Keith Hunt - Bible Story, NT - Chapter Eighty-one: Paul writes to Philemon - Part one   Restitution of All Things
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New Testament Bible

Chapter Eighty-one:

Paul writes to Philemon - Part one

                     THE NEW TESTAMENT

                        BIBLE STORY

                         Acts #35

                  THE EPISTLE TO PHILEMON

                         Part One


Nelson Publications, 1990, 1995


Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians are called the
Prison Epistles because Paul wrote them while in prison. Unlike
the other prison letters which are addressed to churches,
Philemon is addressed to an individual.


Philemon and Colossians were probably written by Paul at the same
time, about A.D. 62, during his imprisonment at Rome recorded in
Acts 28:16-31. References to being a prisoner (verses. 1,9,23)
and to being aged (v.9) support this conclusion. Many of the
same people are mentioned in both letters: Archippus (Philem.2;
Col. 4:17), Onesimus (Philem.10: Col.4:9), Epaphras (Philem.23;
Col. 1:7; 4:12), Mark (Philem.24; Col.4:10), Aristarchus
(Philem.24; Col.4:10), Demos (Philem.24; Col.4:14), and Luke
(Philem.24; Col. 4:14). Onesimus and Tychicus (Col.4:7-9) were
the bearers of these letters.


Philemon probably lived in the Lycus Valley where Colosse and
Laodicea were located (see Col.4:15). He was a close friend of
Paul, indebted to him spiritually and a helper in his ministry
(vv.l,19). A church met in Philemon's house (v.2). Onesimus ...
had run away and been converted by Paul in Rome (v.10).

Slavery was part of everyday life in the Roman Empire. Prior to
Christ's birth, almost a third of Rome's one million people were
slaves. Regarded only as possessions, they were bought and sold;
their conditions varied depending on then skills and owners.
Christian teaching improved their let by concentrating on inward
moral transformation which naturally produced outward changes
(see 2 Cor.5:17). Masters and slaves were both exhorted to live
worthy of Christ (see Col.3:22-4:1). Moreover, by placing an
emphasis on the common brotherhood of Christian believers (v.
16), Christ and His followers struck at the very foundation of
slavery. As Paul says, "There is neither ... slave nor free, but
Christ is all and in all" (Col.3:11). When captured, runaway
slaves were treated cruelly, sometimes branded on the arm or
forehead, and sometimes put to death....


Paul states two reasons for the letter: (1) an appeal for
Onesimus to be received as a brother in Christ by Philemon (vv.
8-21), and (2) a request for Philemon to prepare a guest room for
Paul's coming visit (v.22). Paul supports the principle of
restitution for past wrongs.... However, he bases the appeal to
Philemon on their relationship (vv.17-19), and on the common
Christian fellowship of Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul (vv.10,16).

What happened to Onesimus? No doubt Philemon obeyed Paul and
forgave Onesimus. Otherwise he probably would have destroyed this

End Quote


     While there is much merit in the above, and correct in the
main, it is the Bible Commentary by ALBERT BARNES that I believes
gives the truth of the matter on the epistle of Paul to Philemon.
     This letter from Paul to Philemon has been often greatly
misunderstood and perverted by many a Christian leader and whole
sects, to claim that God and the Bible endorse and teach the
rightful practice of "slavery." While the Bible does address the
subject of slavery and even lays out laws and rules to govern
that practice, doing so is NOT the same as saying that God and
the Bible endorse and encourage and justify and make righteous
the practice of slavery. God often under the Old Testament
ALLOWED many things, for as Jesus put it to the Pharisees,
"because of the HARDNESS of the heart." The practice of slavery
in Israel was one of those allowences because of the hardness of
the heart. And in allowing it, God gave certain laws to regulate
it, to make it humane and somewhat "respectable." But slavery was
NEVER the ideal of the Lord. 

