THE NEW TESTAMENT
PAUL WRITES TO PHILEMON
FROM ALBERT BARNES' NOTES ON THE NEW TESTAMENT
The epistle to Philemon, though the shortest that Paul
wrote, and though pertaining to a private matter in which the
church at large could not be expected to have any direct
interest, is nevertheless a most interesting portion of the New
Testament, and furnishes some invaluable lessons for the church.
1. It is a model of courtesy.
It shows that the apostle was a man of refined sensibility,
and had a delicate perception of what was due in friendship, and
what was required by true politeness. There are turns of thought
in this epistle which no one would employ who was not thoroughly
under the influence of true courtesy of feeling, and who had not
an exquisite sense of what was proper in intercourse with a
2. The epistle shows that he had great tact in argument.
And great skill in selecting just such things as would be
adopted to secure the end in view. It would be hardly possible to
accumulate, even in a letter of fiction, more circumstances which
would be fitted to accomplish the object which he contemplated,
than he has introduced into this short letter, or to arrange them
in a way better fitted to secure the desired result.
If we remember the state of mind in which it is reasonable
to suppose Philemon was in regard to this runaway servant, and
the little probability that a man in his circumstances
would receive him with kindness again, it is impossible not to
admire the address with which Paul approaches him. It is not
difficult to imagine in what state of mind Philemon may have
been, or the obstacles which it was necessary to surmount in
order to induce him to receive Onesimus again - and ESPECIALLY
TO RECEIVE HIM AS A CHRISTIAN BROTHER.
If, as has been commonly supposed, Onesimus had been a
slave; if he had run away from him; if he had been formerly
intractable and disobedient; if he had wronged him by
taking property with him that did not belong to him, or if he had
owed him, and had run off without paying him, it is not difficult
for any one to imagine how great was the difficulty to be
overcome in his mind before the abject of Paul could be
accomplished. This will be felt to be especially so, if we bear
in remembrance the repugnance necessarily felt by a slaveholder
to receive one who has been a slave as an equal in any respect,
or to regard and treat such an one as a Christian brother on the
same level with himself. Or if we suppose that Onesimus had been
a voluntary servant in the employ of Philemon, and had failed to
render the service which he had contracted to perform, or had
embezzled property, or had gone off in debt, greatly irritating
the mind of his master, the difficulty to be overcome before he
received him again would be little less. In either case, it would
be necessary to soothe his irritated feelings, and to inspire
confidence in one who hitherto had evinced little claim to it,
and to persuade him now to receive one who had shown that
he was not to be trusted as a Christian brother.
If the epistle be examined with reference to either of these
suppositions, it will be found to be composed with the most
finished tact and art.
3. This epistle has been frequently appealed to by the friends
and advocates of slavery as furnishing a support or apology for
Indeed, it would seem to be regarded by the advocates of
that system as so clear on the point, that all that they need to
do is to name it as settling the whole matter in debate. The
points which it is supposed by the advocates of that system to
prove are two:
FIRST, that slavery is right - since it is assumed that
Onesimus was a slave, and that Paul does not intimate to Philemon
that the relation was contrary to the spirit of Christianity; and
SECOND, that it is our duty to send back a runaway slave to
his master - since it is assumed that Paul did this in the case
It cannot be denied that this view of the matter would be
sustained by most of the commentaries on the epistle; but it is
time to inquire whether ouch an exposition is the true one, and
whether this epistle really gives countenance to slavery in
respect to these points.
In order to this, it is important to know exactly what was
the state of the case in reference to these points - for in
interpreting the New Testament it should not be ASSUMED that
anything is in favour of slavery, nor should anything be ADMITTED
to be in favour of it, without applying the moat rigid principles
of interpretation - any more than in the case of profaneness,
adultery, or any other sin.
