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(1) A prisoner of Jesus Christ.—It is interesting to note the substitution of the name “prisoner,” appealing to sympathy, for the usual title of “Apostle,” embodying a claim to authority. In the other Epistles of this period (see Ephesians 3:1-13; Ephesians 4:1; Ephesians 6:20; Philippians 1:12-20; Colossians 4:18) the Apostle’s captivity is dwelt upon mainly as a ground of glory and thankfulness, only secondarily as a cause for sympathy. Here, on the contrary, in this personal Epistle, and in accordance with St. Paul’s courteous determination “not to command, but for love’s sake to entreat,” the latter aspect assumes an almost exclusive prominence.
Timothy.—Comp. Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:1. Here, as in the other Epistles, the salutation includes Timothy, as desiring to imply in him, St. Paul’s “own son in the faith,” a closeness of connection and sympathy with the Apostle not found in others. But in all cases, and especially in this, the Letter is emphatically the Letter of St. Paul alone.
(2) Apphia.—The name is usually taken to be the Roman name Appia. But the occurrence of such a name in a Græco-Asiatic family, though of course possible, is perhaps improbable; and Dr. Lightfoot has shown that it occurs in the form Apphia in many Phrygian inscriptions, and may therefore be naturally supposed to be a native name. There seems little doubt that Apphia was Philemon’s wife, like himself “the beloved,” though not the “fellow-labourer” or “partner” of St. Paul.
Archippus our fellow soldier.—From this mention of Archippus we may certainly conclude that he was a member of Philemon’s family; the ordinary conjecture makes him his son. The name “fellow-soldier,” applied elsewhere only to Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), as the name “soldier of Jesus Christ” to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:3), appears to denote ministerial office in Archippus, which agrees with the charge to him in Colossians 4:18 to “take heed to his ministry and fulfil it.”
Church in thy house.—See Note on Colossians 4:15. The specially domestic and personal character of the Epistle need not induce any limitation of the phrase to Philemon’s own family. As the joining of Timothy’s name in giving the salutation did not prevent the Letter from being St. Paul’s only, so the joining the Church in the house in the receiving of the salutation does not prevent its being addressed only to Philemon and his family, who were, like himself, interested in Onesimus.
(4) I thank my God . . .—Note the almost exact verbal coincidence with the salutations in Ephesians 1:15-16; Philippians 1:3-4; Colossians 1:3-4, with, however, the natural distinction that this is briefer and simpler in style.
(5) Thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints.—This description of a faith directed not only to the Lord Jesus, but to all the saints, has perplexed commentators, and called out various explanations. (1) One is that “faith” here (as in Romans 3:3; Galatians 5:22) is simply fidelity; but this can hardly be accepted as an explanation of so well-known and almost technical a phrase as “faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2) Another, noting the distinction in the original between the two prepositions here—the former (pros) signifying direction towards, and the latter (eis) actual contact with, its object—explains the phrase as signifying “the faith which has as its object the Lord Jesus Christ, but which shows itself practically towards all saints.” But this, even if the word “hast” will bear this gloss, seems too artificial for such a Letter as this. (3) The comparison with the contemporaneous Letter to the Colossians—where we read, “your faith in the Lord Jesus, and your love toward all the saints” (Colossians 1:4)—seems to clear up the matter. We have here an equivalent phrase, in which, however (by what the grammarians called chiasmus), the extremes and means correspond to each other. The idea which runs through the Letter is Philemon’s “love to the saints.” In writing of that love St. Paul cannot refrain from (4) referring it to its true origin—the faith towards the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence the broken phrase. The sense seems therefore to be that which in some MSS. has been brought out by a natural correction, “thy faith towards the Lord Jesus, and thy love to all the saints.”
(6) That the communication of thy faith . . .—The general idea of St. Paul’s prayer for Philemon is clear—that his “faith may become effectual,” i.e., energetic and perfected, “in full knowledge.” This is exactly the prayer which, in different forms and degrees of emphasis, opens all the Epistles of the Captivity. (See Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 1:9; Colossians 1:9.) It describes the true order of Christian life, so fully and beautifully drawn out in Ephesians 3:17-19, beginning in faith, deepened by love, and so growing to knowledge.
