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Bible Commentaries
Philemon 1

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

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Verses 1-3


Philemon 1:1. A prisoner.—There is evident design in this opening word of the letter. How could Philemon resist an appeal which was penned within prison-walls and by a manacled band? Unto Philemon.—A citizen of Colossæ, who owed his conversion, his better self, to the apostle (Philemon 1:19). We know nothing of him but what this letter reveals of his character.

Philemon 1:2. Our beloved Apphia.—R.V. “Apphia our sister.” It is a safe inference, from the connection of the names, that Apphia was the wife of Philemon. Since the name always retains the aspirate, it cannot be the Roman name Appia (Lightfoot). Archippus our fellow-soldier.—Less confidently, but still reasonably, inferred to be the son of Philemon and Apphia, in the fellowship of Christian service, either at Colossæ or Laodicea, preferably the latter.


Christian Salutation

I. Significant as proceeding from a devoted champion of the truth.—“Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1:1). A designation not adopted for effect, and yet most effective by its undesignedness and simple truth. Paul speaks not as the apostle, but as the friend, and this description of himself as a prisoner of Jesus—a sufferer for the gospel—would go straight to Philemon’s heart. He drops all allusion to the authority of his office, and “lets Philemon hear the fetters jangling on his limbs—a more powerful plea.’ It was for the cause of Christ that Paul was in the Roman prison. Jewish hatred had succeeded in shutting up the ringleader of the Christian movement; but Paul was less concerned than they in the course events were taking. It enabled him to preach the gospel in the metropolis of the world-empire.

II. Addressed to an exemplary Christian household (Philemon 1:1-2).—Philemon is first mentioned as the head of the house, then Apphia his wife, Archippus, probably their son, and the little company of believers who were very likely accustomed to meet under Philemon’s roof, the whole regarded as constituting a Church. We have here a glimpse of a quiet Christian home in the early times. The gospel makes most solid progress when the family is converted and consecrated to Christ. Christianity imposes upon every believer the sacred duty of showing piety at home.

III. Supplicates the bestowal of special blessings (Philemon 1:3).—Grace is the unmerited but all-comprehensive favour of God, and peace an enjoyment resulting from grace, and a blessing to be diligently sought and increasingly cultivated. Grace and peace comprise Heaven’s choicest benedictions.


1. Prison life cannot suppress Christian freedom.

2. Religion hallows family life.

3. Our greatest blessings come through prayer.

Verses 4-7


Philemon 1:4. I thank my God.—There the apostle carries all his joys and troubles into the presence of his God.

Philemon 1:5. Hearing of thy love.—Perhaps the bearer of the refreshing news was Epaphras. The love of Philemon is the chief element so far as the immediate purpose of the apostle is concerned. And of the faith.—The explanation of this order generally given is by the figure called chiasmus. In Philemon 1:5, “love and faith”; in Philemon 1:6-7, “faith and love.” Meyer’s explanation is that faith here means fidelity, and is not to be taken in the dogmatic sense.

Philemon 1:6. That the communication of thy faith.—R.V. “fellowship.” Two interpretations of this phrase deserve consideration.

(1) Your friendly offices and sympathies, your kindly deeds of charity which spring from your faith.
(2) Your communion with God through faith. The parallel passages strongly support the former sense (Lightfoot).

Philemon 1:7. Because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.—R.V. “hearts.” This letter, short as it is, contains this expression three times. Lightfoot considers the prominent idea to be that of terror, grief, despondency, etc., and the refreshing as a preparation for the renewal of labour or suffering.


Distinguished Christian Excellence

I. Is an occasion of thanksgiving and prayer.—“I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers” (Philemon 1:4). The frequent expression of the apostle’s thanks and prayers indicates his habitual devoutness of spirit. A prayerful heart is keenly appreciative of the least evidence of Christian excellence, and joyfully thanks God as the Source and Giver of all good. Prayer and gratitude are usually blended together.

