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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

- Philemon

by William Barclay



The Letters Of Paul

There is no more interesting body of documents in the New Testament than the letters of Paul. That is because of all forms of literature a letter is most personal. Demetrius, one of the old Greek literary critics, once wrote, "Every one reveals his own soul in his letters. In every other form of composition it is possible to discern the writer's character, but in none so clearly as the epistolary." (Demetrius, On Style, 227). It is just because he left us so many letters that we feel we know Paul so well. In them he opened his mind and heart to the folk he loved so much; and in them, to this day, we can see that great mind grappling with the problems of the early church, and feel that great heart throbbing with love for men, even when they were misguided and mistaken.

The Difficulty Of Letters

At the same time, there is often nothing so difficult to understand as a letter. Demetrius (On Style, 223) quotes a saying of Artemon, who edited the letters of Aristotle. Artemon said that a letter ought to be written in the same manner as a dialogue, because it was one of the two sides of a dialogue. In other words, to read a letter is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. So when we read the letters of Paul we are often in a difficulty. We do not possess the letter which he was answering; we do not fully know the circumstances with which he was dealing; it is only from the letter itself that we can deduce the situation which prompted it. Before we can hope to understand fully any letter Paul wrote, we must try to reconstruct the situation which produced it.

The Ancient Letters

It is a great pity that Paul's letters were ever called epistles. They are in the most literal sense letters. One of the great lights shed on the interpretation of the New Testament has been the discovery and the publication of the papyri. In the ancient world, papyrus was the substance on which most documents were written. It was composed of strips of the pith of a certain bulrush that grew on the banks of the Nile. These strips were laid one on top of the other to form a substance very like brown paper. The sands of the Egyptian desert were ideal for preservation, for papyrus, although very brittle, will last forever so long as moisture does not get at it. As a result, from the Egyptian rubbish heaps, archaeologists have rescued hundreds of documents, marriage contracts, legal agreements, government forms, and, most interesting of all, private letters. When we read these private letters we find that there was a pattern to which nearly all conformed; and we find that Paul's letters reproduce exactly that pattern. Here is one of these ancient letters. It is from a soldier, called Apion, to his father Epimachus. He is writing from Misenum to tell his father that he has arrived safely after a stormy passage.

"Apion sends heartiest greetings to his father and lord Epimachus.

I pray above all that you are well and fit; and that things are

going well with you and my sister and her daughter and my brother.

I thank my Lord Serapis [his god] that he kept me safe when I was

in peril on the sea. As soon as I got to Misenum I got my journey

money from Caesar--three gold pieces. And things are going fine

with me. So I beg you, my dear father, send me a line, first to let

me know how you are, and then about my brothers, and thirdly, that

I may kiss your hand, because you brought me up well, and because

of that I hope, God willing, soon to be promoted. Give Capito my

heartiest greetings, and my brothers and Serenilla and my friends.

I sent you a little picture of myself painted by Euctemon. My

military name is Antonius Maximus. I pray for your good health.

Serenus sends good wishes, Agathos Daimon's boy, and Turbo,

Gallonius' son." (G. Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri,


Little did Apion think that we would be reading his letter to his father 1800 years after he had written it. It shows how little human nature changes. The lad is hoping for promotion quickly. Who will Serenilla be but the girl he left behind him? He sends the ancient equivalent of a photograph to the folk at home. Now that letter falls into certain sections. (i) There is a greeting. (ii) There is a prayer for the health of the recipients. (iii) There is a thanksgiving to the gods. (iv) There are the special contents. (v) Finally, there are the special salutations and the personal greetings. Practically every one of Paul's letters shows exactly the same sections, as we now demonstrate.

(i) The Greeting: Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Php_1:1 ; Colossians 1:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1.

(ii) The Prayer: in every case Paul prays for the grace of God on the people to whom he writes: Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Php_1:3 ; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2.

(iii) The Thanksgiving: Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3; Php_1:3 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3.

(iv) The Special Contents: the main body of the letters.

(v) Special Salutations and Personal Greetings: Romans 16:1-27; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Php_4:21-22 ; Colossians 4:12-15; 1 Thessalonians 5:26.

When Paul wrote letters, he wrote them on the pattern which everyone used. Deissmann says of them, "They differ from the messages of the homely papyrus leaves of Egypt, not as letters but only as the letters of Paul." When we read Paul's letters we are not reading things which were meant to be academic exercises and theological treatises, but human documents written by a friend to his friends.

