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Bible Commentaries

Bradley Cobb's Commentary on Philemon

Chapter 1

Book Overview - Philemon

by Bradley Cobb

The Prodigal Slave

A study of the letter to Philemon

Introduction to Philemon:

The book of Philemon is one of the shortest books in the Bible. It joins Obadiah, II John, III John, and Jude as the only 1-chapter books in Scripture. However, Its brevity does not mean it has nothing to offer to us today. Quite the opposite!

It has been said by some that Philemon has "no doctrinal importance," as if it really doesn't matter if this letter from Paul was included in the Bible or not! Since "all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable" (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and Paul's writings were called "scriptures" (2 Peter 3:15-16), the book of Philemon is both "inspired by God" and "profitable." What can we learn from this short letter? Many things!

This brief letter tells quickly the story about an old gospel preacher, imprisoned because some religious people didn't like his stand for the truth. It tells about a slave who ran from his master, intending never to be found again. It tells about a devoted Christian who was well-known, not for his preaching or his prolific writing, but instead for his care and concern for other Christians. It tells the story of a man who wanted to make things right, but was afraid that he would not get forgiveness and acceptance from the one whom he had wronged. All this and much, much more!

Before we get into the text, it is important to understand some of the background of the book.

Slavery in the Roman Empire:

Philemon owned at least one slave, a man named Onesimus. It was because of this slave that the book which bears Philemon's name was written. This slave had run away and somehow found himself with the apostle Paul. After a period of time, Paul sent Onesimus back to his master with this letter. But why would a man of God send someone back to a life of slavery?

Because of the culture in which we live today, we have ideas about slavery that did not exist in the first century. In the United States, slavery is generally viewed as inherently sinful. The idea that one man can own another is repulsive to the vast majority of Americans. However, the Bible never once condemns slavery. The book of Philemon, along with Colossians (see ), makes it clear that slavery is not sinful in and of itself.

By some estimates, there may have been as many as 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire during the first century. This is even more shocking when you note that the whole of the Roman Empire numbered 120 million! Regardless of the specific number, it is quite sufficient to say that slavery was a common practice throughout the Empire. However, not all people became slaves in the same way.

1. Some became slaves because they were part of a conquered people. When armies conquered new areas, many were taken as slaves. Sometimes it was considered a sign of prestige if you had a Greek slave, especially if that slave was an educator for your children. Others, such as the Gauls and Barbarians, were prized because of their strength. These became slaves for life.

2. Some were born to parents who were slaves, thus becoming property of the master.

3. A large section of the slave population became slaves because they owed more money than they could pay back. There were no bankruptcy courts back then. If you amassed a debt and could not pay it back, your possessions would be sold. If that still did not cover what you owed, your family would be sold or you would sell yourself into slavery. If you did not owe a tremendous amount of money, you may only have to be a slave for a relatively short time until that debt to the man was paid off. Other times, you may owe one man the money, and someone else will pay it off, buying you in the process.

4. The Plebes (the poorest class of people) would often sell themselves into slavery so that they would not starve to death. Possibly, these were the ones who were given the most menial tasks, because they did not have any skills like some of the other slaves.

Slaves literally became the property of their owners. Think about owning a car. If the car stops working well, you might decide to try to fix it, and if that does not work you might sell it or even have it crushed. If a slave was not working as well as the master wanted, the master could try to correct him (possibly by talking with him, or by punishing him). If that did not work, he might sell him to someone else, continue to beat him, or maybe even kill him. If a slave was disobedient to his master or talked back, the master had full legal right to sell the slave's wife and children as punishment.

It is also important to note that not all slaves were treated the same way. Just as there is everywhere else, good and bad people exist. There were forgiving masters, but there were also vicious masters. Some slaves were treated kindly, others were beaten mercilessly. Many masters would simply view the slave as an employee, like one might view a butler or a maid. Others made the slaves the object of all of their anger and hatred. After the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery in the US, there were some slaves who did not wish to leave their master's house. They stayed on because they had been treated well by their owners.

In the first century, slaves had the same rights as widows and orphans: none. This is the life that Paul was sending Onesimus back into. Would you be willing to go back?