II. Manifested in a loving heart (Philemon 1:5).—Love, though mentioned first, is really the result of faith, but it is the grace the apostle in this instance wishes to prominently refer to, and to be exercised towards the runaway slave. Love is the essence, the strength, and the ornament of the Christian character. Without love all other graces are cold and inactive.

III. Practically appreciates the best things in the Christian life (Philemon 1:6).—The apostle’s prayer for Philemon desires the enlargement of the fellowship of his faith so as to recognise and experience every good thing of which Christ is the source. The germs of all Christian excellencies are planted in the heart when we believe in Christ, but they must be nurtured into growth and expansiveness by exercise and by practical benevolence. In every Christian heart there are the potentialities of all good: every grace is developed by use.

IV. Shown in sympathetic benevolence (Philemon 1:7).—Philemon’s good to others, in supplying the wants and cheering the hearts of the saints, was a joy and comfort to the apostle. All our works should be done, as a primal motive, to please God; but it is no small motive to persevere in well-doing, that our good deeds give pleasure to those we esteem and love. “Neither Paul nor Philemon dreamed that, made immortal by the word of the former, the same transient act would find its way across the centuries, and would ‘smell sweet and blossom in the dust’ to-day.”


1. The Christian life is a life of love.

2. Christianity is practical benevolence.

3. Growth in piety is an occasion of joy to the good.


Philemon 1:4. Thanksgiving and Prayer

I. Are the evidences of a genuine Christian spirit.

II. Should be always united.

III. Act and react upon each other.

IV. Should be constantly cultivated.

V. Are pleasing to God.

Philemon 1:5-7. Christian Love

I. Is the product of a vital faith (Philemon 1:5).

II. Is the love of God and man (Philemon 1:5)

III. Sees good so far as it sees Christ in everything (Philemon 1:6).

IV. Occasions joy to others by its timely and beneficent ministries.

Verses 8-11


Philemon 1:8. Though I might be much bold.—R.V. better, “though I have all boldness.” St. Paul feels that his relationship to Philemon might warrant the casting away of reserve in speech. To enjoin thee that which is convenient.—R.V. “befitting.” To lay down what would be proper.

Philemon 1:9. For love’s sake I rather beseech.—Such a gentleman as the apostle was (Coleridge). The love that “hopeth all things” seems here to be intended. Paul the aged.—So R.V. text. R.V. margin, “Paul an ambassador.” Ambassadors being generally venerable men, perhaps the apostle meant to convey the double idea of age and office.

Philemon 1:10. My son Onesimus.—The R.V., like the Greek, holds back the name that might raise some feeling in Philemon’s’ breast. Whom I have begotten.—If Philemon had been a cynic, he might have said the pain had been his (Philemon 1:18), whilst Paul seems to have had only the joy over this child of his captivity.

Philemon 1:11. Unprofitable … profitable.—We have here a play on words. Christus was often pronounced by Pagans Chrçstus, so that the adjectives ἄχρηστος, εὔχρηστος, would suggest the meanings of “non-Christian” and a “good Christian” (Farrar).


A Plea for a Delinquent Slave

I. Is not enforced by mere authority (Philemon 1:8).—Paul here acknowledges that what authority he has is not in himself, but in Christ. He prefers to beseech where he might command. It is never wise to use all the power we have. Force should be the very last resource. There is a power in gentleness that rarely fails, and it is always best to try that first.

II. Is urged on the ground of personal affection.—“For love’s sake I rather beseech thee” (Philemon 1:9). To deepen the pathos of his entreaty, Paul appeals to his age and to his condition as a prisoner of Christ—two considerations that could not fail to quicken the love of Philemon towards the friend to whom he owed more than he could repay. “The rocking-stones which all the storms of winter may howl round and not move can be set swinging by a light touch. Una leads the lion in a silken leash. Love controls the wildest nature. The demoniac, whom no chains can bind, is found sitting at the feet of incarnate Gentleness. So the wish of love is all-powerful with loving hearts, and its faintest whisper louder and more constraining than all the trumpets of Sinai” (Maclaren).

