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Bible Commentaries

Bradley Cobb's Commentary on Philemon
Philemon 1

 

 

Verse 1-2

The Greeting (1-3)

(1a). Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother,

Today, we wait until the end of the letter to sign our names. However, imagine receiving a letter on a scroll. If the signature was at the end, you would have to completely unroll the thing to figure out who it was from, then re-roll it to get back to the beginning. So, as is customary in all of Paul's letters, he begins by identifying himself. As a side note, this is one of the points against the theory that Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews (which is missing Paul's customary greeting).

Literally, Paul calls himself Jesus Christ's prisoner. Even more literally, it is Jesus Christ's bound-with-a-chain one. We know that Paul is imprisoned because he preached the gospel, which offended the Jews to no end (see Acts 22-28). He belongs to Jesus, and is in prison because he preached Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Paul was very good at setting up his arguments from the very beginning of his letters (see 2 Corinthians 1:1 which establishes his claim of apostleship, and then chapter 11 where he defends his apostleship). It is possible that Paul is starting off the letter to Philemon in this way to show that he knows what it is like to be under someone else's control (in Paul's case, he was under the physical control of the Roman government). He begins by identifying with Onesimus.

In Greek, certain words are given more emphasis by placing them at the beginning of a sentence or before other words. There are times when Paul calls our Lord "Christ Jesus," emphasizing his rule and authority (55 times). Other times, like here, Paul calls Him "Jesus Christ," which emphasizes His humanity (132 times). While this may seem like a minor point, it fits perfectly with the theme of the book. Paul wants Philemon to see the humanity, the compassion of Jesus Christ, and emulate it.

This letter is primarily from Paul, but Timothy is also included in the greeting. It has been often said that Timothy served as Paul's amanuensis, that is to say Timothy took dictation from Paul. Though this might be true, Timothy is nowhere in Scripture said to fulfill this role. Philemon likely knew Timothy, especially if he was converted during Paul's third missionary journey. Aside from the first two verses, the book is written solely from Paul's point of view.

(1b). unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlaborer, (2). And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:

Philemon means affectionate or beloved. Do you notice the play on words here? The beloved one is dearly beloved. But it is more than clever wordplay (see also verses 10-11). Paul is expressing sincere affection for this Christian. The following verses give Paul's reasons for his affection towards Philemon.

Not only is he beloved, but he is also a fellow laborer with Paul and Timothy. He is doing the work of the kingdom. Labor includes the idea of hard work, toiling hard over a sometimes difficult task. They are in this great work together, Paul, Timothy, and Philemon. Philemon was not a man who went on missionary journeys. That was not his role to fill in the kingdom. His labor was among the local congregation, refreshing them as they had need (see 1 Corinthians 16:15).

Apphia is a female name, and most people who are willing to guess assume that this is Philemon's wife. This seems to be the most likely solution. Why else would Paul write expressly to Philemon throughout the letter, but overall address it to Philemon and some woman? Could you see writing a letter and addressing it to a man and a woman who is not his wife? Apphia, being the wife of Philemon, would have had a vested interest in the situation of the slave. Paul would not have addressed this letter to any other woman except one in the household of Philemon. If it is not his wife, then perhaps his sister lived with him (as did Lazarus with Mary and Martha). Notice that she is also beloved (Mrs. Beloved is beloved as well).

Archippus had a specific ministry to fulfill (Colossians 4:17). Some believe this man was Philemon's son. This is indeed a possibility. It is also a very distinct possibility that Archippus was the preacher at this congregation. Both may be true at the same time. Since this letter is written primarily to Philemon, but also to his wife and the church, Archippus would need to fit into either the family category or the church category (or both). The son of Philemon would have a vested interest in this situation. But also, the preacher would have a vested interest in making sure this slave was accepted as a fellow brother. See the notes on verse 23 for a bit more about Archippus' role.

Paul also addresses the letter to the church which meets at Philemon's house. However, it is obvious the letter is primarily to Philemon because he says "the church in THY house." In the King James Version, the word "thy" (along with "thou," "thee," and "thine") are all singular nouns (referring to just one person). He is speaking specifically to Philemon with these words, but letting him know that he wants the whole congregation to be aware of this letter.


Verse 3

(3). Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace is "unmerited favor." This is something good given to us that we do not deserve, that we did not earn. By definition, any good thing from God is from His grace. After all, did we earn another day of life? Do we deserve the sunshine? Are we entitled to the Scriptures because of our fantastic behavior? Of course not! God gives us these things and more because of His grace. The ultimate gift of God's grace is salvation, eternal life (Romans 6:23). Paul is not saying a prayer (after all, he is still speaking to Philemon here, not to God), but giving his good wishes of continued blessings from God and Christ to Philemon and company.