     I believe ALBERT BARNES gives the correct understanding of
this letter of Paul to Philemon, and gives enough evidence that
there is no way of proving Paul or this letter he wrote,
endorses in any way the practice of slavery or that Paul was
sending Onesimus back to Philemon as a slave, albeit as a
"Christian" slave. 

     I shall give you much of what Albert Barnes has to say. For
all of his words on the matter of the book of Philemon, the
reader can ascertain for themselves from "Barnes' Notes on
the New Testament."
     But first in my own words, with some amplification I will
render in modern English Paul's letter to Philemon:

     This letter is from Paul, who is in prison for preaching the
     Gospel about Christ Jesus, and also from our brother
     Timothy. I am writing to you Philemon, our much loved
     co-helper, and to our sister Apphia and to Archippus, a
     fellow soldier in the work of the cross of Christ. I am also
     writing to the congregation that meets in your home.
     May God our Father and the Lord Jesus christ give you all
     grace and peace.

     I always thank God when I pray for you all. Philemon, I keep
     hearing of your trust in the Lord Jesus and your love for
     all of God's children. You are generous because of your
     faith. And I am praying that you will always put your
     generosity to work, for in so doing you will come to
     understand all the good things we can do in Christ's work. I
     myself have gained much joy from your love, my brother,
     because your kindness has so often helped the hearts and
     lives of God's people.

     And so, because of all this, I feel bold in asking a favor
     of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ, for it is
     indeed the correct and right thing to do, but because of
     your love and service, I prefer to just ask you as a favor.
     Please take this then as a request from your friend Paul, an
     old man now, in confinement for doing the work of Christ

     My request, even my plea, is that you show kindness to
     Onesimus. I hold him in my mind as my very own son, because
     he became a believer as a result of my ministry here in this
     confinement. Onesimus (which means "useful") has been of
     much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to
     both of us. Whom sending him back again to you, also
     comes my own heart and feelings. I really did want to keep
     him here with me to serve me, for a while, being in these
     chains for the Gospel's sake. But I do not want to do this
     without your consent and approval. And I do not want you to
     help in this matter because you are forced to do it, but
     because you willingly want to do it.

     Perhaps you can think of it this way: Onesimus ran away for
     a little while so you could have him back for good. He is no
     longer just a servant; he is a beloved brother, and
     especially to me. Now he will mean so much more to you, both
     as a servant and as a brother in Christ.

     So, if you consider that I am your partner in god's work,
     give him the same welcome as you would give me if I were
     coming to you. If he has harmed you in any way, or stolen
     anything from you, then charge it to me, send me the bill
     for it. I Paul, write this in my very own hand-writing "I
     will repay it." But I will not mention that you owe me your
     very own life. 

     Yes, my dear brother, please do this favor for the Lord's
     sake. Give me encouragement in Christ. I am very confident
     as I write this letter to you that you will do what I  ask,
     and even more.

     Please keep a guest room ready for me, for I am hoping that
     God will answer your prayers and soon let me return to you.

     Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, send you his
     greetings. So does Mark, Aritarchus, Demas, and Luke, my
     fellow co-workers. 

     The favor and love and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be
     with your spirit.