The Condition of Paul:

When this book was written, the apostle Paul was in Rome, under house arrest (see Acts 28:30). We have four letters which he wrote during this time: Ephesians, Philemon, Colossians, and Philippians. Paul was arrested because he preached the truth about Jesus Christ being the only way to get to heaven. The Jews were incensed that Paul-A Jew himself, a Pharisee of Pharisees-would turn his back on Judaism. Unlike many today, the Jews took their religion seriously. It was not just something they did on the weekend in the synagogue. Their religion defined who they were. So, when one of their number turns his back on it for a different religion, they took it personally. Paul was leading Jews away from Judaism and into Christianity. But more than that, he was also inviting Gentiles into a relationship with Jehovah, the God of Israel, the one true God. To a Jew in the first century, it would be hard to tell which of the two things was worse.

Being under house arrest might not seem all that bad to us today, but it is important to set the scene. Paul would normally have been chained to a Roman soldier at all times. Keep this in mind the next time you read Ephesians 6 and Paul's description of the "whole armor of God." He had the perfect analogy standing right next to him! In addition to this "inconvenience," Paul was now not able to earn a living. House arrest was only available for Roman citizens (which Paul was) who could afford to pay for a house in which to stay. If he could not afford a house, he was cast into the general prison. How could Paul have afforded this? Only with the help of other Christians. Paul had to depend on the generosity of other Christians just to have it as "good" as he did. He was not allowed to leave the house to get food. He was not allowed to go out of the house to take messages to others. If he was sick, how would he afford a doctor? Keep this in mind when you read Philemon 1:13.

Paul was not lazy while he was imprisoned. At the end of Acts, we see that many people came in and out of the house where Paul was imprisoned, and he taught them. Also, he wrote at least four letters while there (the aforementioned "prison epistles"). It is also quite possible that Luke gathered a great deal of information from him during this time in order to write sections the book of Acts (See Acts 1:1-4, ASV). We also see Paul converting sinners (like Onesimus), encouraging Christians (via his letters), as well as working with Christians while he was in Rome (Timothy among others worked with Paul during this time).

Paul was getting along in years while in prison. Many people believe Paul was roughly the same age as Jesus Christ. It is possible that he was younger, since he was still called a "young man" Acts 7:58, which took place after the death of Christ. This letter was written around 60-62 AD, so Paul was at least 50, and possibly he was in his 60s. His life was not one of ease up to this point. A cursory glance at II Corinthians 11 shows many of the ordeals he went through. These are the types of things that can cause men to age quicker than others. Paul's age is brought out in the statement "being such a one as Paul the aged" (Philemon 1:9). Because of his age, his physical condition, and his imprisonment, Paul was truly at the mercy of other Christians.

Who is Philemon?

Philemon is only mentioned in the book which bears his name. All we know about him must be deduced from this short letter and from logical connections with a few verses in Colossians. We know that the local congregation met in his house (Philemon 1:2). We can therefore deduce that his dwelling was large enough to house the entire congregation; though how large that group was, we are not told. He owned at least one slave (Onesimus), so he was a man of above-average income. He was constantly helping Christians when he found them in need. He did this so much that word of it had spread all the way to Rome, hundreds of miles away. Therefore, Philemon must have been a rather well-to-do man.

Philemon lived in Asia Minor, which is present-day Turkey. Depending on how you read Colossians 4, it seems that Philemon either lived in Colossae or Laodicea. His slave was said to be from Colossae (whether he lived there with Philemon or was just a native of that city before becoming a slave is unclear). Why would Paul have to tell the Colossians that Onesimus was from Colossae if the church met in the house of his master? If Philemon lived in Colossae, they would have already known his slave and Paul's statement would have been meaningless. Archippus was a member of the same congregation as Philemon (Philemon 1:2). Paul says for the Colossians to take the letter also to Laodicea and to say to Archippus, "fulfill thy ministry" (Colossians 4:15-17). This leads some to believe that Archippus was the preacher in Laodicea. If this is the case, then Philemon lived in Laodicea as well. This evidence seems more convincing, although the majority of commentators believe Philemon was from Colossae.

Philemon was also a man of great love towards other Christians. Paul makes mention of this fact more than once in this short letter. Paul thanks God always for Philemon because Philemon is always helping other Christians. Paul uses this fact to his advantage later in the letter when he appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus-now a Christian-back. Paul says "I know you will do even more than I ask." A large part of this is because Paul knows Philemon's character. Philemon was not well-known for being a great preacher, a prolific writer, or a famous travelling evangelist. Instead he was known for being a dedicated Christian who put helping other Christians as his primary goal.

