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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of TextsExpositor's Dictionary

- Philemon

by Editor - William Robertson Nicoll


The Epistle to Philemon

References. I. 9. J. Martineau, Endeavours After the Christian Life, p. 105. I. 10. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. iii. p. 305. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 86.

Philemon 1:1

The Unprofitable Made Profitable

Philemon 1:10 , Philemon 1:11

This is graphic portraiture; two pictures of one man, and each picture presented by a word; one man, Onesimus, unprofitable, profitable. And immediately we see a contrast. Mark most carefully these preliminary matters. The contrast is not a contrast in the accidentals, of material things. I believe that such a contrast would have been permissible; I believe that such a contrast did exist. I have seen a picture of contrast on that level of some Salvation Army warrior in this district, of what he was and what he is. I am not sure of the wisdom of that kind of thing, but I am of the truth of it. But this is not a picture of Onesimus, a runaway slave, and Onesimus clothed and in his right mind going back to his duty. Neither is this a contrast in the essentials of spiritual experience save as that spiritual experience of the man does actually shine through the actual contrast suggested. It is not Onesimus aforetime carnal and now spiritual. That also is true, but that is not the picture drawn. If we are to look at these two pictures to observe this contrast and deduce the values suggested, we must notice exactly to what the Apostle is drawing attention.

I. What, then, is the contrast? It is a contrast in the matter of this man's relationship to his fellowmen. I repeat, not a contrast as to the accidentals, of material things; not as to the essentials of spiritual experience, but of relationship to his fellow-men 'aforetime unprofitable, now profitable to thee and me'. While, therefore, on this page we have all these portraits, and every one of them reveals some triumph of Christ, in each one some new glory shining as the result of life in Christ, here in the very centre of the things that Paul prominently desired to draw attention to is the figure of Onesimus as he was with regard to his fellowmen before he was begotten by the Apostle in his bonds, and Onesimus as he was with regard to his fellowmen after he was begotten by this Apostle in his bonds.

Notice the real value of this letter and this text. The declaration of Paul to Philemon concerning Onesimus is the making of this claim for Christianity that Christianity takes hold of the unprofitable man and makes him profitable; that the mission of Christianity is that of the transformation of waste into wealth; that by what Christ works in the life of a man all those ancient and symbolic words of ancient prophecy are fulfilled. The touch of Christ on the life of a man transmutes the man from base metal to precious metal, and consequently changes the man from base coinage and unprofitable into current coinage of the very realm of heaven, which is profitable. There is the supreme miracle of Christianity, the supreme wonder that is for ever working, taking hold of the waste materials of life, and making them into wealth for time and eternity.

II. What is the secret of this transformation wrought in the life of the man? In one word, almost incidentally written and yet fundamental to our understanding of the story, 'Onesimus, my beloved, begotten in my bonds'.

If you would understand the Apostle's use of the word begotten in the letter to Philemon, let me direct your attention to the same use of another word in another letter. In writing to the Corinthian Christians Paul says: 'Though you have ten thousand tutors in Christ you have not many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I begat you through the Gospel'. And when in chains Paul wrote of a runaway slave he begat in his bonds.

He preached the Gospel of that risen Christ and by that preaching in faith that man was apprehended, changed, and the waste was transmuted into wealth, and the unprofitable was made profitable. This is the secret of Christianity flashed upon this page in one word.

And what are the evidences of such transmutation? Recognition of such responsibility and surrender thereto by the man who has robbed his master and fled. Some of you will remember how Dean Farrar has woven the story into beautiful fiction, Darkness and Dawn. The man who had wandered here and there at last found himself in Rome, in contact with that great Apostle, and was begotten. What is the evidence he was begotten? His willingness to go back to responsibility, to pay the debt he owes, to become profitable rather than unprofitable.

So in that little verse there stand before us those tremendous facts about Christianity. Christ takes hold of the unprofitable man and makes him profitable. There are other planes upon which men may discuss that important matter of the commonwealth of human relations. I only referred to them to say this, that Christ alone confronts Onesimus and changes him from the unprofitable to the profitable. That is the central wonder, and the perpetual victory and the supreme glory of the Christian fact.

G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. LXXVII. p. 177.

God's Secret Stairs

Philemon 1:15

Writing to Philemon about Onesimus, the servant who had treated him so wrongfully, but in whom old things had passed away, St. Paul says: 'Perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever'. The words have meanings beyond their first application.

I. The gain of uncertainty. there is one thought which they bring. Now, it is a blessed thing that all the heavenly Father's intentions and doings are not clear as noonday, but that the twilight hangs about many of them. (1) It is a lesson in humility. (2) It is a lesson, too. in faith. The Christian is puzzled. The Christian has to say, 'Perhaps' (3) And it is a lesson in His many-sidedness. We have to tell ourselves, 'Perhaps this is His design,' or 'Perhaps that is the purpose of His great and unfathomable soul'.

II. The presence of God: it is a second truth which the words convey. Onesimus 'departed,' foolishly, wickedly; that is the human side. Onesimus 'was parted' from Philemon by the hand of the Lord? that is the Divine side. Our life, short as it is, is full of partings. (1) Some of us are parted from our plans. (2) We are parted, moreover, from our possessions.

III. The lastingness of love: it is a final lesson which I glean. Onesimus was coming back, never to be separated from Philemon any more at all. He had gone away a heathen; he was returning a disciple. The love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord had drawn them into unity, had fused them into a single spirit, not for this world only, but for the next world as well. There are bonds which it is hard to break. (1) There is the bond of country (2) There is the bond of Church. (3) There is the bond of home. Yet none of these bonds is eternal. The one love which endures is the love of Christ. When our friends are His, they are ours so long as His heaven abides and He Himself lives. So 'there is nothing out of love hath perpetual worth'. 'All things flag but only love, all things fail and flee.'

