Epistle to Philemon

John Bennett, Pinxton, Nottingham [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Onesimus’ Restoration 

‘Thou therefore receive him’, v. 12;1 ‘receive him as myself’, v. 17.

Here is the nub of this letter. It is, in effect, a letter of commendation from Paul to Philemon with regard to Onesimus. 

Here we need to consider the reality of the situation. Onesimus was a slave. As such, he was the property of Philemon; he would have paid a price to purchase Onesimus, possibly in the slave market in Colossae. From the words of verse 18 it would appear that Onesimus then stole from Philemon as a means of funding his escape from slavery and to support his journey to Rome. Onesimus has probably committed a double wrong – to abscond and to steal. 

For a slave to abscond cast doubts upon Philemon’s relationships with his slaves. What sort of a master was he? Then the financial losses that Philemon must have suffered could well have been considerable. Now Onesimus has arrived back with a letter asking Philemon to take him back. If we have ever been wronged, judged unfairly, treated badly, or suffered unnecessary losses, we might begin to appreciate the natural response of Philemon. If we have invested time in someone only to see them fail, and even betray our trust, we can understand a little of what Paul is asking of this man.

However, this letter to Philemon does not just ask Philemon to take back this erring slave, but to ‘receive him as myself’, v. 17. If we go back to the terms that Paul uses in describing his relationship with Philemon and his wife: ‘Paul . . . unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer, and to our beloved Apphia’, vv. 1-2, we might appreciate a little of what Paul is asking. Take this runaway slave back, forgive him, restore him to your employment, accept him as a brother in Christ, and receive him into the fellowship of the local assembly. Verses 15-16 confirm this: ‘receive him for ever; not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved’. 

Is there a root of bitterness? Is there some lurking ill that we might feel toward such an individual? What is it that might motivate us in circumstances like this? Paul wrote to the Colossians, ‘And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight’, Col. 1. 20-22. As Philemon was a Colossian, these verses may well have resonated with him. Think, says Paul, of what the Lord has done for us, worthless sinners at enmity with Him. He has effected the restoration and, more than that, He has brought us into fellowship with Divine persons. We should not underestimate the difficulty that faced Philemon but neither should we question the extent of what Christ has done for us!

There is a second aspect to Paul’s argument here: ‘Whom I would have retained with me’, v. 13. Paul would have Philemon to appreciate what Onesimus meant to him. A bond of affection had developed between the two, not just because of their common lot as Roman prisoners, but as fellow believers in Christ. Paul also expresses his own desire in the matter – ‘I would have’. After much deliberation, Paul does not choose what he might want but what is right in the present circumstances. Paul was putting aside his own situation and the need arising from it 2 in order that Onesimus might return to Philemon. It would have been simple to retain Onesimus and view it as Paul describes it: ‘that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me’. If Onesimus and Philemon were to change places, Paul is confident that Philemon would have sought to bring comfort to the imprisoned apostle. However, Onesimus had assumed that role.

The word that Paul uses for Onesimus’ service, ‘ministered unto me’, is significant. We cannot forget that Onesimus was a slave, doulos, but Paul does not use that term in relation to his ministry here, but rather the word, diakoneo, from which we get our word deacon. That change that had been wrought by Divine grace elevates the service of the man. Even though Onesimus may have been a menial slave socially, he was capable of, and fitted for, the highest service for the Lord.

So why didn’t Paul retain the runaway slave? Verse 14 explains, ‘without thy mind would I do nothing’. The practical import of this simple statement is quite telling. Paul’s own preference was to retain Onesimus. The slave could have provided a much needed ministry to the apostle, a ministry that Philemon would have fulfilled himself, had he been in Rome. Wasn’t Paul’s need greater than that of Philemon? However, the principle that Paul is emphasizing by his own actions is that of consent. As Scroggie writes, ‘two great words are here brought together, necessity and free-will. The power of one is the law, and of the other love. There is a whole distance between compulsion and spontaneity, between the dictates of duty and the desire which is a delight’.3 The appeal of the prisoner is to be contrasted with the command of the apostle. The one would foster willing commitment, whereas the other grudging acceptance.

The Revelation of Divine Purpose – ‘he therefore departed for a season’, v. 15. 

What Paul writes here is significant. Darby’s translation puts it this way: ‘for perhaps for this reason he has been separated from thee for a time’. The difference is that Darby wishes to convey the passive nature of the verb. If we follow the KJV, Onesimus was responsible for his own actions – ‘he . . . departed’. From JND we get a different idea, ‘he has been separated’, RV, ‘he was . . . parted’.4 It suggests that Onesimus was not wholly responsible for his actions; someone else was at work here. 