Philemon was converted to Christ as a result of Paul's preaching. Paul does not let Philemon forget this when he says "I do not say to thee how thou owest to me even thine own self besides" (Philemon 1:19). When did Paul convert Philemon? We have no specific record of Paul visiting either Colossae or Laodicea. However, Paul spent three years in Ephesus teaching (Acts 20:31), which caused all those in the Roman province of Asia to hear the gospel (Acts 19:10). In addition, Paul and Silas went throughout the region of Phrygia, of which Colossae and Laodicea were cities (Acts 16:6).

Like John, Paul took pride in knowing those he converted were staying faithful to the Lord. An interesting thought is this: this book is inspired by God (literally, God-breathed, see 2 Timothy 3:16). Therefore, God Himself is saying these things about Philemon. Can God say the same thing about you?

Who is Onesimus?

Onesimus was mentioned in two of Paul's letters: Philemon and Colossians. He was, at least at one point, a resident of Colossae (Colossians 4:9). Whether this is where he lived as Philemon's slave or where he lived prior to this is the subject of debate to some. If he was from Colossae, and the church met in the house of his master, there would have been no need for Paul to tell the Colossians that Onesimus was from there. They would have known him already. When that is coupled with the evidence that Archippus was from Laodicea (Colossians 4:16-17), and that he was a member at the church which met in Philemon's house (Philemon 1:2), it appears Onesimus lived in Laodicea with Philemon prior to running away.

How did Onesimus become a slave? If you remember the three ways in which people usually became slaves in the Roman Empire and remember what Paul said about Onesimus, the answer becomes clear. Onesimus was from Colossae, which had been a Roman city for over a century. Because of that, He would not have been a conquered person made to be a slave. Paul tells the Colossians that Onesimus was "one of you," which seems to indicate that they did not know this slave personally (which they would have if Philemon was a resident of Colossae and the church met in his house). Since they didn't know him, yet he was from there at one point, it shows Onesimus was not born into slavery. The only other option is that he had to sell himself into slavery to pay a debt which he owed. This makes the most sense, especially when you read Paul's words "If he owes you anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, have written it with my own hand; I will repay it" (Philemon 1:18-19). Onesimus was a slave trying to pay off a debt.

For some reason, Onesimus was no longer content being a slave. Some assume that he stole something from Philemon and ran off with it (based on their interpretation of Philemon 1:18-19). It is also just as possible that Onesimus, like so many in our own country today, don't like being told what to do. Whatever the cause, Onesimus ran, and he had no intentions of ever being found again. He didn't just run down the street or to the next town. He ended up some 600 miles away (and that is if he was able to travel by ship) in Rome. Here he was, a runaway slave on his own in a strange city.

Somehow he found the apostle Paul while in Rome. Being a slave in Philemon's house, he would have no doubt heard about Paul. It is possible that Onesimus had even met Paul before this runaway trip to Rome. Paul claims to be the one who converted Philemon, so why would we imagine that Philemon's slave would never have met him? How did Onesimus know Paul was in Rome? Was it a chance meeting? Did he run into Timothy while Paul's companion was out running errands? Is it possible that while being so far from home, Onesimus tried to find something familiar and met with the church in Rome? So many questions that we can only speculate about.

One thing we do know is this: Onesimus did not meet Paul in Rome as a result of being arrested. This theory is advanced by some, but it fails in some very obvious places. (1). If Onesimus had been arrested, he would have been put in prison, not taken to Paul's rented house. No one would have been put in Paul's rented house unless Paul made the request. (2). Onesimus was a slave, and likely would not have had the blessing of Roman citizenship. Therefore he would not have had house arrest as an option. (3). If Onesimus was under arrest, Paul would not have been able to send him back to Philemon.

Onesimus is a Greek word which means "profitable" or "useful." Remember this as you read Paul's statement about this slave once being unprofitable, but now profitable. Paul uses this play on words to tell Philemon that the slave is now living up to his name!

Other Interesting Notes:

This letter is not just addressed to Philemon, but also to Apphia (likely his wife), Archippus (some believe this is Philemon's son, but it appears also that he was the preacher there), and the church that meets in his house. Paul wanted the whole church there to know the situation. Was this to put pressure on Philemon to do what he should? Or was this something to tell the church there that they needed to accept him back as well? Was this to show to all of them that Onesimus had truly changed (if this does not show the power of the gospel, I do not know what does)? This will be dealt with more in the comments on the text.

