Philemon 1, 10-21


St. Paul was not a revolutionary. If he had condemned slavery, which was rampant in his day, he would have caused a great unnecessary disturbance in society. He neither condemned nor condoned slavery, human slavery. His Gospel did not condemn slavery but it did sanctify human relationships.

Galatians 3:28 tells us that there is neither slave nor free. In Christ slave and free become brothers and that is what does away with slavery. When Onesimus became a Christian, Paul sent him back to his master, Philemon, as a brother. Paul did not emancipate Onesimus from Philemon, but he did emancipate both Philemon and Onesimus from sin and its consequences. That is the only cure for any social relationship.

Bengel: This is a familiar and exceedingly courteous epistle, concerning a private affair, and is inserted among the New Testament books, intended to afford a specimen of the highest wisdom, as to how Christians should manage civil affairs on loftier principles. It has been said the single epistle to Philemon very far surpasses all worldly wisdom.
Lenski: There is a universal admiration for Paul's letter to Philemon. Even the critics have found no fault with it . . . This epistle is the biblical answer to the question of slavery. Here we have no law of outward compulsion to forbid slavery, but a Gospel spirit of love which so changed the heart that slavery automatically withers and becomes impossible.
Kretzmann: This letter is a remarkable example of a tender and tactful intercessory appeal . . . The apostle establishes the principle that the Gospel does not invalidate human ordinances that are not in themselves against the Moral Law.

Philemon 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker,

Paul calls himself "a prisoner of Christ Jesus." He alludes to this in verses 9, 10, 13, and 23.

Mueller: Instead of the usual reference to his apostleship, he here introduces himself only as one who finds himself in captivity for the sake of Christ and His cause, and who is now going to write from prison as a friend to a friend and from heart to heart.

Philemon was dear to Paul, he had become a Christian through the work of Paul. Just how Philemon had labored with Paul in missionary service is not clear. Verse 2 informs us that the congregation at Colossae met at Philemon's house. At least in that sense Philemon was Paul's fellow worker in the Gospel. Philemon provided a place of worship.

The title "apostle" is laid aside as not befitting a private and friendly letter.

Philemon 1:2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: Philemon 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philemon 1:4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, Philemon 1:5 because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. Philemon 1:6 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. Philemon 1:7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. Philemon 1:8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, Philemon 1:9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul--an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus--

Philemon 1:10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.

Verse 8-11 give us the situation. Paul, the Apostle, could have ordered Philemon to emancipate Onesimus, his slave. But he did not do that. Paul does not employ boldness but rather appeals to love.

Note that the name Onesimus is delayed in Greek to the end of the verse. Paul first want to tell Philemon of their present relationship. He calls Onesimus his very own son. Onesimus had become a Christian after meeting with Paul. "I have begotten" means "who became my son," or "I have become his spiritual father."

"While I was in prison." Commentators differ in their opinion as to the locale of Paul's imprisonment. Some think it was Rom. Some think it was Ephesus. We think it was Rome. But, in this case, it does not make much difference.

What is amazing is that Onesimus either accidentally or purposely came to Paul in prison. Just maybe he had become acquainted with Paul while Paul boarded at Philemon's house in Colossae and perhaps remembered Paul as a kind and understanding man. AT any rater, this verse informs us that Onesimus had become a Christian through the ministrations of Paul.

Kretzmann: Paul brought his own person as concretely and as vividly as possible before the eyes of Philemon, in order to screen the figure of Onesimus from the anger of his master . . . Then also, he does not refer to Onesimus as the runaway slave, but as his son.
Luther: What Christ has done for us with God the Father, that St. Paul does also for Onesimus with Philemon . . . . For we are all His Onesimuses if we believe.

Paul's attitude toward Onesimus in this Epistle is like of Christ toward us in Romans 8:34: "He intercedes for us." Moses interceded for Israel. Parents intercede for their children. Pastors intercede for their parishioners.

Before we leave this verse we mention that the word "Onesimus" means "profitable one" and was a common name for slaves in St. Paul's day.

Philemon 1:11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

Kretzmann: In a fine play upon the meaning of the world Onesimus, which is 'profitable,' St. Paul tells his friend that his slave has indeed, since leaving his service in such an unceremonious manner, been unprofitable, useless to him; now, however, he was useful, very valuable, not only to Philemon but also to Paul, who was sending him back to his master.
Vincent: 'Useful' to Philemon in the new and higher character of his service as a Christian, as described. Profitable to Paul as an evidence of his successful apostolic labor. . . . There may also be a reference to Onesimus' kindly ministries to himself in his imprisonment, see verse 13.

