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Friday, June 14th, 2024
the Week of Proper 5 / Ordinary 10
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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

- Philemon

by Editor - Joseph Exell




The testimonies to the Pauline authorship of this Epistle are abundant.

1. External. It is not quoted so often by the earlier Christian fathers as some of the other letters; its brevity and the fact that its contents are not didactic or polemic, account for that omission. We need not urge the expressions in Ignatius, cited as evidence of that apostolic father’s knowledge and use of the Epistle, though it is difficult to regard the similarity between them and the language in Philemon 1:20 as altogether accidental. The Canon of Muratori, which comes to us from the second century, enumerates this as one of Paul’s Epistles. Tertullian mentions it, and says that Marcion admitted it into his collection. Sinope, in Pontus, the birthplace of Marcion, was not far from Colosse where Philemon lived, and the letter would find its way to the neighbouring churches at an early period. Origen and Eusebius include it among the universally acknowledged writings of the early Christian times. It is so well attested historically, that De Wette says its genuineness on that ground is beyond doubt.

2. Internal. It is impossible to conceive of a composition more strongly marked within the same limits by those unstudied assonances of thought, sentiment, and expression, which indicate an author’s hand, than this short Epistle as compared with Paul’s other productions. It will be found also that all the historical allusions which the apostle makes to events in his own life, or to other persons with whom he was connected, harmonise perfectly with the statements or incidental intimations contained in the Acts of the Apostles or in the other Epistles of Paul. (H. B. Hackett, D. D.)

The authenticity of this Epistle was probably never very seriously denied; its inspiration was unpopular in certain quarters, external to the Church. It is very necessary to remember that the objections to the inspiration of the letter came from anti-dogmatic, not from dogmatic Christians; that “in the battle of the creeds” the defenders of the Catholic doctrine are the champions of the Epistle; that “the fierce current of prejudice,” stemmed by Jerome, Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, set in from a quarter external to the Church. Jerome states that the arguments used against the Epistle were, either that it was not St. Paul’s, or that, if it came from his hand, he was not always inspired. Its subject, they argued, proved that it was a commendatory note, not a dogmatic document. Jerome argues that its universal reception by all churches in the whole world is unaccountable, except on the hypothesis of a Pauline origin. As to apparent triviality and everyday style, he points to such passages as 2 Timothy 4:13, Galatians 5:12, 1 Corinthians 7:12, with their apparently petty details, outbursts of human feeling, admissions of uncertainty. For the brevity of the letter he refers to the Minor Prophets, and concludes by a quaint quotation of Romans 9:28, as if the very shortness of Philemon were in consonance with the spirit of the gospel. (Bp. Wm. Alexander.)

The beautiful Epistle to Philemon contains nothing inconsistent with its genuineness, and bears everywhere marks of the hand and character of Paul. Among these last must be reckoned the absence of any request for the manumission of Onesimus. Tact so delicate belongs not to a forger. The names sending greeting to Philemon are valuable coincidence with the same names in the Epistle to the Colossians. (Prof. J. A. Beet.)

