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Observe here, 1. The writer of this epistle described by his name, Paul; by his condition, a prisoner of Jesus Christ; by his office, a labourer, a soldier, a fellow-labourer, and a fellow-soldier with Philemon and Archippus.
Where note, That to be a labourer, a soldier, and a prisoner for Jesus Christ, are the titles that St. Paul glories in, and not in worldly dignities. Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ; yet was Paul a prisoner in libera custodia, not so closely confined but he had pen, ink, and paper; God gave Paul then, as Joseph before, favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison; Let persecutors send the saints to prison, God can provide a keeper for their turn. Happy was it for thee, Onesimus, that Paul was sent to gaol; his imprisonment was the happy occasion of thy spiritual liberty.
Observe, 2. The persons to whom the epistle is directed; first, and eminently, to Philemon the master, and to Apphia, the mistress of the family, in which and with whom Onesimus had dwelt, but was now run from. St. Paul writes to both, judging the mistress's consent necessary for taking this fugitive back into her family, as well as the master's; intimating thereby, that although the husband by the ordinance and appointment of God has the highest place, the first and chief power in the government of the family, yet the wife being given him of God, as an assistant and fellow-helper in government, her subordinate authority given her by God is to be owned and acknowledged.
Next, This epistle is directed to Archippus, who dwelt with or near Philemon: him he calls his fellow-soldier, and Philemon his fellow- labourer.
Where note, That the ministers of the gospel are compared to soldiers; they have enemies to encounter and conflict with, Satan's temptations, the world's persecutions, sinners' corrrupt lusts and affections. Let the ministers of God then reckon beforehand upon a toilsome and troublesome life; if they resolve to be faithful, the devil will plant all his artillery against them.
Last of all, the epistle is directed to the church in Philemon's house, by which some understand the company of Christians that met together at his house to worship God; for Christians then had not liberty publicly to perform that duty: others understand it of Philemon's own family, which speaks at once Philemon's privilege and duty, that he had such a well-ordered family, that it was a little church; that is, it was a lively image and representation of the church, both in its doctrine and worship.
Observe here, Our apostle's holy insinuation and pious wisdom; that he might make a more easy way for his petition, he labours to possess Philemon with an opinion of his endeared affection towards him, and of his continual prayers even by name for him: I thank my God, making mention of thee in my prayers.
Where note, That St. Paul did, and we may, make particular mention of persons and churches in our daily prayers to Almighty God: I make mention of thee always in my prayers.
Our apostle having discovered to Philemon his fervent prayers for him, next makes mention of the excellent graces which were so orient and shining in him, namely, his faith and his love; his faith in Christ produced love to him and all his saints, not to a party of Christians only: Hearing of thy love and faith towards the Lord Jesus, and in him towards all the saints. The saints are to be loved next to Christ, and in and for Christ.
Observe next, St. Paul prays that Philemon's faith and love might be made manifest to be effectual for producing all sorts of good fruits in him and by him: That the communication of thy faith may become effectual.
Observe lastly, the great joy and consolation which the apostle had in the operativeness of Philemon's faith and love, whereby the bowels of the saints were greatly refreshed.
Learn hence, That administering to the necessities of the saints, and relieving the bowels of the distressed members of Jesus Christ, is a blessed evidence of the sincerity of our love to Christ and Christians.
There is a frozen charity and a lip-love found among many professors, whom Christ will disown at the great day; but such as by office of kindness, performed with a tender and pitiful heart, do refresh the bowels of the saints, Christ reckons it as done unto himself, whatever is done to those his suffering members, Matthew 25:40 and God himself is thereby refreshed, An odour of sweet smell, and a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. Php_4:18
Note lastly, What the condition of the holiest and best of God's servants in the world has been, is, and may be; namely, such, that their bowels may stand in need of refreshing, whilst the wicked are fat, fresh, and flourishing; but blessed be God, if his children miss of refreshment from men, their time of refreshing will come from the presence of the Lord.
Observe here, The marvellous condescending humility of our apostle in these expressions: As an apostle he was the highest ruler and officer in the church of God, and had the fullest authority and power that a person could have upon earth, to command, require, and enjoin Philemon to the practice of his duty; but he tells him, though he might be bold to enjoin, yet he rather chose to beseech: For love's sake I rather beseech thee.
