Bible Commentary in 8 Volumes
Paul the Apostle to Philemon
Chronological Notes relative to this Epistle.
Notes on Philemon.
Verse 1. Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ— It has already been noted, in the preface, that Paul was a prisoner at Rome when he wrote this epistle, and those to the Colossians and Philippians. But some think that the term prisoner does not sufficiently point out the apostle’s state, and that the original word desmiov should be translated bound with a chain: this is certainly its meaning; and it shows us in some measure his circumstances-one arm was bound with a chain to the arm of the soldier to whose custody he had been delivered.
It has also been remarked that Paul does not call himself an apostle here, because the letter was a letter of friendship, and on private concerns. But the MSS. are not entirely agreed on this subject. Two MSS. have doulov, a servant; the Codex Claromontanus and the Codex Sangermanensis, both in the Greek and Latin, have apostolov, apostle; and Cassiodorus has apostolov desmiov, Paul, an imprisoned apostle of Jesus Christ. They, however, generally agree in the omission of the word apostolov.
Unto Philemon our dearly beloved— There is a peculiarity in the use of proper names in this epistle which is not found in any other part of St. Paul’s writings. The names to which we refer are Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and Onesimus.
PHILEMON, filhmwn. Affectionate or beloved, from filhma, a kiss; this led the apostle to say: To Philemon our DEARLY BELOVED.
Verse 2. APPHIA. apfia. Under the word apfa Suidas says: adelfhv kai adelfou upakorisma? Appha is the affectionate address of a brother or sister; or the diminutive of a brother and sister, used to express kindness and affection. Hence the apostle, referring to the meaning of the word, says: kai apfia th adelfh agaphth? And to Apphia the beloved sister. Though adeloh, sister, be not in our common text, it is found in AD*EFG, several others, the Itala, Vulgate, Slavonic, etc.; and is undoubtedly genuine.
ARCHIPPUS, arciphov. The ruler or master of the horse; from arcwn, a chief, and ippov, a horse. HEROES of old were, both among the Greeks and Trojans, celebrated for their skill in managing and taming the horse, and employing him in war; this frequently occurs in Homer. The import of the name of Archippus might suggest this idea to the apostle’s mind, and lead him to say: Archippus our FELLOW SOLDIER.
Suidas mentions a person of this name, who was once victor at the games, in the ninety-first Olympiad.
There was one of the pupils of Pythagoras of this name; and I introduce him here for the sake of a quotation from St. Jerome, (Apol. adv. Ruffin.,) relative to the doctrines taught by him and his fellow disciple, Lysis:
feukteon pantapasi kai ekkopteon asqeneian men tou swmatov, apaideusian de thv yuchv, akolasian de thv gastrov, stasin de thv polewv, thn de diafwnian apo thv oikiav, kai koinh apo pantwn to akratev? “By all means and methods these evils are to be shunned and cut off: effeminacy from the body; IGNORANCE from the soul; delicacies from the belly; sedition from the city; discord from the house; and, in general, intemperance from all things.” Vid. FAB. Thes. Erud. Schol.
ONESIMUS, onhsimov. Useful or profitable; from onhmi, to help. The import of this name led the apostle to play upon the word thus: I beseech thee for any son Onesimus-which in time past was to thee UNPROFITABLE, but now PROFITABLE to thee and me.
To the Church in thy house— The congregation of Christians frequently assembling in Philemon’s house; for at this time the Christians had neither temples, churches, nor chapels. See the note on Romans 16:5, and the reference there.
It is very probable that Apphia was the wife of Philemon, and Archippus, their son, the pastor of the Church at Philemon’s house.
Verse 4. I thank my God— For all the good he has bestowed upon you, making mention of thee always in my prayers, that thou mayest hold fast all that thou hast got, and get all that thou dost farther need.