Place, time, occasion, and object of writing

We have to bring before our thoughts the picture of St. Paul’s life at Rome during the two years’ sojourn in his hired house, in custody, a prisoner so far though not in prison (Acts 28:30). Friends and visitors were allowed free access to him. When the churches which he had founded heard of his being at Rome, it was natural that they should send messengers with their gifts, their offers of personal help, their affectionate remembrances. Such as these were Epaphroditus from Philippi, Epaphras from Colosse, Onesiphorus and Tychicus from Ephesus. It was a time when, apart from the danger which might attach to their position as Christians, a visit to the imperial city was not without its special dangers. There was a serious epidemic which affected all classes of the community. The emperor himself was so ill that sacrifices were offered in all the temples for his recovery (Philostratus, “Life of Apollonius of Tyana,” b. 4, 100:44). It may be inferred from Philippians 2:25-27, that Epaphroditus nearly fell a victim to the disease. It was under such circumstances that an unlooked for visitor would seem to have made his way to the apostle’s quarters. We may picture him as in early manhood. He looks outwardly in evil case. His face is that of one weary and alarmed, oppressed alike by the consciousness of guilt and by the fear of punishment. It was a common story enough. He had yielded to the temptations of his calling and had robbed his master, either by direct purloining or by indirect fraud or culpable negligence. He had been afraid of punishment--perhaps all the more afraid because he thought that Philemon’s higher standard of duty as a Christian would make him more rigorous than other masters--and had run away. The punishment of such a crime might have been scourging or imprisonment. He might have been branded with the three letters (F U R=thief) which would stamp him with an indelible ignominy. When flight had been added to his guilt, Roman law would hardly have interfered had the scourging or the torture ended in death. It is not difficult to picture to ourselves how the apostle received that confession; how he would clasp the hands of the penitent, and lay his hands in blessing on his head, and tell him of the love of Christ and the death upon the Cross, and tell him that his sin was forgiven. Was this followed by a night of prayer and a morning baptism? Was it a time to which St. Paul looked back as one in which he, the prisoner, shut out from most opportunities of evangelistic work, had yet been able, in the might of intercession, to save a soul from death, to win a new spiritual son for God and for himself? That new life was, at any rate, implanted, and it showed itself, as was natural, in love and reverence to the teacher to whose influence it was due. To wait upon the apostle, ministering to his infirmities, to mitigate the inevitable discomforts of his imprisonment, to watch over him with a devotion which was at once filial and fraternal--this was the return which Onesimus strove to make for the great blessing of his new birth to a higher and Diviner life. With a gentle playfulness St. Paul loved to dwell on the thought that the slave was now “profitable” to him, and would be profitable when he reentered his former master’s service also. That reentry was the subject of the Epistle to Philemon … Of the after history of those whom the Epistle has brought before us, we are left to guess. We can picture to ourselves the arrival of Onesimus and the presentation of the letter. We can scarcely doubt that his reception, both by his master, and by the company of believers at Colosse, was such as St. Paul desired. We can think of him telling the story of his conversion, and of all that he owed to the tender, fatherly kindness of the apostle, or reporting what he had seen of the growth and work of the Church at Rome. If, with most recent writers on St, Paul’s life, we believe that he was released from his first imprisonment, and carried into effect his intention of revisiting the Macedonian and Asiatic churches, we may believe that the “lodging” for which he asked was not prepared in vain, and that the three--the apostle, the master, and the slave--met once more, to give thanks for all the great things God had done for them, to pray together for each other’s welfare, to partake together in the breaking of bread, of that which was the pledge and symbol of their brotherhood in Christ. (Dean Plumptre.)

What a picture rises in the mind as one tries to conceive the scene r There, in his wooden cabin, often “crowded” by anxious hearers of the Word, sits a scholar and a gentleman, exhausted by the labours of the day. The lamp shines down on his bald forehead, lights up the keen aquiline features of his oval face, shaded with grey hair, and glitters from the armour of the brawny Praetorian who lounges beside him, and from the links of the chain which binds them wrist to wrist. Paul dictates sentence after sentence to Luke, the learned physician, who carries his pen and inkhorn at his waist. He is inditing a letter to his friend Philemon in faraway Phrygian Colosse, about a runaway slave, pleading for the outcast, promising that if in anything the slave has wronged his master, he (Paul) will be answerable for it. The thought strikes him that the promise will carry more weight with it if written by his own hand. He interrupts the flow of speech; cries, “Here, Luke, give me the reed!” and with benumbed, labouring fingers inscribes these words, “I, Paul, write this with my own hand--I will repay it.” It is touching, is it not, to think of so great a man in such miserable conditions. A man so like the Master whom he serves that, while he carries whole races and churches on his heart, he yet has a special love for every wretched outcast who will accept his love; and is not only bent on serving him, but will take thought how he may best serve him, and spare no pains to make his service effectual. (S. Cox, D. D.)

Character and style

This Epistle has one peculiar feature--its aesthetical character--which distinguishes it from all the other Epistles. It has been admired deservedly as a model of delicacy and skill in the department of composition to which it belongs. The writer had peculiar difficulties to overcome. He was the common friend of the parties at variance. He must conciliate a man who supposed that he had good reason to be offended. He must commend the offender, and yet neither deny nor aggravate the imputed fault. He must assert the new ideas of Christian equality in the face of a system which hardly recognised the humanity of the enslaved. He could have placed the question on the ground of his own personal rights, and yet must waive them in order to secure an act of spontaneous kindness. His success must be a triumph of love, and nothing be demanded for the sake of the justice which could have claimed everything. He limits his request to a forgiveness of the alleged wrong, and a restoration to favour and the enjoyment of future sympathy and affection, and yet would so guard his words as to leave scope for all the generosity which benevolence might prompt towards one whose condition admitted of so much alleviation. These are contrarieties not easy to harmonise; but Paul, it is confessed, has shown a degree of self-denial and a tact in dealing with them, which in being equal to the occasion could hardly be greater. (H. B. Hackett, D. D.)

Dignity, generosity, prudence, friendship, affection, politeness, skilful address, purity, are apparent. Hence it has been termed with great propriety, “the polite Epistle.” The delicacy, fine address, consummate courtesy, nice strokes of rhetoric, render the letter an unique specimen of the epistolary style. (S. Davidson, D. D.)