It is worth reading Genesis chapter 45 alongside this verse and thinking on Joseph’s words to his brethren. Standing now as second only to Pharaoh in Egypt, Joseph says to his brethren, ‘So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God’, v. 8. 

This is the blessing of hindsight: the ability to look back upon circumstances and see how God has used them for our ultimate blessing. But what did we think at the time? How did Philemon feel when he discovered what Onesimus had done? The ways of God were not clear then. Here was a man who was clearly loved by the apostle, busy in the work of the Lord in his own locality, the assembly met in his house, and yet such events overtake him at the very heart of his domestic and spiritual life. Why?

At the time that Onesimus absconded I doubt Philemon would have been able to see the eventual outcome. As Joseph was sold into slavery with the Midianites, I’m sure he did not envisage that this would ultimately lead to him being second in Egypt. If we are passing through hard places we may take courage and find strength by realizing, as Philemon was brought to appreciate, that God is in control and is working out His purposes still.

‘Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved’, v. 16. This statement expands upon what the grace of God has wrought. It is not just that Onesimus has returned. It is not just that Onesimus has returned as a fellow-believer, although that is true. It is that the relationship of the master to the slave has been changed. Onesimus is now ‘a brother beloved’. He is returning a changed man, and a much better slave than before. He will serve as a brother in Christ, conscious that as he is serving Philemon he is serving the Lord.5 However, there is a further development. The word ‘brother’ is, as Criswell points out, ‘the word denoting blood kinship’.6 Their spiritual kinship owes everything to the shed blood of Christ, denoting His work upon the cross. This brings Onesimus onto a higher level. He is a fellow believer but one who enjoys the Christian love of the apostle, and should, in the same way, enjoy the Christian affection of Philemon.7

Apart from the Pauline appeal that implies Divine purpose, Paul also appeals to Philemon as ‘a partner’, v. 17. Paul’s argument is quite simple. If, as is the case, you, Philemon, judge me, Paul, to have common hopes and interests, then receive Onesimus as you would receive me. As Diebler states, ‘If Philemon rejected Onesimus, it would be like rejecting the apostle, his friend, v. 1, fellow worker, v. 1, brother, v. 7, 20, and even partner, v. 17. Such would, of course, be unthinkable’.8

Appropriate Reparation – ‘If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account’, v. 18.

In all the rejoicing in this man’s salvation, Paul was cognizant of the fact that certain issues from Onesimus’ past life now needed to be resolved. He needed to make his peace, and accomplish restitution with Philemon. That principle is exemplified in the case of Zacchaeus. When the Lord bid him come down from the tree, Zacchaeus responded by saying, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold’, Luke 19. 8. This was a demonstration of the reality of the man’s salvation, and his desire to right the wrongs he had committed in his past life, wherever that was outstanding and might be possible. Graham Scroggie wrote, ‘new life does not cancel old debt’.9 That principle is evident here in relation to Onesimus.

Onesimus had, as it were, an outstanding debt that needed to be cleared. He had a moral and legal obligation to Philemon that needed to be addressed. The ‘If’ that commences the verse is not an ‘if’ of doubt but rather ‘since’, or ‘if, as is the case’. In relation to the phrase ‘oweth thee ought’, Meyer comments: ‘This applies to a money-debt. Accordingly the slave had probably been guilty, not merely in general of a fault in service which injured his master . . . but in reality . . . of purloining or of embezzlement, which Paul here knows how to indicate euphemistically. The referring it merely to the running away itself, and the neglect of service therewith connected, would not be . . . in keeping with the hypothetical form of expression’.10

In this instance, Paul offers another solution. As Christ took all the believer’s sin and suffered the judgement of God for that sin, Paul acts in a similar way in respect to Onesimus – ‘put that on mine account’, he says. The word used is an accounting term meaning to charge what is owed by Onesimus to Paul. Sometimes it is not possible for the individual to put right what has been done wrongly. Here Paul did not ask Philemon to write off the debt. He put himself forward as guarantor – he would repay. What a heart Paul had – what shepherd care he demonstrates. What a challenge to us!

As if to confirm that the offer is genuine, ‘I Paul have written it with mine own hand’, v. 19. It was like a promissory note. ‘Some think that Paul here took the pen from the scribe and penned these lines himself. More probable is the view that he wrote the entire letter himself with his own hand. This would be unusual, for Paul usually dictated his letters to an amanuensis. It seems hardly probable that Paul would employ the services of a scribe for such a brief, friendly, and semiprivate letter’.11

How, then, might Paul have repaid this debt owed by Onesimus? Whilst in prison, or, at best, under house arrest, how would Paul have gained, or earned the money? Is the latter part of verse 19 merely a suggestion by Paul to avoid having to pay the debt he had just taken on?