Verse 5. Hearing of thy love and faith— His faith in Christ Jesus, his love to the saints. Several excellent MSS. and some versions put faith before love, which makes a more natural reading. There is no figure of speech which would vindicate our saying faith in the saints; so that, if we do not allow of the arrangement in the MSS. referred to, we shall be obliged to have recourse to the transposition, because faith must refer to Jesus Christ, and love to the saints.
Verse 6. That the communication of thy faith— The words h koinwnia thv pistewv sou, the fellowship or communication of thy faith, may be understood as referring to the work of love towards the saints — the poor Christians, which his faith in Christ enabled him to perform, faith being taken here for its effects; and indeed the word koinwnia itself is not unfrequently used to denote liberality, almsgiving; and this is very properly remarked by Theophylact here: koinwnian pistewv elehmosunhn kalei, wv apo pistewv pollhv genomenhn? He terms almsgiving the communication of faith, because it is the fruit of much faith.”
May become effectual— Dr. Macknight understands these words thus: “That the many good offices which thou dost to the saints may become effectual in bringing others to the acknowledgment of every good disposition which is in you towards Christ Jesus, or towards his members.”
Instead of energhv, energetic or effectual, the Vulgate and some of the fathers, as well as several Latin MSS., have read enarghv, evident. This makes a very good sense, and seems to agree best with the scope of the place.
Instead of en umin, in YOU, en hmin in US, is the reading of all the best MSS., as well as of several versions and fathers.
Verse 7. For we have great joy— This verse does not read harmoniously. The Greek authorizes the following arrangement: For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, O brother, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee. The apostle speaks here of the works of charity in which Philemon abounded towards poor Christians.
Verse 8. Wherefore, though I might be much bold— It would be better to read: Wherefore, although I have much authority through Christ, to command thee to do what is proper; yet, on account of my love to thee, I entreat thee.
The tenderness and delicacy of this epistle, says Dr. Paley, have long been admired: “Though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient; yet, for love’s sake, I rather beseech thee, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus, I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds.”
There is something certainly very melting and persuasive in this and every part of the epistle. Yet, in my opinion, the character of St. Paul prevails in it throughout. The warm, affectionate, authoritative teacher is interceding with an absent friend for a beloved convert. He urges his suit with an earnestness befitting, perhaps, not so much the occasion as the ardour and sensibility of his own mind. Here also, as everywhere, he shows himself conscious of the weight and dignity of his mission; nor does he suffer Philemon, for a moment, to forget it: “I might be much bold in Christ, to enjoin thee that which is convenient.” He is careful also to recall, though obliquely, to Philemon’s memory, the sacred obligation under which he had laid him, by bringing him to the knowledge of Christ: “I do not say to thee, how thou owest to me even thine own self besides.” Without laying aside, therefore, the apostolic character, our author softens the imperative style of his address, by mixing with it every sentiment and consideration that could move the heart of his correspondent. Aged, and in prison, he is content to supplicate and entreat. Onesimus was rendered dear to him by his conversation and his services; the child of his affliction, and “ministering unto him in the bonds of the Gospel.” This ought to recommend him, whatever had been his fault, to Philemon’s forgiveness: “Receive him as myself, as my own bowels.” Every thing, however, should be voluntary. St. Paul was determined that Philemon’s compliance should flow from his own bounty; “Without thy mind would I do nothing, that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly;” trusting, nevertheless, to his gratitude and attachment for the performance of all that he requested, and for more: “Having confidence in thy obedience, I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.”
St. Paul’s discourse at Miletus; his speech before Agrippa; his Epistle to the Romans; that to the Galatians, Galatians 4:11-20; to the Philippians, Philippians 1:29; 2:2; the second to the Corinthians, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; and indeed some part or other of almost every epistle, exhibit examples of a similar application to the feelings and affections of the persons whom he addresses. And it is observable that these pathetic effusions, drawn for the most part from his own sufferings and situation, usually precede a command, soften a rebuke, or mitigate the harshness of some disagreeable truth. Horae Paulinae, p. 334.
