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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Philemon

by Charles John Ellicott


The Epistle to Philemon.


I. The Date, Place, and Occasion of the Epistle.—These are all perfectly clear. The Epistle is of the same date as the Epistle to the Colossians, sent by Onesimus, who was one of the bearers of that Epistle (Colossians 4:9); dwelling emphatically on St. Paul’s imprisonment (Philemon 1:1; Philemon 1:9), looking forward confidently to a speedy release and a return to Asia (Philemon 1:22). Even the salutations, with one exception, are the same in both (Philemon 1:23-24, comp. with Colossians 4:10-14). It is written to intercede with Philemon for Onesimus, his slave—formerly “unprofitable,” a runaway, and probably a thief, but now converted to a new life by St. Paul at Rome, and after his conversion becoming at once “profitable” to St. Paul for ministration in his captivity, and likely to be profitable also to his old master, to whom, accordingly, St. Paul sends him back, with this letter of intercession.

II. The Persons to whom it is addressed.—All we know of Philemon is gathered from this Epistle. It is nowhere actually said he was a Colossian; but this is inferred from the fact that Onesimus, his slave, is described as of Colossæ (Colossians 4:9). It is clear that he was St. Paul’s convert; but, as the Apostle had not visited Colossæ (Colossians 2:1), we may probably conjecture that he had been brought under his influence during his long stay at Ephesus. Possibly, like Epaphras (Colossians 1:7), he had been, under St. Paul’s auspices, an evangelist of his native place. For he is evidently a man of mark; “the Church” gathers “in his house;” he is able, by his love, “to refresh the hearts of the saints,” probably by temporal as well as spiritual gifts; to him St. Paul entrusts the charge of preparing a lodging for his hoped-for visit, and describes that visit as “being granted,” “through his prayers,” to him and his. We note also that the Apostle treats him as almost an equal—as a “brother” (not “a son”), as “a fellow-labourer,” and as a “partner.”

This last phrase—used distinctively, and without any words of limitation to some particular work—is unique. It occurs in close connection with the promise on St. Paul’s part to take upon himself the pecuniary responsibility of any default of Onesimus—a promise emphasised by the writing of a bond of obligation in legal form. Accordingly, it has been supposed that Philemon was St. Paul’s partner in the “tent-making” by which he maintained himself with Aquila and Priscilla—first, certainly, at Corinth (Acts 18:3), and afterwards, as it appears (Acts 20:35), at Ephesus; that he may have still had in his hands some of the money earned by that common labour, and that from this St. Paul offers to discharge the obligation taken upon himself for Onesimus. The supposition is ingenious, and certainly quite possible; but it revolts against all our conceptions of St. Paul’s character to suppose that he would work beyond what was actually necessary for maintenance, so as to accumulate money, and keep a regular debtor and creditor account with Philemon. Nor is it easy to see why, if this was so, he should have so urgently needed in prison the supplies sent from Philippi (Philippians 4:10-13). Accordingly, it seems better to refer the “partnership” or “communion” (see Philippians 4:6 of the Epistle) principally, if not exclusively, to some united work of evangelisation or beneficence (possibly devised during the common labour at Ephesus) for the Churches of Asia, and especially for the Church of Colossæ. Ecclesiastical tradition, as usual, makes Philemon the Bishop of Colossæ in the hereafter.

Of Apphia we know nothing, except that tradition, and the style in which the Epistle mentions her, both support the idea that she was Philemon’s wife. Archippus, a minister of the Church, either of Colossæ or Laodicea (see Note on Colossians 4:7), is on the same ground supposed to have been his son. The tone of the whole Epistle gives the impression of some wealth and dignity in the family, nobly used for the relief of necessity and the knitting closer of the bonds of Christian unity.

III. The Genuineness of the Epistle.—It is notable that, unlike the other two personal Epistles—the Second and the Third of St. John, if, indeed, the Second be really personal—this Epistle found its place in all catalogues, from the Muratorian Canon downwards, and in all the ancient versions. We might have supposed that, in respect of such reception, it would have suffered from the improbability of any public reading in the Church, from the want of adaptability to theological or ecclesiastical uses, and from the idea which seems to have prevailed—which is noticed by St. Chrysostom on the Epistle, and which St. Jerome in his preface to the Epistle (vol. vii., p. 742, ed. Vallarsii, 1737) refutes with his usual strong sense and trenchancy—that the occasion and the substance of the Epistle were too low for the Apostolic inspiration. “They will have it,” St. Jerome says, “either that the Epistle which is addressed to Philemon is not St. Paul’s, or that, even if it be his, it has nothing in it tending to our edification; and that by many of the ancients it was rejected, since it was written for the purpose merely of commendation, not of instruction.’ But this kind of criticism did not prevail against the common acceptance of its authenticity. Even Marcion did not tamper with it, as Tertullian (adv. Marc. v. 42) and St. Jerome expressly declare. Origen, the great critic of the East, as St. Jerome of the West, quotes it without hesitation. In the Church generally it remained unshaken as one of the Epistles accepted by all.

