Philemon Commentary

v.6: “Paul’s thanksgiving leads directly on to his request—a petition concerning Philemon’s generosity. It is as if Paul could not give thanks for his colleague without interceding for him. The verse is difficult to interpret, so the following suggestions are tentative. Sharing (Gk. koin?nia) is understood in an active, general sense meaning ‘generosity’ or ‘liberality’. Your faith points to the source from which the kindness comes, while the word active is better rendered as ‘effective’. His faith had already been active; Paul now wants it to be ‘effective’ in relation to Onesimus. Every good thing refers to every blessing which belongs to Philemon as a Christian, while a full understanding (lit. ‘in a knowledge’) here conveys both the ideas of understanding and experience. The final phrase, (lit. ‘into Christ’), probably refers to being united with him and is therefore correctly rendered as in Christ. It was the apostle’s great desire that Philemon might understand and experience the treasures that belonged to him as a believer. So his request is that Philemon’s generosity might lead him effectively (that is, he wished that his colleague’s liberality might result in some action in the case of Onesimus). This would, in turn, help Philemon into a deeper understanding and appreciation of all the blessings that belonged to him (and all others who are incorporated) in Christ.”[1]



vv.8-10 “The situation of both Paul and Onesimus is all-important to the understanding of this section of the Epistle. Paul’s circumstances are just as significant as those of Onesimus–a fact often overlooked by commentators. Because he is in prison, he cannot do the things a free man might do to help the slave. He can do little more than write a letter asking for clemency for his new-found brother and he can suggest that he hopes to visit the Lycus Valley soon to put additional pressure on Philemon. Under more usual circumstances, a free man could have assumed custody of a runaway slave after he had given guarantees of his return to the public officials, and he could have suggested that the slave be formally assigned to him for a time. This was not uncommon. […]

“Onesimus’s status was the lowest that one could reach in the ancient world. Because he was a runaway slave, he was protected by no laws and he was subject to all manner of abuse. Fugitive slaves usually went to large cities, remote parts of the Roman state, or into unsettled areas. At this time, their capture and return was largely an informal arrangement between the owner and a provincial administrator. They were frequently beaten unmercifully or put to tasks in which their life expectancy was very short. […]

“Paul must have put Philemon in a precarious position indeed. In pleading for forgiveness and restitution for Onesimus without a punishment that was obvious to all, he was confronting the social and economic order head on. While he does not ask for manumission, even his request for clemency for Onesimus and hint of his assignment to Paul defied Roman tradition. By this plea Paul is also giving new dignity to the slave class. [2]

v.11: “Paul then eases the tense situation further with a play on the name of Onesimus, which means ‘useful’ in Greek. Slaves bore the names that either slave dealers gave them to extol their wares or that their masters gave them to express their hopes. ‘Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me’ (v. 11) contains a wordplay that can be found in other writers, but it becomes more poignant and memorable in this situation.

Paul takes the wordplay to still another level. The word achrestos (‘useless’) and achristos (‘Christless’) would have been pronounced exactly the same. Onesimus was not useful before because he was without Christ! When he became a Christian, however, he became useful, euchrestos. Onesimus was not useful before because he was without Christ. But now that he is in Christ, he has become truly Onesimus, useful. Philemon’s slave returns as the slave of Christ, having found his true identity.”[3]

vv.12-16 “Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus but he sends him back to Philemon, for he will do nothing without his consent. Here again is a significant thing. Christianity is not out to help a man escape his past and run away from it; it is out to enable him face his past and rise above it. Onesimus had run away. Well, then, he must go back, face up to the consequences of what he did, accept them and rise above them. Christianity is never escape; it is always conquest.

“But Onesimus comes back with a difference. He went away as a heathen slave; he comes back as a brother in Christ. It is going to be hard for Philemon to regard a runaway slave as a brother; but that is exactly what Paul demands. ‘If you agree,’ says Paul, ‘that I am your partner in the work of Christ and that Onesimus is my son in the faith, you must receive him as you would receive myself.’

“Here again is something very significant. The Christian must always welcome back the man who has made a mistake. Too often we regard the man who has taken the wrong turning with suspicion and show that we are never prepared to trust him again. We believe that God can forgive him but we, ourselves, find it too difficult. It has been said that the most uplifting thing about Jesus Christ is that he trust us on the very field of our defeat. When a man has made a mistake, the way back can be very hard, and God cannot readily forgive the man who, in his self-righteousness or lack of sympathy, makes it harder.”[4]

v.18 “It is one of the laws of life that someone has to pay the price of sin. God can and does forgive, but not even he can free a man from the consequences of what he has done. It is the glory of the Christian faith that, just as Jesus Christ shouldered the sins of all men, so there are those who in love are prepared to help pay for the consequences of the sins of those who are dear to them. Christianity never entitled a man to default on his debts. Onesimus must have stolen from Philemon, as well as run away from him. If he had not helped himself to Philemon’s money, it is difficult to see how he could ever have covered the long road to Rome. Paul writes with his own hand that he will be responsible and will repay in full.”[5]

[1] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Phm 4–7). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[2] Frank E. Gaebelein, Gen. Ed. Expositors Bible Commentary CD, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) notes for Philemon

[3] David E. Garland, The NIV Application Commentary. Colossians and Philemon, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998)

[4]The letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. 2000, c1975 (W. Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, Ed.). The Daily Study Bible series, Rev. ed. (Phm 18). Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

[5]The letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. 2000, c1975 (W. Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, Ed.). The Daily Study Bible series, Rev. ed. (Phm 25). Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

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