Verse 9. Paul the aged— If we allow St. Paul to have been about 25 years of age at the utmost, in the year 31, when he was assisting at the martyrdom of Stephen, Acts 7:58; as this epistle was written about A. D. 62, he could not have been at this time more than about 56 years old. This could not constitute him an aged man in our sense of the term; yet, when the whole length of his life is taken in, being martyred about four years after this, he may not improperly be considered an aged or elderly man, though it is generally allowed that his martyrdom took place in the 66th year of our Lord.
But the word presbuv signifies, not only an old man, but also an ambassador; because old or elderly men were chosen to fulfill such an office, because of their experience and solidity; and presbuthv, for presbeuthv, is used in the same sense and for the same reason by the Septuagint; hence some have thought that we should translate here, Paul the ambassador. This would agree very well with the scope and even the design of the place.
Verse 10. I beseech thee for my son Onesimus— It is evident from this that Onesimus was converted by St. Paul while he was prisoner at Rome, and perhaps not long before he wrote this epistle.
Verse 11. Was to thee unprofitable— Alluding to the meaning of Onesimus’s name, as has been already noted; though the apostle uses a different Greek word to express the same idea.
Verse 12. Whom I have sent again— The Christian religion never cancels any civil relations; a slave, on being converted, and becoming a free man of Christ, has no right to claim, on that ground, emancipation from the service of his master. Justice, therefore, required St. Paul to send back Onesimus to his master, and conscience obliged Onesimus to agree in the propriety of the measure; but love to the servant induced the apostle to write this conciliating letter to the master.
Verse 13. That in thy stead he might have ministered unto me— As Philemon was one of Paul’s converts, he became thereby his spiritual father, and had a right to his services when in need. This was a strong argument, not only to induce Philemon to forgive his servant, but to send him back to the apostle, that he might minister to him in his master’s stead.
Verse 14. That thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity— If the apostle had kept Onesimus in his service, and written to Philemon to forgive him and permit him to stay, to this it is probable he would have agreed; but the benefit thus conceded might have lost much of its real worth by the consideration that, had he been at Colosse, Philemon would not have sent him to Rome; but, being there and in the apostle’s service, he could not with propriety order him home: thus the benefit to the apostle would have appeared to have been of necessity. The apostle, therefore, by sending him back again, gave Philemon the opportunity to do all as if self-moved to it. This is a very delicate touch.
Verse 15. He-departed for a season— This is another most delicate stroke. He departed thy slave, thy unfaithful slave; he departed for a short time; but so has the mercy of God operated in his behalf, and the providence of God in thine, that he now returns, not an unfaithful slave, in whom thou couldst repose no confidence, but as a brother, a beloved brother in the Lord, to be in the same heavenly family with thee for ever. Thou hast, therefore, reason to be thankful to God that he did depart, that he might be restored to thee again infinitely better than he was when be left thee. God has permitted his unfaithfulness, and overruled the whole both to his advantage and thine. The apology for Onesimus is very similar to that made by Joseph for his brethren, Genesis 45:5.
Verse 16. Not now as a servant?— Do not receive him merely as thy slave, nor treat him according to that condition; but as a brother — as a genuine Christian, and particularly dear to me.
Both in the flesh and in the Lord?— There is no reason to believe that Onesimus was of the kindred of Philemon; and we must take the term flesh, here, as referring to the right which Philemon had in him. He was a part of his property and of his family; as a slave, this was his condition; but he now stood in a twofold relation to Philemon: 1. According to the flesh, as above explained, he was one of his family. 2. In the Lord; he was now also a member of the heavenly family, and of the Church at Philemon’s house. Philemon’s interest in him was now doubled, in consequence of his conversion to Christianity.
Verse 17. If thou count me therefore a partner— If thou dost consider me as a friend; if I have still the place of a friend in thy affection, receive him as myself; for, as I feel him as my own soul, in receiving him thou receivest me.