"Grace" was also a common greeting in Greek. Just like we say "good morning" or "goodbye," they wished people good things as well. "Peace" was a common greeting in Hebrew. The Hebrew word is "Shalom." This word was integrated into names of people and places in the Old Testament. Jerusalem was originally Jebu-Shalom (peace of the Jebusites). Melchizedek was the king of Salem (Shalom), that is, the king of peace (Hebrews 7:2).

Paul is not speaking of the absence of conflict when he wishes "peace." He is stressing inner peace, tranquility, which can only come from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Don't ever think that you can achieve true peace of mind apart from God and Christ. People all the time feel that "there must be more to this life." Well-there is! If you are truly dedicating yourself to serving God and obeying His will, this peace that passes understanding will arrive (Philippians 4:7)!

Something that goes unnoticed by most Bible readers is the word "you" in the King James Version. Whenever the word "you" appears in the text, it is always plural. Today, we use "you" as singular or plural. In the King James, "thee" and "thou" are singular. "You" and "ye" are plural. Therefore, this wish of grace and peace is not just to Philemon, but to his family and the congregation there as well.


Verse 4

The Buildup (Paul's thankfulness for Philemon) (4-7)

(4). I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,

Paul's M.O. is this: build them up before you make your request. Or in the case of the Corinthians, build them up before you point out all they are doing wrong. Jesus did the same thing with the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7), as well as the other churches He addressed in the last book of the Bible. This is not to say Paul is making this stuff up. Quite the contrary, Paul is expressing true thankfulness to Philemon for the kind of person he is and the things he has done for his fellow Christians. But have you noticed that if you immediately lay into someone with all their faults, they are not likely to listen to you very long? It is also much easier to get someone to help you if you show your appreciation for them before you ever ask.

Some have translated this verse as "I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers" (NASB). This does not seem to go along with Paul's humility throughout the letter (I am a prisoner - v1, I am old - v9, I am begging you - v 9, etc…). If this was the correct rendition, we would have Paul saying "I pray all the time, and by the way I also mention you in my prayers." It would come across as Paul bragging that he prays frequently.

Others have translated this verse as "I give thanks to my God always for you when I mention you in my prayers" (Amplified version). So, Paul says "I thank God for you all the time whenever I happen to remember to mention you in my prayers"? Paul is not a redundant writer, and this translation of the verse really has no meaning.

The King James rendering fits the overall tone of the letter, as well as making the most sense. However, another translation perhaps makes it clearer: "I thank God always for you, naming you in my prayers" (McCord).

How do you feel when someone says they have been praying for you? Does it make you feel better? Does it make you feel loved? Usually when someone says this, it is because they have been praying for you to get over a sickness, disease, or to overcome a difficulty in your life. This is not what Paul is expressing to Philemon. Paul said that in his prayers, he thanks God all the time for Philemon! Imagine having an inspired apostle tell you that he is thankful for you and that he shows his thankfulness to God for you. Since this is Scripture, inspired by God, this is also God telling Philemon that He is thankful for him. Are you living the kind of life that would make God thankful for you? Are you being a blessing to other Christians?


Verse 5

(5). Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;

Paul has not been able to be with Philemon to see these things first-hand. Paul did not stay long in most places, so he was not able to see the progress of these Christians in person. This same idea is seen in the letters to the Thessalonians, with whom he spent 3 weeks before being run out of town under threat of death. Instead, Paul had to rely on what he had heard from others (1 Thessalonians 3:1-6).

Take a step back and ask yourself this question: How much work had Philemon done that would cause Paul to hear about it 600 miles away? Remember, this is before email, before text messaging, before telephones, before Western Union telegraphs. The only communication possible was word of mouth or letter. Yet somehow, 600 miles away, Paul had heard about all the work Philemon had been doing. Never underestimate the power of a good example. Isn't it refreshing to hear about the good that people are doing in the brotherhood? Too often all we hear about are the bad things.

Philemon showed love and faith towards Jesus and all Christians. "Love" is AGAPE, a decision to place the needs of others above your own desires. Philemon showed that love to Jesus by taking care of the Christians. When you truly show this type of love, people notice. Philemon showed this love to Jesus Christ by being true to Him and to the gospel.

"Faith" can also be translated here as "fidelity," "trustworthiness," or "assurance." Each of these words can help understand the nuances and complexities of the word "faith." Philemon showed his fidelity (genuineness) to Christ by being a servant to Jesus' disciples-all Christians (see John 13:14-15). He showed himself one who could be depended upon by Christ and by Christians. Are you the kind of person that other Christians can depend on? Remember that this was a time when Christians were being fiercely persecuted by both the Jews and the Romans. Finding someone you could truly depend on was extremely important. In fact, it could be a life-or-death situation. Philemon was that kind of man.