This Epistle showeth a right noble, lovely example of Christian love. Here we see how St. Paul layeth himself out for the poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleadeth his cause with his master; and so setteth himself, as if he were Onesimus, and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Yet this doeth he not with power or force, as if he had right thereto; but he strippeth himself of his right, and thus enforceth Philemon to forego his right, also. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also doth St. Paul for Onesimus with Philemon: for Christ also stripped Himself of His right, and by love and humility enforced the Father to lay aside His wrath and power, and to take us to His grace for the sake of Christ, who lovingly pleadeth our cause, and with all His heart layeth Himself out for us. For we are all His Onesimi, to my thinking. (Luther.)

The Epistle to Philemon holds an unique place among the apostle’s writings. It is the only strictly private letter which has been preserved. It is addressed apparently to a layman. It is wholly occupied with an incident of domestic life. The occasion which called it forth was altogether commonplace. It is only one sample of numberless letters which must have been written to his many friends and disciples by one of St. Paul’s eager temperament and warm affections, in the course of a long and chequered life. Yet to ourselves this fragment, which has been rescued, we know not how, from the wreck of a large and varied correspondence, is infinitely precious. Nowhere is the social influence of the gospel more strikingly exerted; nowhere does the nobility of the apostle’s character receive a more vivid illustration than in this accidental pleading on behalf of a runaway slave. (Bp. Lightfoot.)

“Though he handleth a subject,” says Calvin, “which otherwise were low and mean, yet after his manner he is borne up aloft unto God. With such modest entreaty doth he humble himself on behalf of the lowest of men, that scarce anywhere else is the gentleness of his spirit portrayed more truly to the life.” “A true little chef d’oeuvre of the art of letter writing,” exclaims M. Renan, characteristically. “We have here,” writes Sabatier, “only a few familiar lines, but so full of grace, of salt, of serious and trustful affection, that this short Epistle gleams like a pearl of the most exquisite purity in the rich treasure of the New Testament.” Even Baur, while laying violent hands upon it, is constrained to speak of this “little letter” as “making such an agreeable impression by its attractive form,” and has penetrated “with the noblest Christian spirit,” the attitude of Christianity towards slavery wit is worthy of note that in this Epistle Paul does not require or ask Philemon to liberate Onesimus. Moreover, while Onesimus was still a slave in the house of Philemon, the latter was apparently a recognised Christian and a beloved friend of Paul. This, together with the silence of the rest of the New Testament, implies that the apostles did not forbid their converts to hold slaves. Yet, not only has the gospel put an end to slavery where throughout the world it has gained power, but it is the only religious system which has done anything effective in this direction. The reason of this apparent tolerance of slavery is not far to seek. By asserting the Fatherhood of God, the gospel proclaims the brotherhood of man; and thus asserts a principle utterly inconsistent with one man treating another as his property. On the other hand, had Christ and His apostles forbidden the holding of slaves, they would have arrayed against the gospel all those interested in maintaining the existing order of society, and thus have needlessly placed in its way most serious obstacles. And, worse still, by raising a standard of revolt against a social injustice, they would have rallied around themselves multitudes anxious only for relief from a social grievance. An appeal to such classes would have utterly misrepresented Christianity, and their help would have ruined it. Christ therefore offered to men only a spiritual liberation. But this carried with it the living germ of every kind of freedom. For these reasons the apostles tolerated slavery. We have no trace of fault found for holding Onesimus as a slave. It does not even lessen Paul’s warm recognition of Philemon’s excellence. And, even if Onesimus resume his former position, Paul will gladly be Philemon’s guest. Yet, while refusing to claim for the slaves a liberty for which they were not yet prepared, and which would have loosened the very framework of society, Paul taught that in Christ the distinction of bond and free no longer exists, and that a believing slave is already virtually free (Galatians 3:28; 1 Corinthians 7:21). And in Colossians 4:1 he teaches that slaves have just claims upon their masters, claims recognised by a Master in heaven. Such teaching at once improved the lot of the slave and prepared gradually a way for the emancipation which our day has seen. From the example of the apostles in the matter of slavery we may learn an important lesson. There are many things contrary to the spirit of the gospel, which it is inexpedient at once to forbid by civil or ecclesiastical law. In some few cases such prohibition would appeal to unworthy motives. And verbal prohibition can be effective only when supported by the public conscience. The gospel worlds always from within, shedding light upon broad principles of right and wrong, light which ultimately reaches and illumines all the details of practical life. But, for this inner illumination, time is often needful. Legislation is effective only when it registers an inward growth of the moral sentiment. (Prof. J. A. Beet.)


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