See Lesson, Paul the man.
"The little letter to Philemon introduces us to two men. One
is the writer, an old man in chains. Contrary to all outward appearance and
though in prison, he was really free. Once, in his youth, he thought he was
free, but he was really in chains to the law of sin. But when Christ came into
his life he threw away his chains. Then, though in bonds, his spirit was as free
as the winds of heaven. He was free to rejoice, and he was at peace.
"The other man is Onesimus. As a runaway slave, he escaped in
the hope of finding freedom. He learned that the world was not as he imagined.
His experience of earthly freedom was bitter: Rome's streets were not gold, and
the cobblestones were hard. Disillusioned, with empty pockets, in rags, he
sought out the ecclesia in Rome. And where did he find true freedom? In the
prison cell, from an old man in chains! He found help, sympathy, love and the
Truth. From Paul the prisoner he found true freedom!" (Walter Draper).
By the Law of Moses the runaway slave was not to be delivered
back to master (Deu 23:15). But Paul did so, after teaching him a new way of
life. Philemon learns that right must be exercised in love. Paul realizes that
authority must give way to tact. And Onesimus must acknowledge his obligations,
and not presume on his liberties. See 1Jo 3:17: "If anyone [Philemon] has
material possessions and sees his brother [Onesimus] in need but has no pity on
him, how can the love of God be in him?"
PAUL, A PRISONER: Five times in this short letter Paul
refers to his bonds. He appears to be associating himself in bondage with
Onesimus the slave, in order to appeal more strongly to Philemon. Only in this
letter does he so introduce himself. His normal introduction is "Paul the
apostle," but here, in this personal letter of entreaty, he keeps his authority
and apostleship in the background and emphasizes his bondage.
Only in two other epistles does he omit the title "apostle"
and those were to the two ecclesias to whom he felt most close: Philippi and
These are members of Philemon's household. It would seem most
probable Apphia was Philemon's wife and possibly Archippus his son; but any
relationship or none at all is possible. Certainly they must be an intimate part
of the household or they would not have been included in a letter on a domestic
matter. They were obviously concerned in the problem.
ARCHIPPUS OUR FELLOW SOLDIER: Archippus means "Master
of the horse" -- a military term, so Paul calls him "fellow-soldier." But there
is without a doubt far more to "fellow-soldier" than just a passing play upon a
name. Paul often introduces the conception of warfare. It is a very apt and
instructive comparison, and to Paul -- a prisoner of Jesus Christ and for the
sake of the Gospel -- a real and ever-present fact.
Life in the Truth IS a warfare. It must be so if we are
faithful. All aspects of warfare find their counterpart in the Truth: the call,
the sacrifice, the separation and leaving behind of the things of the world, the
training and the discipline, the hardship and the self-denial, the singleness of
purpose, the armor and the weapons, the unquestioning allegiance and obedience
to the supreme commander, the existence of the enemy, the close, smooth,
tightly-integrated unity of action so essential to victory, the combat and the
danger -- not with carnal weapons but with spiritual weapons in implacable
hostility to everything carnal and fleshly. In this one word -- fellow-soldier
-- Paul links Archippus inseparably with himself in all these things, and in the
glorious assurance of the final victory. In Col, Paul finds it necessary to
gently and publicly remind Archippus of his responsibilities in the Truth (Col
4:17) -- "Say to Archippus, take heed to the ministry which thou hast received
of the Lord, that thou fulfill it."
So perhaps, "fellow-soldier" here is also meant to stir
Archippus to a clearer remembrance of his partnership with Paul in the glorious
GRACE TO YOU AND PEACE: These are not just standard
words of greeting, but very real and vital things. Without grace from God we are
just ordinary, flesh-thinking creatures; and there is no true peace except that
which God gives those who give their lives to serving Him in love. If Philemon
was to hope for "grace and peace" from God, he must extend grace and peace to
I ALWAYS THANK MY GOD AS I REMEMBER YOU IN MY PRAYERS:
Another very real and essential thing -- thanksgiving and prayer. Paul had many,
many brethren and sisters always in his mind and in his prayers. These are the
true spiritual realities of life. This is living fully and abundantly, largely
"In this frank allusion to the subject matter of his private
petitions, we have insight into another feature, which deserves our notice and
imitation. Paul was not above thanking God for a worthy fellow-labourer, and
letting him know it. In our dry, democratic days, this fruit of the Spirit is
nearly as extinct as the tree of life. A universal self-esteem kills generous
gratitude in the birth, and fears to lose its own exaltation by even implied
appreciation of another's worth. This is an obstinate shrub of the desert, which
must be cut down to make way for the lovely flowers of Eden, which delight the
eye and regale the senses with their fragrance. But when will the cutting-down
be? Well, in some cases it will take place now, under the exhortation to
'mortify' and 'crucify' all the characteristics of the old man of the flesh. It
is better to apply the knife ourselves. 'If we would judge ourselves, we should
not be judged' " (SC 41).
