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< 570104 > PHILEMON 4-6 THOUGH THE EPISTLE OF PHILEMON is one of the shortest books in the New Testament, it is one of the least read by God’s people and is certainly one of the least preached from. We have therefore decided to devote a few paragraphs to it, though more in the way of general remarks than a detailed exposition of the prayer itself, for it is full of important instruction and valuable lessons. The epistle of Philemon is the only strictly private letter of Paul’s which has survived the passage of time. Doubtless he wrote many more, but this one alone God saw fit to preserve in the canon of Scripture.
All his others were either addressed to local churches or were pastoral letters of authoritative direction. This one, though written under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, presents its writer to us from quite a different angle. Here we view the “prisoner of Jesus Christ” throwing off as far as possible his apostolic dignity and parental authority over his converts, speaking simply from the heart as one Christian to another, in an admirable strain of humility and courtesy. It is therefore of peculiar interest and value inasmuch as it falls outside of what may be termed Paul’s official sphere of ministry, affording us an insight into his personal and private life.
In this epistle Paul throws off the restraint of authority and employs the language of familiar intercourse, addressing Philemon as “brother” (Philemon 7), which breathes the spirit of freedom and equality. We see how, under the apostolic mission, as well as under divine inspiration, there was room for the free play of personal character and intimate correspondence. We come to know Paul better as an apostle as we see him not as Paul the apostle, but as Paul the minister and the man. We learn the valuable lesson as to the place which true courtesy and delicacy occupy in Christian character. We see the worth of the greatest plainness of speech at the right time. We understand how true courtesy is distinct from artificial and technical culture of manners, and is the natural outcome of that “lowliness of mind” in which “each esteems other better than himself.” We are moved by the sympathetic love which does not look only on its own things but even in greater degree on the things of others. A careful comparison of this letter with Paul’s other letters will discover a marked difference of tone throughout it.
REGARDING PHILEMON Philemon appears to have been a Christian of some eminence, residing at Colossae ( Colossians 4:9), who had been saved under Paul’s ministry ( Philemon 19). Onesimus was one of his slaves who had robbed his master, forsaken his service, and fled five hundred miles to Rome. This was providentially overruled for his eternal good, for the hand of God directed him to hear Paul’s preaching ( Acts 28:30-31) which was blessed of the Spirit to his conversion ( Philemon 10). Though Onesimus had greatly endeared himself to the one who was (instrumentally) his spiritual father, and had been useful to Paul in his imprisonment, Paul realized it was only right to send him back to his master. Accordingly he wrote this touching letter to Philemon, begging that his erstwhile refractory slave might be given a favorable reception. His design was to effect a reconciliation between Philemon and his fugitive servant, now a brother in Christ. The apostle had full confidence that his appeal would not be in vain. It is highly probable that Paul’s request was granted, and that Onesimus was received into his master’s favor and later given his freedom. Tradition says that he afterward became a minister of the gospel.
In the course of his letter Paul used the most touching arguments and affectionate inducements to move Philemon to grant his request. (1) An implied appeal to his love for the saints in general ( Philemon 5). (2) From consideration of the one who made this request, who might have used his apostolic authority, but chose rather to entreat him in love, by an appeal to his own condition — aged, in prison ( Philemon 8-9). (3) From the particular relation of Onesimus to Paul — his own son in the faith ( Philemon 10). (4) From the transformation which had been accomplished in him — he was “now profitable” ( Philemon 11). (5) From the strong affection which Paul had for Onesimus ( Philemon 12). (6) From his unwillingness to act without the approval of Philemon ( Philemon 13-14). (7) From the special relation Onesimus now sustained to Philemon — “a brother beloved” ( Philemon 15-16). (8) From the intimate bonds which existed between Paul and Philemon ( Philemon 17). (9) From the assurance given by Paul that he would personally make good any loss which Philemon had incurred ( Philemon 18). (10) From joy and refreshment which his granting of this plea would afford the apostle ( Philemon 20). Was a more powerful appeal ever made, or such an earnest and winsome suing for the pardon and kindly reception of a disloyal slave!
TEACHING OF THIS EPISTLE Many important truths are exemplified in this epistle. In it we have a striking demonstration of the sovereignty and abundant mercy of God on a dishonest slave. Though sin abounded, divine grace did much more abound. We are made to realize the Christian duty of peacemaking, seeking to bring together two brethren in Christ who are alienated. Paul’s unhesitating acknowledgment of this runaway slave as “my very heart” ( Philemon 12, ASV) intimates what ties of affection should be felt between the minister and his people, the parent and his child, the master and his servant, in all the circumstances of life. How delicately yet forcibly the apostle urged Philemon (and us), “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies” ( Colossians 3:12-13)!
Admire and emulate the humility of Paul who did not consider it beneath him to be concerned in performing such an office as to reconcile a master to his servant. See here a blessed setting forth of the spiritual equality of all who are in Christ Jesus. The chief of the apostles freely owned this converted servant as “a brother beloved.”
Yet observe the balance of truth here. Though there was such equality so far as their standing before God and their spiritual inheritance were concerned, yet those facts in no way set aside inequalities in other relations and respects. The rights which masters have over their servants are not canceled when the latter become Christians. That new relation into which we are taken by virtue of a living union with Christ must not be regarded as annulling the obligations of natural relations, nor of the arrangements and responsibilities of ordinary society so far as they are not sinful. Though in Christ there was now no difference between Philemon and Onesimus, that did not alter the fact that one was still a master and the other a servant; the saving grace which had been communicated to the soul of the latter would be most suitably exercised in showing forth the respect and submission which was due the former. There is a natural order established by God on earth between husband and wife, parent and child. There is also a governmental order which God has allowed men to institute by His authority, and He requires His people to conduct themselves suitably to the order He has ordained: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” ( 1 Peter 2:13-15).
First , the sinner’s deep need is portrayed in the case and condition of Onesimus. God is our Creator, Owner, and Ruler; therefore as creatures and subjects we are under bonds to serve and obey Him. But fallen man is “born like a wild ass’s colt,” thoroughly intractable, unwilling to bear the yoke. Not only is he a rebel against the divine government but he is, morally, a thief, misusing his time and talents, and thereby robbing God of His glory. In consequence, he is “alienated from God,” a wanderer in the far country of self-pleasing and sin. See how all of this is illustrated in Onesimus, who became an unprofitable servant by revolting against his master, stealing from him, and becoming a fugitive. Note that the “if he hath wronged thee” ( Philemon 18) is not an expression of doubt but of concession, meaning “since he hath” (compare John 14:3; Colossians 3:1).
Fourth , in Paul’s offering to be bondsman for Onesimus (Philemon 18) we have a figure of the grace of Christ in voluntarily becoming the Surety of His people, assuming the whole of their debt. “Put that on mine account” expresses the same readiness which the Redeemer had to be charged with the sins of His redeemed.
Fifth , carefully note that more than a bare reconciliation was to be effected between Philemon and Onesimus: “Receive him as myself ” ( Philemon 17). Not only are the guilt and pollution of the believing sinner removed from before the sight of God, but he is “accepted in the beloved” ( Ephesians 1:6). Thus the basic truth of imputation was here illustrated.
Onesimus was not only exempted from the punishment of his crimes but — through the benevolence of his benefactor — made partaker of benefits which he had not merited. Believers receive the reward of Christ’s righteousness by a reciprocal transference ( 2 Corinthians 5:21).
Sixth , in all of Paul’s pleading on the behalf of Onesimus we have an image of the intercession of Christ for “his own.”
Seventh , the real change effected in the character and conduct of the one saved by Christ appears in the return of Onesimus to his master. A chief evidence of genuine repentance is a prompt performance of those duties which had previously been neglected.
Very few words must suffice upon Paul’s prayer for Philemon.
First , its object: “my God” ( Philemon 4). The first lesson in prayer Christ taught us was that the special relationship which He sustains to His children should be owned by them: “Our Father which art in heaven” ( Luke 11:2). “I will praise thee, O Lord my God” ( Psalm 86:12). “God, even our own God, shall bless us” ( Psalm 67:6).
Second , its heartiness: “Making mention of thee always in my prayers.”
Third , its occasion: “I thank my God... hearing of thy love and faith.” The fact that thanks were returned to God for those graces was an acknowledgment that He is the Author of them: they do not originate with man. They are the fruit of the Spirit, evidences of His regenerating work.
Thanksgiving should be offered to God not for ourselves only but for our fellow Christians also. This was always Paul’s custom ( Romans 1:8; Ephesians 1:15-16; Colossians 1:3-4). “Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints” ( Philemon 5).
Wherever one grace exists the other is found. In the mystical Body of Christ, believers have communion both with the Head and with all its members: with the One by faith, with the other by love. Hence we find the two things so often taught by the apostle, not only as equally essential but as equally necessary to prove our interest or participation in that Body.
Without love for the saints we are no more members of Christ than without faith in Him.
Fourth , its petition: “That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus” ( Philemon 6).
Request was here made that Philemon might be divinely enabled to give still further proof of his faith and love, by bringing forth more abundant fruit, in acts of benevolence, in ministering to the needs of others. Thereby those graces would be “effectual” in promoting the glory of Christ and the welfare of fellow saints.