Verse 6

(6). That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

If we look back to the beginning of the sentence (v4), we see that Paul is describing why he is praying for Philemon. This thought is continued into this verse. Paul prays for him so that the sharing (communication) of his faith might become even more effective. The word "communication" comes from the word KOINONIA, which means something in common. It is translated in various places as "sharing," "communication," "fellowship" and others. In this verse, it means sharing his faith so that others can have the faith as well, making it common between them.

The sharing of our faith will become more effective as we realize and acknowledge all the good things which God has given to us who are "in Christ." All spiritual blessings are "in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3). Forgiveness of sins. Salvation. Sanctification. Eternal life. Grace. Peace. These are all spiritual blessings that are only available to those "in Christ." This fact should motivate us to go out and spread our faith even more! Do you want others to have the grace of God? Peace? Eternal life? What are you doing to show that?

Hugo McCord's translation says it this way: "I pray, that as you realize the good things that are ours in Christ, you may be active in sharing your faith."


Verse 7

(7). For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.

The word "for" shows a reason for what has previously been said. Paul says that he prays always for Philemon because he (and Timothy and other Christians) has great joy and consolation in Philemon's love. It is very easy to constantly pray for someone who has been helpful to advancing the cause of Christ. Can the same thing be said of you?

Paul's joy and consolation (or comfort) comes because Philemon shows AGAPE love. AGAPE is not an emotional love. Instead, it is a decision to put the needs of others above your own wants or desires. Because Philemon actually lives this out, Paul has great comfort. Many Christians are beneficiaries of Philemon's love. He shares with others, helping them in their afflictions, both physical and spiritual.

This section of the letter spells out what Philemon was known for. Did Paul say he was a great preacher? No. Did Paul say he was a great writer whose work appeared in all the brotherhood periodicals? No. Did Paul commend Philemon for speaking on all the brotherhood lectureships? No. Philemon was known for being a kind-hearted Christian who used what he had to help out other Christians. This is not a bad thing to be known for! What are YOU known for?


Verse 8-9

The Request

(8). Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, (9a). Yet for love"s sake I rather beseech thee,

Paul has the authority as an apostle to tell other Christians what they should do in their Christian walk. He has the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so all of his messages for Christians come from God Himself. Paul could have commanded Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a slave and as a brother in Christ. Doing that, though, could cause animosity. Often, a person has decided to get something done, but then someone else tells them to do it. The desire the person had in the first place to accomplish the task has disappeared because it no longer seems like their own choice, but something they are being forced to do.

Instead of demanding that Philemon do this thing which is convenient(befitting or proper), Paul asks-rather begs-Philemon for this. Paul begs out of love. Paul knows what kind of person Philemon is (see verses 4-7), and so he simply begs Philemon to continue to be the kind of person he is known for.

Perhaps we should take the attitude of Paul (asking instead of commanding) when we are trying to get others to do certain things. One makes the person feel appreciated; the other makes him feel like he is inferior.

(9b). being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

Beginning in this verse, Paul begins to give Philemon a guilt-trip. Paul is not lying about his situation, but pointing it out for his own advantage. He is basically saying, "Philemon, you are always helpful to Christians. You do everything you can to help them. So, I'm going to request something of you. As you make your decision, please remember I'm old and imprisoned."

If Philemon was going to help Christians, who would be in more need of help than an old man who was jailed with no means of support except from other Christians? As discussed in the introduction, Paul was not allowed to leave the house. He had no way to work and earn money to pay for the house he was renting. If not for the help of Christians, he would have been thrown in the common prison.

Paul's age is never given specifically. He is called a "young man" at the end of Acts 7, but here described himself as "aged." For sure, the life he lived and the things he experienced caused him to age quicker than the average person (see II Corinthians 11). Philemon was written approximately 25-30 years after Paul first came on the scene persecuting Christians. It depends on who you want to trust, but some have said that men were called "young" even into their 30s. Others say that anyone under the age of 30 was considered a "young man." Giving those not-to-specific parameters, Paul was anywhere from 45-60 when he wrote to Philemon. Obviously the higher ages would be more in line with Paul calling himself "aged." If the younger ages were true, Paul would be lying about being old.

He is a prisoner because of the preaching of Jesus Christ (see notes on verse 1). This should also make Philemon want to help Paul. When someone is persecuted for doing the right thing, people sympathize with him. The apostle is using his situation to build sympathy with Philemon to get him to want to grant Paul's wish. Then Paul drops the bomb.


Verse 10

(10). I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:

Paul has praised Philemon for being such a kind, caring Christian. Paul then foregoes his authority as an apostle and instead makes a request of Philemon. Afterwards, he builds sympathy by saying "I'm old and a prisoner." Then he makes his request.