As stated earlier, some believe that Philemon lived in Laodicea because Archippus was mentioned in connection with that city (Colossians 4:17). If this be the case, it is quite possible that the "letter from Laodicea" mentioned in Colossians 4:16 is actually this small letter to Philemon!

Uninspired tradition states that after returning to Philemon, Onesimus was released from his debt and went on to proclaim the gospel and later became an elder at the congregation in Ephesus. It appears that Paul expected Philemon to release Onesimus (offering to pay whatever was owed, saying Philemon would do even more than Paul asked), but without any inspired record to back it up, this tradition is just speculation.

Now that the stage has been set, it is time that we let the drama unfold before us.

Appendix A
How Did Onesimus Become a Slave?

As stated in the introduction, people in the Roman Empire basically became slaves in one of four ways.

1. They were part of a nation conquered by Roman armies.

2. They were born to slaves.

3. They sold themselves (or were sold) into slavery to pay off debts.

4. They sold themselves into slavery to keep from starving.

Colossae (of which Onesimus was at one time a resident - Colossians 4:9) had been a Roman city for over 100 years by the time the letter to Philemon was written. As such, Onesimus could not have been made a slave as a result of conquest. He was not even alive when Colossae pledged her allegiance to Rome. Thus, choice number one is eliminated.

Because Paul informs the Colossians that Onesimus was "of you" (meaning a native of Colossae), we must assume that the Colossians were unaware of this fact. Otherwise, why would Paul point this out? If Philemon lived in Colossae, and the church there met in his house, they would have been familiar with Onesimus and Paul's statement would, again, be pointless. But, if Philemon lived in Laodicea (see Appendix B - Where did Philemon live?), then Paul's statement to the Colossian church has meaning. This would have been information which would have endeared them to the runaway slave-turned Christian. Because Onesimus was said to be originally from Colossae, but now residing in Laodicea (again, see Appendix B), we can likely rule out that he was born to slaves. Some might wish to argue that Philemon might have moved from Colossae to Laodicea, but that would be very uncommon in those days when people kept the property in the family for generations and did not sell or move unless they were forced to.

It is assumed that Onesimus owed money to Philemon (based upon Philemon 1:18). Many think this means Onesimnus stole something from his master when he left. While this is possible, it seems more likely that Onesimus was an indentured servant, a slave who was trying to pay off a debt. Sometimes a man would owe money to a person and sell himself to that person as a slave to take care of the debt. Other times, someone else would pay the debt, purchasing the man as a slave in the process. That person would then have to work until the master declared the debt paid. Choice 3 seems to be the most likely choice.

It is possible that Onesimus was of the Plebe class who was so poor he could not afford food. He could have sold himself into slavery as a way to keep from starving. If this is the case, the only way he could owe the master anything was if he stole it. While choice 3 seems more logical, choice #4 is a possibility.

There is no specific inspired comment which spells out how he became a slave, but by the use of logic, we can narrow it down a bit.

Appendix B
Where did Philemon Live?

As was stated in the introduction, most commentators believe Philemon lived in Colossae and that the Colossian church met in his house. The reason for this belief is as follows:

1. Onesimus was Philemon's slave (Philemon 1:16).

2. Onesimus was "of" Colossae (Colossians 4:9).

3. Therefore, Philemon must have been "of" Colossae as well.

It is the belief of this writer that Philemon was not from Colossae. The reasons for this are as follows:

1. Paul had to tell the Colossian church that Onesimus was "of" Colossae. Had the church met in the house of Onesimus' master, they would have surely known that Onesimus was "of" Colossae. The fact that Paul had to point this out and introduce Onesimus to them heavily implies that they were unfamiliar with him.

2. If the church in Colossae met in Philemon's house, then we have two letters to the Colossian church (see Philemon 1:2). While true that one is more to a specific individual, Paul could have made it simply one letter, since both were going to the same place and would have been read aloud to the same people.

3. Paul tells the Colossian church to speak to Archippus (Colossians 4:16-17). If Archippus was from Colossae, Paul likely would have just given that instruction directly to him in the Colossian letter. Instead, he asks the Colossian church to do that for him. This seems to imply that Archippus was not a member of the church at Colossae, but instead elsewhere. Archippus was a member of the church that met in Philemon's house (Philemon 1:2).

4. Archippus is mentioned in conjunction with the Laodicean church (Colossians 4:16-17). The Colossians are told to make sure the Laodicean church reads Colossians, and that they read the letter that Paul had sent to Laodicea, AND to tell Archippus to fulfill the ministry. Reading those verses without any preconceived ideas would lead you to believe Archippus lived in Laodicea. Since he was a member of the church that met in Philemon's house, it appears Philemon lived in Laodicea.