     OF PHILEMON, to whom this epistle was addressed, almost
nothing more is known than can be ascertained from the epistle
itself. It is short, and of a private character; but it is a
bright and beautiful gem in the volume of inspiration.
     From Col.4:9, it may be inferred that the person to whom it
was addressed, was an inhabitant of Colosse, since Onesimus,
concerning whom this epistle was written, is there mentioned as 
"one of them." ... He is said by Calmet and Michaelis to have
been wealthy; but this cannot be determined with certainty,
though it is not improbable. The only circumstances which seem to
indicate this, are, that Onesimus had been his "servant," from
which it has been inferred, that he was an owner of slaves; and
that he appears to have been accustomed to show hospitality to
strangers, or, as Michaelis expresses it, "travelling
Christians." See ver.22 of the epistle. But these circumstances
are not sufficient to determine that he was a man of property.   
     There is no evidence, as we shall see, that he was a
slave-holder; and Christians in moderate circumstances were
accustomed to show hospitality to their brethren. Besides,
it is not said in ver.22, that he was accustomed to show general
hospitality; but Paul merely asks him to provide for him a
lodging. It is probable that he had been accustomed to remain
with him when he was in Colosse.
     It is quite clear that he had been converted under the
ministry of the apostle himself. This appears from what is said
in ver.19: "I do not say to thee, how thou owest unto me even
thin, own self." This cannot be understood otherwise than as
implying that he bad been converted under his preaching, unless
the apostle, on some former occasion, had been the means of
saving his life, of which there is no evidence. Indeed, it is
manifest, from the general tone of the epistle, that Philemon had
been converted by the labours of the author. It is just such a
letter as it would be natural and proper to write on such a
supposition; it is not one which the apostle would have been
likely to write to any one who did not sustain such a relation to
him. But where and when he was converted is unknown. It is
possible that Paul may have met with him at Ephesus; but it is
much more probable that he had himself been at Colosse, and that
Philemon was one of his converts there...
     It is evident from the epistle, that Paul regarded him as a
sincere Christian; as a man of strict integrity; as one who could
be depended on to do right. Thus (vers.5-7) he says, that he had
heard of his "love and faith toward the Lord Jesus, and toward
all saints;" thus he confidently asks him to provide for him a
lodging when he should come, (ver.22) and thus he expresses the
assured belief, that he would do what was right towards one
who had been his servant, who, having been formerly unfaithful,
was now converted, and, in the estimation of the apostle, was
worthy of the confidence and affection of his former master.
     In regard to his rank in the Christian church, nothing
whatever is known. Paul calls him (ver.1) his "fellowlabourer;"
but this appellation is so general, that it determines nothing in
regard to the manner in which be co-operated with him in
promoting religion. It is a term which might be applied to any
active Christian, whether a preacher, an elder, a deacon, or a
private member of the church. It would seem clear, however, that
he was not a travelling preacher, for he had a home in Colosse,
(vers.2,22) and the presumption is, that he was an active and
benevolent member of the church, who did not sustain any office. 
There are many private members of the churches, to whom all that
is said of Philemon in the epistle would apply... 
     Nothing is known of his age, his profession, or of the time
and circumstances of his death. Neither is it certainly known
what effect this epistle had on him, or whether he again received
Onesimus under his roof. It may be presumed, however, that such a
letter, addressed to such a man, would not fail of its object.