The Immediate Situation

With a very few exceptions, all Paul's letters were written to meet an immediate situation and not treatises which he sat down to write in the peace and silence of his study. There was some threatening situation in Corinth, or Galatia, or Philippi, or Thessalonica, and he wrote a letter to meet it. He was not in the least thinking of us when he wrote, but solely of the people to whom he was writing. Deissmann writes, "Paul had no thought of adding a few fresh compositions to the already extant Jewish epistles; still less of enriching the sacred literature of his nation. He had no presentiment of the place his words would occupy in universal history; not so much that they would be in existence in the next generation, far less that one day people would look at them as Holy Scripture." We must always remember that a thing need not be transient because it was written to meet an immediate situation. All the great love songs of the world were written for one person, but they live on for the whole of mankind. It is just because Paul's letters were written to meet a threatening danger or a clamant need that they still throb with life. And it is because human need and the human situation do not change that God speaks to us through them today.

The Spoken Word

One other thing we must note about these letters. Paul did what most people did in his day. He did not normally pen his own letters but dictated them to a secretary, and then added his own authenticating signature. (We actually know the name of one of the people who did the writing for him. In Romans 16:22 Tertius, the secretary, slips in his own greeting before the letter draws to an end). In 1 Corinthians 16:21 Paul says, "This is my own signature, my autograph, so that you can be sure this letter comes from me." (compare Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17.)

This explains a great deal. Sometimes Paul is hard to understand, because his sentences begin and never finish; his grammar breaks down and the construction becomes involved. We must not think of him sitting quietly at a desk, carefully polishing each sentence as he writes. We must think of him striding up and down some little room, pouring out a torrent Paul composed his letters, he had in his mind's eye a vision of words, while his secretary races to get them down. When of the folk to whom he was writing, and he was pouring out his heart to them in words that fell over each other in his eagerness to help.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


The Unique Letter

In one thing this little letter to Philemon is unique. It is the only private letter of Paul which we possess. Doubtless Paul must have written many private letters but of them all only Philemon has survived. Apart altogether from the grace and the charm which pervade it, this fact gives it a special significance.

Onesimus, The Runaway Slave

There are two possible reconstructions of what happened. One is quite straightforward; the other, connected with the name of E. J. Goodspeed, is rather more complicated and certainly more dramatic. Let us take the simple view first.

Onesimus was a runaway slave and very probably a thief into the bargain. "If he has done you any damage," Paul writes, "or, if he owes you anything, put it down to my account--I will repay it" ( Philemon 1:18-19). Somehow the runaway had found his way to Rome, to lose himself in the thronging streets of that great city, somehow he had come into contact with Paul, and somehow he had become a Christian, the child whom Paul had begotten in his bonds ( Philemon 1:10).

Then something happened. It was obviously impossible for Paul to go on harbouring a runaway slave and something brought the problem to a head. Perhaps it was the coming of Epaphras. It may be that Epaphras recognized Onesimus as a slave he had seen at Colosse, and that thereupon the whole wretched story came out; or, it may be that, with the coming of Epaphras, the conscience of Onesimus moved him to make a clean breast of all his discreditable past.

Paul Sends Onesimus Back

In the time that he had been with him, Onesimus had made himself very nearly indispensable to Paul; and Paul would have liked to keep him beside him. "I would have been glad to keep him with me," he writes ( Philemon 1:13). But he will do nothing without the consent of Philemon, Onesimus' master ( Philemon 1:14). So he sends Onesimus back. No one knew better than Paul how great a risk he was taking. A slave was not a person; he was a living tool. A master had absolute power over his slaves. "He can box their ears or condemn them to hard labour--making them, for instance, work in chains upon his lands in the country, or in a sort of prison-factory. Or, he may punish them with blows of the rod, the lash or the knot; he can brand them upon the forehead, if they are thieves or runaways, or, in the end, if they prove irreclaimable, he can crucify them." Pliny tells how Vedius Pollio treated a slave. The slave was carrying a tray of crystal goblets into the courtyard; he dropped and broke one; on the instant Pollio ordered him to be thrown into the fishpond in the middle of the court, where the savage lampreys tore him to pieces. Juvenal draws the picture of the mistress who will beat her maidservant at her caprice and the master who "delights in the sound of a cruel flogging, deeming it sweeter than any siren's song," who is never happy "until he has summoned a torturer and he can brand someone with a hot iron for stealing a couple of towels," "who revels in clanking chains." The slave was continually at the mercy of the caprice of a master or a mistress.