In the larger criticism of modern times the very reasons which induced doubt in the fourth and fifth centuries will be accepted as the strongest internal evidence of its genuineness. The utter improbability of the forging of such an Epistle, which admits of no controversial or directly theological use, the exquisite beauty and naturalness of the whole style, even the vivid picture which it gives of an ancient Christian family—all have been felt to preclude any except the most wanton scepticism as to its genuineness. It is hard to conceive how any one can read it without feeling that we have in it a picture of the Apostle of the Gentiles, which we could ill afford to lose, but which no hand, except his own, would have ever ventured to paint.

IV. The Substance of the Epistle.—The great interest of this Epistle is two-fold—(1) in its personal relation to St. Paul’s life and character, and (2) in the light which it throws on the attitude of the gospel towards slavery.

(1) It is the only strictly private Letter of St. Paul—the one survivor, we may suppose, of very many—preserved to us in the Canon of Holy Scripture. For all the other Epistles are either Letters to the Churches, or Pastoral Epistles of authoritative direction. Accordingly it exhibits the Apostle in a new light. He throws off, as far as possible, his Apostolic dignity, and his fatherly authority over his converts. He speaks simply as Christian to Christian. He speaks, therefore, with that peculiar grace of humility and courtesy, which has, under the reign of Christianity, developed the spirit of chivalry, and what is called “the character of a gentleman”—certainly very little known in the old Greek and Roman civilisations—while yet in its graceful flexibility and vivacity it stands contrasted with the more impassive Oriental stateliness. It has been customary and natural to compare with it a celebrated letter of the younger Pliny on a like occasion (Ep. ix. 21, quoted in Dr. Lightfoot’s Introduction). But in Pliny himself there was a tone of feeling differing very much from the more ancient Roman character, approaching more nearly to the modern type. It would be curious to inquire, whether in this tone of character, as in the actual tenets of the later Stoicism, there might not be some unknown and indirect influence of the Christianity, which as yet would have been probably despised. Nor will the comparison for a moment place even the highly accomplished and cultivated Roman on a level with the Jewish tentmaker of Tarsus.