This request is coming from Paul, but it is not for Paul. The request is for Onesimus. Onesimus was Philemon's slave, who ran away apparently owing a good deal of money (he likely became Philemon's slave in order to pay off a debt). Philemon never expected to see Onesimus again, let alone in this way. What would you think if someone ran off owing you a lot of money? Would you not be upset? Angry, perhaps? Now, time has passed, and the one who wronged Philemon is coming back.

Paul does not call Onesimus "your slave," but instead calls him "my son." Obviously Paul is not Onesimus' literal physical father (after all, Paul was not married, and Onesimus is being sent back to Philemon). Instead, Paul taught Onesimus the gospel, so he is Paul's son in the faith (see 1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4). Paul is a prisoner at this time, and taught Onesimus while still in that condition. Hence the words "whom I have begotten in my bonds."

Paul subtly adds that he is in chains, adding to the sympathy he is building up inside Philemon. Notice that throughout the next few verses Paul speaks of Onesimus, but then reminds Philemon that this is something that he, Paul, is requesting. This is Paul's way of diffusing any hard feelings which likely would arise.


Verse 11

(11). Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

Here, Paul uses a bit of humor to lighten what might otherwise be a tense situation. He tells Philemon that Onesimus (which means "useful" or "profitable") was once unprofitable. He is saying that the slave did not live up to his name before. Now, this one named "Profitable" is indeed profitable!

Notice how Paul phrases this. In the past, Onesimus was unprofitable to you. Now he is profitable to the both of us!

How is Onesimus profitable to both of them? He is profitable to Paul because he had been helping the apostle, ministering for him during Onesimus' stay in Rome with him (see verse 13). He delivered the letter to the Colossians, and likely hand-delivered the letter to his master, Philemon (see Colossians 4:7-9). He is profitable to Philemon because he is a Christian. He will now be a useful helper to this helpful Christian. He will now also be a useful slave to his master.

It is even more interesting to note that this runaway slave is returning to his master with the Colossian letter in hand. That letter spells out that slaves are to obey their master in everything (Colossians 3:22). Whether Philemon lived in Colossae or Laodicea, the Colossian letter would have gotten to him (Colossians 4:16). How would you feel, returning to someone you had wronged with a letter saying you had to obey him in everything? Onesimus was willing to do this very thing! This shows the power of the gospel to change people!


Verse 12

(12). Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

Here we see that Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. Paul has been building sympathy for himself, and now he is reminding Philemon that it is he, Paul, who sent Onesimus back. This is important because Onesimus was very beneficial to Paul, yet Paul is sending him back because it is the right thing to do (see the next two verses).

Now, Paul expresses his feelings for Onesimus. Paul calls him "mine own bowels" or "my very heart" (McCord, ASV). This runaway slave has proven himself to be a "beloved" brother (Colossians 4:9). This is something that takes time. You do not prove yourself and endear yourself to someone over the course of a week. How long had Onesimus been in Rome with Paul before he was sent back? We are not told. However, since it takes time for someone to prove themselves to be profitable, and it takes time for someone to become "beloved," we can safely assume Onesimus had been with Paul for at least a few months.

What can we learn from this? Problems need to be resolved, but sometimes it takes a while before we can fix them. Paul obviously did not send Onesimus back immediately upon converting him to Christ. This man needed time to mature and understand the need to go back to his rightful place. But make no mistake about it, he had to go back. Becoming a Christian does not dissolve this relationship. But he had left already before becoming a Christian, why would he have to go back? Because he had an obligation to someone else.

How many people believe that if you divorce unscripturally and then become a Christian that the marriage is no longer valid and you can remarry whomever you want? See Matthew 19:9. Becoming a Christian does not in any way eliminate the obligation to your spouse! Becoming a Christian is all about reconciliation. We are reconciled to God through Christ. As evidenced by Onesimus, we are to be reconciled to those whom we have wronged (if an unscriptural divorce occurred, someone has been wronged). It may take time to mature to the point where it can be done, but the obligation still exists!


Verse 13

(13). Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:

Here, Paul adds a bit more of the subtle guilt-trip. Let us look back and see what all he has said to this end.

1. I am a prisoner (verse 1)

2. I am old (verse 9)

3. I am a prisoner (verse 9)

4. I am in chains (verse 10)

5. I am sending my own heart to you (verse 12)

6. I would have kept him here so he could do the work you should be doing for me…(verse 13)

From a purely human perspective, Paul did not want to send Onesimus back. Onesimus had become a good friend, a good helper, and a profitable brother. Why would Paul want to lose that? But from the perspective of doing what is right, Paul knew he had to send Onesimus back to his owner and master, Philemon.

