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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Philemon 1



Verses 1-25

Chapter 1


1:1-7 This is a letter from Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ, and from Timothy, the brother, to Philemon our well-beloved and our fellow-worker; and to Apphia, the sister, and to Archippus, our fellow-soldier, and to the Church in your house. Grace be to you and peace from God, our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God when I make mention of you in my prayers, for I hear of your love and your faith, which you have to the Lord Jesus, and to all God's dedicated people. I pray that the kindly deeds of charity to which your faith moves you may be powerfully effective to increase your knowledge of every good thing that is in us and that brings us ever closer to Christ. You have brought me much joy and encouragement, because, my brother, the hearts of God's people have been refreshed by you.

The letter to Philemon is extraordinary, for in it we see the extraordinary sight of Paul asking a favour. No man ever asked fewer favours than he did, but in this letter he is asking a favour, not so much for himself, as for Onesimus, who had taken the wrong turning and whom Paul was helping to find the way back.

The beginning of the letter is unusual. Paul usually identifies himself as Paul an apostle; but on this occasion he is writing as a friend to a friend and the official title is dropped. He is not writing as Paul the apostle but as Paul the prisoner of Christ. Here at the very beginning Paul lays aside all appeal to authority and makes his appeal to sympathy and to love alone.

We do not know who Apphia and Archippus were, but it has been suggested that Apphia was the wife and Archippus the son of Philemon, for they, too, would be very much interested in the return of Onesimus, the runaway slave. Certainly Archippus had seen Christian service with Paul, for Paul speaks of him as his fellow-campaigner.

Philemon was clearly a man from whom it was easy to ask a favour. He was a man whose faith in Christ and love to the brethren all men knew, and the story of them had reached even Rome, where Paul was in prison. His house must have been like an oasis in a desert, for, as Paul puts it, he had refreshed the hearts of God's people. It is a lovely thing to go down to history as a man in whose house God's people were rested and refreshed.

In this passage there is one verse which is very difficult to translate and about which much has been written. It is Philemon 1:6 which the Revised Standard Version translates: "I pray that the sharing of your faith may promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ." The phrase translated the sharing of your faith, is very difficult. The Greek is koinonia (2842) pisteos (4102). As far as we can see, there are three possible meanings. (a) Koinonia (2842) can mean a sharing in; it can, for instance, mean partnership in a business. So this may mean your share in the Christian faith; and it might be a prayer that the faith which Philemon and Paul share in may lead Philemon deeper and deeper into Christian truth. (b) Koinonia (2842) can mean fellowship; and this may be a prayer that Christian fellowship may lead Philemon ever more deeply into the truth. (c) Koinonia (2842) can mean the act of sharing; in that case the verse will mean: "It is my prayer that your way of generously sharing all that you have will lead you more and more deeply into the knowledge of the good things which lead to Christ."

We think that the third meaning is correct. Obviously Christian generosity was a characteristic of Philemon; he had love to God's people and in his home they were rested and refreshed. And now Paul is going to ask the generous man to be more generous yet. There is a great thought here, if this interpretation is correct. It means that we learn about Christ by giving to others. It means that by emptying ourselves we are filled with Christ. It means that to be open-handed and generous-hearted is the surest way to learn more and more of the wealth of Christ. The man who knows most of Christ is not the intellectual scholar, not even the saint who spends his days in prayer, but the man who moves in loving generosity amongst his fellow-men.

THE REQUEST OF LOVE (Philemon 1:8-17)

1:8-17 I could well be bold in Christ to give you orders as to where your duty lies, but for love's sake I would rather put it in the form of a request, I, Paul, such as I am, an old man now, a prisoner of Christ. My request to you is for my child, whom I begat in my bonds--I mean Onesimus, who was once useless to you, but who is now useful to you and to me. I am sending him back to you, and that is the same as to send you a bit of my own heart. I could have wished to keep him beside myself, that he might serve me for you in the bonds which the gospel has brought to me; but I did not wish to do anything without your approval; so that the boon which I ask might not be forcibly extracted but willingly given. It may be that he was parted from you for a time that you might get him back for ever; and that you might get him back, no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave--a well-beloved brother, most of all to me, and how much more to you, both as a man and a Christian. If you consider me as a partner, receive him as you would receive me.

Paul, being Paul, could have demanded what he wished from Philemon, but he will only humbly request. A gift must be given freely and with good-will; if it is coerced it is no gift at all.

In Philemon 1:9 Paul describes himself. The King James Version translates--and we have retained the translation--Paul the aged, and a prisoner of Christ. A good number of scholars wish to substitute another translation for aged. It is argued that Paul could not really be described as an old man. He certainly was not sixty years old; he was somewhere between that and fifty-five. But on this ground those who object to the translation aged are wrong. The word which Paul uses of himself is presbutes (4246), and Hippocrates, the great Greek medical writer, says that a man is presbutes (4246) from the age of forty-nine to the age of fifty-six. Between these years he is what we might call senior; only after that does he become a geron (compare 1094), the Greek for an old man.

But what is the other translation suggested? There are two words which are very like each other; their spelling is only one letter different and their pronunciation exactly the same. They are presbutes (4246), old, and presbeutes (compare 4243), ambassador. It is the verb of this word which Paul uses in Ephesians 6:20, when he says, "I am an ambassador in bonds." If we think that the word ought to be presbeutes (4246), Paul is saying, "I am an ambassador, although I am an ambassador in chains." But it is far more likely that we should retain the translation old, for in this letter Paul is appealing all the time, not to any office he holds or to any authority he enjoys, but only to love. It is not the ambassador who is speaking, but the man who has lived hard and is now lonely and tired.