There is a fine model of recommending a friend to the attention of a great man in the epistle of Horace to Claudius Nero, in behalf of his friend Septimius, Epistolar. lib. i., Ep. 9, which contains several strokes not unlike some of those in the Epistle to Philemon. It is written with much art; but is greatly exceeded by that of St. Paul. As it is very short I shall insert it:-
Septimius, Claudi, nimirum intelligit unus,
Quanti me facias; nam cum rogat, et prece cogit
Scilicet, ut tibi se laudare, et tradere coner,
Dignum mente domoque legentis honesta
Neronis, Munere cum fungi propioris censet amici;
Quid possim videt, ac novit me valdius ipso.
Multa quidem dixi, cur excusatus abirem:
Sed timui, mea ne finxisse minora putarer,
Dissimulator opis propriae, mihi commodus uni.
Sic ego, majoris fugiens opprobria culpae,
Frontis ad urbanae descendi praemia.
Quod si Depositum laudas, ob amici jussa, pudorem;
Scribe tui gregis hunc, et fortem crede bonumque.
“O Claudius Septimius alone knows what value thou hast for me; for he asks and earnestly entreats me to recommend him to thee, as a man worthy of the service and confidence of Nero, who is so correct a judge of merit. When he imagines that I possess the honor of being one of thy most intimate friends, he sees and knows me more particularly than I do myself. I said indeed many things to induce him to excuse me; but I feared lest I should be thought to dissemble my interest with thee, that I might reserve it all for my own advantage. Therefore, in order to shun the reproach of a greater fault, I have assumed all the consequence of a courtier, and have, at the request of my friend, laid aside becoming modesty; which if thou canst pardon, receive this man into the list of thy domestics, and believe him to be a person of probity and worth.”
This is not only greatly outdone by St. Paul, but also by a letter of Pliny to his friend Sabinianus, in behalf of his servant, who, by some means, had incurred his master’s displeasure. See it at the conclusion of these notes.
Verse 18. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught— Had the apostle been assured that Onesimus had robbed his master, he certainly would not have spoken in this hypothetical way; he only puts a possible case: If he have wronged thee, or owe thee aught, place all to my account; I will discharge all he owes thee.
Verse 19. I Paul have written it with mine own hand— It is likely that the whole of the letter was written by St. Paul himself, which was not his usual custom. See on 2 Thessalonians 3:17. But by thus speaking he bound Philemon to do what he requested, as an act of common civility, if he could not feel a higher motive from what he had already urged.
Albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me— I ask thee to do this thing to oblige me, though I will not say how much thou owest unto me; even thine own self, as having been the means of thy conversion.
Verse 20. Yea, brother— It is even so, that thou art thus indebted to me. Let me have joy of thee, in forgiving Onesimus, and receiving him into thy favor. In the words ege sou onaimhn, which we should translate, let me have PROFIT of thee, there is an evident paronomasia, or play on the name of Onesimus. See on Philemon 1:2, 11.
Refresh my bowels— Gratify the earnest longing of my soul in this. I ask neither thy money nor goods; I ask what will enrich, not impoverish, thee to give.
Verse 21. Having confidence in thy obedience— I know that it will please thee thus to oblige thy friend, and I know that thou wilt do more than I request, because thou feelest the affection of a son to thy spiritual father. Some think that the apostle hints to Philemon that he should manumit Onesimus.
Verse 22. But withal prepare me also a lodging— Does not the apostle mention this as conferring an obligation on Philemon? I will begin to repay thee by taking up my abode at thy house, as soon as I shall be enlarged from prison. But some think he wished Philemon to hire him a house, that he might have a lodging of his own when he returned to Colosse.
For I trust that through your prayers— It is very likely that this epistle was written a short time before the liberation of the apostle from his first imprisonment at Rome. See Acts 28:30, and Philippians 2:24; and that he had that liberation now in full prospect.
Verse 23. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner— Epaphras was a Colossian, as we learn from Colossians 4:12: Epaphras, who is one of you. But there is no account there of his being in prison, though the not mentioning of it does not necessarily imply that he was not. Some time or other he had suffered imprisonment for the truth of the Gospel; and on that account St. Paul might, in a general way, call him his fellow prisoner.
