The epistle to Philemon is the shortest of all the canonical letters of Paul. Conjoining Timothy with him in the salutation, as he had done to that addressed to all the Colossian saints, he here addresses, in company with Philemon and Apphia his wife, Archippus, a labourer in the Word, and the Church in Philemon's house, sending the letter, not by Tychicus, but most likely by the one who was most deeply and personally interested in its contents.
Onesimus, who was Philemon's fugitive slave, had been brought in the providence of God across the path of the apostle of the Gentiles during the latter's imprisonment at Rome. (v. 10.) Converted through his instrumentality he would learn that his earthly master at Colosse was known to Paul, and owed his salvation under God to the same gospel, and to the same human agency. Paul was the father in the faith of both Philemon and Onesimus (v 19), though how and when the apostle had met with Philemon we know not; for Colosse, in which the latter lived, was a town in which the former had never worked.
Onesimus, once a child of wrath, and walking according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, was such no longer. He was a child of God, set free from the slavery of sin and the devil, enjoying redemption by blood; but he was Philemon's slave still. Conversion does not necessarily change the social condition. Of this fact some at Colosse must have been continually, and perhaps painfully, reminded. (Col. 3:22-25.) Manumission because of his conversion no slave could demand, even of a Christian master. On this point the apostle is most clear, both in writing to Timothy and in this short letter to Philemon.
To the former he writes, "Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and the doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort." (1 Tim. 6:1, 2.) Addressing the latter, he says, "Whom I have sent again to thee. But do thou 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 [or good] should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou mightest receive him for ever; not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, especially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?" (vv. 12-16.)
Thus the rights of the master to the service of his slave are most carefully preserved. Righteousness is a distinctive feature of Christianity as well as grace; and on the question of slavery it was only by the strict maintenance of the rights of the master that the opportunity could be given for the display on his part of grace in giving freedom to his slave.
Onesimus, when converted, awoke to the comprehension of this. Set free by grace from all fear of divine judgment, conscious of forgiveness of sins, both plenary and administrative, so that none committed before his conversion could be brought up against him for judgment before God, or before the assembly, he was made to own by returning to Philemon that his status as a slave had not been changed, because a birth-tie, and the consequent link of Christian brotherhood, now existed between his master and himself. So the one who had run away, and perhaps had directly defrauded Philemon, had to return, and to submit himself to his pleasure.
Slavery formed no part of man's social organisation at the beginning, though in early times after the flood it evidently had taken deep root among men on earth. The Israelites could. by the law possess slaves from the Gentiles, and for such there was no institution of a jubilee that could set them free. Still, though slavery was allowed by God, it was never instituted by Him any more than polygamy, which was also permitted by the law.. Hence when Christianity appeared it was confronted by social institutions which were not originally from God. We may discern, then, the practical value of this epistle, and the wisdom of its finding a place in canonical Scripture; for whilst other parts of the volume tell us of the immense change effected for us by the atoning death of the Lord Jesus, this short letter teaches us that human rights are not abrogated, nor is social status necessarily changed, by the introduction of Christianity, which affords an opportunity for the Christian to act in grace towards one who has injured him. In truth it was never meant to set the world to rights; it is to teach its followers how to walk in a scene which is not ordered in accordance with the mind of God. In harmony with this Onesimus was sent back to Philemon, but with this letter in his hand, at once a commendation from Paul on his behalf to the saints at Colosse, and a communication to ensure him a favourable reception from his master, who may have been injured by him, or irritated against him.