I HEAR ABOUT YOUR FAITH... AND YOUR LOVE: It is a
joyful, comforting thing to hear of love and faith being manifested. It gives
great encouragement in times of trial and stress. It indicates a healthy,
hopeful, thriving condition. To see these things bringing forth fruit in others
gives reality and purpose and confidence to our own faith. Moreover, it creates
a oneness, a feeling of closeness and partnership. When we see brethren and
sisters putting first things first, we are drawn towards them in love. We can
communicate. There is mutual understanding. But when we see them absorbed in a
multitude of empty, passing, present things, getting gain and seeking pleasure,
there is a sad sense of distance and barrier and futility.
YOUR LOVE FOR ALL THE SAINTS: This must necessarily
include the new brother Onesimus. There would be no exceptions, no respect of
persons. Paul irresistibly builds his case on Philemon's own already manifested
recognition of the true way of life.
SAINTS: Gr "hagios", the holy ones! (Always appears in
the plural in the NT: no individual is spoken of as a "saint", singular; but all
believers are "saints", collectively, in Christ!) As God "set apart" or
"sanctified" or "made holy" His people in Egypt (Exo 13:2; Lev 11:44), so NT
believers were "made holy" in Christ.
All believers are "saints" through their spiritual union with
Christ, a fact Paul often expressed by the phrase "in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1,2;
Eph 2:6,10,13; 3:6) or "in Christ" (Rom 12:5; 2Co 5:17). This use of the term
emphasizes not so much personal holiness, though the believer's conduct should
correspond increasingly to his standing (2Co 7:1; 2Th 5:23), but the objective
"set apart" status each believer possesses because of the grace conferred upon
him or her through Christ.
"That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by
the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus" (KJV):
What does this mean? "Communication" means fellowship, partnership, sharing
together. It refers to the communion of mutual service between brethren in love,
the deep unity of mutual giving and receiving. Both spiritual and material are
inseparably combined in one. "Effectual" means active, energetic, productive,
fruitful. "Acknowledgment" means (and is translated in other versions) perfect
knowledge, full recognition, deep discernment. The word is not just gnosis --
"knowledge, realization, comprehension." Paul is praying that the goodness
manifested by Philemon to the brotherhood may result in fuller knowledge and
deep comprehension of the glorious blessings that are ours in Christ.
Is he praying that others may be enlightened by Philemon's
example or that Philemon himself may be expanded and deepened in spiritual joy
and knowledge as a result of, and as a blessing upon, his acts of loving
fellowship? Doubtless both thoughts are involved, but the latter would appear to
be the principal one, and most in harmony with the spirit and purpose of the
epistle, for Paul's aim is to lead Philemon to a growth in godliness.
Vv 8,9: Paul could have commanded Philemon, by reason of his
own authority in Christ, but commanding would not have taught any deep spiritual
principles. Rather on the basis of Philemon's already manifested spiritual
fruits and characteristics, Paul desires to build a broader understanding and
more universal application.
Love, patience, humility, forgiveness, service, and submission
to others are NOTHING if not perfectly consistent and completely universal, for
to be anything they must be US, not just our convenient cloak for chosen
occasions and chosen recipients.
A Christian slaveholder was really in a much more difficult
position than a Christian slave, if he understood the principles of godliness
and nonresistance to evil, and suffering ourselves to be defrauded. To be a true
brother of Christ he had to go in the face of some of the strongest prejudices
of human opinion -- the ones where personal advantage was most deeply at stake.
The principles of Christ dissolve all human conventions and
Paul had authority from Christ, as the apostle to the
Gentiles, to enforce the law of Christ, by the guidance and power of the Spirit,
throughout the ecclesias. In a spiritual sense he stood in the same relation to
Philemon as Philemon did to Onesimus. Yet for love's sake he chose to forgo his
authority, and to entreat rather than to command. To command and enforce is to
admit the failure of love -- "The law is not for the righteous, but for the
lawless and disobedient." The righteous does not need a law. All he needs is to
be told what is desired -- just the slightest hint -- and he delights to comply
If Paul had enforced his authority, he would have been
contradicting and denying the very thing he was seeking; for he was trying to
persuade Philemon to forgo his authority for the sake of love. By himself
yielding, he brings great persuasion upon Philemon to yield. Much more can be
accomplished by yielding than by forcing. Forcing hardens resistance, while
yielding melts resistance away.
OLD MAN: (1) "The aged" (KJV): When Paul first is
brought to our attention, he is spoken of as a young man. Within thirty years,
according to all accepted reckonings, he was dead. At this time of writing to
Philemon, he was probably fifty to sixty years old. How then, does he speak of
himself here as "aged"?
Like Christ, though not to the same degree, the full and
intense activity of his life was packed into a small compass. When we consider
his experiences -- the beatings, the hardships, the sleeplessness, the cold and
hunger and long weary laborings -- we can see how he was "Paul the aged" in that
short period of time.