Learn hence, That church rulers and governors, although they have a commanding power and authority, which upon occasion they may and must make use of; yet they should choose much rather in love to entreat, hoping that will work more kindly and effectually upon the minds of persons.
Observe, 2. The argument St. Paul uses as a ground of entreaty: I Paul desire and beseech thee, I Paul the aged, I Paul a prisoner.
Note, he urges his years as an argument for granting his request; that he was aged, and an aged minister of Christ: if honour be due to an aged person walking in the ways of righteousness, much more is it so to an aged minister, gray-headed in the service of Christ, and having faithfully discharged his duty there. He also urges his sufferings as well as his years; I Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ. The sufferings of Christ's ministers in the cause of God should by no means lessen and diminish, but rather augment and increase, that reverence, regard, and respect, which is deservedly due and payable unto them.
Observe, 3. The person whom he thus intercedes with affection for: Onesimus, whom he calls his son begotten in his bonds; that is, his spiritual son, converted to Christianity by his ministry, when he was in prison.
Where note, That endearing love, and that fervent affection, which the ministers of Christ bear to their converts, to such as they have gained unto Christ; it equals, nay, perhaps exceeds, the natural affections of parents towards their own children.
Note also, Who they are that best deserve the name of fathers in the church; verily those who have begot most spiritual children unto God; such as can say, "Lord, here am I, and the children which thou hast given me." Nevertheless, for our comfort, God will, at the reckoning day, account and treat such as spiritual fathers who have been faithful, though unsuccessful in the work of Christ; because they have cast forth the prolific seed of the gospel, therefore the cause of sterility and spiritual barrenness cannot be imputed to them, they having exerted and put forth their best endeavours.
Note also, The high honour which God confers upon his faithful ministers: the scripture allows them, though but instruments, what is properly attributed to God himself, namely, to beget spiritual children; this is God's work. Of his own will begat he us, James 1:18 God allows that to be in an inferior sense attributed to the ministry, which is strictly applicable only to himself.
Observe, 4. How the apostle wisely answers the objections which Philemon might make against his request of receiving Onesimus, that he had been vile, a fugitive, a thief; what not? St. Paul implicitly owns all that, yet with a softening distinction, He was unprofitable in times past, but now profiteth both thee and me.
Now St. Paul pre-occupating and answering this objection before Philemon made it, shows how hard it is for the best of men to forgive and forget injuries done unto them, especially by their relations, those in their own families, whether children or servants.
Note also, The character given of Onesimus before conversion, he was unprofitable. Lord! what an useless, unprofitable creature, is an unsanctified and unconverted sinner! unprofitable to God, unprofitable to others, unprofitable to his own soul; but by conversion he becomes universally useful and profitable to all about him, but especially to himself; others may have the benefit of our estate, our parts and gifts, but we ourselves shall have the chief benefit, comfort, and advantage, of our own grace.
Here are several arguments used by our apostle, why Philemon should receive Onesimus into his service again.
1. Because St. Paul had sent him for that end a long and tedious journey from Rome to Colosse, and because he came with the apostle's commendary letters, and in his name. We are not easily to reject those that come to us countenanced and encouraged with the commendations of the reverend and faithful ministers of God.
In the close of the first argument, at the foot of the twelfth verse, observe the endearing title he gives Onesimus, he calls him, his own bowels; Receive him that is my own bowels.
O Lord! certainly there is no stronger love, nor more endearing and endeared affection, between any relations upon earth, than between the ministers of the gospel and such of their beloved people whom they have been happily instrumental to beget unto thyself! How inexpressibly dear is the soul of a poor servant to a faithful minister of Christ, and how lovely when once converted!
Receive him, for he is as dear to me as if he had proceeded out of my own bowels.