But it may be asked, “Why the communication of thy faith?” (1) The phrase is unique, but the word rendered “communication” is the well-known word generally rendered “communion,” or “fellowship,” except where (as in Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 2 Corinthians 9:13; Hebrews 13:16) it is used technically and derivatively of “the communication” of almsgiving. The phrase, therefore, should probably be rendered the “communion of thy faith,” i.e., “thy fellowship in faith.” (2) But, again, the question arises, “With whom is this fellowship? With God or man?” The answer probably is, “With both.” Perhaps for growth in divine knowledge the communion need only be with God. But we observe that the knowledge is not merely “of every good thing,” i.e., of all that is of God, but of “every good thing which is in you (or, better, in us) towards Christ Jesus.” It is, therefore, the knowledge of good—that is, of God’s gift—as dwelling in man by the unity which binds all to Christ Jesus. (3) Now for knowledge of this, fellowship with man is needed, as well as fellowship with God. The soul which dwells alone with God, even in the holiest seclusion, knows what is good in the abstract, but not what is good in man in the concrete reality. But Philemon’s house was a centre of Christian life. St. Paul might, therefore, well speak of this his two-fold “fellowship in faith,” and pray that it might grow into full knowledge at once of God and of man as in Him. (4) That all such growth must be “towards Christ Jesus,” dependent on unity with Him and serving to deepen such unity, is the characteristic doctrine of all this group of Epistles, especially of the Colossian Epistle, of which Onesimus was one of the bearers.
(7) The bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee.—The same idea is here carried on. St. Paul declares his special joy to have been that “the bowels (i.e., the hearts) of the saints, have been refreshed through thee.” The word “refresh” is the very word used by our Lord in His gracious promise: “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you” (Matthew 11:28). It is ultimately in Him that the hearts of the saints are refreshed. But in this case it was through the instrumentality of Philemon, by “the communion of faith,” to which his active love was the means of welcoming them, and in which they had fellowship in Christ, both with the Father and with His children. (Comp. 1 John 1:3.) St. Paul uses the word “refresh” not unfrequently to express the relief and rest given by Christian fellowship on earth. (See below, Philemon 1:20; and comp. 1 Corinthians 16:18; 2 Corinthians 7:13.) We find it in the Apocalypse applied to the rest with Christ in heaven (Revelation 6:11; Revelation 14:13).
Brother.—The name is given to Philemon here and in Philemon 1:20 with a marked emphasis of affection, evidently implying some special intimacy of friendship, not apparently at Colossæ (for see Colossians 2:1); but perhaps at Ephesus, during St. Paul’s long stay there. Probably Philemon (whose son Archippus is supposed to have been) was St. Paul’s equal in age, and although actually his convert is not addressed (as usual) as his “son in the faith.” In this place, moreover, the title “brother” has a peculiar appropriateness: for the Apostle has been speaking of the love of Philemon, which made him a brother indeed to all in the family of Christ.
(8, 9) Wherefore . . . for love’s sake . . .—Still the same idea runs on. Philemon’s love, shown in Christian fellowship, is in the Apostle’s mind; “therefore,” he adds, “for love’s sake”—speaking in the spirit of love, to which he knew there would be a ready response—he will not command, as an Apostle, what is “convenient,” i.e., seemly, in a Christian (comp. Ephesians 5:14; Colossians 3:18), but will “entreat” as a brother.
(9) Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.—At this time St. Paul must have been between fifty and sixty, and after a life of unexampled labour and suffering he might well call himself “aged,” not, perhaps, in comparison with Philemon, but in relation to his need of ministry from his “son” Onesimus. It has been suggested by Dr. Lightfoot that we should read here (by a slight change, or without any change, in the original), the ambassador, and also the prisoner, of Jesus Christ. The parallel with Ephesians 6:20—“for which I am an ambassador in bonds”—and, indeed, with the tone in which St. Paul in the other Epistles speaks of his captivity as his glory, is tempting. But the change seems to take much from the peculiar beauty and pathos of the passage; which from its appeal to love, rather than to authority, suits especially with the thought, not of the glory of ambassadorship for Christ, but of the weakness of an old age suffering in chains.
(8-20) Here St. Paul enters on the main subject of his Letter—the recommendation to Philemon of his runaway slave, Onesimus. All thoughtful readers of the Epistle must recognise in this a peculiar courtesy and delicacy of tone, through which an affectionate earnestness shows itself, and an authority all the greater because it is not asserted in command. The substance is equally notable in its bearing on slavery. Onesimus is doubly welcomed into the Christian family. He is St. Paul’s son in the faith: he is to Philemon a brother beloved in the Lord. In that recognition is the truth to which, both in theory and in practice, we may look as being the destruction of slavery.
(10) My son.—Properly, my own child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus. The name is withheld, till Philemon’s interest is doubly engaged, for one who is the Apostle’s “own child” (a name of endearment given elsewhere only to Timothy and Titus), and for one who was begotten under the hardships and hindrances of imprisonment. At last the name is given, and even then comes, in the same breath, the declaration of the change in him from past uselessness to present usefulness, both to the Apostle and to his former master.