There is to us a vivid interest in the glimpse thus given into the private and personal life of St. Paul. We note, for example, the difference of tone—the greater pathos and the less unqualified rejoicing—in which he speaks of his captivity. We observe the gladness with which, when he rightly may, he throws off the isolation of authority, and descends into the familiarity of equal intercourse, lingering with an obvious delight in the very word “brother,” which breathes the very spirit of freedom and equality. We see how, under the Apostolic mission, as under the Apostolic inspiration, free play of personal character and of familiar companionship could still live and flourish. We seem to know St. Paul better, even as an Apostle, because we are allowed to see him when he chooses not to be an Apostle, but a “partner,” and, moreover, “such an one as Paul the aged, and the prisoner of Jesus Christ.” But, even beyond this, we may fairly draw from this Epistle a priceless lesson, as to the place which true courtesy and delicacy occupy in Christian character, and especially as to their entire compatibility with high Apostolic enthusiasm, with a keen insight into realities as distinct from forms, and with the greatest possible plainness of speech in due season. We feel, as we read, how little it accords with the idea that Christian men and Christian ministers “have nothing to do with being gentlemen.” We understand how true courtesy, as distinct from artificial and technical culture of manners, is the natural outgrowth of the “lowliness of mind” in which “each esteems other better than himself,” and of the sympathy of love which “looks not only upon our own things,” but, even in greater degree, “upon the things of others.”
(2) But of far greater interest still is the illustration of the attitude assumed in the New Testament, and in the early Church, towards the monstrous institution of slavery.
How deeply that institution of slavery was engrained in all the history of antiquity, both Eastern and Western, we know well. Nor will this surprise any one who remembers that inequality—physical, mental, and spiritual—is, quite as truly as equality, the law of human life. Service and lordship, in some sense, there must always be; and it is absurd to deny that this law is, because we wish that it were not, or perhaps think that it ought not to be. But equality is the law of the primary qualities and rights of human nature; inequality only of the secondary qualities and rights. If this relation be reversed in practice, we pass from what is natural to that which, however frequent, is yet fatally unnatural. Slavery is just such a reversal. Because one race is stronger, abler, more commanding, more civilised than another, this is made a ground for crushing out, in the weaker race, all the essential attributes of humanity. Primarily by the unnatural agency of war, secondarily by systematised organisation in peace, the slave is made to cease to be a man: he is treated simply as a brute beast of somewhat higher organisation and usefulness than his fellows, or even “as a living chattel or machine”—having no rights whatever, except those which humanity may teach towards the lower creatures, or expediency enforce in relation to the machinery of the prosperity and progress of the master. Since, in some sense, freedom of action and cultivation bring out natural inequalities more and more strikingly, slavery, in the absence of some counterbalancing power, rather advanced than receded with the progress of heathen civilisation. Under the Roman empire, depending mainly on organised force rather than on intellectual cultivation, it presented this characteristic and intolerable incongruity, that it held in bondage men at least as noble in race as their conquerors, men even more highly cultivated, and heirs of more ancient civilisations.
That the Old Testament should recognise the existence of slavery, especially in inferior and degraded races, was only to be expected. That slavery under the patriarchal simplicity should have been lighter than under the higher civilisation of the nation of Israel, though at first sight startling, is yet, on more careful thought, seen to be natural. That the Mosaic law should attempt only to mitigate the irresponsible despotism of the master, and that in this respect it should make a marked distinction between the Israelite and the foreigner, is thoroughly accordant with our Lord’s declaration, that it was made “for the hardness of men’s hearts,” and with the exclusiveness of privilege which it claimed in all things for the chosen race. Slavery, accordingly, continued in the Jewish people, though—thanks to those mitigations of the Law, to the protest against oppression and cruelty so familiar to us in prophecy, and to the very influence of a spiritual religion, wherever this was really accepted—it was actually very far milder than under Greece or Rome. Still it did exist. Nor will this surprise those who have duly weighed—what advocates and opponents of slavery, in dealing with the Old Testament, nave constantly failed to weigh—the essentially imperfect and preparatory character of the Jewish covenant.

But what line would Christianity take? Nothing, of course, could be clearer than that it was radically opposed in principle to the whole conception and practice of slavery. For it brought out the fundamental equality or brotherhood of all, in the regenerate human nature, in which “there was neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free.” It devoted itself with a very special earnestness to redress all existing inequalities, by exalting the humble, by glorifying weakness, by restraining the self-assertion of strength. Above all, it consecrated that brotherhood in Jesus Christ; its whole conception of the spiritual life consisted in the union of each individual soul with God in Christ, so giving to individuality a sacredness utterly incompatible with the very possibility of absolute despotism of one Christian man over another. But of carrying out the principle there were two ways. One was, so to speak, “of law,” embodying it at once in a declaration of freedom, abrogating all slavery within the Christian Church, protesting against it, as against all moral evils, in the world at large. The other was “of the Spirit,” proclaiming the great truth of brotherhood in Christ and sonship of God, and then leaving it gradually to mould to itself all institutions of society, and to eradicate whatever in them was against God’s fundamental law, reasserted in the word of Jesus Christ. Now of these two ways it is not hard to see that to adopt the former way would have been to revolutionise suddenly the whole of society, to preach (though unwillingly) a servile war, and to arm all existing governments by the very instinct of self-preservation against the infant Church, which, even as it was, excited their suspicion and alarm. Independently of all thought of consequences, we could not but anticipate that by its very nature Christianity would take the way of the Spirit, rather than the Law. But there can be no doubt that, historically, this was the way which it did take without hesitation or reserve. The principle laid down broadly by St. Paul (1 Corinthians 7:20-24) was that “every man should abide” in the outward condition “in which he was called,” only “with God,” in the new spiritual unity with God sealed to him in the blood of Jesus Christ. He applied that principle to the cases of circumcision and uncircumcision, marriage and celibacy; he did not shrink from applying it for the Christian community to the case of submission to “the powers that be,” even to death, and for the individual to the crucial and extreme case of slavery and freedom. However we may interpret his words in 1 Corinthians 7:21 (where see Note), they clearly imply that to one who is at once “the Lord’s freeman” and “Christ’s slave” the outward condition matters comparatively little. It may be that in this case, as in the case of marriage, St. Paul was partly influenced by the consideration that “the time was short.” Yet his teaching really depended, not on this expectation, but on the fundamental principle and method of Christianity. The declaration, “Not now a slave but a brother,” a “brother beloved,” and “a brother beloved in the Lord,” brought the forces of human duty and human affection, under the inspiration of religious faith, to bear on the prison-house of slavery. Deeply founded as its walls were, and cemented by the use of centuries, they could not but fall under the combined attack of these three irresistible powers.