Philemon 1:12 I am sending him -- who is my very heart -- back to you.

Mueller: Onesimus is sent to Colossae together with Tychicus, according to Colossian 4:7-9, probably as carrier himself of this letter to his master. That Paul is sending him, proves that Paul insists on his returning to his master and that the matter between him and Philemon should be settled.
Kretzmann: Paul refers to the slave with an expression of the most tender love, as his own flesh, his own heart, with whom he is connected by the bonds of the most tender affection.

Philemon 1:13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.

Paul says: "I was wishing . . . but I decided." Paul was deliberating about keeping Onesimus as his own helper but later decided against this idea.

Kretzmann: It had really been the purpose of Paul to have Onesimus stay in Rome for a while, to take the place of his master in serving the apostle.
Mueller: Paul considered the possibility of holding Onesimus back.
Lenski: Paul had this wish, but gave up the idea.
Vincent: Onesimus is more than a mere substitute for Philemon. In these words the relation of master and slave disappears for the moment.

Philemon 1:14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.

Mueller: The right of the lawful owner had to be respected . . . . The bond of slavery is not served by the gospel in a revolutionary way. At its entry Christianity took account of the fact that slavery existed as an old and established social institution. . . . It had to be something entirely of Philemon's own free will and not something enforced upon him.
Lenski: What Paul says is said wholly in the interest of Onesimus.
Formula of Concord, Tappert 554:17: Elsewhere, as in 2 Corinthians 9:7, Philemon 14, and 1 Peter 5:2, 'necessity' is used with reference to that which is extorted from a person against his will, by coercion or otherwise, so that he does externally, for a pretence, something that is really unwilled by him or even contrary to his will. Such works of pretence God does not want. On the contrary, the people of the New Testament are to be a people who offer themselves freely, Psalm 110:3, who bring free-will offerings, Psalm 54:6, not reluctantly or under compulsion but with obedience from the heart, 2 Corinthians 9:7, Romans 6:7, because God loves a cheerful giver, 2 Corinthians 9:7.

Philemon 1:15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good --

Thus far Paul has said to Philemon: "Onesimus has become my dear son; he is useful, in keeping with his name; my heart goes with him; he's so useful I'd like to keep him here but I've decided to send him back because this will be an opportunity for you to give evidence of spontaneous love."

Now, in verse 15 Paul appeals to the providence of God. He is explaining. All of what has happened so far has happened for a reason.

"Perhaps" is like saying "Think of it this way."

The passive verb "he was separated" shows that God is the agent. We think here of passages such as Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28.

Kretzmann: This is a reference to the dispensation of God, who thus arranged and directed matters that Onesimus was not only led to Rome, but there because personally known to Paul and thus received the knowledge of his salvation.
Mueller: Instead of using the realistic and harsh word 'ran away,' the gentle and tactful expression 'parted' is used, whereby he suggests that a higher guidance could also be detected in the deed. . . . The temporary loss because an eternal gain.
Bengel: In this life, Exodus 21:6, and in heaven. A very elegant ambiguity, quite true in both cases.
Vincent: Philemon's attention is turned from his individual wrongs to the providential economy which has made these wrongs work for good.

Philemon 1:16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.

This verse is a continuation of the previous verse. Paul is not emancipating Onesimus, nor suggesting it. He is speaking of a new and better relationship.

"A dear brother" is a brother loved by God, Paul and Philemon. The relationship of beloved brother is greater and more beneficial for Philemon than for Paul. How? As a man and as a Christian, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.

Mueller: The former social relation of master towards slave is maintained, but a new spirit and disposition will henceforth govern that relation. . . . The converted Onesimus is 'a beloved brother' especially to Paul . . . but now even much more to Philemon, of whom he is a brother both in a natural and in a spiritual sense, and between whom a double bond of union exists: 'brother in the flesh,' and 'brother in the Lord.'

He also observes that it is more difficult for a master to love a slave as a brother in Christ than to set him free. Paul was asking for the most difficult of all.

Lenski: We fail to find the least hint that Philemon ought to set Onesimus free. Yet this is found, by others, in Paul's words.
Vincent: The main point of the letter is at last reached, backed by an appeal to Philemon's fellowship with Paul.

Philemon 1:17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

We have a simple fact of condition. All depends on Philemon's attitude toward the "If" clause.