What made it worse was that the slaves were deliberately held down. There were in the Roman Empire 60,000,000 of them and the danger of revolt was constantly to be guarded against. A rebellious slave was promptly eliminated. And, if a slave ran away, at best he would be branded with a red-hot iron on the forehead, with the letter F--standing for fugitivus, runaway--and at the worst he would be crucified to death. Paul well knew all this and that slavery was so ingrained into the ancient world that even to send Onesimus back to the Christian Philemon was a considerable risk.

Paul's Appeal

So Paul gave Onesimus this letter. He puns on Onesimus' name. Onesimus in Greek literally means profitable. Once Onesimus was a useless fellow, but he is useful now ( Philemon 1:11). Now, as we might say, he is not only Onesimus by name, he is also Onesimus by nature. Maybe Philemon lost him for a time in order to have him for ever ( Philemon 1:15). He must take him back, not as a slave but as a Christian brother ( Philemon 1:16). He is now Paul's son in the faith, and Philemon must receive him as he would receive Paul himself.


Such, then, was Paul's appeal. Many people have wondered why Paul says nothing in this letter about the whole matter of slavery. He does not condemn it; he does not even tell Philemon to set Onesimus free; it is still as a slave that he would have him taken back. There are those who have criticized Paul for not seizing the opportunity to condemn the slavery on which the ancient world was built. Lightfoot says, "The word emancipation seems to tremble on his lips, but he never utters it." But there are reasons for his silence.

Slavery was an integral part of the ancient world; the whole of society was built on it. Aristotle held that it was in the nature of things that certain men should be slaves, hewers of wood and drawers of water, to serve the higher classes of men. It may well be that Paul accepted the institution of slavery because it was almost impossible to imagine society without it. Further, if Christianity had, in fact, given the slaves any encouragement to revolt or to leave their masters, nothing but tragedy could have followed. Any such revolt would have been savagely crushed; any slave who took his freedom would have been mercilessly punished; and Christianity would itself have been branded as revolutionary and subversionary. Given the Christian faith, emancipation was bound to come--but the time was not ripe; and to have encouraged slaves to hope for it, and to seize it, would have done infinitely more harm than good. There are some things which cannot be suddenly achieved, and for which the world must wait, until the leaven works.

The New Relationship

What Christianity did vas to introduce a new relationship between man and man, in which all external differences were abolished. Christians are one body whether Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free men ( 1 Corinthians 12:13). In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male nor female ( Galatians 3:28). In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free man ( Colossians 3:11). It was as a slave that Onesimus ran away and it was as a slave that he was coming back, but now he was not only a slave, he was a beloved brother in the Lord. When a relationship like that enters into life, social grades and castes cease to matter. The very names, master and slave, become irrelevant. If the master treats the slave as Christ would have treated him, and if the slave serves the master as he would serve Christ, then it does not matter if you call the one master and the other slave; their relationship does not depend on any human classification, for they are both in Christ.

Christianity in the early days did not attack slavery; to have done so would have been disastrous. But it introduced a new relationship in which the human grades of society ceased to matter. It is to be noted that this new relationship never gave the slave the right to take advantage of it; it made him rather a better slave and a more efficient servant, for now he must do things in such a way that he could offer them to Christ. Nor did it mean that the master must be soft and easy-going, willing to accept bad workmanship and inferior service; but it did mean that he no longer treated any servant as a thing, but as a person and a brother in Christ.

There are two passages in which Paul sets out the duties of slaves and masters-- Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-25; Colossians 4:1. Both were written when Paul was in prison in Rome, and most likely when Onesimus was with him; and it is difficult not to think that they owe much to long talks that Paul had with the runaway slave who had become a Christian.

On this view Philemon is a private letter, sent by Paul to Philemon, when he sent back his runaway slave; and it was written to urge Philemon to receive back Onesimus, not as a pagan master would, but as a Christian receives a brother.


Let us now turn to the other view of this letter.