Verse 24. Marcus, Aristarchus, etc.— These were all acquaintances of Philemon, and probably Colossians; and may be all considered as joining here with St. Paul in his request for Onesimus. Some think that Marcus was either the evangelist, or John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, Acts 12:12, 25. Aristarchus was probably the same with him mentioned Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2. See Colossians 4:10.
Demas— Is supposed to be the same who continued in his attachment to Paul till his last imprisonment at Rome; after which he left him for what is supposed to have been the love of the world, 2 Timothy 4:10; but see the note.
Lucas— Is supposed to be Luke the evangelist, and author of the Acts of the Apostles. On these suppositions little confidence can be placed: they may be correct; they may be otherwise.
Verse 25. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit— By using the plural, nmwn, your, the apostle in effect directs or addresses the epistle, not only to Philemon, but to all the Church at his house.
Amen.— Is wanting as usual in the best MSS.
The subscriptions are also various, as in preceding cases.
The Epistle to Philemon was written at Rome, and sent by the hand of Onesimus. — SYRIAC.
Through the help of God the epistle is finished. It was written at Rome by the hand of Onesimus, servant to Philemon. — ARABIC.
To the man Philemon. — AETHIOPIC.
It was written at Rome, and sent by Onesimus. — COPTIC.
The Epistle to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus: the end of the Epistle to Philemon and Apphia, the master and mistress of Onesimus; and to Archippus, the deacon of the Church at Colosse: it was written from Rome by Onesimus, a servant. — PHILOXESIAN SYRIAC.
To Philemon. — To Philemon is finished. — To Philemon, written from Rome by Onesimus-Onesiphorus. — From Paul, by Onesimus, a servant.
— From the presence of Paul and Timothy. — The Epistle of Paul the apostle to Philemon. — The common Greek text has, To Philemon, written from Rome by Onesimus, a servant.
As some have thought it strange that a private letter, of a particular business and friendship, should have got a place in the sacred canon, others have been industrious to find out the general uses which may be made of it. The following are those which seem to come most naturally from the text:—
There is extant an epistle of Pliny on the very same subject, directed to his friend Sabinianus in behalf of his manumitted slave who had offended him, and was consequently cast out of favor. Dr. Doddridge says that “that epistle, though penned by one who was allowed to excel in the epistolary style, and though it undoubtedly has many beauties, will be found by persons of taste much inferior to this animated composition of the Apostle Paul.
I have already introduced an epistle of Horace on a somewhat similar subject; but that of Pliny is so exactly parallel, and so truly excellent, that I am sure its insertion will gratify every intelligent reader, and I insert it the rather because the works of Pliny are in but few hands, and his epistles are known to very few except the learned.
C. PLINIUS SABINIANO suo, S.
Libertus tuus, cui succensere te dixeras, venit ad me, advolatusque pedibus meis, tanquam tuis, haesit. Flevit multum, multum rogavit, multum etiam tacuit: in summa, fecit mihi fidem poenitentiae. Vere credo emendatum, quia deliquisse se sentit. Irasceris scio; et irasceris merito, id quoque scio: sed tunc praecipua mansuetudinis laus, cum irae causa justissima est.
Amasti hominem; et, spero, amabis: interim sufficit, ut exorari te sinas. Licebit rursus irasci, si meruerit: quod exoratus excusatius facies.
Remitte aliquid adolescentiae ipsius; remitte lachrymis; remitte indulgentiae tuae; ne torseris illum, ne torseris etiam te. Torqueris enim, cum tam lenis irasceris. Vereor, ne videar non rogare, sed cogere, si precibus ejus meas junxero. Jungam tamen tanto plenius et effusius, quanto ipsum acrius severiusque corripui, districte minatus nunquam me postea rogaturum. Hoc illi, quem terreri oportebat; tibi non idem. Nam fortasse iterum rogabo, impetrabo iterum: sit modo tale, ut togare me, ut praestare te deceat. Vale. — Epistolar. Iib. ix., Ep. 21.