     This can be learned only from the epistle itself, and there
the circumstances are so marked as to make a mistake impossible.
(1) Philemon had had a servant of the name of Onesimus. Of the
character of this servant, before Paul became acquainted with
him, nothing more is known than that he head been "unprofitable"
to Philemon, (ver.11) and that he had probably done him some
wrong, either by taking his property, or by the fact that he had
escaped from him, ver.18. It is not necessary to suppose that he
was a SLAVE; for all that is implied of necessity in the word
which is employed to designate his condition in ver.16, (doulos,)
and all that is stated of him in the epistle, would be met by
the supposition that he was bound to Philemon, either by his
parents or guardians, or that he had bound himself to render
voluntary service. See Notes on ver.16. (2) For some cause, this
servant had fled from his master, and had gone to Rome. The cause
of his escaping is unknown. It may be, that he had purloined the
property of his master, and dreaded detection; or that he had, by
his base conduct in some other way, exposed himself to
punishment; or that he merely desired freedom from oppression; or
that he disregarded the bonds into which he himself, or his
parents or guardians, had entered, and had therefore escaped.    
     Nothing can be inferred about his condition, or his relation
to Philemon, from the fact that he ran away. It is, perhaps,
quite as common for apprentices to run away, as it is for slaves;
and they who enter into voluntary bonds to render service to
another, do not always regard them. (3) In some way, when at
Rome, this servant had found out the apostle Paul, and had been
converted by his instrumentality. Paul says, (ver.10) that he
had "begotten him in his bonds" - which seems to imply that
Onesimus had come to him, and not that Paul had searched him out.
It does not appear that Paul, when a prisoner at Rome, was
allowed to go at large, (comp. Acts 28:30) though he was
permitted to receive all who came to him. Why Onesimus came to
the apostle is not known.
     It may have been because he was in want, and Paul was the
only one in Rome whom he had ever seen; or it may have been
because his mind had become distressed on account of sin, and he
sought him out to obtain spiritual counsel. Conjecture on these
points is useless, where there is not even a hint that can serve
as a clew to find out the truth. (4) From some cause, equally
unknown, Onesimus, when converted, was desirous of returning to
his former master. It is commonly ASSUMED, that his returning
again was at the instigation of the apostle, and that this
furnishes an instance of this belief, that runaway slaves should
be sent back to their masters. But, besides that there is NO
CERTAIN evidence that he EVER was a slave, there is as little
proof that he returned at the instigation of Paul, or that his
return was not wholly voluntary on his part. For the only
expression which the apostle uses on this subject, (ver.12) "whom
I have sent again" - does not necessarily imply that he even
proposed it to him, still less that he commanded it. It is a word
of such general import, that it would be employed on the
supposition that Onesimus desired to return; and that Paul, who
had a strong wish to retain him, to aid him in the same way that
Philemon himseLf would do if he were with him, (comp.ver.13)
had, on the whole, concluded to part with him, and to send him
again, with a letter, to his friend Philemon. It is just such
language as he would have used of Timothy, Titus, or
Epaphroditus, if employed on an important embassy at the request
of the apostle. Comp. Luke 7:6,10,19; 20:13; Acts10:5; 15:22;
1Cor.4:17; 2Cor.9:3; Eph.6:22; Phil.2:19,23,25,28; 1 Thess.3:2,5;
Titus 3:12, for a similar use of the word "send."  There is
nothing in the statement which forbids us to suppose that
Onesimus was himself disposed to return to  Philemon, and that
Paul "sent" him at his own request. To this, Onesimus might have
been inclined from many causes. He may have repented that he left
his master, and had forsaken the comforts which he had enjoyed
under his roof. It is no uncommon thing for a runaway apprentice,
or servant, when he has seen and felt the misery of being among
strangers and in want, to wish himself well back again in the
house of his master. Or he may have felt that he had wronged his
master in some way, (comp. Notes on ver.18) and, being now
converted, was desirous of repairing the wrong. Or he may have
had friends and kindred in Colosse whom he was desirous of see
again. Since any one of these, or of many other supposable
causes, may have induced him to desire to return to his master,
it should not be assumed that Paul sent him against his will, and
thence be inferred that he was in favour of sending back runaway
slaves to their masters AGAINST their will. There are many points
to be proved, which CANNOT be proved, to make that a legitimate
inference. (5) Whatever were the reasons why Onesimus desired to
return to Philemon, it is clear that he was apprehensive of some
trouble if he went back. What those reasons were, it is
impossible now to determine with absolute certainty; but it is
not difficult to conjecture what they may have been, and any of
the following will account for his apprehensions - either (a)
that he had done his master wrong by the mere act of leaving him,
depriving him of valuable services which he was bound to render;
or (b) that he may have felt that the mere act of running away
had injured the character of his master, for such an act always
implies that there is something in the dealings of a master
which makes it desirable to leave him; or (c) that he had in some
way injured him in respect to property, by taking that which did
not belong to him, ver.18; or (d) that he owed his master, and he
may have inferred from his leaving him that he meant to defraud
him, ver.18; or (e) that the laws of Phrygia were such, that
Onesimus apprehended that if he returned, even penitent, it would
be judged by his master necessary to punish him, in order to
deter others from committing a similar offence. The laws of
Phrygia, it is said, allowed the master to punish a slave without
applying to a magistrate. It should be said also that the
Phrygians were a severe people, (Curtius, Lib.v.c.1) and it is
not improbable that, from the customs there, Onesimus may have
apprehended harsh treatment if he returned. It is not proper to
assume that any one of these was certainly the reason why he
feared to return, for this cannot be absolutely determined. We
should not take it for granted that he had defrauded his master -
for that is not necessarily implied in what is said in ver.18,
and we should not impute crimes to men without proof; or should
we take it for granted, that he feared to be punished as a
runaway slave - for that CANNOT be proved; but some one or more
of these reasons, doubtless, operated to make him apprehensive,
that if he returned he would meet with, at least, a cold
reception. (6) To induce his master to receive him kindly again,
was the main object of this courteous and kind epistle. For a
view of the arguments on which be urges this, see the Analysis of
the epistle. The arguments are such, that we should suppose they
could not be resisted; and we may presume, without impropriety,
that they had the desired effect on the mind of Philemon; but of
that we have no certain evidence.