We may begin with a consideration of the place of Archippus. He appears in both Colossians and Philemon. In Philemon greetings are sent to Archippus, our fellow-soldier ( Philemon 1:2); and such a description might well mean that Archippus is the minister of the Christian community in question. He is also mentioned in Colossians 4:17: "Say to Archippus, 'See that you fulfil the ministry which you have received in the Lord'." Now that injunction comes after a whole series of very definite references, not to Colosse, but to Laodicaea ( Colossians 4:13; Colossians 4:15-16). May the fact that he appears among the messages sent to Laodicaea not imply that Archippus must be at Laodicaea, too? Why in any event should he get this personal message? If he was at Colosse, he would hear the letter read, as everyone else would. Why has this verbal order to be sent to him? It is surely possible that the answer is that he is not in Colosse at all, but in Laodicaea.

If that is so, it means that Philemon's house is in Laodicaea and that Onesimus was a runaway Laodicaean slave. This must mean that the letter to Philemon was, in fact, written to Laodicaea. And, if so, the missing letter to Laodicaea, mentioned in Colossians 4:16, is none other than the letter to Philemon. This indeed solves problems.

Let us remember that in ancient society, with its view of slavery, Paul took a considerable risk in sending Onesimus back at all. So, it can be argued that Philemon is not really only a personal letter. It is indeed written to Philemon and to the Church in his house. And further it has also to be read at Colosse. What, then, is Paul doing? Knowing the risk that he takes in sending Onesimus back, he is mobilizing Church opinion both in Laodicaea and in Colosse in his favour. The decision about Onesimus is not to be left to Philemon; it is to be the decision of the whole Christian community. It so happens that there is one little, but important, linguistic point, which is very much in favour of this view. In Philemon 1:12 the Revised Standard Version makes Paul write that he has sent back Onesimus to Philemon. The verb is anapempein (375); this is the regular verb--it is commoner in this sense that in any other--for officially referring a case to someone for decision. And Philemon 1:12 should most probably be translated: "I am referring his case to you," that is, not only to Philemon, but also the Church in his house.

There is much to be said for this view. There is only one difficulty. In Colossians 4:9 Onesimus is referred to as one of you, which certainly looks as if he is a Colossian. But E. J. Goodspeed, who states this view with such scholarship and persuasiveness, argues that Hierapolis, Laodicaea and Colosse were so close together, and so much a single Church, that they could well be regarded as one community, and that, therefore, one of you need not mean that Onesimus came from Colosse, but simply that he came from that closely connected group. If we are prepared to accept this, the last obstacle to the theory is removed.

The Continuation Of The Story

Goodspeed does not stop there. He goes on to reconstruct the history of Onesimus in a most moving way.

In Philemon 1:13-14 Paul makes it quite clear that he would much have liked to keep Onesimus with him. "I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will." He reminds Philemon that he owes him his very soul ( Philemon 1:19). He says, with charming wit, "Let me make some Christian profit out of you!" ( Philemon 1:20). He says, "Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say" ( Philemon 1:21). Is it possible that Philemon could have resisted this appeal? In face of language like that could he do anything other than send Onesimus back to Paul with his blessing? Goodspeed regards it as certain that Paul got Onesimus back and that he became Paul's helper in the work of the gospel.

The Bishop Of Ephesus

Let us move on about fifty years. Ignatius, one of the great Christian martyrs, is being taken to execution from Antioch to Rome. As he goes, he writes letters--which still survive--to the Churches of Asia Minor. He stops at Smyrna and writes to the Church at Ephesus, and in the first chapter of that letter, he has much to say about their wonderful bishop. And what is the bishop's name? It is Onesimus; and Ignatius makes exactly the same pun as Paul made--he is Onesimus by name and Onesimus by nature, the profitable one to Christ. It may well be that the runaway slave had become with the passing years the great bishop of Ephesus.

What Christ Did For Me

If all this is so, we have still another explanation. Why did this little slip of a letter, this single papyrus sheet, survive; and how did it ever get itself into the collection of Pauline letters? It deals with no great doctrine; it attacks no great heresy; it is the only one of Paul's undoubted letters written to an individual person. It is practically certain that the first collection of Paul's letters was made at Ephesus, about the turn of the century. It was just then that Onesimus was bishop of Ephesus; and it may well be that it was he who insisted that this letter be included in the collection, short and personal as it was, in order that all might know what the grace of God had done for him. Through it the great bishop tells the world that once he was a runaway slave and that he owed his life to Paul and to Jesus Christ.

Did Onesimus come back to Paul with Philemon's blessing? Did he become the great bishop of Ephesus, he who had been the runaway slave? Did he insist that this little letter be included in the Pauline collection to tell what Christ, through Paul, had done for him? We can never tell for, certain, but it is a lovely story of God's grace in Christ--and we hope that it is true!

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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