We cannot doubt it obtained the object for which it was written, considering the description it gives of his master, and the appeal made to his heart, both direct and indirect, by the aged apostle. "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow-labourer, and to our sister Apphia" (for thus we should read), "and to Archippus, our fellow-soldier, and to the Church in thy house, grace unto you, and peace from God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ." Philemon was a man of means at Colosse, who with his wife Apphia was an heir of the grace of life. He was a worker for the Master as well; so to Paul and Timothy he was dearly beloved, and a recognised fellow-labourer. In his house a company of the saints met, and by him the bowels of the saints were refreshed. (v. 7.) He had received, and he gave. Grace had opened his heart, and he found a circle to which it could go out - the saints of God. (v. 5.) A partaker of the divine nature, that nature was active in him, as Paul had heard, so to its dictates the apostle appeals on behalf of Onesimus (vv. 8-17) that Philemon's fellowship in the faith should become operative in the acknowledgment of every good thing that is "in us" in Christ Jesus. What justice could not have claimed, that Paul counted on Philemon to manifest, the recognition in Onesimus of the work of grace, which through Paul's instrumentality had been effected.
Of. two things it would seem Onesimus was guilty. He had run away from his master, and he had defrauded him likewise. With what delicacy, as it has been observed, does the apostle treat of all this? If he refers to the running away, he calls it departing. (v. 15.) Writing of his fraudulent conduct Paul offers to repay what is owing; but not a word does he drop that could minister to any feeling of resentment in the heart of Philemon. At the same time he fully maintains the rights of the master, by which opportunity would be afforded the latter to show the grace that was in his heart. Paul might have been bold in Christ to command what was fitting. He would rather for love's sake take the place of intercession with his child in the faith for another child in the faith, in whom they each must have had a marked interest. Christ's servant Onesimus now was, though still Philemon's slave. On his behalf Paul pleaded, and in such a way that Philemon could not surely have remained obdurate. It was Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus, who addressed him. Could Philemon have turned a deaf ear to such an appeal? He doubtless did not add to the apostle's sorrows by refusing to receive and forgive the one formerly unprofitable, but now profitable to Paul and to himself. "Receive him," writes the apostle, "that is, mine own bowels." "If thou count me a partner, receive him as myself." (vv. 12, 17.)
But probably he had defrauded his master. Paul does not overlook this. He does not tell Philemon to make up his mind to the loss, whatever it was. On the contrary, he voluntarily becomes a surety for the payment of it, if it should be demanded. "If he hath wronged thee, or oweth ought, put that to my account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand; I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides." Philemon knew well to what the apostle referred, and Paul evidently counted on a full response. "Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in Christ. Having confidence in thy obedience I write unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I • say." (vv. 20, 21.) Paul had said, "Receive him as myself." Then Onesimus, as it were, dropping out of sight, it became a matter between Paul and Philemon. (vv. 18-21.) Paul had fully taken on himself to answer for any fraud on the part of Onesimus.
Now, after making one more request, he closes this letter, written probably with his own hand. (v. 19.) "But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you." He had included others with Philemon in the salutation at the beginning, so he counted on the prayers of them all whilst requesting Philemon to find him a lodging. We may well believe that, if he carried out his intention, and paid a visit to Colosse for the first time in his missionary career, he did not meet with a cold reception, nor was his heart grieved by finding Onesimus ill-treated. Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul, with Apphia, would surely have had happy fellowship together under the roof of him in whose house a company of the saints met.
The salutations follow, addressed to Philemon. "Epaphras saluteth thee, my fellow-prisoner in Christ; Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellow-labourers?" In the letter to the Colossians Aristarchus was his fellow-prisoner. Here it is Epaphras. Did the saints take it in turn to share the apostle's imprisonment? The salutations, we have said, were to Philemon. Paul's closing wish was for the whole company in his house. "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit." The divine wisdom is manifest in placing this letter among the collection of writings which form the Scriptures of truth. For the doctrines of grace we must turn elsewhere. But certain questions in connection with social life and Christianity here receive their solution. C. E. Stuart.
We were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, and we shall be in Him when the heavens and earth have passed away. What can touch this eternal union? "And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one." G. V. Wigram.
Whilst the eye is gazing with delight on Christ in glory, the Holy Spirit is engraving the Christ we delight in on our hearts.