“CAIUS PLINIUS to SABINIANUS his friend, health.
“Thy freed man, with whom thou didst inform me thou wert incensed, came to me and threw himself at my feet, and grasped them as if they had been thine. He wept much, earnestly entreated, and yet said more by his silence. In short, he fully convinced me that he is a penitent. I do verily believe him reformed, because he feels his guilt. Thou art incensed against him I know,, and I know that he has justly merited thy displeasure; but then, clemency has its chief praise when there is the greatest cause for irritation. Thou didst once love the man, and I hope thou wilt love him again. In the meantime permit thyself to be entreated in his behalf. Should he again merit thy displeasure thou wilt have the stronger excuse for indulging it, shouldst thou pardon him now. Consider his youth, consider his tears, consider thy own gentleness of disposition. Do not torment him, do not torment thyself; for, with thy mild disposition, thou must be tormented if thou suffer thyself to be angry. I fear, were I to join my prayers to his, that I should rather seem to compel than to supplicate. Yet I will unite them, and the more largely and earnestly too, as I have sharply and severely reproved him, solemnly threatening, should he offend again, never more to intercede for him. This I said to him, it being necessary that I should alarm him; but I do not say the same to thee, for probably I may entreat thee again, and command thee again, should there be a sufficient reason to induce me to request, and thee to concede. Farewell.”
Nothing on the subject can be finer than this; but Paul has the advantage, because he had Christian motives to urge. If the energetic Roman had had these, we should have found it difficult to decide between his Latin and the apostle’s Greek.
It may be now asked whether St. Paul’s application in behalf of Onesimus was successful? We have no direct answer to this question, but we may fairly suppose that such pleading could not be in vain. Philemon was a Christian, and owed too much to his God and Savior, and too much to the apostle, as the instrument of his salvation, not to concede a favor which it is congenial to the very spirit of Christianity to grant.
The application of Horace in behalf of Septimius was successful, and both Claudius Nero and Augustus took him into their warmest confidence. But this was only a common case of recommendation, and had no difficulties in the way. But did the heathen Sabinianus yield to the entreaties of his friend, and forgive his slave? He did; and we have the record of it in another very elegant letter, in which Pliny expresses his obligation to his friend for his prompt attention to his request. I will transcribe it, and give a translation for the farther satisfaction of the reader.
C. PLINIUS SABINIANO suo, S.
Bene fecisti quod libertum aliquando tibi carum, reducentibus epistolis meis, in domum, in animum recepisti. Juvabit hoc te: me certe juvat; primum quod te talem video, ut in ira regi possis: deinde quod tantum mihi tribuis, ut vel auctoritati meae pareas, vel precibus indulgeas. Igitur, et laudo, et gratias ago. Simul in posterum moneo, ut te erroribus tuorum, etsi non fuerit, qui deprecetur, placabilem praestes. Vale. — Epistolar. lib. ix., Ep. 24.
“CAIUS PLINIUS to his friend SABINIANUS, health.
“Thou hast done well, that, in compliance with my letter, thou hast received thy freed man both into thy house and into thy heart. This must be pleasing to thyself, and it is certainly pleasing to me; first, because I find thee to be a person capable of being governed in thy anger; and secondly, because thou showest so much regard for me, as either to yield this to my authority, or concede it to my entreaties. Therefore I both praise and return thee thanks. ‘At the same time I admonish thee to be always ready to forgive the errors of thy servants, although there should be no one to intercede in their behalf. Farewell.”
These letters contain such excellent lessons of instruction that it will be impossible to read them without profit. They are master pieces in their kind; and no Christian need be ashamed to be indebted to them, whether in regulating his own conduct in respect to forgiveness of injuries, or whether in interceding for them who have fallen under the displeasure of others. Reader, go thou and do likewise.
Finished correcting for a new edition, Dec. 23, 1831.