Paul points out to Philemon what spiritual blessing had been brought to him when he got saved through the preaching of the apostle – ‘thou owest unto me even thine own self besides’. Equally, the return of Onesimus as a consequence, again, of Paul’s evangelistic efforts, and his discipling of the slave, means that Philemon is indebted on this account as well. The purpose of this reminder is not to escape the payment of the debt he had promised to pay. In what Paul has said of the character of Philemon, verses 4-7, he could have presumed upon Philemon’s good nature. Rather, Paul turns to a principle of biblical forgiveness which Philemon had experienced in his salvation and that now Paul expects him to demonstrate in his treatment of Onesimus.

Return for the Apostle – ‘but withal prepare me also a lodging’, v. 22.

It was Paul’s hope to make a visit to Philemon and to Colossae. On what basis were Paul’s hopes founded? Were they not based upon the prayers of Philemon and his family, and, probably, the assembly? We saw, earlier, something of Paul’s prayers for them. Now he speaks of their prayers for him. This is a challenge to our own prayer life. To what extent do we pray regularly and intelligently for other believers, especially those in need?

It is important to realize that Paul knew that many were praying for him. He had requested this in Colossians chapter 4. However, here is a statement of Paul’s belief that prayer has value, and that he expects God to grant their request. God answers prayer! On what basis, then, did Paul ‘trust’, or hope?

The subject of prayer is far too complex to deal with in an exposition of Philemon alone. However, Paul clearly expected God to answer the prayers of the Colossian saints. Was it because, as some suggest, God changes the way He acts as a consequence of prayer?12 As always, we need to be careful to heed scripture. We note:

  • ‘I trust’. There is no assumption or certainty about this statement. God does answer prayer, but we must not assume that because we pray God must move in the way that we pray. God’s answers may not be in accordance with our prayers or our timeframe for those prayers.
  • ‘I shall be given unto you’. Paul recognized that the answer to the prayers of his friends and fellow saints was in the will of God. It would be an act of God’s grace if Paul was to be released. Though the prayers of believers might entreat God for this favour this was in God’s sovereign will alone.13

Scroggie offers a thought here: ‘Peter’s friends prayed that he might be released from prison, and he was. Do you suppose that the Church did not pray for Stephen? Yet he was martyred. In both instances the will of God was done, and in each instance there was surprise’.14 

Of one thing Paul could be assured. If he asked then he was confident that Philemon would obey – ‘having confidence in thy obedience’, v. 21. Perhaps it is this fact that gives the apostle the degree of hope that he expresses. Such was the bond of affection between Philemon and Paul that though Paul was not present he could rely upon Philemon to receive Onesimus in the way specified. The outcomes of this action would be:

  • ‘joy . . . in the Lord’, v. 20. Literally, ‘profit from thee in the Lord’.15 What spiritual benefit would be gained through the willing obedience of Philemon in this most difficult of situations! What a testimony would accrue!
  • ‘cheer . . . in Christ’, v. 20 Wuest. That which Philemon ministered to the saints, v. 7, would be ministered in an abundant measure to Paul in the midst of his confinement in prison.

If Paul was not released to visit Philemon in person, then there was plenty that could be done to enhance the gospel and encourage the apostle.

The Reminders of the work and the workers, vv. 23-25

As the apostle draws this letter to its conclusion, he names, and sends salutations from, a number of his friends.

Epaphras – ‘my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus’, v. 23. The high commendation of this man is given us in Colossians chapter 4 verses 12-13. The fact that he is mentioned separately here indicates the nature of his service and also the fact that he was a Colossian and probably known to Philemon. He is described as a ‘fellow prisoner’. We are not told what was the cause of his imprisonment. However, as Hiebert suggests, this may well indicate that Epaphras shared the confinement of the apostle voluntarily in order that he might minister to him.16 

‘Marcus’, v. 24

It is interesting that John Mark should be mentioned here. In Acts chapter 13 we are told that ‘John departed from them’, v. 13. He had left Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. Later, in Acts chapter 15, he was the subject of a dispute between Paul and Barnabas that led to the splitting up of the partnership that had been at the heart of a work for God. Now, John Mark is back, showing a different level of commitment to Paul and the work of the Lord through him.

