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Bible Commentary
Philemon

1

OVERVIEW

Author: Paul.

Time: AD 61.

Summary: Paul writes to Philemon whose slave, Onesimus, had run away to Rome where he met Paul and became a Christian. Paul sends him back to his rightful owner with his personal letter of recommendation to accept him back with love as a brother.

Key verse: "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ" (Phi 1:6).

Outline

1. Greeting and thanksgiving: Phm 1:1–7

2. Paul's plea for Onesimus: Phm 1:8–21

3. Conclusion and final greetings: Phm 1:22–25

Slavery

Slavery was a deeply ingrained institution in the Roman empire -- military campaigns generated huge numbers of prisoners who entered the slave markets (eg, Caesar's campaigns in Gaul prob brought 150,000 slaves into Rome; a rich man might have several hundred slaves). A slave had no rights in Roman law, and was completely at the mercy of his employer. Conditions were often harsh, with slaves subject to cruelty and all forms of abuse. The life of a slave was not to be envied -- in consequence slaves were strongly tempted to escape, so (to discourage this) the penalty for escaping was severe -- almost certain public beating to death, and the empire contained large numbers of "fugitovarii", men specially employed to catch slaves. [See following section, Phm and slavery.]

Background

Philemon, a rich man who hosted the ecclesia in Colosse, had a slave Onesimus who deserted, prob taking funds or saleable goods with him to support his flight. It happened that he came into contact with Paul, who was in prison at the time, learned the truth of the gospel from him, was baptized, and continued in Paul's company as a voluntary servant, where he was greatly appreciated.

Paul was faced with a dilemma. Under Roman law, Onesimus had no rights at all, he was a chattel, owned totally by Philemon. The "slave-hunters" might well discover him -- which would do Paul's hopes for regaining his own freedom no good at all. On the other hand, Jewish law protected Onesimus (Deu 23:15-16)! This is a situation of delicious irony -- Paul was imprisoned, appealing to the Roman law to save him from the Jews; meanwhile he could be looking to the Jewish law to save Onesimus from the Romans. But there's yet another twist!

Complicating the situation further is a man named Epaphras (only mentioned 3 times, in Col 1:7 and 4:12, and Phm 1:23, but from these vv we can deduce rather a lot). Epaphras came from Colosse and, after the success and excitement of Paul's preaching efforts in Ephesus, had preached throughout the region 100 miles or more inland in the Lycos valley -- founding 3 ecclesias (Hierapolis, Laodicea and Colosse). These ecclesias had never met Paul (Col 2:1); they had learned the truth from Epaphras himself (Col 1:7).

Epaphras had recently arrived in town and his report of the situation in Colosse immediately spurred Paul to write Colossians. (Col 2 makes it pretty clear that the ecclesia was under serious threat from Judaizers. So again, how could Paul use the Jewish law to defend Onesimus?)

Epaphras fell afoul of the authorities, for some reason (in Phm 1:23 he is described as Paul's fellow prisoner); so Paul decided to send the Colossian letter with Tychicus (Col 4:8). And he used the opportunity to return Onesimus to his master, Col 4:9, with a covering letter for Philemon (of course Paul would have liked to go in person, but that was impossible, so he did the next best thing). It is likely that they carried the letter we know as Ephesians with them too (Col 4:15-16).

That Colossians and Philemon belong together is clear from the similarity in the lists of associates of Paul who are named: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Archippus, Demas, Luke, Onesimus, and Timothy are all mentioned in Col 4:7-17 and in Phm 1:1,10,22-24.

A lesson in reconciliation

Firstly, the obvious: Paul asks Philemon to pardon Onesimus and welcome him as a brother. Paul was faced with two estranged brethren (and each owed their position as brethren to him). He preached a gospel of reconciliation -- it must be able to reconcile bond and free just as effectively as Jew and Greek, male and female.

Paul plays Christ in a little redemptive drama. He identifies with both sides, brings them together, so making peace. Note identification with Onesimus in Phm 1:10,12,13,16-18,20 And note identification with Philemon: Phm 1:1,4,7,19. Paul asks: the love that you have for me -- show to Onesimus, because the help that I know you would have wished to give me has been given by him! The debt that you would like to recover from Onesimus -- take from me, because I have benefited from what he did! Onesimus was with me as your representative -- so treat him now as my representative to you! This is 2Co 5:17-6:1 worked out in real life.

Paul also notes that although he could make demands -- it's rather a response on the basis of love and willingness that he wants (Phm 1:8-9,14). And setting aside rights is all part of the pattern shown in Christ. So too the taking upon oneself the burdens of others (Phm 1:17-19).

