Introduction to the Bible - 57 - Philemon

The Epistle to Philemon

by Louis Berkhof

 CONTENTS

 We can distinguish three parts in this brief letter:

 I. The Introduction, 1-7. This contains the address, the customary  blessing, and a thanksgiving of the apostle for the charity of  Philemon, for the increase of which Paul hopes, because it greatly  refreshes the saints.

 II. The Request, 8-21. Rather than command Philemon the apostle comes  to him with a request, viz, that he receive back the converted slave  Onesimus and forgive him his wrong-doing. Paul enforces his request by  pointing to the conversion of Onesimus, and to his own willingness to  repay Philemon what he lost, though he might ask retribution of him;  and trusts that Philemon will do more than he asks.

 III. Conclusion, 22-25. Trusting that he will be set free, the apostle  requests Philemon to prepare for him lodging. With greetings of his  fellow-laborers and a final salutation he ends his letter.

 CHARACTERISTICS

 1. This letter is closely related to the Epistle that was sent to the  Colossian church. They were composed at the same time, were sent to the  same city and, with a single exception (that of Justus), contain  identical greetings. At the same time it is distinguished from  Colossians in that it is a private letter. Yet it is not addressed to a  single individual, but to a family and to the believers at their house.

 2. The letter is further characterized by its great delicacy and  tactfulness. It bears strong evidence to Christian courtesy, and has  therefore been called "the polite epistle." In it we see Paul, the  gentleman, handling a delicate question with consummate skill. Though  he might command, he prefers to request that Philemon forgive and  receive again his former slave. Tactfully he refers to the spiritual  benefit that accrued from what might be called material loss. In a  delicate manner he reminds Philemon of the debt the latter owed him,  and expresses his confidence that this brother in Christ would even do  more than he requested.

 AUTHORSHIP

 Marcion included this letter in his Pauline collection, and the  Muratorian Fragment also ascribes it to Paul. Tertullian and Origen  quote it by name, and Eusebius reckons it among the Pauline letters.

 Moreover the Epistle has all the marks of a genuine Pauline production.  It is self-attested, contains the usual Pauline blessing, thanksgiving  and salutation, reveals the character of the great apostle and clearly  exhibits his style.

 Yet even this short and admirable Epistle has not enjoyed universal  recognition. Baur rejected it because of its close relation to  Colossians and Ephesians, which he regarded as spurious. He called it  "the embryo of a Christian romance," like that of the Clementine  Recognitions, its tendency being to show that what is lost on earth is  gained in heaven. He also objects to it that it contains seven words  which Paul uses nowhere else. Weizsacker and Pfleiderer are somewhat  inclined to follow Baur. They find proof for the allegorical character  of the letter in the name Onesimus =profitable, helpful. The latter  thinks that this note may have accompanied the Epistle to the  Colossians, to illustrate by a fictitious example the social precepts  contained in that letter. Such criticism need not be taken seriously.  Hilgenfelds dictum is that Baur has not succeeded in raising his  explanation to the level of probability. And Renan says: "Paul alone  can have written this little masterpiece."

 THE PERSON TO WHOM THE LETTER IS WRITTEN

 The letter is addressed to "Philemon our dearly beloved and  fellow-laborer, and to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus, our  fellow-soldier, and to the church in thy house," 1, 2. Little is known  of this Philemon. He was evidently an inhabitant of Colossae, Col. 4:  9, and apparently belonged to the wealthy class. He had slaves,  received a circle of friends in his house, and was able to prepare a  lodging for Paul, 22. His munificence was generally known, 5-7, and he  made himself useful in Christian service. He was converted by Paul, 19,  most likely during the apostles three years residence at Ephesus.  Apphia is generally regarded as the wife of Philemon, while many  consider Archippus as their son. We notice from Col. 4:17 that the  latter had an office in the church. Probably he was temporarily taking  the place of Epaphras. The expression "the church in thy house"  undoubtedly refers to the Christians of Colossae that gathered in the  dwelling of Philemon for worship.