There are some similarities between Paul’s experience with John Mark and what Paul was asking of Philemon in relation to Onesimus. As John Mark was clearly a changed man, so was Onesimus. As Paul had accepted John Mark back into his band of missionaries, so Paul was asking Philemon to receive back the once erring slave Onesimus. Under the hand of God positive change is possible!

‘Aristarchus’

Aristarchus was a Thessalonian, Acts 20. 4. He was one who accompanied the apostle into Asia and was involved in the voyage to Rome that ended in shipwreck, 27. 2. This is indicative of the degree of fellowship that this man showed, and further proof of the spiritual progress evident in the man and the assembly from which he came.

‘Demas’

The three times that Demas is mentioned in scripture are in Colossians chapter 4, here, and, later, in 2 Timothy chapter 4. If John Mark is an example of a man who started badly and finished well, Demas seems to be a man who started with promise but ended badly. Paul’s comments about him are telling: ‘For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica’, v. 10. 

‘Lucas’

Luke, known as ‘the beloved physician’, Col. 4. 14, was one who remained with Paul until the very end of his life. Indeed, there is a sense of sadness when the apostle says, ‘Only Luke is with me’, 2 Tim. 4. 11. As Paul faced death it seemed few were prepared to take their stand with him publicly. Luke is an example of consistency and faithfulness in the work of the Lord.

‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen’, v. 25. The Epistle ends as it began. Divine grace had brought them to salvation. That same grace was available to them as a constant resource, v. 3, as well as present supply in the present circumstances. The resources of God are sure. That which is necessary for the Christian’s daily walk can be relied upon!

Maclaren summarizes the epistle as follows: ‘Thus, on the whole, in this letter, the central springs of Christian service are touched, and the motives used to sway Philemon are the echo of the motives which Christ uses to sway men. The keynote of all is love. Love beseeches when it might command . . . Love will do nothing without the glad consent of him to whom it speaks, and cares for no service which is of necessity . . . Love identifies itself with those who need its help, and treats kindnesses to them as done to itself. Love finds joy and heart solace in willing, though it be imperfect, service. Love expects more than it asks. Love hopes for reunion, and by the hope makes its wish more weighty. These are the points of Paul’s pleading with Philemon. Are they not the elements of Christ’s pleading with His friends?’.17 

Endnotes

1 Alford, JND, RV, ESV, Wuest, NIV, all suggest this phrase belongs in verse 17 but not here.

2 ‘He was a sufferer, a captive; he was among strangers, people not predisposed towards him; he was old and worn and in need of loving attention’, Scroggie, pg. 60.

3 W. Graham Scroggie, Studies in Philemon, Kregel, 1977, pg. 64.

4 For a fuller explanation of this point see: Fritz Rienecker, and Cleon Rogers, Linguistic key to the Greek New Testament, Zondervan, 1980, pg. 660.

5 ‘The former social relation of master towards slave is maintained. But a new spirit and disposition will henceforth govern that relation’, Jac J. Muller, The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and Philemon (part of The New London Commentary on the New Testament), Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1955, pg. 185.

6 W. A. Criswell (Ed.), Believer’s Study Bible, Nelson, 1991. [electronic edition].

7 ‘Accordingly, ‘in the flesh’ Philemon has the brother as a slave, and ‘in the Lord’ the slave as a brother’, H. A. W. Meyer, New Testament Commentary, T&T Clarke, 1883. [electronic edition].

8 Edwin C. Diebler, Philemon, in Walvoord and Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Dallas Theological Seminary. [electronic edition].

9 W. Graham Scroggie, Studies in Philemon, Kregel, 1977, pg. 79.

10 H. A. W. Meyer, New Testament Commentary, T&T Clarke, 1883. [electronic edition]. [Italics the author’s].

11 D. Edmond Hiebert, Titus and Philemon, Moody Press, Chicago, 1957, pg. 119.

12 See, for example, Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP, 2007, pg. 377. 

13 ‘The passive voice [of the verb] suggests that it is God who alone can secure Paul’s release, though Paul relies on the prayers of the community to entreat God for this favour’, Fritz Rienecker, and Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Zondervan, 1980, pg. 661.

14 W. Graham Scroggie, Studies in Philemon, Kregel, 1977, pg. 95.

15 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Harper, 1930. [electronic edition]

16 D. Edmond Hiebert, Titus and Philemon, Moody Press, Chicago, 1957, pg. 125.

17 Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture. [electronic edition]

AUTHOR PROFILE: JOHN BENNETT is a member of the Precious Seed committee.

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