III. Recognises the closeness of spiritual relationship (Philemon 1:10).—The slave for whose restoration Paul pleads is a new man. Coming under the influence of the apostle’s preaching in the very city in which he was in hiding, he repented and embraced the truth. The man in bonds was the instrument of the slave’s spiritual freedom; and Onesimus is now recognised as a son of Paul, and therefore a brother of Philemon. This tender spiritual relationship intensified the plea for kindly and considerate treatment.

IV. Strengthened by the fact of genuine conversion.—“Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me” (Philemon 1:11). Paul does not excuse the slave’s past conduct. He may have been the worst of his class, the cause of more loss than profit to his owner, and ending a worthless career by theft and flight. But his conversion was real, and Paul had proof of it in the valuable service he had rendered to him. The changed life and well-tested qualities of the Christian character of the slave would render him of real value in the future service of his Master. “Christ does not need to be besought to welcome His runaway good-for-nothings, however unprofitable they have been. That Divine charity of His forgives all things, and hopes all things of the worst, and can fulfil its own hope in the most degraded.”


1. Entreaty is more potent than command.

2. The gospel can transform the worst characters.

3. Christianity recognises the true brotherhood of man.


Philemon 1:9. The Christianity of Old Age.

I. In the two most marked characteristics of old age—the obtuseness of immediate perception and the freshness of remote memories—may we not discern an obvious intimation of the great future, and a fitting preparative for its approach?

II. The veneration for old age which Christianity inspires comes not from the past alone, but rather from the future.

III. Christianity teaches the aged disciple how to regard the world and himself as leaving it.

IV. The aged, ere they depart, are able to report to us something of the exactitude of the Divine retribution.Martineau.

Philemon 1:10. A Plea for Onesimus.

I. In Philemon’s house.—His privileges. His dishonesty.

II. At Rome.—A large city and strange, and full of temptations. Yet it was the place of his spiritual birth.

III. Under Paul’s preaching.—A hearer, a convert.

IV. Attendant on Paul.—Reality of his conversion proved by his desertion of evil companions and courses, by his services to Paul, and by his willingness to return to Philemon. Paul’s affection for the slave, and his uprightness to his owner.

V. In Colossæ again.—Return, reconciliation, joy, Faint picture of the joy in heaven.


1. Adore the riches of Divine grace in the conversion of Onesimus.

2. Do not presume on his case.

3. The advantage of living in a religious family.—G. Brooks.

Paul and Onesimus.

I. Here we see the providence of God at work.

II. The power of Jesus Christ to save.

III. We learn how to become peacemakers.

IV. We learn how to make restitution.

V. We learn how to forgive.

VI. We learn that all men are one in Jesus Christ.

VII. We learn what it is to be diligent in season and out of season.W. Galbraith.

Philemon 1:11. The Christian Solution of Social Problems.

I. Of problems like slavery.

1. Its method—disintegration, not revolution.

2. The reform of the individual.

II. Of the problem of employers and employed.By imbuing employers with a Christian spirit.

2. By imbuing employees with the same spirit.

III. Of the problem of the lapsed masses.

1. By their evangelisation.

2. By continued brotherly oversight.—S. E. Keeble.

Verses 12-16


Philemon 1:12. Whom I have sent again.—There were police—the fugitivarii—whose duty it was to track out runaway slaves: love succeeds better.

Philemon 1:13. I would have retained.—“I could have wished I might keep him.” Paul was not a man to take a liberty with a friend. In thy stead.—It was not with Philemon’s consent that Onesimus was in Rome; but if he might be his proxy, St. Paul knew that would be the most likely way to have retained the runaway for himself.

Philemon 1:14. That thy benefit.—Lit. “thy good.” There are spontaneous benefactions, and others that are given reluctantly, but without a tell-tale face.

