The Agora
Bible Commentary



Phm 1:1

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 Thessalonica.

Phm 1:2

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 Gospel warfare.

Phm 1:3

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 Onesimus.

Phm 1:4

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 and joyfully.

"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).

Phm 1:5

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.

Phm 1:6

"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.

Phm 1:8

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 distinctions.

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 in love.

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.

Phm 1:9

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.

Phm 1:10

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.

Phm 1:16

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.

Phm 1:21

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 himself.

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 meekness.

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 be.

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.

Phm 1:22

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.

Phm 1:23

EPAPHRAS: "Devoted to Aphrodite", a bro of great zeal (Col 4:12,13).
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