     THERE can be no doubt that this letter was written from Rome
about the time when the epistle to the Colossians was written.
The circumstances which conduct to this conclusion are such as
the following: (1) Paul at the time when it was written was a
prisoner. "Paul a prisoner of Jesus Christ;" ver.1. "Whom I have
begotten in my bonds," ver.10. Comp. ver.23, "Epaphras my
fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus." (2.) It was written when he had
hopes of obtaining his liberty, or when he had such a prospect of
it that he could ask Philemon, with confidence, to "prepare him a
lodging," ver.22. (3) Timothy was with him at the time when it
was written, (ver.1) and we know that Paul desired him to came to
him to Rome, when he was a prisoner there, as soon as possible, 2
Tim.4:9: "Do thy diligence to come shortly unto me." (4) We know
that Onesimus was actually sent by Paul to Colosse while he was a
prisoner at Rome, and it would be morally certain that, under the
circumstances of the case, he would send the letter to his master
at that time. No other instance is mentioned in which he sent him
to Colosse, and the evidence is as certain as the nature of the
case admits, that that was the time when the epistle was written.
See Col.4:9. (5) The same persons are mentioned in the
salutations, in the two epistles; at least, they are so far the
same as to make it probable that the epistles were written at the
same time; for it is not very probable that the same persons
would, in another place, and on another occasion, have been with
the apostle. Thus Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, and Demos,
join in the salutations both to the church at Colosse and to
Philemon. Probably at no other time in the life of Paul were all
these persons with him, than when he was a prisoner at Rome. 
These considerations make it clear that the epistle was written
while Paul was a prisoner at Rome, and at about the same time
with the epistle to the Colossians. If so, it was about A.D.62.


     THIS letter is almost wholly of a private character; and yet
there is scarcely any portion of the New Testament of equal
length which is of more value. It is exquisitely beautiful and
delicate. It is a model of courtesy and politeness. It presents
the character of the author in a most amiable light, and shows
what true religion will produce in causing genuine refinement of
thought and language. It is gentle and persuasive, and yet the
argument is one that we should suppose would have been, and
probably was, irresistible. It is very easy to conceive, that the
task which the apostle undertook to perform, was one which it
would be difficult to accomplish - that of reconciling an
offended master to a runaway servant. And yet it is done with so
much kindness, persuasiveness, gentleness, and true affection,
that, as the letter was read, it is easy to imagine that all the
hostility of the master was disarmed, and we can almost see him
desiring to embrace him who bore it, not now as a servant, but as
a Christian brother, ver.16. "It is impossible," says Doddridge,
"to read over this admirable epistle without being touched with
the delicacy of sentiment, and the masterly address, that appear
in every part of it. We see here, in a most striking light, how
perfectly consistent true politeness is - not only with all the
warmth and sincerity of a friend, but even with the dignity of
the Christian and the Apostle. And if this letter were to be
considered in no other view than as a were human composition, it
must be allowed to be a master-piece in its kind. As an
illustration of this remark, it may not he improper to compare it
with an epistle of Pliny, that seems to have been written on a
similar occasion, (Lib. ix. Let. 21;) which, though penned by one
that was reckoned to excel in the epistolary style, though it has
undoubtedly many beauties, yet must be acknowledged by every
impartial reader vastly inferior to this animated composition of
the apostle." As a specimen of the courtesy and politeness which
the Christian ought to practise at all times, as well as
furnishing many valuable lessons on Christian duty, (see the
remarks at the close,) it deserves a place in the volume of
inspiration ...