Philemon 1:15. Perhaps he therefore departed.—He does not say, “For this cause he fled,” but “For this cause he was parted”; for he would appease Philemon by a more euphemistic phrase (Chrysostom). That thou shouldest receive him for ever.—Not the design of Onesimus, but “there’s a Divinity that shapes our ends.” Paul sees the design in the event which he reckons upon securely.

Philemon 1:16. Not now as a servant.—The apostle utters no syllable of “emancipation,” though we can almost think he is playing round the word.


The Christian Teacher and the Slave.

I. The Christian teacher acknowledges the civil rights of the slave-owner.—“Whom I have sent again” (Philemon 1:12). Paul did not propose to keep Onesimus, nor did he ask for his liberation from slavery, unless the words in Philemon 1:21—“Knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say”—may be so construed. Even in these words there is no definite request for the manumission of the slave, but only a delicately expressed hint. Nor did Onesimus object, but seemed eager to go back to the master he had wronged. The time had not then come, as it did come, for the Christian teacher to boldly attack the inhuman system of slavery, which was so deeply and widely interwoven with the social life of that day. The law sanctioned the system: the apostle respected the law.

II. He identifies himself with the condition of the slave, and recognises the value of his services in the gospel.—“Receive him, that is, mine own bowels [my own heart] … he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel” (Philemon 1:12-13). Onesimus had so endeared himself to Paul that he regarded him as a part of himself, and had found his services so helpful that, if he had harboured the thought, he would fain have retained him. He was sure Philemon would have sanctioned such an arrangement; but justice demanded that he should be returned to his master, who could not but receive kindly the slave of whom his friend Paul spoke so highly, and with whom he so thoroughly identified himself. “We are all Christ’s Onesimuses, and He out of His pure love makes Himself one with us and us one with Him.”

III. He hesitates to claim what he believes the slave’s master would have cheerfully rendered (Philemon 1:14).—Paul might have kept Onesimus, and could easily have gained the consent of Philemon to do so; but with that fine delicacy of feeling that always distinguishes the true Christian gentleman, he declined to force an act of kindness which would lose all its grace and value if not spontaneous. “The principle underlying these words is, that where the bond of love is, compulsion takes the sweetness and goodness out of even sweet and good things. Freedom is essential to virtue. That freedom Christianity honours and respects. So in reference to the offer of gospel blessings, men are not forced to accept them, but appealed to, and can turn deaf ears to the pleading voice, ‘Why will ye die?’ For nothing is good but the free turning of the will to goodness, and nothing bad but its aversion therefrom” (Maclaren).

IV. He discerns the Divine purpose in a personal incident of slave life (Philemon 1:15-16).—Onesimus’ escapade, and Philemon’s loss of his services for a time, led to the slave’s conversion, and his return to his master with heightened qualifications for service, and in a new spiritual relationship—“above a slave, a brother beloved.” So God’s purpose of mercy works through all the ways which our follies have made crooked. The history of every conversion is full of suggestive incidents that illustrate the gracious overruling of our waywardness and transgressions.


1. The minister of the gospel has a special love for his converts.

2. Christianity teaches us to respect the rights of others.

3. The saving power of God is realised in the most unlikely circumstances.


Philemon 1:12-14. Restitution

I. An undeniable Christian duty (Philemon 1:12).

II. Resists all temptations not to do what is just and right (Philemon 1:13).

III. Does not bargain for conditions (Philemon 1:14).

IV. Leaves the wronged one free to forgive the wrong done and for which restitution is offered.

Philemon 1:15-16. Providence in Individual Life

I. Works out its plans in the midst of sin and suffering.

II. Accomplishes its purpose in the most unexpected manner and by the unlikeliest methods (Philemon 1:15).

III. Is always beneficent in its aims and results (Philemon 1:15-16).

IV. Exalts the individual into the highest spiritual relationship (Philemon 1:16).

V. Brings loving hearts into closer union with each other (Philemon 1:16).

Verses 17-19


Philemon 1:17. If thou count me therefore a partner.—The master-stroke of the apostle’s policy. Who would not pay a goodly price for the privilege of calling such a man comrade or friend? Receive him as myself.—Not as a slave, nor a pardoned slave, nor a freedman, but as an apostle of God (cf. Galatians 4:14).

