THE NEW TESTAMENT
PAUL WRITES TO PHILEMON
FROM "BARNES' NOTES ON THE NEW TESTAMENT"
Continued from Part one
"For perhaps he therefore departed for a season."
Perhaps on this account, or for this reason - he left you
for a little time. Greek, "for an hour." The meaning is, that it
was possible that this was permitted, in the providence of God,
IN ORDER that Onesimus might be brought under the influence of
the gospel, and be far more serviceable to Philemon as a
Christian, than he could have been in his former relation to him.
What appeared to Philemon, therefore, to be a calamity, and what
seemed to him to be wrong on the part of Onesimus, might have
been permitted to occur in order that he might receive a higher
benefit. Such things are not uncommon in human affairs.
"That thou shouldest receive him far ever."
That is, in the higher relation of a Christian friend and
brother; that he might be united to thee in eternal affection;
that he might not only be with thee in a far more endearing
relation during the present life than he was before, but in the
bonds of love in a world that shall never end.
"Not now as a servant."
The adverb rendered "not now," means "no more," "no
further," "no longer." It implies that he had been before in this
condition, but was not to be now. Comp. Matt.19:6, "They are no
more twain." They were once so, but they are not to be regarded
as such now. Matt.22:46, "Neither durst any man from that day
forth, ask him any more questions:" They once did it, but now
they did not dare to do it. Luke 15:19, "And am no more worthy to
be called thy son," though I once was. John 6:66, "And walked no
more with him; though they once did. See also John 11:54; 14:19;
17:13; Acts 8:39; Gal.4:7; Eph.2:19. This passage, then, proves
that he had been before a servant - "doulos." But still it is not
certain what KIND of a servant he was. The word does not
necessarily mean SLAVE, nor can it be proved from this passage,
or from any other part of the epistle, that he was at any time a
The word denotes servant of any kind, and it should never be
assumed that those to whom it was applied were slaves. It is true
that slavery existed in the heathen nation, when the gospel was
first preached, and it is doubtless true that many slaves were
converted ... but the mere use of THE WORD does not necessarily
prove that he to whom it is applied was a slave. If Onesimus were
a slave, there is reason to think that he was of a most
respectable character ... and indeed all that is implied in the
use of the term here, and ALL that is said of him, would be met
by the supposition that he was a VOLUNTARY SERVANT, and that he
had been in fact intrusted with important business by Philemon.
It would seem from ver.18, ("or oweth thee ought,") that he was
in a condition which made it possible for him to hold property,
or at least to be intrusted.
"But above a servant, a brother beloved."
A Christian brother ... He was especially dear to Paul
himself as a Christian, and he trusted that be would be so to
"Specially to me."
That is, I feel a special or particular interest in him, and
affection for him. This he felt not only on account of the traits
of character which he had evinced since his conversion, but
because he had been converted under his instrumentality when he
was a prisoner. A convert made in such circumstances would be
particularly dear to one.
"But how much more unto thee."
Why, it may be asked, would he then be particularly dear to
Philemon? I answer, because (l) of the former relation which he
sustained to him, member of his own family, and bound to him by
strong ties; (2) because he would receive him as a penitent, and
would have joy in his returning from the error of his way; (3)
because he might expect him to remain long with him, and be of
advantage to him as a Christian brother; and (4) because he had
voluntarily returned, and thus shown that he felt a strong
attachment to his former master.
"In the flesh."
This phrase is properly used in reference to any relation
which may exist pertaining to the present world, as
contradistinguished from that which is formed primarily by
religion, and which would be expressed by the subjoined phrase,
"in the Lord." It might, in itself, refer to any natural relation
of blood, or to any formed in business, or to any constituted by
more friendship, or to family alliance, or to any relation having
its origin voluntary or involuntary servitude. It is not
necessary to suppose, in order to meet the full force of the
expression, either that Onesimus had been a slave, or that he
would continue to be regarded as such. WHATEVER relation of the
kind, referred to above, may have existed between him and
Philemon, would be appropriately denoted by this phrase. The
new and more interesting relation which they were now to sustain
to each other, which was formed by religion, is expressed by the
phrase "in the Lord." In BOTH these, Paul hoped that Onesimus
would manifest the appropriate spirit of a Christian, and be
worthy of his entire confidence.
"In the Lord."
As a Christian. He will be greatly endeared to your heart as
a consistent and worthy follower of the Lord Jesus.