A. Smellie. Scottish Review, vol. v. p. 418.

References. I. 15. C. D. Bell, The Power of God, p. 82. J. M. Neale, Readings for the Aged (3rd Series), p. G2 . Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxi. No. 1268. Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. p. 34. I. 15, 16. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. iii. p. 305. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. i. p. 350. I. 16. J. W. Burgon, Servants of Scripture, p. 99. J. Eames, Sermons to Boys and Girls, p. 11. I. 19. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Philemon, p. 196.

Philemon 1:22

Lord, I read how Paul, writing from Rome, spake to Philemon to prepare him a lodging, hoping to make use thereof, yet we find not that he ever did use it, being martyred not long after. However, he was no loser, whom Thou didst lodge in a higher mansion in heaven. Let me always be thus deceived to my advantage. I shall have no occasion to complain, though I never wear the new clothes fitted for me, if, before I put them on, death clothe me with glorious immortality.

Thos. Fuller.

What We Owe to St. Luke (for St. Luke's Day)

Philemon 1:24

What is the debt which the Church owes to St Luke? This cultivated Gentile, with his scientific training, his literary and artistic gifts, his cosmopolitan sympathies, his romantic delight in adventure what message does he bring to us, what elements does he contribute to our conception of religion? It will be found, I believe, that St. Paul's 'fellow-worker' (particularly when we consider him in his character of third Evangelist) has lessons to convey to us lessons not so clearly and emphatically taught elsewhere in the New Testament lessons of peculiar and imperishable value; lessons, moreover, which at the present time seem to have a special claim upon our reverent attention. Let me set before you briefly three examples of such lessons. They will serve at least to indicate the nature of the obligation which every Christian owes to the Evangelist St. Luke.

I. First, then, we are principally indebted to St. Luke for our insight into the pardoning love of God in Christ for sinners. The 'beloved physician' clearly had a large heart himself; he was filled with profoundest pity for the sorrows and sins of men. It was natural, therefore, that in setting forth our Lord he should seek to present Him primarily as the large-hearted Saviour of the human race, the Revelation to each and all of God's boundless charity. How many magnificent passages expressive of the greatness of this Divine redeeming love are found in St. Luke alone! He; only preserves that inimitable parable of the prodigal welcomed home, the recital of which would always bring tears into the eyes of St. Augustine; he only relates the stories of the sinner in Simon's house who loved much and was much forgiven, and of the robber to whom Paradise was promised on the cross; he first records the most wonderful saying in the whole of the Gospels 'The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost'. And these are but few of the instances. Again and again, more fully and persistently than any of the Evangelists, St. Luke reveals and illustrates the Saviour's pitying love the 'passion of compassion' which impelled Him to the rescue of the fallen and perishing. This is a theme on which he never tires of dwelling, and Dante was true to the facts of the case when he characterised our Evangelist as supremely 'the historian of the gentleness of Christ'.

II. Turn now to another lesson that is taught us by St. Luke. Just as this writer, more than any of the Evangelists, enables us to realise God's saving love for sinners, so more than any does he accentuate the dangers which lie about the path of those whom God would save. Particularly he is the preacher of the perils of prosperity. The perils of wealth, the perils of pleasure, the perils of the easy life of comfort and security this is the subject of his repeated warnings. The most radical teachings concerning the good things of this world are to be found in the third Gospel. Here only are woes pronounced on the rich and the satisfied and the merry and the popular; here only we read the parable of Dives damned, and that of the Fool who heaped up treasure for himself, but was not 'rich toward God'; here possessions are personified as a demon of unrighteousness,' and the solemn word is heard, 'Whosoever he be of you that renounceth not all that he hath, he cannot be My disciple'. So determined, indeed, is the hostility of St. Luke towards property and prosperity that one scholar has described him, not without some show of reason, as 'the Socialist-Evangelist'.

III. Let us note just one other lesson that is taught us by St. Luke. He stands, it seems to me, as the type and representative of Christian humanism and culture. Not only was he a traveller and a man of science and a scholar; as an historian his merits have been proved beyond dispute, while as a literary genius he is probably unequalled by any early Christian writer. Renan declares that his Gospel is the most beautiful book in the world, and a recent German critic aptly designates the author as 'the poet-painter among the Evangelists'. A tradition, which is apparently as old as the sixth century, claims him literally as a painter; and, though this may not be accepted, there is still a real sense in which St. Luke may be regarded as 'the father of Christian art'. For from him, in larger measure than from any other Evangelist, the great religious painters have derived their inspiration. You have only to visit one of the famed European Galleries and mark the subjects of the pictures to perceive that this is so. There you find reproduced with an almost wearisome reiteration such scenes as the Annunciation, or the Presentation, or the Ascension; as Christ among the Doctors, or at the supper-table of Emmaus. There in room after room you light upon the same familiar figures Martha who serves, and Mary who listens, the Shepherds adoring the Babe in the manger, the white-haired Anna and the small Zacchaeus; or, again, the Pharisee and the Publican, the Unjust Steward, the Good Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son. Not all of you may realise that for the wonderful originals of these favourite scenes and portraits we are indebted exclusively to the superb artistic skill of the Greek 'poet-painter' St. Luke.

Shall we not, then, be justified if we look upon St. Luke as teaching us by example the profound and weighty lesson that all that is best in culture, all the treasures of knowledge and imagination and emotion, should be sought out and used for Christ?

F. Homes-Dudden, The Guardian, 28th October, 1910.

Reference. I. 24. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 81.

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