 COMPOSITION

 1. Occasion and Purpose. The occasion for writing this Epistle is  clearly indicated in the letter itself. Onesimus, the slave of Philemon  absconded and, so it seems, defrauded his master, 18, 19. He fled to  Rome, where in some way--it is useless to guess just how--he fell in  with Paul, whom he may have known from the time of his Ephesian  residence. The apostle was instrumental in converting him and in  showing him the evil of his way, 10, and although he would gladly have  retained him for the work, sent him back to Colossae in deference to  the claims of Philemon. He did not send him empty-handed, however, but  gave him a letter of recommendation, in which he informs Philemon of  the change wrought in Onesimus by which the former slave became a  brother, bespeaks for him a favorable reception in the family of his  master and in the circle that gathered at their house for worship, and  even hints at the desirability of emancipating him.

 2. Time and place. For the discussion of the time and place of  composition cf. what was said respecting the Epistle to the Ephesians.

 CANONICAL SIGNIFICANCE

 This Epistle is rarely quoted by the early church fathers, which is  undoubtedly due to its brevity and to its lack of doctrinal contents.  The letter is recognized by Marcion and the Muratorian Fragment, and is  contained in the old Latin and Syriac Versions. Tertullian quotes it  more than once, but no trace of it is found in Irenaeus and Clement of  Alexandria. Eusebius classes it with the Homologoumena and Jerome  argues at length against those who refused to accept it as Pauline. The  Church never doubted its canonicity.

 The permanent value of this little letter is both psychological and  ethical. It shows us Paul as he corresponds in a friendly way with a  brother in Christ, and thus gives us a new glimpse of his character,  the character of a perfect gentleman, unobtrusive, refined, skillful  and withal firm,--a character worthy of imitation. Moreover it reveals  to us how Paul, in view of the unity of bond and free in Jesus Christ,  deals with the perplexing question of slavery. He does not demand the  abolishment of the institution, since the time for such a drastic  measure had not yet come; but he does clearly hint at emancipation as  the natural result of the redemptive work of Christ.  __________________________________________________________________The Epistle to Philemon

 CONTENTS

 We can distinguish three parts in this brief letter:

 I. The Introduction, 1-7. This contains the address, the customary  blessing, and a thanksgiving of the apostle for the charity of  Philemon, for the increase of which Paul hopes, because it greatly  refreshes the saints.

 II. The Request, 8-21. Rather than command Philemon the apostle comes  to him with a request, viz, that he receive back the converted slave  Onesimus and forgive him his wrong-doing. Paul enforces his request by  pointing to the conversion of Onesimus, and to his own willingness to  repay Philemon what he lost, though he might ask retribution of him;  and trusts that Philemon will do more than he asks.

 III. Conclusion, 22-25. Trusting that he will be set free, the apostle  requests Philemon to prepare for him lodging. With greetings of his  fellow-laborers and a final salutation he ends his letter.

 CHARACTERISTICS

 1. This letter is closely related to the Epistle that was sent to the  Colossian church. They were composed at the same time, were sent to the  same city and, with a single exception (that of Justus), contain  identical greetings. At the same time it is distinguished from  Colossians in that it is a private letter. Yet it is not addressed to a  single individual, but to a family and to the believers at their house.

 2. The letter is further characterized by its great delicacy and  tactfulness. It bears strong evidence to Christian courtesy, and has  therefore been called "the polite epistle." In it we see Paul, the  gentleman, handling a delicate question with consummate skill. Though  he might command, he prefers to request that Philemon forgive and  receive again his former slave. Tactfully he refers to the spiritual  benefit that accrued from what might be called material loss. In a  delicate manner he reminds Philemon of the debt the latter owed him,  and expresses his confidence that this brother in Christ would even do  more than he requested.

 AUTHORSHIP

 Marcion included this letter in his Pauline collection, and the  Muratorian Fragment also ascribes it to Paul. Tertullian and Origen  quote it by name, and Eusebius reckons it among the Pauline letters.

