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EPISTLE OF PAUL TO PHILEMON - Chapter 1 - Verse 25

Verse 25. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, etc. See Barnes "2 Ti 4:22".


The subscription to the epistle is of no authority, but in this case is undoubtedly correct. Compare the Remarks at the close of 1 Corinthians, and Titus.


Having now passed through with the exposition of this epistle, it may be proper to copy, for comparison with it, one of the most beautiful specimens of epistolary composition to be found in profane literature—an epistle of Pliny, written on a similar occasion, and having a strong resemblance to this; As a matter of taste, it is of importance to show that the sacred writers do not fall behind the most favourable specimens of literary composition to be found in uninspired writings. The epistle of Pliny was directed to his friend Sabinianus, in behalf of his manumitted slave who had offended him, and who was consequently cast out of his favour. It is in the following words :—


C. Plinius Sabiniano, S.

Libertus tuus, cui succensere te dixeras, yenit ad me advolutusque pedibus meis, tanquam tuis, haesit. Flevit multum, multum rogavit, multum etiam tacuit: in summa, fecit mihi fidem penitentice. Vere credo emendatum, quia deliquisse sentit. Irasceris scio; et irasceris merito, id quoque scio: sed tunc praecipua mansuetudinis laus, cum irae causa justissima est. Amasti hominem; et spero amabis: interim sufficit ut exorari te sinas. Licebit rursus irasci, si meruerit: quod exoratus excusatius facies.

Remitte aliquid adolescentice ipsius; remitte lachrymis; remitte indulgentiae tuae; ne torseris ilium, ne torseris etiam te. Torqueris enim cum tam lenis irasceris. Vereor, ne ridear non rogare, sed cogere, si precibus eju. s meas junxero. Sungain tureen tanto plenius et etfusius, quantc ipsum acrius severiusque corripui, destricte minatus, nunquam me postea rogaturum. Hoc illo, quem terreri oportebat; tibi non idem. Nam fortasse iterum rogabo, impetrabo iterum: sit mode tale, ut togare me, ut priestare te deceat. Vale. Epistolar. Lib. ix. Ep. 21. \-

"Caius Pliny to Sabinianus, health:


"Thy freed man, with whom thou didst say thou wert incensed,

came to me, and having thrown himself at my feet, grasped them

as if they had been thine. He wept much; plead much; and yet

pleaded more by his silence. In short, he fully convinced me

that he was a penitent. I do sincerely believe that he is

reformed, because he perceives that he has done wrong. I know

that thou art incensed against him; and I know also that thou

art justly so; but then clemency has its chief praise when

there is the greatest cause for anger. Thou hast loved the

man; and I hope that thou wilt love him again. In the meantime,

it may suffice that thou dost suffer thyself to be entreated

for him. It will be right for thee again to be offended if

he deserves it; because, having allowed thyself to be

entreated, you will do it with greater propriety.


"Forgive something for his youth; forgive on account of his

tears; forgive on account of thine own kindness: do not

torment him; do not torment thyself—for thou wilt be tormented

when thou, who art of so gentle a disposition, dost suffer

thyself to be angry. I fear, if I should unite my prayers to

his, that I should seem not to ask, but to compel. Yet I will

write them, and the more largely and earnestly, too, as I have

sharply and severely reproved him; solemnly threatening him,

should he offend again, never more to intercede for him. This

I said to him, because it was necessary to alarm him; but I

will not say the same to thee. For perhaps I may again

entreat thee, and again obtain, if now that shall be done

which it is fit that I should ask and you concede.


Those who compare these two epistles, much as they may admire that of Pliny as a literary composition, and as adapted to secure the end which he had in view, will coincide with the remark of Doddridge, that it is much inferior to the letter of Paul. There is less courtesy—though there is much; there is less that is touching and tender—though there is much force in the pleading; and there is much less that is affecting in the manner of the appeal than in the epistle of the apostle.

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.

I. 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 Christian gentleman.

II. The epistle shows that he had great tact in argument, and great skill in selecting just such things as would be adapted 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 object 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.

III. This epistle has been frequently appealed to by the friends and advocates of slavery as furnishing a support or apology for that institution. 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 of Onesimus. 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 such 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 most 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 these 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 master. 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 epistle:—

(1.) There is no positive evidence that Onesimus was a slave at all. See Barnes "Phm 1:16".

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 supposing 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 doulov or—doulos—then this is expressly declared. Thus, in Phm 1:16, he is commanded to receive him "NOT now as a servant" ouketi wv doulon. 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 regards 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 a 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 now that Paul, after a short interval, had actually come to the residence of Philemon, as he expected to, (Phm 1:22,) 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? Phm 1:16. Would it not be natural for him to say to him that he had not received him as he wished him to? And how would 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 desirable 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, 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 and 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 58:6.

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