The epistle embrace, the following subjects:

1. The salutation, ver.1-3.

2. A mention of the excellent account which the apostle had heard
of Philemon, and the occasion which he had for thankfulness on
his behalf, ver.4-7. (a) He always remembered him in his prayers,
ver.4. (b) He had heard of his faith and love, and of his
kindness towards those who bore the Christian name, ver.5. (c) He
desired that his goodness in making others, in common with him,
partaken of the expression of his faith, might be even more
effectual in securing the proper acknowledgment of it wherever it
might be known, ver.8. (d) He says that he had great joy and
consolation from the happiness which he had conferred on
Christians who needed his aid, ver.7.

3. The main subject of the epistle - the desire that he would
receive his servant Onesimus again, and the arguments to persuade
him to do it, vers.8-21. (l.) He places it on the ground of
entreaty, not of command.  He might, in virtue of his apostolic
office, enjoin many things on him, and possibly this, yet he
chooses to place it wholly on other grounds, and to make it a
matter of personal friendship, ver.8. (2.) Particular reasons why
he should do it (a) For love's sake - love to Paul - now an old
man, and in prison on account of their common religion, ver.9.
(b) Paul regarded Onesimus as his own son, and asked that he
might be received and treated as such, ver.10. (c) He assures
Philemon that, whatever he might have been formerly, he would
now find him to be profitable to himself, ver. 11. (d) He assures
him that Onesimus was especially dear to him, and that he would
have been very useful to him in his circumstances, but that he
did not think it proper to retain him with him without the
consent of Philemon. Onesimus, therefore, was not sent back as a
worthless vagabond, and Philemon, in receiving him, might be sure
that he was receiving one whom Paul believed was fitted to be
eminently useful, vers.12-14. (e) He suggests to Philemon that
probably it was so arranged by divine Providence, that Onesimus
should depart in order that he might receive him again in a far
more tender and endearing relation, not as a servant, but as a
Christian brother, vers.15,18. (f) He appeals to the personal
friendship of Philemon, and asks that if he regarded him as a
participator with him in the hopes of the gospel, or as a
fellow-labourer in a common cause, he would receive him as he
would himself, ver.17. (g) He says that he would himself become
security for Onesimus if he owed Philemon anything, or had in my
way wronged him, vers. 18,19. (h) He concludes the argument by
referring to the happiness which it would give him if Philemon
would receive his former servant again; and with the expression
of his conviction that he would do more than he asked in the
matter, and then asks that, while he showed favour to Onesimus,
he would also prepare a lodging for him, for he hoped soon to be
with him, vers.20-22. Perhaps by this lest suggestion he hoped
also to do much to favour the cause of Onesimus - for Philemon
could hardly turn him away when he expected that Paul himself
would soon be with him. Such an argument would be likely to be
effectual in the case. We do not like to deny the request which a
friend makes in a letter, if we expect soon to see the writer
himself. It would be much more easy to do it if we had no
expectations of seeing him very soon. 

4. The epistle closes with affectionate salutations from certain
persons who were with Paul, and who were probably well known by
Philemon, and with the customary benediction, vers.23-25......

"Which in time past was to thee unprofitable."
     Either because he was indolent; because he had wronged him,
or because he had run away from him. It is possible that there
may be an allusion here to the meaning of the name Onesimus,
which denotes profitable, (Greek ... to be useful, to be
profitable, to help) and that Paul means to say that he had
hitherto not well answered to the meaning of his own name, but
that now he would be found to do so. 