Philemon is informed that he could have been helping Paul during his struggles in Rome. Obviously Philemon knew about Paul and his situation, otherwise Paul would not have made this statement. Philemon apparently had the means to help Paul (we noticed in the introduction that the evidence points to Philemon being a man of wealth), but had not done it. Paul's words carry the idea of "Onesimus was doing this work on behalf of you." Since Onesimus was property, anything he did was credited to his master.

Notice again at the end of the verse that Paul brings up the fact that he is in chains. Onesimus could have ministered to him while Paul was "in the bonds of the gospel." Paul reminds Philemon that he is imprisoned, not for anything he did wrong, but because he was preaching the gospel. In one fell swoop, Paul caters to Philemon's sympathies (I am in chains) and to his Christian side (I am in chains because of the gospel). Paul is quite adept.


Verse 14

(14). But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.

Herein is a lesson that many need to learn. It is always better to receive obedience because someone wants to do it instead of because they are forced to do it. Imagine your children. What brings more satisfaction to you as a parent: your child cleaning his room of his own accord, or his cleaning the room because you have commanded him to do it? This is the attitude we try to instill in our children regarding attending worship services. We go because we want to go, not because we have to go.

Paul is not going to force Philemon to help him (though Onesimus). After all, that would be giving the master no choice over his own property. In effect, Paul would have become the master. Instead, Paul sends the slave back so that it can be Philemon's own choice if he sends Onesimus back to him.

Notice that Paul gives a subtle suggestion. I am not going to keep him here without your permission. Instead I want you to choose to have the benefits which come from letting him help me. Paul is subtly suggesting that he wants Philemon to send Onesimus back to him. The only thing Paul has exclusively asked for is that Philemon receives Onesimus back as a faithful Christian (see also verses 16-17). But Paul also says "I know you will do even more than I ask" (verse 21).


Verse 15

(15). For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;

In addition to appealing to Philemon's human side (sympathy) and his spiritual side, Paul now brings God's providence into the discussion.

Many times things happen and we don't know why. Is there some greater purpose being served? Is God working things out in a specific way so that something else can happen later? Sometimes the answer is "yes." Sometimes the answer is "no." God does not send out emails letting us know that He is working out specific situations so that later on something good will come. We will not know, this side of eternity, how much on this earth is God's providence. What greater good comes from stubbing my toe? Did God use that providentially? Not likely.

Philemon must have wondered why Onesimus ran away in the first place. This was likely something that was at the forefront of his mind whenever his slave's name was mentioned. Paul here renders all of that questioning meaningless. It does not matter what caused him to run away. Perhaps this was all part of God's plan. Had Onesimus not run away, he would never have come into contact with Paul. Had he not come into contact with Paul, he never would have become a Christian. Which is better: having a slave whose soul is lost or having a slave who runs away, but later returns as a Christian? The answer to the question is obvious. Now that Onesimus has returned as a Christian, Philemon will have no worries that this slave will run away again.

Look back in your life. What great influences in your life brought you to Christ? Would you have your spouse if not for certain events or people? What if you never met those people? What trying events made you a stronger person and better prepared for something later in life? Do you realize that some of these things may indeed be God working things out for your benefit? Have faith in God during the bad times, because you never know what great things He has in store for you in the future!


Verse 16

(16). Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

Paul here does a comparison between what Philemon lost (a slave) and what he is getting back (a slave and a beloved brother). Talk about gaining interest! The value of Onesimus has multiplied greatly! How many of us would gladly lose $100 for a few years if we knew that we would be receiving back a million? Yet the value of a soul is worth far more than any amount of money!

Onesimus is not just a slave, but more than a slave. He is now going to be helpful in the physical as well as the spiritual things. Paul understood this well, because this was the role Onesimus was filling for him before this new Christian was sent back to his master.

When you hear from a missionary in Africa that there were 10 baptisms, and that they are all staying faithful, does that make you happy? Excited? Now, imagine you get a phone call saying that your brother or your best friend has become a Christian and is faithful. In all honesty, which one affects you more? Which one makes you happier? When you know someone, and they obey the gospel, it obviously affects you more. This is especially true if it was someone you never expected to become a Christian.

This is the message Paul is trying to get across. Onesimus' conversion was great for Paul, because it was another soul saved. For Philemon, it was even better, because now he's getting back his slave and a brother as well. Onesimus was, in effect, part of Philemon's family. So now Philemon can say that Onesimus is family-physically and spiritually! Philemon should be excited about this.

Look at all the ways thus far Paul has approached this request:

1. He appeals to Philemon's love as a Christian.

2. He appeals to Philemon's sympathy.

3. He appeals to Philemon's duty as a Christian with money (see 1 Timothy 6:17-18).

4. He appeals to Philemon's trust in God (providence).

5. He appeals to Philemon's excitement over conversion of family.


Verse 17

(17). If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.

