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Arno Clement Gaebelein

In the Public Domain

                          THE EPISTLE TO PHILEMON


     This beautiful little letter addressed by Paul to Philemon does not
occupy the right place in the New Testament. It should be put after the
Epistle to the Colossians, for it was written at the same time as that
Epistle. Tychicus carried from Rome the two Epistles to the Ephesians and
Colossians. Onesimus, his travelling companion, received from the prisoner
of the Lord this personal letter to Philemon. It was therefore written at
the same time as Colossians, during the first imprisonment of the Apostle
Paul, about the year 61 or 62. Its genuineness cannot be doubted, though
some critics have done so. Dean Alford says: "The internal evidence of the
Epistle itself is so decisive for its Pauline origin--the occasion and
object of it so simple, and unassignable to any fraudulent intent, that one
would imagine the impugner of so many of the Epistles would have at least
spared this one, and that in modern times, as in ancient, according to
Tertullian and Jerome, 'Sua illam brevitas defendisset.'" ("Its own brevity
would be its defence.") The objections raised against this Epistle we do
not need to state nor investigate, for they are pure inventions and do not
require an answer.

     The occasion and object are both plainly indicated in the Epistle
itself. Onesimus, a slave, probably a Phrygian, who were considered the
lowest of all, had run away from his master, Philemon, who was a Christian.
It is more than probable that he had stolen money from Philemon (verse 18).
He was attracted to Rome, the great world-city, thinking perhaps he would
be undetected there. What happened to him in Rome and how he came in touch
with Paul is not made known in the Epistle. He may have been in dire want
and destitution. Perhaps he had heard Paul's name mentioned in his master's
house and learning of his presence in Rome as a prisoner, he got in touch
with him. This we know, that he heard the gospel preached by the apostle,
and believing, he was saved. He then told the apostle his story and Paul
sent him back to his master with this precious letter. And Onesimus who
returns to Philemon is no longer "unprofitable"; not now as a servant, but
above a servant, a brother beloved" (verse 16).

     The Epistle itself shows the sweet and tender character of the great
man of God who penned it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It has been
remarked, "Dignity, generosity, prudence, friendship, affection,
politeness, skillful address, purity are apparent. Hence it has been termed
with great propriety, 'the polite Epistle.'"

     Suggestive are Luther's words on this letter to Philemon: "The Epistle
showeth a right noble, lovely example of Christian love. Here we see how
St. Paul layeth himself out for the poor Onesimus, and with all his means
pleadeth his cause with his master; and so setteth himself, as if he were
Onesimus, and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Yet all this doeth he not
with power or force, as if he had right thereto; but he strippeth himself
of his right, and thus enforceth Philemon to forego his right also. Even as
Christ did for us with God the Father, this also doth St. Paul for Onesimus
with Philemon; for Christ also stripped Himself of His right, and by love
and humility enforced the Father to lay aside His wrath, and to take us to
His grace for the sake of Christ, who lovingly pleadeth our cause, and with
all His heart layeth Himself out for us. For we are all His Onesimi, to my

                         Analysis and Annotations

     1. The greeting (1-3)
     2. Recognition of Philemon's faith and love (4-7)
     3. Concerning the reception of Onesimus (8-21)
     4. The conclusion (22-25)

     Verses 1-3. He speaks of himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus; the
Lord had made him a prisoner. He addresses Philemon (meaning: friendly,
loving), the beloved, and his fellow-laborer. Apphia was probably the wife
of Philemon; Archippus is called "fellow soldier"; he ministered in the
Colossian assembly (Col. 4#17). Greeting is also extended "to the church"
which was gathered in the house of Philemon. While the Epistle is addressed
to Philemon personally and Paul appeals to him in behalf of Onesimus, the
gathered assembly was equally to be interested in this runaway Slave, who
was now returning as a brother beloved and therefore to be received by them
in Christian fellowship. The Lord had received Onesimus and he had become
through grace, a member of the body of Christ; he belonged to the Colossian
assembly. Therefore in addressing the Colossians Paul had written of
Onesimus as "a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you" (Col. 4#9).

