Bible Commentary in 8 Volumes
Paul the Apostle to Philemon
It may be thought strange that a short letter, written entirely on a private subject, without reference to the proof or defense of any doctrine of the Gospel, should, by the general consent of the Church of God, from the highest Christian antiquity, have been received into the sacred canon, not only as a genuine production of St. Paul, but as a piece designed by the Holy Spirit for the edification of the Church. However, such is the fact; and we may add, that this very piece was held so sacred that even the ancient heretics did not attempt to impugn its authenticity or corrupt its matter, while making dangerously free with the four gospels, and all the other epistles!
Philemon, the person to whom it is addressed, was undoubtedly, at the time in which this epistle was sent, an inhabitant of Colosse, (concerning which city, see the preface to the Epistle to the Colossians,) and was probably a Colossian by birth, though some suppose that he was of Ephesus. It is evident, from Philemon 1:19 of this epistle, that he was converted to the Christian faith by St. Paul; this is agreed on all hands; but as some suppose that the apostle had not visited Colosse previously to the writing of this epistle, they think it probable that he might have met with him at Ephesus, or in same other part of Asia Minor, where he formed an acquaintance with him, and became the means of his conversion. But there is no need for this supposition, as it is most probable that the apostle had not only visited Colosse prior to this, but that the Gospel was planted in that city, as in all other parts of Phrygia, by himself. See the preface to the Colossians, and the note on Colossians 2:1.
That Philemon was a person of some consideration in his own city, and in the Church in that place, is very evident from this epistle. He had a Church in his house, Philemon 1:2, and was so opulent as to be extensive in works of charity, and in entertaining those Christians who from different quarters had occasion to visit Colosse. See Philemon 1:5-7.
Whether he had any office in the Church is not clear: some think he was a bishop, others an elder or deacon; but of this there is no evidence. He was probably no more than a private member, whose house, hand, and property were consecrated to God, his Church, and the poor. He who, by the good providence of God, has property and influence thus to employ, and a heart to do it, need not envy the state of the highest ecclesiastic in the Church of Christ. Both the heart and the means to do secular good are possessed by few, whereas multitudes are found willing both to teach in and govern the Church.
The occasion of writing this letter was the following: Onesimus, a slave, had on some pretense or other run away from his master Philemon, and had come to Rome, where St. Paul was at that time in prison, though not in close confinement, for he dwelt in his own hired house, in which he assiduously preached the Gospel, being guarded only by one soldier. See Acts 28:16, 23.
It appears that Onesimus sought out Paul, whose public preaching, both to Jews and Gentiles, had rendered him famous in the city; and it is very likely that he was led to visit the apostle from having formerly seen him at his master’s house in Colosse, and the word of life, preached by the apostle, became the means of his conversion. Being thus brought back to God, he became affectionately attached to his spiritual father, and served him zealously as his son in the Gospel. Onesimus, being thus brought to the acknowledgment of the truth which is according to godliness, gave the apostle a full account of his elopement from his master, and no doubt intimated his wish to return and repair the breach which he had made. Though he was now both dear and necessary to St. Paul, yet, as justice required that reparation should be made, he resolved to send him back; and to remove all suspicion from the mind of Philemon, and to reconcile him to his once unfaithful servant, he wrote the following letter, in which, as Dr. Macknight expresses it, “with the greatest softness of expression, warmth of affection, and delicacy of address, he not only interceded for Onesimus’s pardon, but urged Philemon to esteem him, and put confidence in him as a sincere Christian; and because restitution, by repairing the injury that had been done, restores the person who did it to the character he had lost, the apostle, to enable Onesimus to appear in Philemon’s family with some degree of reputation, bound himself in this epistle, by his handwriting, Philemon 1:18, 19, not only to repay all that Onesimus owed to Philemon, but to make full reparation also for whatever injury he had done to him by running away.”
It is generally thought that Onesimus had robbed his master; but there is certainly nothing in the epistle from which this can be legitimately inferred; the words, “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught, put that on mine account,” Philemon 1:18, certainly do not prove it; they only state a possible case, that he might have wronged his master, or have been under some pecuniary obligation to him; and the apostle, by appearing to assume this, greatly strengthened his own argument, and met the last objection which Philemon could be supposed capable of making. There is neither justice nor piety in making things worse than they appear to be, or in drawing the most unfavourable conclusions from premises which, without constraint, will afford others more consonant to the spirit of charity.
That this epistle was written about the same time with those to the Philippians and Colossians is proved by several coincidences. “As the letter to Philemon and that to the Colossians were written,” says Dr. Paley, “at the same time, and sent by the same messenger, the one to a particular inhabitant, the other to the Church of Colosse, it may be expected that the same or nearly the same persons would be about St. Paul, and join with him, as was the practice, in the salutations of the epistle. Accordingly we find the names of Aristarchus, Marcus, Epaphras, Luke, and Demas, in both epistles. Timothy, who is joined with St. Paul in the superscription of the Epistle to the Colossians, is joined with him in this. Tychicus did not salute Philemon because he accompanied the epistle to Colosse, and would undoubtedly there see him.” It will not be forgotten that Onesimus, the bearer of this epistle, was one of the bearers of that sent to the Colossians, Colossians 4:9; that when the apostle wrote that he was in bonds, Colossians 4:3, 18, which was his case also when he wrote this; (see Philemon 1:1, 10, 13, 23;) from which, and various other circumstances, we may conclude that they were written about the same time, viz. the ninth year of Nero, A. D. 62. Other particulars relative to this epistle will be pointed out in the course of the notes, and particularly the uses which the Church of God and the private Christian may derive from it.