Again, another argument is this: St. Paul sends him, because he was another's servant, even Philemon his friend; and being very serviceable to the apostle, he would have gladly detained him; but could not satisfy himself to do it, without Philemon's consent. Masters have such a right to their servants, and such a right unto their service, that they are not to be disposed of without their own consent. St. Paul, though he wanted, yet would not detain Onesimus, though a fugitive servant, without Philemon's knowledge; Christian religion is no destroyer, but an establisher, of civil right. Onesimus's conversion to Christianity gave him no manumission and liberty from Philemon's service, and accordingly our apostle remits and sends him back to his old master Philemon.
Here our apostle answers an objection which possibly Philemon might make: Thus, "Onesimus ran away from me; what reason have I to receive him again?" The apostle seems thus to rely upon it: if his departing from thee was so managed by the wise and merciful providence of God, that it might be an occasion of thy receiving him again for ever, then, for all his departure thou oughtest to receive him. But verily thus it is, the wisdom of God has thus overruled the matter; he went from thee a fugitive, thievish and purloining; but he returns, a convert, a Christian, a brother in the faith, and as such to be entertained by thee, being doubly related to thee, both as a servant, and as a fellow-member of Christ.
Observe here, 1. The large extent, and next the overruling power, of the Divine Providence: its extent, it reaches not only to kingdoms and nations, but to families and persons, even to poor bond-slaves; a fugitive runs not from his service, but the providence of God eyes and observes it, nay wisely and mercifully overrules it.
Oh! the depth of divine knowledge and wisdom! the providence of God concerns itself, and has a hand in those actions of men which are sinful, without any blemish to his holiness; he concurs to the act but not to the alaxy and disorder of the action; he that rides a lame horse is the cause of his going, but not of his halting.
Observe, 2. The privilege of our spiritual conjunction in Christ above any other civil conjunction being effected by the bond of the Spirit, is indissoluble, it is for ever. Death itself cannot dissolve it, yea, it knits the knot faster: He departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever.
Observe, 3. That although Christianity doth not take away the degrees of persons, and the civil differences between man and man, yet it maketh us all equal and fellow-brethern in Christ. Receive him now, not barely as a servant, but above a servant, as a brother in Christ; you and he are now brethern by grace.
Learn hence, That religious servants are more than ordinary servants, they are brethren in Christ; and when humility, fidelity, and prudence are found with them, as they are more than ordinary servants, so God expects that we should give them more than ordinary respect; and we sin in denying it. O servants, would you have high respect showed to you? become then first humble servants to Jesus Christ, and then faithful and prudent servants where God has placed you, and you shall never want respect either from God or men: for them that honour God, he will honour.
Observe here, 1. Another argument wherewith St. Paul doth press Philemon to receive Onesimus, and it is drawn from a partnership and communion with him in the faith; if we are partners, and have communion and friendship one with another as Christians, comply with my desires herein.
Learn hence, that there is a communion, a fellowship, a partnership. between saints, should make saints respect one another, If thou count me a partner, receive him; yea, receive him as myself; a very high expression, still discovering that affectionate tenderness which St. Paul bare to this new convert.
Observe, 2. Another objection answered; Philemon might say, how can I receive him that has wronged me, robbed me, and run away from me? Sure it is enough to pardon him; must I receive him too? Our apostle implicitly grants, that there was a debt due from Onesimus to Philemon; If he hath wronged; that is granting that he has done it.
Where note, Religion destroys no man's property, nor does communion of saints make a community of goods; otherwise from this community, Onesimus, or St. Paul for him, might have pleaded an immunity from both from restitution and punishment; St. Paul acknowledges, not denies the debt; but observe farther, he takes it upon himself, Put it on my account, I will repay it. It is not then unlawful in itself, for one person to become bound and surety for another; yea, it is a work of mercy, which not only may be done, but sometimes must be done, but always with due caution and consideration.
Observe, 3. The wonderful modesty of the apostle in mentioning his own praises and commendations, I say not that thou owest to me even thine own self; implying what great things he had done for Philemon in his conversion, so great as made Philemon a debtor, not only of his own goods, but of himself too: however, the apostle only glances at it modestly, and that upon a just and great occasion too: I do not say, (though I might have said it) that thou owest to me even thine own self besides.
Observe here, 1. A pathetic repetition of our apostle's former petition, with the force and strength of a fresh and additional argument. Thus, "O my brother, that which revives me in a prison, and refreshes my bowels, now I am in bonds, that assuredly thou oughtest to do; but thy remitting and receiving Onesimus will thus refresh me, therefore do it."
