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The letter opens with Paul’s usual introduction except that instead of pointing to his apostleship he underlines the fact that he is a prisoner of Jesus Christ. Note that he does not just address Philemon. His message is for the whole church. He saw the whole church as involved in how Onesimus is to be treated. For the behaviour of the one would reflect on them all.
‘Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved and fellow-worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your (S) house.’
‘A prisoner of Christ Jesus.’ It is only in this letter that Paul commences by describing himself as ‘a prisoner of Christ Jesus’. Elsewhere he always expresses himself as ‘an Apostle of Jesus Christ’, or something similar. And here he could well have done the same in order to demonstrate to Philemon his need to obey him. But Paul would not use the term ‘Apostle’ in order to enforce his own will except when combating false teaching. He uses his claim to Apostleship at the commencement of his letters in order to emphasis his right to be heard on matters of doctrine, not in order to give himself status. Here therefore he uses the term ‘prisoner’ because it gave him a moral right to speak as one who was suffering for Jesus Christ and therefore had moral authority. What true Christian could resist the appeal of someone in such a situation?
Note that he saw himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. He was there in the will of God and as far as he was concerned it was Jesus Christ who held him captive. Rome were just His instrument.
The incorporating of Timothy in the introduction may well indicate that he too was well known to Philemon, or alternatively that Paul was seeking to boost Timothy’s credentials for the future. The former would seem more likely.
He describes Philemon as ‘our beloved one and our fellow-worker’. Philemon had seemingly worked alongside Paul although we are given no further information. It was possibly when he visited Colossae. But Paul clearly had close bonds with him.
Included with Philemon as addressees are Apphia, (the name is Phrygian), who was probably Philemon’s wife, and Archippus who may well have been his son. Alternately Archippus may have been one of the main overseers in the church at Colossae who was known to Paul and had worked alongside Epaphras, and possibly even Paul himself. Compare how in Colossians 4:17 Paul tells Archippus to ‘see that you fulfil the ministry which you have received of the Lord’, and here describes him as ‘our fellow soldier’. In other words he was one who was dedicated in his service for Christ (2 Timothy 2:3). He would almost certainly have been known to Paul when Paul was labouring in Colossae.
Finally he included in his greeting ‘the church in your house’. It was quite commonplace for Christians with large houses and sufficient facilities to allow their homes to be used for the gathering of Christians in worship. Here it is especially significant that he addressed them in that it means that Paul wanted what he said to Philemon to be public knowledge. He wanted the church to be in on the decision. It would both be a spur to Philemon to think carefully about his response, as it would be made in the open before his fellow-believers, and a preparation for when Onesimus finally returned. All would then greet him with brotherly affection being aware of the full circumstances of his return.
‘Grace to you (P) and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’
Here the pronoun is in the plural. The whole church is included in the greeting. It is a standard greeting of Paul with charis (grace) being similar to the typical Gentile greeting whist shalom (peace, well-being) was the typical Jewish greeting. Note the regular ‘God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ were both titles of deity, coming directly from the Greek Old Testament (where ‘Lord’ translated the name of God YHWH) and paralleled in Gentile worship where ‘lord’ was also a regular way of indicating deities (see 1 Corinthians 8:6). Paul see the Father and the Son as co-equal, and equally deserving of worship.
‘I thank my God always, making mention of you (S) in my prayers, hearing of your (S) love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and unto all the saints,’
Paul now switches to singular pronouns as he directs his remarks to Philemon. According to his usual custom he thanks God for him, and assures him of his prayers. As in most of the letters his heart overflows for the person/people he is writing to. And he does this in this case because of the love that Philemon demonstrates, and the faith that he has towards the Lord Jesus. And also for the love and faithfulness that he shows to all God’s people in his attitude towards them and what he does for them. He mentions love first because it is especially to Philemon’s love that he will be appealing.
‘That the fellowship (sharing in common) of your (S) faith may become effectual, in the knowledge of every good thing which is in you, unto Christ.’
His prayer was that Philemon, in sharing his faith with his fellow-believers by his many good offices and gifts (and thus hopefully towards Onesimus), might find that it becomes effectual in bringing him closer to Christ (‘effectual -- unto Christ’), while establishing him in the knowledge of every good thing that is within him. As he contemplates what Christ is doing in his life, making him more and more fruitful, and conscious of what the Spirit has worked within him, it brings him close to His Saviour.
‘For I had much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you (S), brother.’