As the result of the examination of the epistle, we are now
prepared to inquire what countenance the epistle gives to slavery
in three respects, and whether it can be fairly appealed to
either in justification of the system, or in showing that it is a
duty to return a runaway slave against his consent to his former
To make out these points from the epistle, it would be
necessary to demonstrate that Onesimus was certainly a slave;
that Paul so treats the subject as to show that he approved of
the institution; that he sent back Onesimus against his own will;
that he returned him - because he supposed he had done wrong by
escaping from servitude; and that he meant that he should
continue to be regarded as a slave, and held as a slave, after
his return to Philemon.
Now, in regard to these points, I would make the following
remarks in view of the exposition which has been given of the
(1) There, is no positive evidence that Onesimus was a SLAVE at
all. See Notes on verse 16. Even if it should be admitted to be
PROBABLE that he was, it would be necessary, in order that this
epistle should be adduced in favour of slavery, that that fact
should be made out without any ground of doubt, or the argument
is worthless. It is clear that the epistle, under any
circumstances, can be adduced in favour of slavery only SO FAR as
it is certain that Onesimus was a slave. But that is NOT CERTAIN.
It cannot be made to be certain. It should not be taken for
granted. Either of the suppositions that he was bound to service
till he was of age, by a parent or guardian, or that he had
voluntarily bound himself to service for wages, will meet all
that is necessarily implied in the epistle.
(2) There is not the least evidence that Paul used any force, or
even persuasion to induce him to return to his master. It cannot
be proved from the epistle that he even ADVISED him to return.
It is certain that he did not compel him to do it - for Paul had
no power to do this, and no guard or civil officer accompanied
Onesimus to secure him if he had chosen to escape. Every one of
the circumstances mentioned in the epistle will be met by the
supposition that Onesimus DESIRED to return, but that there were
circumstances which made him apprehensive that if he did, he
would not be kindly received and that, at his request, Paul wrote
the epistle to induce Philemon to receive him kindly. Nothing
more can be PROVED; nothing more is necessary to be believed, in
order to a fair interpretation of the epistle. Nothing is more
natural than the supposition that when Onesimus was truly
converted, he would desire to return to Philemon if he had in any
way done him wrong.
But to make it proper to adduce this epistle to show that it
is a DUTY to return a runaway slave to his master, even on the
supposition that Onesimus was a slave, it is necessary to PROVE
either that Paul ADVISED him to return, or that he COMPELLED
him to do it against his will. No one doubts that it would be
right to help one who had escaped from slavery, if, on any proper
account, he should WISH to go back to his former master: if he
felt that he had wronged him, or if he had a wife and children in
the neighbourhood, or if he was satisfied that he could be more
happy in his service than he could be elsewhere.
To this point, and this only, this epistle goes.
(3) There is no evidence that Paul meant that Onesimus should
return AS a slave, or with a view to be retained and treated AS a
slave. Even opposing he had been so formerly, there is not the
slightest intimation in the epistle that when he sent him back to
his master, he meant that he should throw himself into the chains
of bondage again. Nor is there the slightest evidence that IF he
had supposed that this would be the result, he would have even
CONSENTED that he should return to his master. No man can take
this epistle, and prove from it that Paul would have sent him at
all, if he had supposed that the effect would be that he would be
reduced to slavery, and held in bondage.
If such had been his expectation, he would never have
written such a letter as this. The expression of such a desire
would have found a place in the epistle; or, at least, the
epistle would not have been so framed as almost of necessity to
lead to a different result.
(4) There is very satisfactory evidence, besides this, that he
did NOT mean that Onesimus should be regarded and treated by
Philemon as a slave. It would be impossible for Philemon to
comply with the wishes breathed forth in this letter, and meet
exactly the desires of Paul in the case, and yet retain him as a
slave, or regard him as property - as a "chattel" - as a "thing."
For (a) IF he had been formerly a slave; if this is the fair
meaning of the word "doulos" - then this is expressly declared.
Thus, in verse 16, he is commanded to receive him "NOT NOW as a
SERVANT. If he had been a slave before, he did NOT WISH that he
should be received as such now, or regarded as such any longer.
How COULD Philemon comply with the wish of the apostle, and yet
regard Onesimus as a slave? The very attempt to do it would be
directly in the face of the expressed desire of Paul, and every
moment he held him as such he would be disregarding his wishes.
(b) He desired him to receive and treat him, in all respects, as
a Christian brother - as one redeemed - as a man -"ABOVE a
SERVANT, a BROTHER BELOVED." How could he do this, and yet regard
and treat him as a slave? IS it treating one as a Christian
brother to hold him as property; to deprive him of freedom; to
consider him an article of merchandise; to exact his labour
without compensation? Would the man himself who makes another a
slave suppose that HE was treated as a Christian brother,
if HE were reduced to that condition? Would he feel that his son
was so regarded if HE was made A slave? There are no ways of
reconciling these things. It is IMPOSSIBLE for a master to regard
his slave as, in the proper and full sense of the phrase, "a
CHRISTIAN BROTHER." He may, indeed, esteem him highly as a
Christian; he may treat him with kindness; he may show him many
favours; BUT - he regard him also AS HIS SLAVE; and this fact
makes a difference wide "as from the centre thrice to the utmost
pole" in his feelings towards him and other Christians. He is NOT
on a level with them AS a Christian. The notion of his being HIS
SLAVE mingles with all his feelings towards him, and gives
a colouring to all his views of him. He cannot but feel, if he
himself is under the influence of religion, that that slave, if
he were treated in all respects AS a Christian, would be as
free as himself; would have, right to his time, and skill, and
liberty; would be permitted to form his own plans, and to enjoy
the avails of his own labour; and would be secure from the
possibility of being SOLD. (c) Suppose news that Paul, after a
short interval, had actually come to the residence of Philemon,
as he expected to, (ver.22) and had found him regarding and
treating Onesimus AS A SLAVE; would he have felt that Philemon
had complied with his wishes? Did he ask this of him? Did he not
request just the contrary? verse 18. Would it not be natural for
him to say to him that he had NOT received him as he wished him
to? And how cold Philemon reply to this?
(5) The principles laid down in this epistle Would lead to the
universal abolition of slavery. If all those who are now slaves
were to become Christians, and their masters were to treat them
"not as slaves, but as brethren beloved," the period would not be
far distant when slavery would cease. This probably will be
admitted by all. But a state of things which would be destroyed
by the widest prevalence of Christianity, is not right at any
time. Christianity, in its highest influences, interferes with
nothing that is good, and would annihilate nothing which is not
wrong. That which is true, and best for the welfare of man,
will survive when the true religion spreads all over the world;
and to say, as is commonly admitted even by the advocates of
slavery, that Christianity will ultimately destroy the system, is
to say that it IS NOW WRONG!! For Christianity destroys nothing
which is in itself right, and which is admirable for the highest
good of man. It will, destroy intemperance, and idolatry, and
superstition, and war, because they are evil and wrong
- and ONLY because they are so; and for the same reason, and
that only, it will it abolish slavery. When a man therefore,
admits that the gospel will ultimately destroy slavery, he
at the same time admits that it is NOW an EVIL an a SIN. The
gospel is adapted and designed to put an end to the system. It
DID annihilate it in the Roman Empire, and its tendency
everywhere is to secure its final abolition. The system,
THEREFORE, is evil. It is opposed to the spirit of religion. It
is destructive of the welfare of society. It is a violation of
human rights. It is contrary to the will of God.
The gospel everywhere teaches us to regard the slave "no
longer as a slave, but as a brother;" and when this is secured,
the system must speedily come to an end.
For this, and for all its other anticipated influences, we
should labour and pray that the gospel may be diffused as
speedily as possible all over the world; that it may raise
man everywhere from his degradation; and invest every human being
with the dignity of a freeman; that it "may undo the heavy
burdens, break every yoke, and bid the oppressed go free," Isa.
AMEN to Albert Barnes' notes on this book and letter of Paul the
apostle to Philemon.
Barnes was writing in a time and an age when slavery was a common
practice in various parts of the world, including North America.
Emphasis (capitasl words) Albert Barnes.
Entered on this Website November 2004