Is there really any doubt that Philemon counted Paul as a partner? Of course not. However, using the word "if" instead of the word "since" makes it completely Philemon's decision what to do next. If Paul had said "since you count me as a partner, receive him as myself," it would have been a command; something that Paul said he would not do in this matter (verses 8-9).

"Partner" is the word KOINONOS (see notes on verse 6), which means one who shares, an associate, a partaker. Paul is referring to the fact that they share in the grace of God, the blessings of God, and the eternal reward from God which comes by being a faithful Christian. 1 John 1:7 says that fellowship (sharing, commonality, KOINONIA) exists when we walk in the light, as He is in the light. Both Paul and Philemon had been fulfilling their role within the church, thus both were partners in the gospel.

Paul makes a request that Philemon can't refuse. If he refused to receive Onesimus back, he would be rejecting Paul. This shows just how much Onesimus had changed. The apostle Paul put his reputation on the line for this man. Are you the kind of person that people are willing to vouch for like this? Also, are you the kind of person who will trust people when they show they've changed? Now, imagine you are Philemon. What choice do you have but to accept Onesimus back?


Verse 18

(18). If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;

It is from this verse that most commentators get the idea that Onesimus had stolen something (money perhaps) from Philemon when he left. Paul does not say "since Onesimus stole something from you, forgive him."

Obviously, Onesimus had wronged Philemon by running out on him. All the work which Onesimus was supposed to do was now having to be taken care of by someone else. Paul is asking Philemon to act as a Christian should and forgive Onesimus. This former slave can obviously not go back in time and fix the problem. The only thing he can do is to try to be the best slave he can be in the present and in the future.

This is a lesson that many people need to learn. Many want to hold the past against people forever. Paul is telling Philemon that he needs to put the past behind him. And if he still wants to hold grudges, Paul says "transfer that to me." This again shows Paul's love and confidence in Onesimus. If Onesimus ran off again, Paul looks like a nave, trusting fool for putting his own reputation on the line for a runaway slave. But Paul shows that we are to trust others when they say they've changed.

Remember Jesus' words to Peter? Peter said "how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Seven times?" Jesus' response was "not until seven times, but seventy times seven!" (Matthew 18:21-22). Jesus later went on to say "and his lord was wroth and delivered him to the tormenters till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do unto you if ye FROM YOUR HEARTS forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (Matthew 18:34-35). Luke 17:4 says that even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and seven times comes to you saying "I repent," you are to forgive him. This is what Philemon was now going to have to put into practice.

Notice, though, that Paul says "if he owes you anything, put it on my account." Do you remember in the introduction section of this book how many people became slaves because they owed money and had to sell themselves into slavery to pay their debts? Onesimus was probably a slave because of this very thing. Quite possibly he was a slave for Philemon to pay off a debt. Paul is asking Philemon to forgive that debt. This could very well be Paul saying "release Onesimus and send him back to me. I'll take care of paying off whatever he still owes you." This becomes even more clear as you see Paul say "refresh MY bowels in the Lord" (v 20) just like he'd been refreshing the bowels of others in the Lord (v 7). Also notice in verse 21, Paul says he is sure that Philemon will do even more than Paul has asked.


Verse 19

(19). I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.

To emphasize the point, Paul wrote at least this section of the letter with his own hand. Many people believe Timothy (and others) wrote the letters that Paul dictated to them (see notes on verse 1). If this is the case, it makes this verse stand out even more, because Paul made sure to give his "signature" and promise with his own hand. Paul said this was something he did in every one of his letters (2 Thessalonians 3:17). As a side note, this is something noticeably absent from the book of Hebrews, which many claim Paul wrote.

Lest there be any confusion, Paul solidifies his statement: I will repay it. The apostle does not expect Philemon to simply transfer a debt to Paul that Paul could never repay. Paul promises that if Philemon wants to be paid, Paul himself will take care of paying for it. Are you willing to go this far for anyone you know? Would you tell someone "whatever they owe, let me know, and I will pay it"? Perhaps if you are quite wealthy, or else you know the debt to be small, you might. However, look at Paul. Here he is, depending on the aid of fellow Christians so he can have the "blessing" of being chained to a Roman soldier, unable to leave a rented house. He is not wealthy in money at all. Now, look at Onesimus' situation. Onesimus was a slave because he owed a great deal of money. This is more than Paul could possibly pay on his own, but he is willing to take over the debt and find a way to pay it so that Onesimus is no longer held accountable for it.