And Paul emphasises that he is able gladly to bear witness to the fact of Philemon’s love. He declares that he himself also had joy and comfort in his love, because he saw how the hearts of the saints (God’s people) were refreshed through Philemon’s love and ministries. In other words he had great joy in Philemon’s generous spirit, and in what it achieved, a generous spirit that he is now about to call on.
‘For which reason, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin you what is befitting, yet for love’s sake I rather plead with you, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now a prisoner also of Christ Jesus.’
And it is because of his awareness of Philemon’s generous spirit that, although because of his status he could be bold in Christ to call on him to do what is fitting by exerting his authority as an Apostle, he does not intend to do it that way. Rather he intends, because of the love that they have for each other to plead with him, as Paul the aged and now as the prisoner of Jesus Christ. In other words to plead with him as his friend to respond to his grey locks, and to what he is suffering for Christ. Note again how he expects response to the fact that he is Christ’s prisoner, a point emphasised throughout the letter (Philemon 1:1; Philemon 1:9; Philemon 1:13; Philemon 1:23).
‘Paul the aged.’ The word which Paul here uses of himself is presbutes and Hippocrates, the great Greek medical writer, says that a man is presbutes from the age of forty-nine to the age of fifty-six. Thus it does not strictly mean an old man. On the other hand it may well indicate that Paul was feeling his age. It is only after fifty six years of age that a man becomes a geron (an old man).
‘I plead with you for my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus,’
And his plea is for Onesimus, to whom he sees himself as a father, because even while he was in prison he had won him to Christ with the result that Onesimus has been born of the Spirit. Here we have the evidence that in some way Onesimus came to him, for he was unable to go out teaching and preaching.
‘Who once was unprofitable to you, but is now profitable to you and to me,’
And he points out that although Onesimus was once unprofitable to Philemon, he is now, because he is a brother in Christ, profitable both to Philemon and to Paul, bringing them joy and satisfaction, and serving faithfully in everything he did. We are not told in what way he ‘was unprofitable’. It could have been as just a lazy worker and a belligerent slave. But it may well have been because, when he absconded, he took money or possessions with him which were not his own. In fact he would probably have had little alternative. He would have needed something to live on while he made his way to Rome.
It is quite clear in what way Onesimus was useful to Paul. But in what way was he useful to Philemon? Possibly Paul is thinking in terms of the fact that Onesimus is supplying to Paul the service that Philemon would gladly have offered had he been able. Philemon is to see him as acting as his substitute. But it also, of course, includes what Paul sees as a certainty, that Onesimus will now be found to be useful once he arrives ‘home’. For the glory of the Gospel is that it makes the useless useful.
‘Once he was useless (achrestos) but now he is useful (euchrestos).’ These two words are frequently contrasted in moral literature in the ancient world. They typically refer to a person's character rather than to the quality of his work. Indeed Onesimus’ own name carries the significance of ‘beneficial, useful’.
‘Whom I have sent back to you in his own person, that is, my very heart,’
Paul now further stresses that he has sent him back to Philemon in his own person. And then he reveals just how much Onesimus now meant to him. He describes him as ‘his very heart’. Paul had developed a genuine and deep-seated spiritual love for the young man Onesimus. He saw him very much as a son.
In all this we see what we saw in the introduction. Paul’s determination that Onesimus would do what was right whatever the cost with no half measures. And his own equal determination that it would be so. He was demonstrating by example how important it is that we do not respond to God in a half-hearted way, but are scrupulous in our obedience. He was also demonstrating the right kind of attitude to have when dealing with people, not that of overbearing authority, but rather that of an approach in love.
‘Whom I would wish to have kept with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in the bonds of the gospel,’
For Paul had wished to keep Onesimus with him, so that on behalf of Philemon and all who loved him, Onesimus might serve him in his imprisoned state, even in his bonds, which were for the sake of the Gospel (the bonds of the Gospel). This would have been of great benefit to him, but he refused to countenance his own comfort, if it meant compromising on what was right.
‘But without your mind I would do nothing, that your goodness should not be as of necessity, but of free will.’
Thus he would not enforce a choice on Philemon. He wanted rather for Philemon to be able to make up his own mind without pressure. Until Philemon had considered it without any duress, he would not keep Onesimus as his servant and companion. He wanted Philemon’s goodness to be a free act arising from his own goodwill, and not a necessity forced on him by Paul retaining Onesimus and asking for his services without really giving him the opportunity to say ‘no’.