     Verses 4-7. He thanked God for Philemon, making mention of him always
in his prayers. He did not know Philemon personally, but had heard of his
love and faith toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints. And he prayed
for him "that the fellowship of the faith may become effectual by the
acknowledgment of every good thing that is in us toward Christ Jesus." His
faith was to manifest itself still more by exhibiting every good thing
which Christians possess to the glory of Christ. With these words of
commendation, recognition and encouragement, he opens the way to plead for

     Verses 8-21. For this reason, because of love which was in Paul's
heart for Philemon, he did not use his authority to enjoin upon him what
was meet as to the reception of a good-for-nothing slave, who had been
saved by grace and accepted in the Beloved. He beseeches instead, and that
"for love's sake"--his love for Philemon and Philemon's love for Onesimus,
for he was entitled to this love, being a saint in Christ. And he
beseeches, "being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of
the Lord." Courteously he repeats "I beseech thee," and then he mentions
him who was so dear to his own heart--"I beseech thee for my child, whom I
have begotten in my bonds, who in times past was to thee unprofitable, but
now profitable to thee and to me." Onesimus (meaning helpful) shows the
power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A miserable, unprofitable slave, a
runaway thief, had become a child of God, born again, and the loving
servant of the Lord presses him to his bosom, calls him "my child" and
speaks of him as being now profitable to him and to Philemon. Oh! the
wonders of divine grace.

     "Whom I have sent again; thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own
bowels. Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have
ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel; but without thy mind would I
do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but
willingly." What loving words these are! He gives Philemon to understand
that Onesimus had endeared himself in such a way that he was as dear to him
as his own heart. He would have liked to retain him and keep him at his
side in Rome, for he would have performed all the services for Paul which
Philemon would have rendered to him if he were in Rome. But without
Philemon's consent he would do nothing, so that his action might not be of
necessity, forced by what Paul had done, and not voluntarily.

     "For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest
receive him forever, not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother
beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh
and in the Lord?" How delicately he expresses it all! He does not speak of
Onesimus as having run away, as trying to escape forever from serfdom, but
that "he departed for a season." God's providence is beautifully touched
upon, when Paul thus states that he perhaps departed for a season (Greek,
an hour) so that Philemon might receive him forever, not now as a slave,
but above a slave, a brother beloved. And so that Philemon might not take
offense at Paul asking him to receive his runaway slave as a brother
beloved, he tells Philemon that he is a beloved brother especially to
himself--and then how much more to Philemon who had a claim on him.

     Human slavery, so universal in apostolic days, so full of misery, is
indirectly dealt with in this letter to Philemon. It may be rightly called
the first antislavery document and petition ever written and presented.

     "Paul lays here broad and deep the foundation of a new relation
between master and servant, a relation in which, while there is
subordination of the one to the other, there is also a common brotherhood
to be acknowledged and an equality before God to be maintained.
Christianity would melt the fetters from the enslaved by the fervour of its
love. Men's method commonly is, to strike them off by armed revolution"
(Professor Moorhead).

     And he continues, "If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him
as myself If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught, put that on mine
account." Verse 17 connects well with verse 12. If Philemon counted Paul as
in Christian fellowship, he is to receive Onesimus as if he were Paul,
"receive him as myself." Onesimus had probably confessed his theft to Paul,
and again he uses the choicest words to approach this delicate matter. He
does not call it "theft" outright, but writes "if he hath wronged thee" and
that again he softens to "or oweth thee aught," then he declares himself
ready to make good the loss and assume the debt in place of the slave
Onesimus--"put that on mine account." These five words "put that on mine
account" are translated in Rom. 5#13, by the word "impute." How blessedly
this illustrates the gospel. indeed this Epistle to Philemon is a perfect
and practical illustration of the gospel of grace, the gospel Paul
preached, and which is unfolded in the larger Epistles. What the gospel
does for the poor slave of sin, how he becomes a son and a brother,
profitable instead of unprofitable, a member of the body of Christ, may be
traced in these verses.

     He wrote this Epistle, not as he usually did, by an amanuensis, but
with his own hand! That shows again what a fine character he was. He had
full confidence in Philemon not alone that he would grant him his request,
but that he would even do more than he had asked.

     We do not know from Scripture what became of Onesimus. According to
the "Apostolical Canons" he was emancipated by his master. Another
tradition says that he became a servant of the Lord ministering in
Macedonia, and that he was martyred in Rome. We shall meet him with all the
other saints in glory.

     Verses 22-25. Paul during his first imprisonment always anticipated
his release; he and others prayed for it (Phile. 22). And so he expects to
come to Colosse, and asked Philemon to prepare him a lodging. The
salutations from Epaphras, Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas and Lucas, with the
word of blessing, conclude the Epistle.

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