Paul is acting as a mediator between Philemon and Onesimus. Onesimus owes a debt he could not pay. Paul is offering to pay the debt that he himself did not owe so that Onesimus could be free. Does that remind you of anything else in Scriptures? Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and man (2 Timothy 2:5). We owe a debt that we cannot ever pay back. Jesus offers to pay the debt that he did not owe so that we can be free (John 3:16).

The last half of this verse has Paul adding to the guilt trip again. Remember, Paul said he was old, in chains, imprisoned, and sent his own heart back to Philemon. Now, Paul says "by the way, don't forget that you owe me your life anyway." You have to smile at Paul's way of just throwing that little note in there. If Philemon had any reservations about doing what Paul was asking, this part of the letter likely took them all away. Do you tell someone who saved your life that you won't do anything for them? How could Philemon refuse?

How does Philemon owe Paul his life? Paul is the one who converted Philemon. When and where is a subject about which the Bible is silent, so we can only speculate (see the introduction for two possibilities). Paul is the one who introduced Philemon to the good news of Jesus Christ. As such, Philemon was forever in his debt. Paul knew the feeling of being indebted. Since he was forgiven, he had a debt to every other sinner to tell them how to be forgiven as well (Romans 1:14). There is nothing more valuable than your soul (Matthew 16:26).


Verse 20

(20). Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.

Now, Paul goes to pleading. It is an earnest, sincere plea that Philemon do those things which will bring joy to Paul. If you look back at Paul's thankfulness for Philemon, it was because this man helped those saints who were in need. He refreshed them. This brought joy to Paul and other faithful Christians. Paul, throughout this letter, has shown that he is indeed a Christian who is in need. So, Paul asks to be "refreshed."

Is Paul blatantly asking for Philemon to release Onesimus and send him back? No. But, as we have seen throughout this study, Paul has indeed heavily hinted at it quite a bit (and will more in the next verse). But, even if Philemon simply receives Onesimus back, forgives him for running off, and accepts him as a brother in Christ, Paul would be overjoyed.


Verse 21

(21). Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

Knowing the kind of person Philemon was, Paul was assured that he would accept Onesimus back as a brother, forgiving him for any wrong he had done. What amazing confidence! And remember, all Scripture is God-breathed, so this is God showing confidence in Philemon. Can people show such confidence in you? Is God confident that you will obey (see Job 1:8)?

Paul did not make any commands, but he is sure Philemon will obey. What is there to obey if Paul did not command anything? Literally, the word translated "obedience" is "to hear under" as in listening to the advice, council, or commands of one in authority. The implication is that the advice will be heard and followed. This is why it is translated "obedience." Paul knows that Philemon will take his advice/request and follow it.

But Paul's confidence does not end with knowing Philemon will do what he has explicitly asked for. Paul knows that Philemon is a man that goes above and beyond what is asked. He has that "go the second mile" mentality that Christ spoke of in Matthew 5:41. Are you the kind of person who only does what you must do to get by? So many Christians have the attitude of "tell me what the least is that I have to do in order to go to heaven." They don't want to put any effort into their Christianity. Philemon was obviously not this kind of person. Philemon did above what people asked. Remember the churches of Macedonia (2 Corinthians 8:2-3)? They gave beyond what Paul even expected they could give. We need to be more like Philemon and the Macedonians.


Verse 22

Final Request and Greetings (22-25)

(22). But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.

Paul has a great trust in the power of prayer. This verse does not speak solely to Philemon, but to the entire congregation meeting in his house (see verses 1-2). The word "you" in the King James Version is always plural. Paul fully expects faithful Christians to be praying for him. He also fully expects that their prayers will be granted so that he can be released and see them.

Paul is so confident that he asks Philemon to prepare a place for him to stay when he gets there. So often, people pray for things, but do not make preparations to show they expect the prayers to be answered. There is a story about a man who owned a farm in a very dry area. Every day before he went out to the fields to work, he would grab his umbrella. Many people made fun of him, but he simply said, "If I'm going to pray for rain, I need to be prepared when God sends it!" Do you pray, truly expecting that your prayer will be answered? Or do you, like so many others, expect the answer to be "no" before you even say "amen"? Show some confidence in your prayers! Jesus Christ died so that we could boldly come before the throne of grace with our petitions (Hebrews 4:16).

We do not have record of when Paul was released or if he was ever able to come back to the area of Colossae/Laodicea. The book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome. It is generally believed that Paul was released after a two-year imprisonment, but was again captured and then put to death around 68 AD. The reason for this is Paul's optimism that he will be released (see this verse), but in II Timothy, Paul expects to be executed (2 Timothy 4:6-8). Also, Timothy was with Paul when Philemon was written, but obviously not with Paul when II Timothy was written.

This last request of Paul (prepare me a lodging place) had multiple purposes. One was so he could come and visit with the congregation there. Another one was so he could see for himself that Philemon had followed through with the things Paul had requested. Paul left no bases uncovered in this letter.


