidently a runaway, who had been imprisoned in Rome, where Paul met him and brought him to the Lord. Paul now sends him back to his master with this letter of most beautiful character, which expresses the attitude of pure Christianity toward slavery. How suited it was that Paul should write this, for he had also been the means of Philemon's conversion (vs.19).
He writes, not as an apostle, or a servant, but as "a prisoner of Jesus Christ," not at all giving any declaration of the doctrines of Christianity, nor even pastoral instruction and encouragement; but appealing to the considerate feelings of one who was (not confined or oppressed, but) in good circumstances. But he includes Timothy, "the brother" (who is not mentioned in Colossians) in his salutation, for fellowship is an Important feature of this epistle, and specially with one who is "honoring God" as Timothy's name means.
Philemon means "one who loves," and he is "dearly beloved," as well as a fellow-laborer, one devoted to the work of the Lord. Paul can write to him therefore with fullest confidence. But it is interesting that he also addresses "the beloved Aphaia, and Archippus our fellow-soldier, "as well as the assembly in the house of Philemon. Yet from verse 4 it is evident he is speaking directly to Philemon, always using the singular until the last verse, when he speaks of "your spirit," that is, plural. It is clear therefore that though it is Philemon for whom this is directly intended, yet leaders in the assembly and the assembly itself, are to be interested in this, for Onesimus is now, after all, one of them (Cf.Col.4:9).
All are wished grace and peace, and their eyes are lifted for this to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, the source of these valuable blessings. As in other cases, thanksgiving to God precedes Paul's prayers for Philemon. It is healthy for us to always remember this order. It may have been Epaphras who told Paul of the love and faith of Philemon toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints (Cf.Col.1:7,8). But such news refreshed the heart of Paul. Perhaps love is mentioned first because it was this that Paul was really appealing in this epistle.
Verse 6 is more clear in the New Translation (J.N.D.). Philemon's love and faith was of such character that his participation in the faith, that is, his having part in the blessed faith of Christianity, might become operative in a full and precious way, by the acknowledging of every good thing that in us in Christ Jesus. "In us" no doubt has reference to Christians characteristically, because of their being Christ Jesus. Love and faith recognize and acknowledge this in some measure at least in every believer.
And the apostle expresses his unfeigned joy and encouragement in the knowledge of the love of Philemon, who is known to have refreshed the saints of God by his service to them. For Paul loved the saints, and delighted in what blessing was given them.
It is beautiful to see the delicate way in which Paul writes as to Onesimus. It would not have been wrong for him to enjoin Philemon, but he will not do this as though with apostolic authority; but he entreats for love's sake, and as "Paul the aged" Certainly for Philemon to think of Paul as an aged prisoner would have a powerful effect upon his affections.
It is for his own child that Paul intercedes, for he had, in his bonds, been the means of the conversion of Onesimus. He frankly faces the truth of the past, as to Onesimus having been a practical liability to his masters who may have had reason for resentment against his servant. But now, he says, he is profitable to both Philemon and to Paul. Marvellous indeed is God's work of new birth in a soul!
The humility and wisdom of Paul is for our real instruction here. For though slavery was always contrary to God's thoughts, yet Paul does not Ignore Philemon's mastery over his slave. he sends him back, even though he could have employed him for profit in a spiritual way himself, as verse 13 shows. But he speaks of Onesimus as "my own bowels," that is, desiring Philemon now to treat him as he would Paul. Christianity makes no effort to set right the bad social structure of the world, no more than its political or economical structure. But it does speak seriously to the heart and conscience of the believer, that he may willingly and gladly honor God in every relationship in which he is found. Legislation will not change men's hearts; but changed hearts will be evidenced in changed personal conduct.
Paul then would consider the mind of Philemon, his thoughts and exercises, and leave to him the full burden of acting rightly as to Onesimus. This is the true grace of God. Philemon would not be coerced, but left free to act as before God.
And the possibility is put before him that it may have been God's wise ordering that Onesimus, had departed, in order that Philemon might receive him back on a much more satisfactory basis, with a permanent love that considered him more than a slave, but a brother, and that beloved. For he was that to Paul.
He therefore desires Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would Paul himself. And he will take the responsibility for any debt that Onesimus might have incurred with his master though in fact Philemon owed him his own self, that is, that his soul had been saved through Paul. He asks for both joy and refreshment in the Lord from Philemon, and has confidence that Philemon will do more than he asks. Surely such words would draw out the more ready response of the heart of this beloved saint!
Now he requests also that Philemon might prepare accommodations for him, for he expects, through the prayers of others, to be released from prison. It was no short journey from Rome to Colosse, but evidently the apostle had strong convictions that he was to go there, though he does not mention this in his epistle to the Colossians, written at the same time.
Those mentioned in verses 23 and 24 as joining Paul in salutations, are all found also in Col.4, Epaphras a resident of Colosse (Col.1:7), but at this time a prisoner at Rome; the others said to be "fellow-laborers."
In closing the apostle wishes them the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to be with their spirit. In Galatians also at the end he speaks similarly and in 2 Timothy. No doubt it is indicated that the spirit is to have the place of control, rather than the soul, that is, that the knowledge and wisdom of the human spirit is to have precedence over the desires and feelings of the soul. This can be seen to apply clearly to each of these epistles. But he reverts to the plural in this last verse, so that all who were addressed in verses 1 and 2 are to consider this, and we too if ever we must be faced with comparable circumstances. For if the spirit is maintained in proper communion, with the Lord, decisions will be made in a proper spirit.