"But now profitable to thee."

     The Greek here is ... euchreston, but the meaning is about
the same as that of the word Onesimus. It denotes "very useful."
In 2 Tim.4:21, it is rendered, "meet for use;" in 2 Tim.4:11, and
here, "profitable." It does not elsewhere occur in the New

"And to me."

     Paul had doubtless found him useful to him as a Christian
brother in his bonds, and it is easy to conceive that, in his
circumstances, he would greatly desire to retain him with him.


"Whom I have sent again."     

     That is, to Philemon. This was, doubtless, at his own
request, for 
     (1.) there is not the slightest evidence that he compelled
him, or even urged him to go. The language is just such as would
have been used on the supposition either that he requested him to
go and bear a letter to Colosse, or that Onesimus desired to go,
and that Paul sent him agreeably to his request. Comp. Phil.2:25,
"Yet I suppose it necessary 'to send' to you Epaphroditus my
brother, and companion in labour;" etc. Col.4:7,8, "All my state
shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a
faithful minister and fellow-servant in the Lord: whom I have
'sent' unto you for the same purpose, that he might know your
estate;" etc. 
     But Epaphroditus and Tychicus were not sent against their
own wills - nor is there any more reason to think that Onesimus
was. See Intro.2.(4.)    
     (2) Paul had no power to send Onesimus back to his master
unless he chose to go. He had no civil authority; he had no guard
to accompany him; he could entrust him to no sheriff to convey
him from pace to place, and he had no means of controlling him,
if he chose to go to any other place than Colossi. He could
indeed have sent him away from himself; he could have told him to
go to Colosse, but there his power ended. Onesimus then could
have gone where he pleased. But there is no evidence that Paul
even told him to go to Colossi against his own inclination, or
that he would have sent him away at all unless he had himself
requested it. 
     (3) There may have been many reasons why Onesimus desired to
return to Colosse, and no one can prove that he did not express
that desire to Paul, and that his  "sending" him was not in
consequence of such a request. He may have had friend, and
relatives there; or, being now converted, he may have been
sensible that he had wronged his former master, and that he ought
to return and repair the wrong; or he may have been poor, and a
stranger in Rome, end may have been greatly disappointed in what
he had expected to find there when he left Philemon, and may have
desired to return to the comparative comforts of his former
     (4) It may be added, therefore, (a) that this passage should
NOT be adduced to PROVE that we ought to "send back runaway
slaves to their former masters" against their own consent; or to
justify the laws which require magistrates to do it; or to show
that they who have escaped should be arrested and forcibly
detained; or to justify any sort of influence over a runaway
slave to induce him to return to his former master. There is
NOT THE LEAST evidence that any of these things occurred in the
case before us; and if this instance is ever appealed to, it
should be to justifY What Paul did - AND NOTHING ELSE. (b) The
passage shows that it is right to aid a servant of any kind to
return to his master IF he desires it. It is right to give him a
"letter," and to plead earnestly for his favourable reception IF
he has in any way wronged his master - for Paul did this. On the
same principle, it would be right to give him pecuniary
assistance to enable him to return - for there may be cases where
one who has fled from servitude might wish to return.
     There may be instances where one has had a kind master, with
whom he would feel that on the whole he could be more happy than
in his present circumstances. Such cases, however, are
exceedingly rare. Or there may be instances where one may have
relatives that are in the  neighbourhood or in the family of his
former master, and the desire to be with them may be so strong
that on the whole he would choose to be a servant as he was
before, rather than to remain as he is now. In all such cases it
is right to render aid - for the example of the apostle Paul goes
to sustain this. But it goes no further. So far as appears, he
neither ADVISED Onesimus to return, nor did he COMPEL him; nor
did he say one word to INFLUENCE him to do it; nor did he MEAN or
EXPECT that he would be a SLAVE when he should have been received
again by his master. See Notes on ver.16.   

"Thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels."

     There is great delicacy also in this expression. If he had
merely said, "receive him," Philemon might have thought only of
him as he formerly was. Paul, therefore, adds, "that is, mine own
bowels"  - "one whom I so tenderly love that he seems to carry my
heart with him wherever he goes." (Doddridge).


"Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead."

"That he might render me the service which I know you would if
you were here." The Greek is, "for thee;" that is, what he should
do for Paul might be regarded as done by Philemon himself. 

"He might have ministered unto me."

     He might have rendered me assistance; to wit, in such a way
as one who was in bonds would need.


"But without thy mind would I do nothing."

     Nothing in the matter referred to. He would not retain
Onesimus in his service, much as he needed his assistance,
without the cordial consent of Philemon. He would not give
him occasion for hard feeling or complaint, AS IF Paul had
induced him to leave his master, or AS IF he persuaded him to
remain with him when he wished to return - or AS IF he kept him
away from him when he owed him or had wronged him. All that is
said here is entirely consistent with the supposition that
Onesimus was DISPOSED to return to his master, and with the
supposition that Paul did not compel or urge him W do it. For
it is probable that IF Onesimus had proposed to return, it would
have been easy for Paul to have retained him with him. He might
have represented his own want of a friend. He might have appealed
to his gratitude on account of his effort for his conversion. He
might have shown him that he was under no moral obligation to go
back. He might have refused to give him this letter, and might
have so represented to him the dangers of the way, and the
probability of a harsh reception, as effectually to have
dissuaded him from such a purpose. But, in that case, it is clear
that this might have caused hard feeling in the bosom of
Philemon, and rather than do that he preferred to let him return
to his master, and to plead for him that he might have a kind
     It is, therefore, by no means necessary to suppose that Paul
felt that Onesimus was under OBLIGATION to return, or that he was
disposed to COMPEL him, or that Onesimus was not inclined to
return voluntarily; but all the circumstances of the case are
met by the supposition that, if Paul retained him, Philemon might
conceive that he had injured HIM. Suppose, as seems to have been
the case, that Onesimus "owed" Philemon, (ver.18) and then
suppose that Paul had chosen to retain him with himself, and had
dissuaded him from returning to him, would not Philemon have had
reason to complain of it? There was, therefore, on every account,
great propriety in his saying that he did not wish to use any
influence over him to retain him with him when he purposed to
return to Colosse, and that he felt that it would be wrong for
him to keep him, much as he needed him, without the consent of
     Nor is it necessary, by what is said here, to suppose that
Onesimus was A SLAVE, and that Paul believed that Philemon had a
right to him and to his services as such. All that he says here
would be met by the supposition that he was a hired servant, and
would be in fact equally proper even on the supposition that he
was an apprentice. In either case, he would feel that he gave
just ground of complaint on the part of Philemon if, when someone
desired to return, he used any influence to dissuade him from it,
and to retain him with himself. It would have been a violation of
the rule requiring us to do to others as we would wish them to do
unto us; and Paul therefore felt unwilling, much as he needed the
services of Onesimus, to make use of any influence to retain him
with him without the consent of his master. 

"That thy benefit."

     The favour which I might receive from thee by having the
services of Onesimus. If Onesimus should remain with him and
assist him, he would feel that the benefit which would he
conferred by his services would be in fact bestowed by Philemon,
for he had a right to the Service of Onesimus; and while Paul
enjoyed it, he would be deprived of it. The word rendered
"benefit" here - means "good," and the sense is. "the good which
you would do me;" to wit, by the service of Onesimus.  

"Should not be as it were of necessity."

     As it would be if Paul should detain Onesimus with him
without affording Philemon an opportunity of expressing his
assent. Paul would even then have felt that he was in fact
receiving a "good" at the expanse of Philemon, but it would not
be a VOLUNTARY favour on his part. 

"But willingly."

     As it would be if he had given his consent that Onesimus
should remain with him.



Written November 2004

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