On this important verse, then, in relation to the use which
is so often made of this epistle by the advocates of slavery, to
show that Paul sanctioned it, and that it is a duty to send back
those who have escaped from their masters that they may again be
held in bondage, we may remark, (1) there is no certain evidence
that Onesimus was ever a SLAVE at all. ALL the proof that he was,
is to be found in the word "doulos" - in this verse. But, as we
have seen, the mere use of this word by means proves that. All
that is necessarily implied by it is that he was, in some way,
the SERVANT of Philemon - whether hired or bought cannot be
shown. (2) At all events, even supposing that he had been a
slave, Paul did NOT MEAN that he should RETURN as such, or to be
regarded as such. He meant, whatever may have been his former
relation, and whatever subsequent relation he might sustain, that
he should be regarded as a beloved Christian brother; that the
leading conception in regard to him should be that he was a
fellow-heir of salvation, a member of the same redeemed church, a
candidate for the same heaven. (3) Paul did not send him back IN
ORDER that he might be a slave, or with a view that the shackles
of servitude should be riveted on him. There is not the slightest
evidence that he FORCED him to return, or that he ADVISED him to
do it, or even that he expressed a WISH that he would; and when
he did send him, it was NOT as a SLAVE, but AS A BELOVED BROTHER
IN THE LORD.
It cannot be shown that the motive for sending him back was,
in the slightest degree, that he should be a slave. No such thing
is intimated, nor is my such thing necessary to be supposed in
order to fair interpretation of the passage. (4) It is clear
that, even if Onesimus had been a slave before, it would have
been contrary to the wishes of Paul that Philemon should now hold
him as such. Paul wished him to regard him "not as a servant;"
but as a "beloved brother." If Philemon complied with his wishes,
Onesimus was never afterwards regarded or treated as a slave.
If he did so regard or treat him, it was contrary to the
expressed intention of the apostle, and it is certain that he
could never have shown this letter in justification of it. It
cannot fail to strike any one that if Philemon followed the
spirit of this epistle, he would not consider Onesimus to be a
slave; but if he sustained the relation of a servant at all,
it would be as a voluntary member of his household, where, in all
respects, he would be regarded and treated, not as a "chattel,"
or a "thing," but as a Christian brother. (5) This passage,
therefore, may be regarded as full proof that it is not right to
send a slave back, against his will, to his former master, to be
a slave. It is right to help one if he wishes to go back; to give
him a letter to his master, as Paul did to Onesimus; to furnish
him money to help him on his journey if he desires to return; and
to commend him as a Christian brother, if he is such; but beyond
that, the example of the apostle Paul does not go. It is
perfectly clear that he would NOT have sent him back to be
regarded and treated as a slave; but being able to commend him as
a Christian, he was willing to do it, and he expected that he
WOULD BE treated, not as a slave, but as a Christian. The case
before us does not go at all to prove that Paul would have ever
sent him back to be a chattel or a thing. If, with his own
consent, and by his own wish, we can send a slave back to
his master to be treated AS A CHRISTIAN and as A MAN, the example
of Paul may show that it would be right to do it, but it does not
go beyond that. (6) In confirmation of this, and as a guide in
duty now, it may be observed, that Paul had been educated as a
Hebrew; that he was thoroughly imbued with the doctrines of the
Old Testament; and that one of the elementary principles of that
system of religion was, that a runaway slave was IN NO
CIRCUMSTANCES to be returned by force to his former master.
"Thou shalt NOT DELIVER UNTO HIS MASTER THE SERVANT THAT IS
ESCAPED FROM HIS MASTER TO THEE," Deut.23:15.
It CANNOT be supposed that, trained as he was in the
principles of the Hebrew religion - of which this was a positive
and unrepealed law, and imbued with the benevolent spirit of the
gospel - a system so hostile to oppression, the apostle Paul
would have constrained a slave who had escaped from bondage to
return to servitude against his will. (7) It may be added, that
if the principles here acted on by Paul were carried out,
slavery would speedily cease in the world. Very soon would it
come to an end if masters were to regard those whom they hold,
"not as slaves," but as BELOVED CHRISTIAN BROTHERS; not as
CHATTELS and THINGS, but as the redeemed children of God.
Thus regarding them, they would no longer feel that they might
chain them, and task them, and sell them as property. They would
feel that, as Christians and as men, they were on a level with
themselves; and that they who were made in the image of Gad, and
who had been redeemed with the blood of His Son, OUGHT to be
(Remember that in the time when Albert Barnes wrote these notes
on the New Testament, SLAVERY was practiced in many parts of the
world, including North America - Keith Hunt).
"If thou count me therefore a partner."
The word rendered partner, means a partaker, a companion.