Onesimus.—Of Onesimus we know absolutely nothing, except what we read here and in Colossians 4:9. Tradition, of course, is busy with his name, and makes him Bishop of Berœa, in Macedonia, or identifies him with the Onesimus, Bishop of Ephesus, mentioned in the Ignatian Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 1:2-6). The name was a common one, especially among slaves.
(11) In time past . . . unprofitable, but now profitable.—The name Onesimus means “useful,” or “profitable,” though derived from a different root from the words here used. It is hardly possible not to see in this passage a play on words, though (curiously enough) this is not noticed by the old Greek commentators. St. Paul seems to say, “He belied his name in days past; he will more than deserve it now.”
To thee and to me.—St. Paul says “to thee,” for he was sending back Onesimus. He adds “to me,” in affectionate notice of his kindly ministrations already rendered to his spiritual father.
(12) Thou therefore receive him.—The word “receive” is not in the best MSS. It is supplied here from Philemon 1:17 (apparently rightly in respect of sense) to fill up a broken construction in the original.
Mine own bowels—i.e., my own heart, dear to me as my own soul. There is, indeed, an usage of the word which applies it to children as begotten of our own body. But this is hardly St. Paul’s usage (see 2 Corinthians 6:12; Philippians 1:8; Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12; and Philemon 1:7; Philemon 1:20 of this Epistle), though it suits very well with the phrase “whom I have begotten” above.
(13) Whom I would have retained.—In the original we have here a graceful distinction in two points between the two clauses. The verb in the first clause is “to wish;” in the second “to will.” The tense in the first clause is the imperfect: “I was wishing,” or “prepared to wish” (just as in Acts 25:22; and, in the case of a cognate verb, Romans 9:3), implying, perhaps, a suppressed condition; in the second it is the past definite: “I willed,” or “determined” finally.
In thy stead.—Here, again, there is a certain delicacy of suggestion. A slave was his master’s property; he could act only on his master’s behalf and by his consent. St. Paul is sure that Philemon’s love for him would have gladly given that consent, and so made Onesimus an instrument of willing service to St. Paul.
(14) That thy benefit should not be . . .—The benefit derived from the service of Onesimus St. Paul acknowledges as coming from Philemon, because given with his consent. He will not keep Onesimus and ask that consent by letter, lest it should be “as it were of necessity:” i.e., lest it should wear even the semblance of constraint.
(15) For perhaps he therefore departed (or, was parted).—This is a further reason for sending Onesimus back. St. Paul now touches on Onesimus’ “being parted” from Philemon, using a phrase not only (as has been noted) euphemistic, but also one which suggested that his running away was, however unconsciously, overruled by a higher hand. God, in His wisdom, “parted” him from Philemon “for a season, that he might receive him for ever.” The phrase “for ever” is the word always used for “eternal.” The contrast with “for a season” might be satisfied here by the merely relative sense of “perpetual” or “life-long service;” but, considering that the phrase is used in direct reference to the brotherhood of the Communion of Saints, it is better to take it in its absolute sense, of fellowship in the life eternal.
(16) Not now as a servant, but . . . a brother beloved . . . in the Lord.—In these words we have at last the principle which is absolutely destructive of the condition of slavery—a condition which is the exaggeration of natural inferiority to the effacement of the deeper natural equality. (1) The slave—the “living chattel” of inhuman laws and philosophies—is first “a brother,” united to his master by natural ties of ultimate equality, having, therefore, both duties and rights. (2) But he is also a “brother beloved.” These natural ties are not only strengthened by duty, but made living ties by the love which delights indeed to respect the rights of others, but is not content without willingness to sacrifice even our own rights to them. (3) Above all, this is “in the Lord.” The slave is bought by Christ’s blood, made a son of God, and therefore a brother to all who are members of the family of God. To reject and to outrage him is a rejection and outrage towards Christ. Compare St. Peter’s striking comparison of the sufferings of the slave to the passion of the Divine Sufferer (1 Peter 2:18-24). They suffer with Him, and He suffers in them. It has been proved historically that only by the aid of this last and highest conception has the brotherhood of love too slowly, indeed, but yet surely—assumed reality. (See Introduction.)
Specially to me, but how much more unto thee?—St. Paul first emphasises his own love for Onesimus, which, indeed, breathes in every line of the Epistle; but then goes on to infer in Philemon a yet greater affection—a natural love towards the nursling of his house, a spiritual love towards the brother “in the Lord,” lost and found again.