‘For perhaps he was therefore parted (from you) for a season, that you might have him for ever,’
For while he would have liked to keep Onesimus, or have him back, he recognised the possibility that perhaps God had parted Onesimus from Philemon for a short so that he might then enjoy him for ever. It could therefore be that it would be right for Onesimus to remain with Philemon, whatever Paul’s desire, so that having been parted from him for a short time, he might have him permanently, ‘for ever’, as a dear brother in Christ, to be a companion to him in his old age. It may well be that Paul even saw Philemon as becoming almost a father to the boy, fulfilling Philemon’s desire for a son.
The thought of ‘having him for ever’ may mean that Paul had in mind the Old Testament custom of the Hebrew bondservant who chose to remain with his master ‘for ever’, rather than enjoying his freedom after seven years (Exodus 21:5-6).
‘No longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much rather to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.’
For Onesimus would now come to Philemon, no longer as a servant, but as more than a servant, as a beloved brother. Just as, he then points out, Onesimus is beloved to him Paul. How much more then will he be beloved to the one who had owned him, and had probably watched him grow up, thus feeling towards him with natural human feelings, as well as with the spiritual feeling that comes from him being a brother in the Lord and both therefore having a close bond in knowing the Lord.
‘If then you count me as a partner, receive him as myself.’
He then puts in his plea on Onesimus’ behalf, in case Philemon is not yet fully convinced about forgiving and receiving Onesimus in the terms described by Paul. If he genuinely counted Paul as a partner (sharer in common) in the Gospel, let him receive Onesimus as if he was Paul himself. He could have used no stronger argument.
‘But if he has wronged you at all, or owes anything, put that to my account.’
And if Philemon felt wronged in any way, or felt that there was any debt due to him, let him put it to Paul’s account. Paul wanted to ensure that there was full restitution available to him so that he would not feel aggrieved, even if it was at a cost to himself.
We note in all this the perfect picture of one who takes on himself the retribution due to another. Paul was substituting himself for Onesimus, as Christ had substituted Himself for Paul.
‘ I Paul write it with my own hand, I will repay it, that I say not to you that you owe to me even your own self besides.’
And in order to ensure that Philemon recognised that he really would do it, Paul took the stylus from his amanuensis and wrote down with his own hand, ‘I will repay it’, a total commitment to do what he had promised. Furthermore, in order to make his argument even more forceful, he pointed out that he would not remind Philemon how much he already owed to Paul. For he owed him his own self. This indicates that it was Paul who had brought him to Christ, and to whom he owed his entire spiritual life with all its benefits, and his eternal salvation.
‘Yes, brother, let me have joy of you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.’
And he concludes his argument by asking Philemon to let him have joy concerning him, ‘in the Lord’, as he saw Philemon doing what he had asked as a result of his (Philemon’s) right spiritual state. Yes, he wanted Philemon to refresh his heart in Christ by his truly spiritual response. Nothing refreshed him more than to see his converts walking truly in the faith and responding in a Christ-like way.
‘Having confidence in your obedience I write to you, knowing that you will do even beyond what I say.’
Then, lest Philemon think that he is doubting him, he declares that he has full confidence that he will do what Paul has asked him, yes, and will even do more. This last phrase, ‘even beyond what I say’, may be a hint that Philemon might give Onesimus his freedom, or it may be a hint that he return him to Paul. Either way it is to give Onesimus a new status.
‘But withal prepare me also a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be granted to you.’
He ends on a note of hope for an early release. He calls on Philemon to prepare a lodging place for himself, because he hopes that through Philemon’s prayers (and the prayers of others) he might be granted to him again, a free man.
‘Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, salutes you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow-workers.’
He finally closes by sending greetings from those who are with him. Epaphras, who is mentioned first, is his fellow-prisoner (a further reminder that he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus), seemingly sharing his confinement. Epaphras also came from Colossae and was therefore especially dear to Philemon and the church in his house. He also sends greetings from Mark (the author of the Gospel), Aristarchus, Demas (who would later desert him out of fear for his own life), and Luke, all ‘fellow-workers’.
‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.’
He then ends his letter with a prayer that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ will be with ‘your (P) spirit’. He wants the whole church to enjoy God’s grace as manifested in Christ. This final petition is on behalf of the whole church who have been called on to have a part in what Paul is asking (plural pronoun). We are not therefore to see it as an added hint to Philemon. Nevertheless it clearly does underline what Paul has been requesting, that he will be compassionate towards Onesimus, and that on a permanent basis. Amen (let it surely be).
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Philemon 1". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25