"Partner" is a weak translation. It denotes fellowship in the faith. Here for the first time Paul tells Philemon to take Onesimus back. And, as if he were Paul himself. Why? All are one in the faith.

Kretzmann: Paul here reminds Philemon that their own relationship was not merely that of friends or companions according to the manner of the world, but that of partakers of a common faith. This fact alone placed Philemon under obligation to Paul; for to deny his request was to declare the termination of the fellowship which united them in Christ.

Philemon 1:18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Paul anticipates an objection. What about making restitution for financial loss? Both Lenski and Bengel point out that very likely Onesimus had already confessed his wrongs to Paul and that, therefore, the wrong was not embezzlement of money. Others disagree.

Kretzmann: Here St. Paul removes a possible difficulty that might stand in the way of a reconciliation such as he wished it. Undoubtedly the offense of Onesimus was that he had embezzled or stolen some of his master's goods before absconding. At the same time, of course, he had deprived Philemon of his services during his absence, a fact which naturally resulted in some damage to the master.
Mueller: The apostle not only asks forgiveness for Onesimus, but he also offers compensation for the wrong done.
Lenski: Whatever the amount, Paul says: 'Charge it to me.'
Vincent: Besides running away, Onesimus had possibly robbed his master. He had at least deprived him of his services by his flight.

Philemon 1:19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back -- not to mention that you owe me your very self.

Paul says "I" with full apostolic authority, and secondly that he will pay in full.

TEV translates: "Here, I will write this with my own hand: I, PAUL WILL PAY YOU BACK. (I should not have to remind you, of course, that you own your very life to me.)"

"With my own hand" does not necessarily mean that Paul did not write the entire Epistle.

Lenski: Philemon owes a double debt to Paul, 'his own self,' which means that Paul converted him, probably when Paul was in Ephesus and when Philemon there met Paul. And now he owed Paul something 'besides,' namely the return of his run-away slave, who is a better slave than he had lost . . . . The one thing Paul desires is the removal of anything whatever from the mind of Philemon that might hinder him from genuinely receiving Onesimus as a child of Paul.
Kretzmann: He urged his Colossian friend to remember his obligation to him, namely, that it was due to his work in the Gospel that Philemon was now the possessor of the highest and greatest blessings in life, those guaranteed by the redemption of Christ.
Mueller: He owed himself, the fact of his being a Christian to Paul, his spiritual father.

Philemon 1:20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.

Paul now called Philemon "brother" as he had called Onesimus "brother" in verse 6.

AAT translates: "Yes, my fellow Christian, I want you to be useful to me in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ."

Kretzmann: Here again there is a play on the name Onesimus, as the apostle asks Philemon to accord him the filial services which he may well expect, and thus to refresh his heart which has been troubled on account of this matter.
Mueller: The apostle now asks something for himself. The request made on behalf of Onesimus, verse 17, also concerns Paul very closely. By receiving the slave back as brother in the Lord, Paul's request will be granted, and Paul himself will thus receive benefit.
Lenski: His happiness is what he desires, happiness in seeing these two converts and spiritual children of his joined in truest Christian fellowship, although the one is a master, the other only a slave.
Bengel: Profit from Onesimus was due you, I should now have profit from you.

Philemon 1:21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

"Confident that you will listen and comply, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do more than I ask."

Kretzmann: There was no question in Paul's mind; he was absolutely confident that the solution of the problem would be satisfactory in every way, that Philemon would probably find ways of showing Onesimus a kindness even beyond the suggestions which he ventured to make.
Mueller: What the apostle meant by the expression 'beyond what I say' is not clearly described. It evidently does not mean sending back of Onesimus to Paul in Rome . . . . Probably this indefinite expression suggests the eventual liberation of Onesimus by Philemon.
Lenski: He knows that Philemon will do not only what Paul asks of him, but something far beyond that. This is not a hint to set the slave free, as some suppose; nor a hint to send the slave back to Paul to be Paul's servant. 'Beyond what I say' is to be understood in a spiritual way.
Vincent: My confidence in your love and obedience assures me that you will more than fulfill my request.

Now read Ephesians 6:5-8 and Colossians 3:22-25. What a movie this little Epistle would make! What grief could have been spared if the South had truly heeded this little letter at the time of the Civil War! What joy I would experience if I would treat my wife, my students, my parishioners, my fellowman as Philemon must have treated Onesimus after he read this letter!


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series C Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1985, pp. 79-84. Used with permission.

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