(17) A partner.—The title is peculiar. In the singular number (in which it is naturally more distinctive) and in absolute use, unconnected with explanatory words (such as we read in 1 Peter 5:1), it is nowhere else found, except in 2 Corinthians 8:23, where Titus is called St. Paul’s “partner and fellow helper;” and even there the context defines the partnership as relating to the collection and ministration of alms. Here it can hardly refer to general Christian fellowship, which would require some such words as “in Christ,” or “in the Spirit,” and would not fully justify the strong personal appeal of the passage. It must indicate some peculiar bond of fellowship between St. Paul and Philemon. Philemon was his convert (see Philemon 1:19); yet we notice that he writes to him not as a son, but as a brother. Evidently he was a leader in the Church at Colossæ. Tradition, as usual, makes him its bishop. He must have been St. Paul’s partner in some common work or special communion of familiarity. (See Introduction, sect. 2.)
(18) If he hath wronged thee.—Properly, If he wronged thee, evidently referring to the time of Onesimus’ escape. “If he oweth thee ought” is similarly, in all probability, an allusion to some theft at the same time, couched in a hypothetical form, but implying no doubt as to the fact.
Put that on mine account.—Comp. a similar commercial metaphor in Philippians 4:15-17, and see Note there. It is strangely out of character with the whole tone of the Apostolic life to imagine (as some commentators have done) a regular debtor and creditor account between Philemon and St. Paul.
(19) I Paul have written it with mine own hand.—St. Paul actually introduces here a regular bond couched in legal form, written (as, perhaps, the whole Letter was written) with his own hand. In so doing he still continues the idea of the preceding verse; but the following words show that, though willing to stand to his bond, he knew Philemon too well to suppose that he would accept it.
It is clear from this passage that the Apostle had money which he could rightly call his own. At Ephesus, where he probably first knew Philemon, it would probably be earned in the work with Aquila and Priscilla, as at Corinth, and it is possible that some of it might still remain. In Rome now, it could hardly be from any other source than the offerings from the Church at Philippi. They were given him freely; he might fairly spend them on his own “son in the faith.”
Albeit I do not say to thee . . .—Literally, not to say to thee. Here St. Paul escapes from the business-like promise of the last verse to the freer Atmosphere of spiritual relations. He knew that this promise it was right for him to offer, but wrong for Philemon to accept. Philemon owed his own self—his new self in Christ—to the Apostle. In that was a debt which he could not repay, but would rejoice even in this smaller matter to acknowledge.
(20) Let me have joy of thee.—Properly, may I have pleasure, or profit, from thee: a phrase used especially of the mingled pleasure and help derived from children. (See Dr. Lightfoot’s Note on this passage.) The word “I” is emphatic. St. Paul puts himself forward to plead for Onesimus, what he himself could not plead. Nor can it be accidental that the word “profit” is the root of the name Onesimus. St. Paul says, in effect, “May I find thee (as I have found him) a true Onesimus.”
Philemon 1:21-25 contain the conclusion of the Epistle—hope to visit Philemon soon, salutation, and blessing.
(21) Confidence in thy obedience.—It is curious to notice how, in this conclusion, St. Paul seems to glide, as it were insensibly, out of the tone of entreaty as to an equal, into the authority of a superior. The word “obedience” is found in 2 Corinthians 7:15, there in connection with “fear and trembling.” He preferred to appeal to Philemon’s love; he knew that in any case he could rely on his deference.
Do more than I say.—This can hardly refer to anything except the manumission of Onesimus, and possibly his being sent back again to St. Paul. Exactly in this way Christianity was to work out the release of the slave—not by command, but by free and natural inference from its emphatic declaration of his true brotherhood in Christ.
(22) A lodging.—The word often signifies “hospitality” generally, which Philemon might naturally offer in his own house, but which St. Paul would not suggest or ask.
I shall be given unto you.—Literally, as a favour from supreme authority. Comp. the technical and forensic use of the word in Acts 3:14; Acts 25:11 : for good in one case, in the other for evil. If he was so “granted,” it would be by Cæsar instrumentally, by God’s overruling will ultimately. The passage, like Philippians 2:24, but even more definitely, expresses St. Paul’s expectation of a release which might enable him to visit the East again. It is curious that there is no similar allusion in the Colossian Epistle, sent with this.
(23) My fellowprisoner.—Comp. Colossians 4:10, and see Note there. The salutations here correspond exactly in substance (though more condensed in style) with that passage, except that “Jesus, called Justus” (probably unknown to Philemon) is here omitted.
(25) The grace . . .—This form of St. Paul’s usual blessing is found also in Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23; 2 Timothy 4:22. We notice by the word “your” that, like the opening salutation, it is addressed to all Philemon’s family and “the church in his house.”
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Philemon 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
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