Meanwhile the gospel set itself to two immediate works. First, to raise the self-respect of the slave, to comfort his sorrow, to nerve him to bear the hardships of his cruel lot. This it did sometimes by glorifying suffering, in the bold declaration to the slave that his suffering, whatever it was, was a brotherhood in the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself “took upon Him the form of a slave,” and “suffering for us left an ensample,” in which even the helpless and despised slave could “follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:18-25). Sometimes, on the other hand, by setting forth to him the spiritual freedom, which no “master after the flesh” could take away, and by declaring that all service was ultimately a service to the Lord, to be rendered not only “from the heart,” but “of good will,” and rewarded here and hereafter with the heavenly prize (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25). Under both these convictions it taught the slave still to be patient under “subjection,” till the end should come. Next, Christianity turned to the masters. It bade them remember their responsibility to the same Master in heaven, under whom their slaves served, and who would certainly make, in His strict retribution, no “respect of persons;” it claimed that they should “do the same things” to their slaves, recognising a mutual duty, and giving them all that was “just and equal,” due to the indefeasible rights of humanity; above all that they should recognise in them a common brotherhood in Christ.

Now this is precisely the line which St. Paul pursues in respect of Onesimus. He, the runaway slave of Philemon, apparently an idler and a thief, had made his way to Rome, “the sink,” as its writers bitterly complained, “of the civilised world.” There St. Paul had somehow found him, and had regenerated the true humanity which had been degraded in him. He had found him a dear son; he had felt the comfort of his affectionate ministration. How deeply this had impressed on his mind the whole question of slaves and masters we see by the strong emphasis, marked by almost verbal coincidence, with which, in the Ephesian and Colossian Epistles, he dwells on the subject generally. But, coming to the particular case, he bids Onesimus acknowledge the mastership of Philemon, and go back to submit to him, and to offer atonement for his past misdeeds and flight. He will not even interpose by authority, or, by keeping Onesimus at Rome, put any constraint on Philemon’s freedom to use his legal power. But he shows, by his own example, that the slave is to be treated as a son. He sends him back, not as a slave, but as “a brother beloved in the Lord.” He “knew that Philemon would do even more than he said.” He may have looked forward in prophetic foresight to the time when the whole Christian community, like Philemon, should draw the inference, unspoken but irresistible, and set absolutely free those who were not slaves, but brethren.
That expectation has been realised. It is remarkable that from very early days the iron cruelty of this Roman slave law began to give way. We may allow much in this respect to the growing dominion of universal law, and to the influence of the nobler philosophies; but we may be permitted to doubt whether the unacknowledged principes of Christianity were not already leavening public opinion, and beginning to make the change even in law, which was afterwards seen in the codes of Christian emperors. But one thing is certain historically, that in the abolition, certainly of ancient serfship in Europe, and perhaps of modern serfship in Russia, in the prohibition of the slave trade, in the great sacrifices for emancipation made by England in the last generation, and the United States of America in this, it was Christianity, and not simple philanthropy, which actually did the beneficent work. The battle was the battle of humanity; but it was fought under the banner of the Cross. Even while we wonder that the victory should have been so long in coming, we must confess that it has been won; and against all forms of mitigated slavery in modern society, experience certainly warns us to trust, not to the sense of common interest, the conviction of mutual duty, or even the enthusiasm of philanthropy, but to the faith which recognises in the poorest and the weakest, even in the idler and the sinner, “a brother beloved in the Lord.”

[This Epistle divides itself naturally into—


SALUTATION to Philemon and his house (Philemon 1:1-3).


THANKSGIVING for their faith and love (Philemon 1:4-7).


INTERCESSION, FOR ONESIMUS, as now the Apostle’s “son” in the faith, and “the brother,” not slave, of his master Philemon, with promise to make good any default of his in times past (Philemon 1:8-15).


CONCLUSION, expressing St. Paul’s confidence in Philemon, his hope of visiting them, and final salutation (Philemon 1:21-25).]

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