 Moreover the Epistle has all the marks of a genuine Pauline production.  It is self-attested, contains the usual Pauline blessing, thanksgiving  and salutation, reveals the character of the great apostle and clearly  exhibits his style.

 Yet even this short and admirable Epistle has not enjoyed universal  recognition. Baur rejected it because of its close relation to  Colossians and Ephesians, which he regarded as spurious. He called it  "the embryo of a Christian romance," like that of the Clementine  Recognitions, its tendency being to show that what is lost on earth is  gained in heaven. He also objects to it that it contains seven words  which Paul uses nowhere else. Weizsacker and Pfleiderer are somewhat  inclined to follow Baur. They find proof for the allegorical character  of the letter in the name Onesimus =profitable, helpful. The latter  thinks that this note may have accompanied the Epistle to the  Colossians, to illustrate by a fictitious example the social precepts  contained in that letter. Such criticism need not be taken seriously.  Hilgenfelds dictum is that Baur has not succeeded in raising his  explanation to the level of probability. And Renan says: "Paul alone  can have written this little masterpiece."

 THE PERSON TO WHOM THE LETTER IS WRITTEN

 The letter is addressed to "Philemon our dearly beloved and  fellow-laborer, and to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus, our  fellow-soldier, and to the church in thy house," 1, 2. Little is known  of this Philemon. He was evidently an inhabitant of Colossae, Col. 4:  9, and apparently belonged to the wealthy class. He had slaves,  received a circle of friends in his house, and was able to prepare a  lodging for Paul, 22. His munificence was generally known, 5-7, and he  made himself useful in Christian service. He was converted by Paul, 19,  most likely during the apostles three years residence at Ephesus.  Apphia is generally regarded as the wife of Philemon, while many  consider Archippus as their son. We notice from Col. 4:17 that the  latter had an office in the church. Probably he was temporarily taking  the place of Epaphras. The expression "the church in thy house"  undoubtedly refers to the Christians of Colossae that gathered in the  dwelling of Philemon for worship.

 COMPOSITION

 1. Occasion and Purpose. The occasion for writing this Epistle is  clearly indicated in the letter itself. Onesimus, the slave of Philemon  absconded and, so it seems, defrauded his master, 18, 19. He fled to  Rome, where in some way--it is useless to guess just how--he fell in  with Paul, whom he may have known from the time of his Ephesian  residence. The apostle was instrumental in converting him and in  showing him the evil of his way, 10, and although he would gladly have  retained him for the work, sent him back to Colossae in deference to  the claims of Philemon. He did not send him empty-handed, however, but  gave him a letter of recommendation, in which he informs Philemon of  the change wrought in Onesimus by which the former slave became a  brother, bespeaks for him a favorable reception in the family of his  master and in the circle that gathered at their house for worship, and  even hints at the desirability of emancipating him.

 2. Time and place. For the discussion of the time and place of  composition cf. what was said respecting the Epistle to the Ephesians.

 CANONICAL SIGNIFICANCE

 This Epistle is rarely quoted by the early church fathers, which is  undoubtedly due to its brevity and to its lack of doctrinal contents.  The letter is recognized by Marcion and the Muratorian Fragment, and is  contained in the old Latin and Syriac Versions. Tertullian quotes it  more than once, but no trace of it is found in Irenaeus and Clement of  Alexandria. Eusebius classes it with the Homologoumena and Jerome  argues at length against those who refused to accept it as Pauline. The  Church never doubted its canonicity.

 The permanent value of this little letter is both psychological and  ethical. It shows us Paul as he corresponds in a friendly way with a  brother in Christ, and thus gives us a new glimpse of his character,  the character of a perfect gentleman, unobtrusive, refined, skillful  and withal firm,--a character worthy of imitation. Moreover it reveals  to us how Paul, in view of the unity of bond and free in Jesus Christ,  deals with the perplexing question of slavery. He does not demand the  abolishment of the institution, since the time for such a drastic  measure had not yet come; but he does clearly hint at emancipation as  the natural result of the redemptive work of Christ.