Paul makes his request in Philemon 1:10 and it is for Onesimus. We notice how he delays pronouncing the name of Onesimus, almost as if he hesitated to do so. He does not make any excuses for him; he freely admits he was a useless character; but he makes one claim--he is useful now. Christianity, as James Denney used to say, is the power which can make bad men good.

It is significant to note that Paul claims that in Christ the useless person has been made useful. The last thing Christianity is designed to produce is vague, inefficient people; it produces people who are of use and can do a job better than they ever could if they did not know Christ. It was said of someone that "he was so heavenly-minded that he was no earthly use." True Christianity makes a man heavenly-minded and useful upon earth at one and the same time.

Paul calls Onesimus the child whom he has begotten in his bonds. A Rabbinic saying runs, "If one teaches the son of his neighbour the law, the Scripture reckons this the same as though he had begotten him." To lead a man to Jesus Christ is as great a thing as to bring him into the world. Happy is the parent who brings his child into life and who then leads him into life eternal; for then he will be his child twice over.

As we have noted in the introduction to this letter, there is a double meaning in Philemon 1:12 . "I am sending him back to you," writes Paul. But the verb anapempeim (375) does not mean only to send back, it also means to refer a case to; and Paul is saying to Philemon: "I am referring this case of Onesimus to you, that you may give a verdict on it that will match the love you ought to have." Onesimus must have become very dear to Paul in these months in prison, for he pays him the great tribute of saying that to send him to Philemon is like sending a bit of his own heart.

Then comes the appeal. Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus but he sends him back to Philemon, for he will do nothing without his consent. Here again is a significant thing. Christianity is not out to help a man escape his past and run away from it; it is out to enable him face his past and rise above it. Onesimus had run away. Well, then, he must go back, face up to the consequences of what he did, accept them and rise above them. Christianity is never escape; it is always conquest.

But Onesimus comes back with a difference. He went away as a heathen slave; he comes back as a brother in Christ. It is going to be hard for Philemon to regard a runaway slave as a brother; but that is exactly what Paul demands. "If you agree," says Paul, "that I am your partner in the work of Christ and that Onesimus is my son in the faith, you must receive him as you would receive myself."

Here again is something very significant. The Christian must always welcome back the man who has made a mistake. Too often we regard the man who has taken the wrong turning with suspicion and show that we are never prepared to trust him again. We believe that God can forgive him but we, ourselves, find it too difficult. It has been said that the most uplifting thing about Jesus Christ is that he trusts us on the very field of our defeat. When a man has made a mistake, the way back can be very hard, and God cannot readily forgive the man who, in his self-righteousness or lack of sympathy, makes it harder.


1:18-25 If he has done you any damage or owes you anything, put it down to my account. I, Paul, write with my own hand--I will repay it, not to mention to you that you owe your very self to me. Yes, my brother, let me make some Christian profit out of you! Refresh my heart in Christ. It is with complete confidence in your willingness to listen that I write to you, for I know well that you will do more than I ask.

At the same time get ready a lodging place for me; for I hope that through your prayers it will be granted to you that I should come to you.

Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ, sends his greetings to you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow-workers.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

It is one of the laws of life that someone has to pay the price of sin. God can and does forgive, but not even he can free a man from the consequences of what he has done. It is the glory of the Christian faith that, just as Jesus Christ shouldered the sins of all men, so there are those who in love are prepared to help pay for the consequences of the sins of those who are dear to them. Christianity never entitled a man to default on his debts. Onesimus must have stolen from Philemon, as well as run away from him. If he had not helped himself to Philemon's money, it is difficult to see how he could ever have covered the long road to Rome. Paul writes with his own hand that he will be responsible and will repay in full.

It is interesting to note that this is an exact instance of a cheirographon (5498), the kind of acknowledgment met in Colossians 2:14. This is a handwriting against Paul, an obligation voluntarily accepted and signed.

It is of interest to note that Paul was able to pay Onesimus' debts. Every now and again we get glimpses which show that he was not without financial resources. Felix kept him prisoner for he had hopes of a bribe to let him go (Acts 24:26); Paul was able to hire a house during his imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:30). It may well be that, if he had not chosen to live the life of a missionary of Christ, he might have lived a settled life of reasonable ease and comfort on his own resources. This may well have been another of the things which he gave up for Christ.

In Philemon 1:19-20 we hear Paul speaking with a flash of humour. "Philemon," he says, "you owe your soul to me, for it was I who brought you to Christ. Won't you let me make some profit out of you now?" With an affectionate smile Paul is saying, "Philemon, you got a lot out of me--let me get something out of you now!"

Philemon 1:21 is typical of Paul's dealings with people. It was his rule always to expect the best from others; he never really doubted that Philemon would grant his request. It is a good rule. To expect the best from others is often to be more than half-way to getting it; if we make it clear that we expect little, we will probably get just that.

In Philemon 1:22 there speaks Paul's optimism. Even in prison he believes it possible that through the prayers of his friends freedom may come again. He has changed his plans now. Before he was imprisoned it had been his intention to go to far off Spain (Romans 15:24; Romans 15:28). Maybe after the years in prison, two at Caesarea and other two at Rome, Paul felt that he must leave the distant places to younger men and that for him, as he drew near the end, old friends were best.

In Philemon 1:23 there is a list of greetings from the same comrades as we meet in Colossians, and so there comes the blessing, and Philemon and Onesimus alike are commended to the grace of Christ.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)



J. B. Lightfoot, St Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (MmC G)

C. F. D. Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon (CGT G)

E. F. Scott, The Epistles to Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians (MC E)


CGT: Cambridge Greek Testament

ICC: International Critical Commentary

MC: Moffatt Commentary

TC: Tyndale Commentary

E: English Text

G: Greek Text

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Philemon 1:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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