Philemon 1:18. Put that on mine account.—As we should say in modern mercantile language, “Debit me with it.”

Philemon 1:19. I Paul have written it.—R.V. “I Paul write it.” A signature to a deed in ancient or mediæval times would commonly take this form, “I so-and-so” (Lightfoot). Thou owest unto me even thine own self.—This is St. Paul’s creditor side of the account. With this debt outstanding he can meet the payment on account of Onesimus.


The Unselfishness of Christian, Love

I. Recognises the equal rights of Christian fellowship.—“If thou count me therefore as a partner, receive him as myself” (Philemon 1:17). Paul claims for the converted slave the same share and comradeship in Christian blessings as he and Philemon enjoyed. Love overleaps all minor distinctions, and admits its object into a full participation, on equal terms, of its holiest fellowship.

II. Generously undertakes responsibility for the deserving.—“If he hath wronged thee … I will repay it” (Philemon 1:18-19). “The formal tone of the promise rendered more formal by the insertion of the name—and perhaps by that sentence only being in his own handwriting—seems to warrant the explanation that it was half playful; for he could never have supposed that Philemon would exact the fulfilment of the bond, and we have no reason to suppose that, if he had, Paul could really have paid the amount. But beneath the playfulness there lies the implied exhortation to forgive the money wrong as well as the others which Onesimus had done him” (Maclaren). Love is often abused by undertaking obligations for the undeserving, but this does not prevent its helping the worthy. Love would rather suffer itself than that others should suffer, even by its cautious suppression.

III. Pleads for others by a delicate reminder of spiritual indebtedness.—“Albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides” (Philemon 1:19). Philemon owed Paul more than the mere money loss of which Onesimus was guilty. He owed his spiritual life which he had received through the apostle’s ministry. Love does not parade its services and insist upon its claims as if it were a matter of barter and exchange. We owe our all to Christ, but He does not harass us for the payment of the debt. He lovingly reminds us of it, to make obedience all the easier and pleasanter.


1. Religion admits to a hallowed fellowship with all the good.

2. Love willingly shoulders the burdens of others.

3. Love is irresistibly persuasive.


Philemon 1:17. Put Yourself in His Place.

I. Christianity has compassion for the erring.

II. The Christian benefactor remembers how much he has been himself forgiven.

III. Christianity is a partnership in Divine and spiritual treasures which it invites all men to share.

IV. Christianity raises the worst of slaves to the highest freedom.

Philemon 1:18-19. Vicarious Responsibility

I. Becomes willingly chargeable for the debts of the truly penitent.

II. Is a faint imitation of the conduct of the Divine Redeemer.

III. Does not and cannot annihilate individual responsibility.

Philemon 1:19. An Undischargeable Debt.

I. We can never repay the man who led us to Christ.

II. The charm of the service rendered would be destroyed if the debt could be discharged.

III. Undischargeable debts will augment the enjoyment of souls in heaven.

Verses 20-25


Philemon 1:20. Let me have joy.—The apostle appeals to what has been a customary thing with Philemon (Philemon 1:7). The verb is at the root of the name Onesimus.

Philemon 1:21. Thou wilt also do more than I say.—What would he do? Set Onesimus at liberty? If so, this reserve is eminently characteristic of the gospel. Slavery is never directly attacked as such, but principles are inculcated which must prove fatal to it (Lightfoot).