Life is not just a matter of existing for a certain length of
time. It is doing. It is intense, and purposeful, and useful activity. By
scriptural standards, living in relaxed personal self pleasing is not even life
at all in the true sense, but a hideous form of living death -- "She (or he)
that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth" (1Ti 5:6).
Or (2) RSV has "ambassador". Although "presbytes" means
strictly "aged, or old man", here the variant spelling and meaning is probably
correct (cp Eph 6:20).
PRISONER: See 2Co 11:23-28. The thought is deeper than
just that he was a prisoner on account of Jesus Christ. In the light of what he
says elsewhere, it is clear that he sees himself as a prisoner, a bondman, a
slave forever OF Jesus Christ, thankfully and joyfully. The Roman chains he wore
he saw as his chains of unity with, and suffering for, Christ. The Romans were
but a passing and meaningless shadow, just the faint, hazy, flickering
background. The vivid reality that Paul always saw in all his experiences and
circumstance was Christ himself, ever beside him.
Onesimus sought freedom and became a slave to fear. He "came
to himself in a far country" (Luk 15:13,17), and learned of true liberty from a
man in chains.
SLAVE: Not "servant", as KJV. Cp Rom 6:16-18; 1Ti
6:1,2; Tit 2:9,10.
AS A MAN: That is, "in the flesh". Perh Onesimus was a
half-bro of Philemon, being the son of Philemon's father and a slave-woman.
Though not necessarily required by this statement, it is quite possible that
Onesimus was his own less fortunate half brother, a son of his father, for a
man's own children were slaves if their mother was his slave.
KNOWING THAT YOU WILL DO EVEN MORE THAN I ASK: Perh
Paul would like Philemon to gift Onesimus to him as a helper. This is a subtext
throughout the letter, never quite made explicit. It is not accidental that Paul
uses a word in v 17 that can mean "business partner"; one in v 15 that can mean
"write a receipt for"; in v 10 where he may be asking "on behalf of" Onesimus he
could equally be asking explicitly "for" him; in v 20 where he writes of being
refreshed he uses a word which originates in the military sphere for an army
ceasing from its work -- and he asks for Philemon to "refresh" Paul's heart
(having just written in v 12 that Onesimus himself is his very heart); he asks
for "benefit" of Philemon in v 20 using the very word which gives Onesimus his
name; etc. Note too Paul's emphasis on his imprisonment (Phm 1:1,9,10,22,23).
Paul, in one kind of bondage, appeals for the release of Onesimus from another.
And Philemon himself is praying for Paul's release (Phm 1:22)!
Paul specified the principle and indicates the direction, but
leaves it to Philemon's largeness of heart and depth of spiritual perception to
determine how far. This is a beautiful aspect of Christ's commands. At any
particular time, brethren are at different levels of spiritual perception and
experience, and this cannot be forced. Paul seems to be clearly hinting here at
complete freedom for the slave, but he could not presume to suggest it, far less
command it. It must come from the mind of Christ working within Philemon
This, too, showed much more kindness and consideration to
Philemon -- giving him room to freely, voluntarily, manifest his goodness beyond
what was asked. There are many lessons in wisdom and courtesy we can learn from
this very brief letter from friend to friend.
There is a deep lesson for us in the basic form and nature of
this letter itself, apart from the specific message it contains. We should study
and copy its spirit and tone. We should learn to feel the affections and
emotions it portrays, for Paul is not just being clever and diplomatic to gain
his ends. He is being sincere and Christlike and gentle and courteous, as all
letters should be, especially to brethren. It illustrates the great change that
must take place in us -- from the natural to the spiritual.
The natural Paul -- Saul, the self-righteous, self-important
persecutor -- could never have written a letter like this. He had to be
completely transformed by the love of Christ and the inworking power of the
Spirit. Every letter we write should be a manifestation of the mind of the
Spirit. It should bear the stamp of the new man of love and gentleness and
The beauty of the law of Christ is that it fits every social
circumstance, it solves every problem, and it raises every activity -- even the
simplest and meanest -- to the level of direct communication with God,
dignifying and glorifying every necessary activity of life, however humble it
The law of Christ gave a purpose and a nobility and the
consolation of an eventual abundant reward and recompense, even to the most
hopeless, miserable, and degraded toilings of the slave.
The teaching of Christ would cure all human ills, and create a
universal brotherhood in which all distinctions and barriers would fall away,
and all would serve and submit to one another in love: "As ye would that men
should do to you, do ye also to them."
This of course will never prevail in this present dark world
of sin and selfishness, but any who would please Christ must -- in their own
little personal world that is their life and their relationship to God and all
mankind -- act on this principle toward all without exception, regardless of
what others may do.
This would be perh Paul's final journey (2Ti 4).
PREPARE A GUEST ROOM FOR ME...: 'I will be coming to
visit' -- ie, to see how things have gone.
EPAPHRAS: "Devoted to Aphrodite", a bro of great zeal