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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
Philemon Epistle to
That this epistle was written by the apostle Paul is the constant tradition of the ancient church. It is expressly cited as such by Origen; it is referred to as such by Tertullian; and both Eusebius and Jerome attest its universal reception as such in the Christian world.
This epistle was evidently written during the apostle's imprisonment (), and, as we have already endeavored to show [COLOSSIANS, EPISTLE TO THE], during his two years' imprisonment at Rome. It was occasioned by his sending back to Philemon his runaway slave Onesimus, who, having found his way to Rome, was there, through the instrumentality of the apostle, converted to Christianity; and, after serving Paul for a season, was by him restored to his former master, without whose consent the apostle did not feel at liberty to retain him. The epistle commences with the apostle's usual salutation to those to whom he wrote; after which he affectionately alludes to the good reputation which Philemon, as a Christian, enjoyed, and to the joy which the knowledge of this afforded him (). He then gently and gracefully introduces the main subject of his epistle by a reference to the spiritual obligations under which Philemon lay to him, and on the ground of which he might utter as a command what he preferred urging as a request. Onesimus is then introduced; the change of mind and character he had experienced is stated; his offence in deserting his master is not palliated; his increased worth and usefulness are dwelt upon, and his former master is entreated to receive him back, not only without severity, but with the feeling due from one Christian to another (). The apostle then delicately refers to the matter of compensation for any loss which Philemon might have sustained either through the dishonesty of Onesimus, or simply through the want of his service; and though he reminds his friend that he might justly hold the latter his debtor for a much larger amount (seeing he owed to the apostle his own self), he pledges himself, under his own hand, to make good that loss (). The epistle concludes with some additional expressions of friendly solicitude; a request that Philemon would prepare the apostle a lodging, as he trusted soon to visit him; and the salutations of the apostle and some of the Christians by whom he was surrounded at the time ().
This epistle has been universally admired as a model of graceful, delicate, and manly writing. 'It is a voucher,' says Eichhorn, 'for the apostle's urbanity, politeness, and knowledge of the world. His advocacy of Onesimus is of the most insinuating and persuasive character, and yet without the slightest perversion or concealment of any fact. The errors of Onesimus are admitted, as was necessary, lest the just indignation of his master against him should be roused anew; but they are alluded to in the most admirable manner: the good side of Onesimus is brought to view, but in such a way as to facilitate the friendly reception of him by his master, as a consequence of Christianity, to which he had, during his absence, been converted; and his future fidelity is vouched for by the noble principles of Christianity which he had embraced. The apostle addresses Philemon on the softest side: who would willfully refuse to an aged, a suffering, and an unjustly imprisoned friend a request? And such was he who thus pleaded for Onesimus. The person recommended is a Christian, a dear friend of the apostle's, and one who had personally served him: if Philemon will receive him kindly, it will afford the apostle a proof of his love, and yield him joy. What need, then, for long urgency? The apostle is certain that Philemon will, of his own accord, do even more than he is asked. More cogently and more courteously no man could plead.'
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Philemon Epistle to'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/p/philemon-epistle-to.html.