Philemon 1:22. Prepare me also a lodging “There is a gentle compulsion in this mention of a personal visit to Colossæ. The apostle would thus be able to see for himself that Philemon had not disappointed his expectations” (Lightfoot). What would one not have given to be present if ever Philemon did play the host to Paul afterwards, Onesimus being “one of them that sat at meat with him”!


Christian Entreaty

I. Is based on the joy which an act of kindness affords.—“Let me have joy of thee in the Lord” (Philemon 1:20). It would weigh with a nature like Philemon’s that compliance with the request would give pleasure to Paul: it would help him in his own Christian experience. “Refresh my heart in the Lord.” It is an inducement to be kind that it will please those we love; but the highest motive for doing good is that it will please God. It stirs the heart to duty when it knows that every act of goodness gladdens the heart of God.

II. Has confidence in the generous response of the Christian spirit.—“Having confidence in thy obedience … knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say” (Philemon 1:21). The Christian heart cannot withstand the appeal of unselfish love. It responds quickly, not as rendering a slow, mechanical obedience, but as if eager to lavish its wealth of generosity and do more than it is asked. “When love enjoins, there should be trust in its tones. It will act like a magnet to draw reluctant feet into the path of duty. A will which mere authority could not bend, like iron when cold, may be made flexible when warmed by this gentle heat. If parents oftener let their children feel that they had confidence in their obedience, they would seldom have to complain of their disobedience” (Maclaren).

III. Is more likely to succeed with the immediate prospect of a personal interview (Philemon 1:22).—A letter at the best is but a cold, formal vehicle to convey the heart’s desires. The prospect of Paul visiting Colossæ in person would tend to secure a kindly reception for Onesimus. But the apostle does not write as if he had any doubt on that score. He looks forward to the pleasure of social and Christian intercourse with one whose generosity is undoubted, and hopes that the prayers of the Church in Philemon’s household on his behalf may be answered in his liberation, so that he may soon be with them. The joy of once more meeting his father in the gospel would make Philemon eager to gratify his wishes. So the prospect of one day seeing Christ as He is should inspire us with eagerness to fulfil all His wishes concerning us.

IV. Concludes with salutations and prayer (Philemon 1:23-25).—Epaphras, who had been sent by the Colossian Church to minister to the wants of Paul, and who was so closely identified with the apostle as to be called his “fellow-prisoner,” is naturally mentioned; and he, along with two Jews and two Gentiles, joins in the Christian greeting. The parting prayer is suggestive. In the beginning of the epistle Paul invoked grace upon the household “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”; now he represents that grace as the gift of Christ. “In Him all the stooping, bestowing love of God is gathered that from Him it may be poured on the world. That grace is not diffused like stellar light through some nebulous heaven, but concentrated in the Sun of Righteousness, who is the Light of men. That fire is piled on a hearth that from it warmth may ray out to all that are in the house. The grace of Christ is the best bond of family life. Here it is prayed for on behalf of all the group, the husband, wife, child, and the friends in their home-church. Like grains of sweet incense cast on an altar flame and making fragrant what was already holy, that grace sprinkled on the household fire will give it an odour of a sweet smell, grateful to men and acceptable to God” (Maclaren).


1. The Christian is ever ready to plead for the unfortunate.

2. Love is generous both in its gifts and expectations.

3. Love prompts and then rejoices in every act of kindness.


Philemon 1:20. The Stimulating Power of Kindness

I. Excites the best affections.

II. Creates the holiest joy.

III. Intensifies our appreciation of the power and love of God.

Philemon 1:21-22. The Expectations of Love

I. Inspire confidence in the goodness of others (Philemon 1:21).

II. Are realised beyond all power of expression (Philemon 1:21).

III. Yearn for personal fellowship (Philemon 1:22).

IV. Are fed by belief in the power of prayer.

Philemon 1:23-25. Christian Salutations

I. Indicate the unity and reality of the Christian brotherhood.

II. Are tokens of genuine mutual affection.

III. Are prompted by the affluent realisation of Divine grace.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Philemon 1". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/philemon-1.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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