Verse 23

(23). There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;

This is the equivalent, in our letters, as saying "by the way, John says to tell you ‘hi'." Epaphras sends his greetings to the church in Philemon's house.

Epaphras came to Paul in Rome, updating him about the church in Colossae (Colossians 1:6-7). It appears that he was the preacher for the church there, but he was also very familiar with the congregations in Hieropolis and Laodicea, just a few miles away (Colossians 4:12-13). It is also possible that he preached on a rotation basis between the three cities.

It appears that between the time he came to Rome and the time Paul wrote to Philemon, Epaphras was also arrested for preaching (because Paul calls him a fellowprisoner). Because Paul includes him in this greeting, it also must be the case that Epaphras was allowed to share Paul's rented house (at Paul's request as a Roman citizen, of course).

Since he was arrested, this could explain why Paul tells the Colossian church to tell Archippus to take heed of the ministry which he has received in the Lord and fulfill it (Colossians 4:17). Archippus quite possibly will now have to take on the role of preaching in these congregations since Epaphras will not be returning for a while.


Verse 24

(24). Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.

Marcus is most likely John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas who went with Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey, but left halfway (Acts 15:37-39). It was over Mark that Paul and Barnabas split up (Acts 15:39). Later, Mark was viewed as a close associate of Paul who was very valuable to him (2 Timothy 4:11). Mark possibly was converted by Peter (1 Peter 5:13).

Aristarchus was also a prisoner with Paul (Colossians 4:10). This man was a Macedonian from Thessalonica who travelled with Paul on some of his journeys (Acts 20:4) including the journey to Rome where he was now imprisoned (Acts 27:2). In Ephesus, Aristarchus was dragged into the stadium by the angry silversmith, Demitrius, because he was one of Paul's companions (Acts 19:29). It is quite the compliment to Aristarchus that even after that event, he stuck with Paul.

Demas is only known to us because Paul includes him in his greetings here and in Colossians 4:14. Demas was one who labored for the Lord along with Paul, even during this imprisonment which Paul was suffering. The sad part of the story is that the last mention of him is in 2 Timothy 4:10, where Paul says "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world." Demas' focus changed from the spiritual life to the physical life. Instead of continuing in his work for the Lord, Demas let temporal concerns take precedence. How many members of the Lord's church are the same way?

Lucas is probably Luke, the beloved physician (Colossians 4:14), who wrote the gospel account bearing his name and the book of Acts. He is known to be with Paul at this time (Colossians 4:14), and was a constant travelling companion of Paul's (see many sections of Acts where the writer says "we" did this and "we" did that). Luke was the only one with Paul when he was awaiting execution (2 Timothy 4:11). When you ask "who wrote most of the New Testament?" most people will answer that Paul did. But, When you add up Luke's gospel account and the book of Acts, you will find that Luke wrote more of the New Testament than any other writer. Tradition says that Luke, along with Titus, were the ones who took dictation from Paul in writing II Corinthians (some editions of the King James Version have that information added to the last verse of the book).


Verse 25

(25). The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Just as Paul started the letter with a wish of grace from God and Christ to Philemon and company (verse 3), so he ends it. Grace means "unmerited favor," but it does not mean that God gives it to everyone. His grace only comes to those who obey Him (Genesis 6:8, Psalms 84:11, Acts 14:26). So, this wish is for the grace of Jesus Christ to continue. By definition, that means that Paul is wishing for the congregation there to continue to walk with God. That is the only way they can continue to have the grace of Jesus Christ.

Does Paul mean the human spirit? Or does he mean their attitude? Either one is an acceptable application. The grace of God certainly should be with our human spirit (if we obey). The grace of God should be as a result of our correct attitudes as well.

Amen is a common ending for many letters of the New Testament. Only Acts, James, and III John do not have this as the final word. It means "so be it," "let it be," or "I agree."

(Addendum) Written from Rome to Philemon, by Onesimus a servant.

This extra note appears at the end of some editions of the King James Version (and some other translations). This shows the tradition surrounding who took the dictation from Paul, from where it was written, and sometimes by whom it was delivered. If Paul did not hand-write the entire letter, then it was one of his companions that did. However, none of us were there to see exactly who put the pen to parchment. According to ancient tradition, Onesimus actually wrote out the letter himself (using the words Paul said to write).

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Copyright Statement
These files are a derivative of an electronic edition available at BibleSupport.com. Public Domain.

Bibliography Information
Cobb, Bradley. "Commentary on Philemon 1:4". "Bradley Cobb's Commentary on Philemon". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cob/philemon-1.html. 2014

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, May 26th, 2019
the <>Sixth Sunday after Easter
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