Learn thence, That whatsoever Christians know will rejoice the hearts and revive the spirits, of one another, ought in mutual condescension and kindness to be performed each towards other upon their mutual requests. How unnatural it is for one member to vex and grieve another! as unbecoming is it in the body spiritual as it is in the body natural. Brother let me have joy in the Lord, refresh my bowels in the Lord.
Observe, 2. Our apostle's holy confidence in Philemon's obedience and compliance; Having confidence in thy obedience, I know thou wilt do more than I say. See here what credit and honour conscience and obedience puts upon a man: Philemon's good conscience occasioned St. Paul's confidence: it is a special honour when the general course of a man's life is so steady, so uniform, and even, that either our ministers or pious friends dare to be confident in us, vouch for us, and engage for our obedience and compliance with whatever becomes us.
Observe, 3. St. Paul having finished his request for Onesimus, speaks one word for himself, namely, that a lodging might be prepared for him; hoping, it seems, for a deliverance out of prison by the help of the church's prayers. Prepare me a lodging. Religion is no enemy to hospitality; nay, it requires it, and encourages it, Romans 12:13 Hebrews 13:2. It is a duty imcumbant upon all, but especially ministers: but an unkind world takes care that some have scarce bread sufficient for their families, much less have an ability for hospitality, or indeed for those necessary acts of charity which are required by God and expected by man, to render their labours amongst their people both acceptable and successful. The ministers of God, when they ask bread of some, they give them a stone, and when they demand their dues of others, they sting like a scorpion; but, blessed be God, it is not thus universally.
Note, lastly, what it was St. Paul grounded his expectation of deliverance upon, namely, the help and benefit of the church's prayers: I trust through your prayers I shall be given unto you.
Learn that our deliverance from trouble is to be expected and sought by the means of the prayers of such as fear God; yet mark, Though prayer obtains much, yet it merits nothing at God's hand. I trust through your prayers I shall be given, that is, freely given unto you; though we obtain blessings by prayer, yet not for the merit of our prayers. If mercy were due to us, thankfulness were not due to God.
Our apostle being now come to the conclusion of his epistle, he shuts it up with salutations and prayers: first he salutes Philemon from Epaphras, Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, some his fellow-prisoners, all his fellow labourers.
Here note, How graciously God provides for the comfort of his children in a prison; he sweetened St. Paul's affliction with the saint's communion: it was no joy to St. Paul that Epaphras was in prison, he had rather he had been preaching at Colosse; but seeing he was a prisoner, the apostle, no doubt, was very thankful that he was in the same prison with him, where they had opportunity (it is hoped) to pray together, to discourse, encourage, and comfort one another.
And note the cause of Epaphras's imprisonment, in Christ Jesus, that is for the sake of Christ Jesus. No doubt there were others in prison besides Epaphras, but none were St. Paul's fellow-prisoners but he, because though sufferers in the same prison, yet not for the same cause; Epaphras my fellow-prisoner saluteth thee.
Observe, 2. Our apostle's concluding prayer, The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Here note, 1. The person prayed to, the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour, our anointed king; from Christ we are called Christians, because every one of us, in our measures, are partakers of a divine unction with and from him, Ye have an unction from the Holy One. 1 John 2:20 This oil ran down from the head of our great High-priest, to the very skirts of his garment.
Note, 2. The blessing prayed for, The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with thy spirit; that is, "May the special favour of God, both in its effects and influences, in its graces and comforts, reside in thy soul and spirit; may the blessed spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you, not thy but your spirit: all the saints of God in general, yea, the whole race of mankind universally, must be remembered by us in our prayers.
Amen, is a word that denotes our earnestness of desire to be heard, and our comfortable expectation of being answered: it teaches us, that whatever we pray for should be rightly understood, firmly expected, and earnestly desired. They sin in prayer, who either do not understand what they pray for, or do not earnestly desire what they pray for, or do not believe God's readiness to grant what they pray for; therefore in testimony of our desire and assurance to be heard in prayer, we say Amen.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Philemon 1". Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NT. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany