Unlike other letters that he dictated, Paul personally wrote this letter to Philemon. (Verse 19) The apostle was then a prisoner, and a subscription in a number of manuscripts identifies the location to have been Rome.
Paul did not explain how it happened that he crossed paths with Onesimus, but simply related that he had become a father to him during the time of confinement. As a result of the message about Christ that the apostle shared with Onesimus, he became a believer, and a deep bond of affection developed, comparable to that of a father and his beloved child. (Verse 10)
Although Paul would have greatly appreciated continuing to benefit from the help Onesimus was able to provide, he sent him back to Philemon, his master. As a slave in the household of Philemon, Onesimus had formerly been “useless.” That, however, had changed on account of his becoming a believer, one who sincerely desired to honor God and Christ and thus was willing to serve. Therefore, Paul confidently referred to Onesimus as having become useful to him and to Philemon. (Verse 11) In this letter, besides commending Philemon highly for his love for fellow believers and his faith, Paul kindly requested that he welcome Onesimus back as more than a slave, as a “beloved brother.” (Verses 16, 17)
In his letter to the Colossians (4:7-9), Paul mentioned that Tychicus would be coming with Onesimus. This indicates that Philemon’s home was in Colossae, and his house there served as a meeting place for the community of believers. (Verse 2)
It may be noted that Paul did not attack the then-existing social system that allowed slavery. The manner in which he spoke about Onesimus, however, reveals a complete acceptance of him as a deeply loved equal partner in God’s family of children. In disposition, the apostle adhered to the truth he had enunciated in his letter to the Galatians (3:28, 29) that, in Christ, there is no more slave or free. This unqualified acceptance of others as having an equal standing before God transcends what the mere abolition of the demeaning system of slavery can accomplish. History amply demonstrates that the abolition of slavery does not end hateful prejudice and false pride related to race, national or tribal origin, or social standing. As in the case of Paul, though, the operation of God’s spirit on believers does break down divisive barriers and produce the marvelous changes for good that even noble human efforts simply cannot.
See http://bibleplaces.com/colossae.htm for pictures of and comments on Colossae.
Paul identified himself as the writer of the letter, referring to himself as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” His being in confinement had resulted from faithfully advancing Christ’s interests in discharging his commission as an apostle to the non-Jewish peoples. So he could speak of himself as the prisoner of Jesus Christ, for he found himself confined for his sake. At the time, Timothy was with him, and so he associated his trusted companion with himself when addressing Philemon and other believers in Colossae. In speaking of Timothy as “the brother,” Paul may have been identifying his fellow worker as outstandingly being such. (Verse 1)
Paul must have regarded Philemon as a dear and trusted fellow believer, for he addressed him as “the beloved and our fellow worker” (or, “our beloved [dear friend] and fellow worker”). In view of the mention of Timothy, the “our” may be understood as meaning Paul and Timothy. (Verse 1; see the Notes section.)
Whereas the letter is primarily directed to Philemon, others are also addressed. “Apphia the sister” may have been Philemon’s believing wife, and “Archippus our fellow soldier” may have been their son. Their being singled out by name from the congregation in Philemon’s house suggests that they had a closer relationship to him than other fellow believers. As a fellow soldier of Paul, Archippus would have been devoted to the defense of Christ’s cause and the message about him. (Verse 2; see the Notes section.)
Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and all the other believers in Colossae are included in Paul’s prayerful expression, “Favor to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The gracious favor or unmerited kindess would include all the guidance and help believers would receive from the heavenly Father and his Son. “Peace” is the inward sense of well-being and security resulting from the approved relationship with God and Christ that believers enjoy, assuring them of continuing to be recipients of divine compassionate concern and care regardless of the circumstances they may be facing. Believers acknowledge Jesus as their Lord by living in harmony with his example and teaching. (Verse 3)
Always when remembering Philemon in his prayers, Paul thanked God. The apostle’s gratitude appears to have been based on the evidence of God’s working, by means of his spirit, in the case of Philemon as was apparent from the kind of life he lived. Paul continued to “hear” about Philemon’s “love and the faith, which [he had] toward the Lord Jesus and for all the holy ones.” The Greek participle for “hear” is in the present tense, indicating that the good reports about Philemon were continuing. According to the letter to the Colossians (1:7, 8), Epaphras had faithfully labored in Colossae, and he may have been the source of the more recent news about Philemon. (Verses 4 and 5)
The pronoun “which” is singular, and grammatically applies to faith. There are, however, a number of manuscripts that read “faith and love,” pointing to Philemon’s love “toward the Lord Jesus and for all the holy ones.” The Greek word for “faith” (pístis) can also denote “faithfulness,” “dependability,” “fidelity,” “trust,” or “confidence.” While believers would commonly be regarded as having “faith toward” or in Christ, individually they are less likely to have been linked with having the same kind of faith in fellow “holy ones” or fellow believers. Translators, therefore, have at times chosen renderings for the word “faith” that either apply to both Christ and the holy ones or have rearranged the order of the words to apply love to the holy ones and faith to Christ. (Verse 5) “I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” (NRSV) “I hear about the love you have for all God’s holy people and the faith you have in the Lord Jesus.” (NCV) “I have heard how you love and trust both the Lord Jesus himself and those who believe in him.” (J. B. Phillips)
The thought Paul expressed in his prayer for Philemon is somewhat obscure. Verse 6 literally reads, “that the fellowship of your faith may become active in knowledge of every good [work, according to a number of manuscripts] of the [tou] in [en] us in [eis] Christ.” “The fellowship of your faith” could mean the faith in Christ that Philemon had in common with all other believers. This would be an active faith, which would manifest itself in his knowing or recognizing “every good thing” or “all the good.” A number of translations convey this basic sense. “I pray that your fellowship in faith may come to expression in full knowledge of all the good we can do for Christ.” (NJB) “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” (ESV) “So that your partnership in the faith may become effective in recognizing every good there is in us that leads to Christ.” (NAB)
In the masculine and the neuter cases, the Greek article tou is the genitive form of the word for “the.” Certain translators have rendered it as “which” or “that,” representing “every good thing” as being “in” us, that is, in believers. The preposition eis may point to the purpose every “good thing” should serve and thus could signify that every good thing in believers would be for Christ or for his sake. In the Latin Vulgate (the revision by Robertus Weber, published by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft) no rendering for the Greek tou appears, but this ancient translation reads in agnitione omnis boni in nobis in Christo Isu (in recognition of all good in us in Christ Jesus). Some Greek manuscripts, including fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus, do support the omission of tou. According to the Latin translation, all the good is in believers who are in or at one with Christ Jesus or because of their relationship of oneness with him. (Verse 6; see the Notes section for additional comments.)
The love Philemon had shown brought much joy and encouragement or comfort to Paul. He had demonstrated this love by causing the tender feelings (literally, bowels or inward parts) of the holy ones or fellow believers to be refreshed. This doubtless included his welcoming them into his home, treating them as beloved guests, and doing whatever he could to care for their needs. Philemon had proved himself to be a real “brother” in the faith. (Verse 7)
“In Christ,” probably meaning on the basis of the authority Christ had granted him as an apostle, Paul had “much boldness,” feeling completely free to direct Philemon to do what was proper regarding the matter he was about to mention. (Verse 8) Instead of commanding, however, the apostle chose to appeal to Philemon on the basis of love, being as he was “an old man” but then “also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Having faithfully carried out his commission as an apostle, the aged Paul found himself in confinement for the sake of the Son of God. (Verse 9; see the Notes section.)
As a man of advanced years and a prisoner because of his devoted service in advancing Christ’s interests among the non-Jewish peoples, Paul made his appeal regarding his child, the child he had fathered while in bonds, Onesimus. While in confinement, he had aided Onesimus to become a believer, and so had become like a father to him. Affectionately, he referred to Onesimus as his “child.” (Verse 10)
In the past, Onesimus had been useless to Philemon, evidently because of failing to care properly for his duties as a slave in the household. Upon becoming a believer, Onesimus had ceased to be useless. Doubtless based on his close association with Onesimus and the aid he willingly and diligently rendered, Paul could say to Philemon regarding him, “but now [also (not in all manuscripts)] to you and to me useful.” This suggests that Onesimus, although sent by the apostle, willingly returned to his believing master with the intention of rendering loyal service. (Verse 11)
Paul did not send a useless slave to Philemon but a brother or a believer for whom he had deep affection. The apostle referred to Onesimus as his own tender feelings (literally, bowels or inward parts). (Verse 12)
On account of the aid Onesimus had rendered to him, Paul would have preferred having him stay. Considering the affectionate manner in which the apostle spoke about Onesimus, he was not referring to having him as a slave or servant but as a free fellow worker who would be a loyal friend and helper. Onesimus would have been able to render the service Paul knew that Philemon, if it had been possible, would have gladly performed for him while he was “in the bonds of the evangel.” These “bonds” are linked to the evangel or the good news about Christ because Paul’s proclaiming of the message had resulted in his imprisonment. (Verse 13)
Without Philemon’s consent, the apostle did not wish to act. He wanted Philemon’s good deed to be voluntary, not forced. (Verse 14) In view of the way in which matters had developed, Paul suggested that perhaps Onesimus had parted from Philemon “for an hour,” or a short time, so that he might have him back forever. The circumstances into which Onesimus came to be because of leaving Philemon led to his putting faith in Jesus Christ. (Verse 15)
Consequently, Philemon would be getting Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, [as] a beloved brother,” especially to Paul but even much more to him, “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” “In the flesh,” or in the then-existing social relationship involving masters and slaves, Philemon would have a trusted and loyal servant. “In the Lord,” he would have a beloved brother, a fellow member of God’s family of children who are at one with the Lord Jesus Christ as part of his body. (Verse 16)
Strongly encouraging Philemon to accept Onesimus back kindly, Paul continued, “If, therefore, you are having me as a partner, receive him as [you would] me.” This partnership or fellowship would refer to the loving relationship of brothers and fellow laborers in the advancement of Christ’s cause. The apostle was confident that Philemon did consider him as a beloved partner and would welcome him in a loving manner. This is the kind of acceptance that Paul wanted Philemon to extend to Onesimus. (Verse 17)
If Onesimus had wronged Philemon or owed him anything, Paul asked that this be charged to his account. This may indicate that, as a useless slave, Onesimus may have worked against the interests of Philemon. He may even have committed theft in order to have the needed funds to travel to Rome and to purchase food and other supplies. Paul was so sure of the genuineness of the faith of Onesimus and had such great affection for him that he was willing to be regarded as the one accountable for any injury. (Verse 18)
Solemnly, the apostle backed up his words, saying, “I, Paul, am writing with my [own] hand; I will repay.” At the same time, he called attention to Philemon’s indebtedness to him, adding, “not to be telling you that also you owe your [very] self to me.” Although the apostle had not ministered in Colossae (Colossians 1:3-8), his activity in Ephesus resulted in spreading the message to other parts of the Roman province of Asia. So it may be that Philemon became a believer on account of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. Therefore, to Paul, Philemon owed his very self — the life he enjoyed because of the precious relationship to God and Christ he came to have. (Verse 19)
With apparent reference to the good reception Philemon would extend to Onesimus, the apostle wrote, “Yes, brother, may I benefit [onínemi] from you in the Lord. Refresh my tender feelings [literally, bowels or inward parts] in Christ.” On the basis of their common bond as fellow believers “in” or at one with the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul wanted to be the recipient of a benefit or a favor from Philemon. That benefit would be for Philemon to welcome Onesimus (meaning “profitable” or “useful”) as his brother in Christ. This would bring refreshment to Paul’s tender feelings for a dear brother on whose behalf he had made his earnest plea. The apostle had no doubt that, instead of being “useless” as he had been formerly, Onesimus would live up to his name, proving himself to be “useful” or “profitable.” (Verse 20; see the Notes section.)
Paul was confident that Philemon would comply with his request respecting Onesimus. In fact, he wrote with the assurance that Philemon would do even more than he had said in his letter. (Verse 21)
The apostle hoped that, in answer to the prayers of Philemon and other fellow believers, he would be “restored” to them or released from imprisonment. So he asked that Philemon prepare a guest room for him. (Verse 22)
In concluding, Paul extended the greetings of Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. The apostle referred to Epaphras as “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus.” This does not necessarily mean that Epaphras was actually imprisoned but could simply mean that he chose to share the apostle’s confinement in order to be of aid to him. (Verses 23, 24) Evidence for this may be Paul’s reference to Aristarchus among his fellow workers (verse 24), whereas he called him his “fellow prisoner” in Colossians 4:10.
Paul highly valued Epaphras as a devoted fellow worker in the advancement of Christ’s interest. Primarily through the activity of Epaphras, communities of believers came to exist in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. (Colossians 1:4-8; 4:12, 13)
Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, had in earlier years disappointed Paul when he did not continue to accompany him and Barnabas in making known the good news about Christ after they left Cyprus. Later, this caused a rift between Barnabas and Paul, with Barnabas choosing to work with Mark and Paul deciding to have Silas as his companion. (Acts 12:25; 13:13, 14; 15:37-41) With the passage of years, however, Paul came to appreciate Mark as a fellow laborer. (Colossians 4:10, 11; 2 Timothy 4:11) Though not named in the gospel account, Mark has from early times been regarded as the writer, drawing his material largely from what Peter shared.
In his letter to the Colossians (4:10, 11), Paul identified Aristarchus, Mark and Justus as Jewish fellow workers who had proved to be a source of comfort to him. Aristarchus was a Macedonian from Thessalonica. (Acts 20:4; 27:2) He was with Paul in Ephesus at the time the silversmith Demetrius incited his fellow silversmiths against Paul, with the result that many others in the city were swept up into an emotional frenzy. As the Ephesians rushed to the theater, they seized Aristarchus and Gaius and forcibly dragged them along. There the mob, on seeing the Jewish Alexander who tried to make a defense (probably to distance the Jews of the city from Paul), shouted for about two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:23-34) Years later, when Paul was sent as a prisoner to Rome, Aristarchus accompanied him, perhaps gaining permission to do so by representing himself as the apostle’s slave or servant. During the period of the apostle’s imprisonment, Aristarchus aided and encouraged him. (Acts 27:2; Colossians 4:10, 11)
Demas, one of Paul’s fellow workers at this time, abandoned him during his final imprisonment in Rome. In his second letter to Timothy (4:10), the apostle mentioned that Demas had gone to Thessalonica because he loved the present “age.” He likely feared the possibility of losing his freedom or even his life. Demas must have been more concerned about his own safety and welfare than about Paul, demonstrating greater love for the existing age in relation to his life than he did for an apostle and a brother in need.
Luke, a physician by profession, had traveled extensively with Paul in making known the good news about Jesus Christ. (Colossians 4:14) From very ancient times, he is considered to have been the writer of Acts and of the gospel account. In Acts, the passages that use the first person plural pronouns are commonly understood to mean that Luke was an eyewitness. (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16) This means that he would have accompanied Paul as a prisoner to Rome, possibly being allowed to do so as the apostle’s slave or servant.
The letter ends with the same prayerful expression as does the letter to the Philippians, “The favor of the Lord Jesus Christ [be] with your spirit.” These words are intended for Philemon and the entire community of believers meeting in his home, for the “your” is plural. The spirit of the believers refers to the commendable disposition of their inner life that had been transformed through the operation of God’s spirit. Paul’s desire was that the gracious favor of the Lord Jesus Christ would continue to be on the spirit or disposition of all the believers who would read or hear what he had written. (Verse 25; see the Notes section.)
Paul’s use of “our” in verses 1 (“our fellow worker”) and 2 (“our fellow soldier”) would seem to include Timothy. In verses 23 and 24, Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke are mentioned, and they (if not additional other fellow believers) may also be regarded as among those referred to as “our.”
In many later manuscripts, the feminine form for “beloved” appears (in verse 2) instead of the word for “sister.”
Many manuscripts (in verse 6), including fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, read “in you,” not “in us.”
The measure of obscurity existing in the wording of verse 6 has resulted in varied renderings. “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” (NIV) “You are generous because of your faith. And I am praying that you will really put your generosity to work, for in so doing you will come to an understanding of all the good things we can do for Christ.” (NLT) “I pray that the faith you share may make you understand every blessing we have in Christ.” (NCV) “I pray that our faith together will help you know all the good things you have through Christ Jesus.” (NLB) “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” (NRSV) “That the fellowship of thy faith may become working in the full knowledge of every good thing that [is] in you toward Christ Jesus.” (Young) “To the end that, the fellowship of thy faith, may become, energetic, by a personal knowledge of every good thing that is in us towards Christ.” (Rotherham)
A number of manuscripts (in verse 6) read “good work.” So the genitive tou (“of the”) that follows “good work” perhaps means “of the one,” that is, God. As a believer, Philemon had been reconciled to God and so, like all other believers, benefited from the good work God was doing within him by means of his spirit. The divine working of good that believers experience would be on account of their having come to be at one with God “in” or “through” Christ. This significance depends on understanding the Greek word eis, which precedes “Christ,” to mean “in” or “through.” The entire verse might then be translated to indicate that the shared faith of Philemon would become active or manifest when he came to a knowledge or recognition of all of God’s good work, with God being the “One” who is in believers in or through his Son. “[For this I pray], that the fellowship of your faith may become active in the knowledge of all the good work of the One [who is] in us through Christ.”
In verse 9, the Greek term for “old man” is presbytes. The rendering “ambassador” (REB) is based on a conjecture that the text originally read presbeutés. On the basis of this conjecture, Paul is represented as identifying himself as an ambassador of Christ Jesus.
In verse 20, numerous manuscripts read “Lord” instead of “Christ.”
Many manuscripts (in verse 25) read “our Lord,” not just “Lord.” “Amen” (so be it) appears at the end of the letter in numerous manuscripts.