The idea in the word is that of having something in common with
any one - as common principles; common attachments; a common
interest in an enterprise; common hopes. It may be applied to
those who held the same principles of religion, and who have the
same hope of heaven, the same views of things, etc. Here the
meaning is, that if Philemon regarded Paul as sharing with him in
the principles and hopes of religion, or as a brother in the
gospel, so that he would receive him, he ought to receive
Onesimus in the same way. He was actuated by the same principles,
and had the same hopes, and had a claim to be received as a
Christian brother. His receiving Onesimus would be interpreted by
Paul as proof that he regarded him as a partaker of the hopes of
the gospel, and as a companion and friend...
"If he hath wronged thee."
Either by escaping from you, or by failing to perform what
he had agreed to, or by unfaithfulness when he was with you as a
servant, or by taking your property when he went away. Any of
these methods would meet all that is said here, and it is
impossible to determine in which of them he had done Philemon
wrong. It may be observed, however, that the apostle used
delicacy in this matter. He does not say that he had wronged him,
but he makes a supposition that he might have done it. Doubtless,
Philemon would suppose that he had done it, even if he had done
no more than to escape from him, and, whatever Paul's views of
that might be, he says that, even if it were, he would wish him
to set that over to his account. He took the blame on himself,
and asked Philemon not to remember it against Onesimus.
"Or oweth thee ought."
It appears from this, that Onesimus, whatever may have been
his former condition, was capable of holding property, and of
contracting debts. It is possible that he might have borrowed
money from Philemon or he may have been regarded as a tenant, and
may not have paid the rent of his farm, or the apostle may mean
that he had owed him service which he had not performed.
Conjecture is useless as to the way in which the debt had
"Put that on mine account."
Reckon, or impute that to me. This word occurs nowhere else
in the New Testament, except in Rom.5:13, where it is tendered
"imputed." It means "to reckon;" to "put to one's account;" to
wit, what properly belongs to him, or what he assumes. It never
implies that that is to be charged on one which does not properly
belong to him, either as his own act, or as that which he has
assumed. In this case, it would have been manifestly unjust for
Philemon to charge the wrong which Onesimus had done, or what he
owed him, to the apostle Paul without his consent; and it cannot
be inferred from what Paul says here that it would have been
right to do so.
The steps in the case were these: (l) Onesimus; not Paul,
had done the wrong. (2) Paul was not guilty of it, or blameworthy
of it, and never in any way, or by any process, could be made to
be, or conceived to be. It would be true for ever that Onesimus
and not he had done the wrong. (3) Paul ASSUMED the debt and the
wrong to himself. He was willing, by putting himself in the place
of Onesimus, to bear the consequences, and to have Onesimus
treated AS IF he had NOT done it. When he had voluntarily assumed
it, it was right to treat him as if he had done so; that is, to
hold him responsible. A man may assume a debt if he pleases, and
then he may be held answerable for it. (4) If he had not assumed
this himself, it never could have been right for Philemon to
charge it on him. No possible supposition could make it right. No
agency which he had in the conversion of Onesimus; no friendship
which he had for him; no favour which he had shown him, could
make it right. The CONSENT, the CONCURRENCE, on the part of Paul,
was absolutely NECESSARY in order that he should be in any way
RESPONSIBLE what Onesimus had done. (5) The same principle
prevails in imputation everywhere. (a) What we have done is
chargeable upon us. (b) If we have not done a thing, or have not
assumed it by a voluntary act, it is not right to charge it upon
use. (c) God reckons things as they are. The Saviour voluntarily
ASSUMED the place of man, and God reckoned, or considered it so.
He did not hold him guilty or blameworthy in the case; but as he
had voluntarily taken the place of sinners, he was treated as if
he had been a sinner. God, in like manner, does not charge on man
crimes of which he is not guilty. He does not hold him to be
blameworthy, or ill-deserving for the sin of Adam, or any other
sin but his own. He reckons thing, as they are. Adam sinned, and
he alone was held to be blameworthy or all-deserving for the act.
By a divine constitution he had appointed that if he sinned, the
consequences or results should pass over and terminate on his
posterity - as the consequences of the sin of the drunkard pass
over and terminate on his sons, and God RECKONS this to be so -
and treats the race accordingly. He never reckons those to be
guilty who are not guilty; or those to be ill-deserving who are
not ill-deserving; nor does he punish one for what another has
done. When Paul, therefore, voluntarily assumed a debt or an
obligation, what he did should not be urged as an argument to
prove that it would be right for God to charge on all the
posterity of Adam the sin of their first father, or to hold them
guilty for an offence committed ages before they had an
existence. The case should be adduced to demonstrate one point
only - that when a man assumes a debt, or voluntarily takes a
wrong done upon himself, it is right to hold him responsible
TO BE CONTINUED
Entered on this Website November 2004