Though the majority of commentators believe otherwise, it is the conclusion of this writer that Philemon resided in Laodicea, not Colossae. Again, Onesimus had to be introduced to the Colossian church (who would have already known him if Philemon lived in Colossae), Archippus is mentioned in conjunction with the church in Laodicea, and Archippus was a member where Philemon lived.

Appendix C
What is "the Letter from Laodicea"?

This might seem an odd place to discuss something from the book of Colossians, but perhaps not. It has long been the prevailing opinion that the "letter from Laodicea" has been lost to time. If this is the case, then it could not have included any doctrinal information that we do not already have. The all-powerful God said that all Scripture, given by inspiration, is profitable so that we can do all good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17) that God has planned for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). If we are missing something of doctrinal importance, then we cannot do "every good work."

However, there are two other choices which some have presented. One is that the letter to the Ephesians is actually the "letter from Laodicea." As evidence, the following is usually offered:

1. In some of the older manuscripts, the words "at Ephesus" are missing from Ephesians 1:1, which would have Paul say "to the saints" in a general.

2. Ephesians appears to be more of a circular letter, meant for the churches of a larger area instead of one specific congregation. There are no greetings to specific people, as is usually the case in Paul's letters to specific congregations. This seems odd, considering that Paul spent three years in Ephesus.

3. Because this was a circular letter, it had probably gotten to Laodicea, so Paul was telling the Colossian brethren to make sure they read the letter which was now in Laodicea.

As evidence against this, however, we offer the following:

1. The older manuscripts upon which they base this deduction are far in the minority. "at Ephesus" is well attested as the correct rendering.

2. Most (if not all) of Paul's letters were meant to be spread around to the other churches. After all, that is what Paul commanded the Colossians to do: share your letter and read the one from Laodicea. That is why we have them today!

3. Paul was 600 miles removed from Laodicea and Colossae. How could he have possibly known where a letter had gotten? A 600-mile trip took a month to complete (sometimes longer). Laodicea and Colossae were just a few miles apart. If one had an inspired letter, they would have shared it quickly with the other.

4. Evidence shows us that as a congregation received an inspired letter, they copied it down and passed it on. There would have been many copies of this letter made, and Colossae would have likely had a copy of it at the same time Laodicea did.

5. This letter, then, could not be the letter known as Ephesians, because Colossae would have gotten a copy of it quickly after Laodicea. Paul would have had no reason to tell them "make sure you read the circular letter that is probably in Laodicea by now."

Recently, this author was introduced to the idea that Philemon might fit the bill as "the letter from Laodicea." The evidence for this is as follows:

1. The church in Colossae was told to make sure the Laodiceans read the letter sent to the Colossians (Colossians 4:16). This makes sense, because it was delivered to the Colossians, and they would have had the responsibility to copy it and pass it on. The Laodiceans could not have gotten a copy of it without the Colossian Christians doing this.

2. The church in Colossae was told "make sure you read the letter from Laodicea." This is speaking of an inspired letter from Paul to the church in Laodicea. Because Paul mentions this, we can know that the Colossians would not have had the chance to read it by the time they got Paul's letter. Otherwise, there would have been no point in saying it.

3. Taking points 1 and 2 together makes it seem like the letters were sent at the same time, because neither congregation would have had the chance to see the other's letter.

4. It is commonly accepted that Colossians and Philemon were sent at the same time.

a. Paul is imprisoned when he wrote each letter.

b. He has the same companions with him in each letter.

c. Onesimus delivers both letters (Colossians 4:9, Philemon 1:10-12).

5. While trading letters with the Laodiceans, the Colossians are supposed to "say to Archippus, Take heed that thou fulfill thy ministry" (Colossians 4:17). This only makes sense if Archippus was a member of the church in Laodicea (read Colossians 4:16-17 and see what the most natural meaning to those verses says about Archippus).

6. Archippus was a member of the church which met in Philemon's house (Philemon 1:2).

7. Therefore, Philemon lived in Laodicea.

8. The letter to Philemon was meant for the whole congregation to read, thus it was not a strictly personal letter, but one which had spiritual instruction for all Christians.

9. The letter to Philemon was an inspired letter which would have been in Laodicea by the time the Colossians took their letter to them.

Philemon fits the bill better than any other option as "the letter from Laodicea."

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