So there is reconciliation between two brothers, brokered by Paul who plays the role of Christ. More than this -- each party is to see Christ in the other (they are representatives of Paul to each other, and Paul is as Christ). Philemon could hardly refuse Onesimus without refusing Paul -- a bit like fellowship issues today!

Lessons for Philemon

Furthermore, Paul hints that Philemon's attitude is not what it might be. This is seen as much in what Paul does not say, as in what he does. Philemon was presumably a wealthy man -- he hosted the ecclesia. Also he had met Paul in person when Paul had never visited Colosse. Most likely business had taken him to Ephesus where he had met Paul. Onesimus, one of his slaves, may have encountered Paul during this visit. We need to ask why Onesimus, fleeing for his life from the "slave-hunters', would go to a house guarded by Roman soldiers, and ask to see Paul? This would have been an extremely risky thing to do. "I want to see Paul", "Fine, who are you?", "Onesimus", "Onesimus? Sounds like a slave! Who's your master? Does he know you're here?" Etc. Yet he did. Note the imbalance in v 11 (and the implication that Onesimus would NOT have been unprofitable to Paul in past times); the implication in v 16 that Onesimus should have been of value to Philemon in the Lord and not simply in the flesh; and the prayer in v 6 that the sharing of Philemon's faith might become more effective. It seems that Philemon treated his slave as merely a slave, and not as a prospect for the gospel -- and he prob had the same attitude to other opportunities in his life too. Onesimus wanted the Truth -- he couldn't get it from Philemon, so at great risk he set out to get it from Paul. (Trevor Nicholls)

*****

Philemon differs from all the rest of the Bible in that it is strictly a private letter on a personal matter written to an individual friend. The only other private letter to an individual in the Bible is 3Jo, to Gaius, but there the subject and purpose is more general. Timothy and Titus are ecclesial and doctrinal communications.

Philemon was a brother in Colosse converted to the Truth by Paul. Onesimus was a runaway slave belonging to Philemon who made contact with Paul in Rome -- perhaps in repentance, perhaps in realization of the danger of his position. Paul says he had previously been unprofitable to Philemon so perhaps he had taken advantage of the kindness of a lenient owner. In association with Paul he accepted the Truth and was baptized, and then Paul sent him back to make peace with Philemon. Phm is the letter he carried from Paul to Philemon.

This epistle has been used both to support slavery (in that Paul sent him back) and to condemn it (in that Paul said, "Not now as a slave, but a brother beloved"). Actually it is on a much higher plane than either to specifically approve or condemn one particular aspect of the world of sin. It rises far above it, from temporals to eternals and leaves the question of slavery as such far below as among unimportant, passing earthly things.

The whole spirit is summed up in those words just referred to -- "No longer a slave but a brother beloved." To the extent that Philemon comprehended and accepted the fullness of this, to that extent the slavery would cease to exist.

In this brief message there can be discerned, skillfully woven together and either expressed or implied, fourteen separate arguments in favor of reconciliation on Philemon's part.

According to the Law of Moses, an escaped slave was not to be returned to his owner, but Paul sends him back under the law of Christ. Is then, the law of Christ less humane, less enlightened, less merciful, more in sympathy with slavery, than the Law of Moses?

On the contrary, Paul's action indicates the very opposite. Moses' Law would release Onesimus from his obligation, or at least it would have released Paul from the obligation of giving up Onesimus to Philemon, but the law of Christ called for a repentance and a seeking of reconciliation, and a giving to Philemon the opportunity of granting freely what had been taken from him against his will.

This epistle is clearly related in time and circumstance to the epistles of Eph and Col, especially the latter. They are from Rome and sent about the same time -- 62 AD, near the end of Paul's two years imprisonment. Eph and Col contain several parallel passages and were borne by the same messenger, Tychicus, from the same place.

The letters to Phm and Col were both carried by Onesimus and in each the same six persons were saluted (Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, and Onesimus -- with Col bearing an additional salutation from Justus).

We are not told where Philemon lived, and we would not know from the epistle to him alone, but we learn from Colossians that Archippus, who was of Philemon's household, was of Colosse.

In this one personal letter, we see a slightly different Paul. He plays lightly and gently with all the names as if to add informality and intimacy and appeal to the message. Onesimus means "profitable," so Paul speaks of his former unprofitableness but now his profitableness to both Philemon and Paul. Philemon means "beloved" from Philema -- a kiss -- and so Paul addresses him. Apphia is an affectionate diminutive for "brother or sister," and so Paul calls her "Apphia the sister" (as it should be and as RV gives it, and the best mss). Archippus means "Master of the horse" -- a military term, so Paul calls him "fellow-soldier." (GVG)

See Lesson: Phm and slavery



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