The Gospel Observer

"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations...teaching them to observe all that I commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:19,20).
September 25, 2011


1) Philemon 1:1-7
2) News & Notes


Philemon 1:1-7
by Tom Edwards

During the apostle Paul's two-year Roman imprisonment, when he was under house-arrest and continued to be chained to different guards, he wrote four of his New Testament epistles.  Three of them -- Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians -- were written to different churches; but Philemon, which is only one chapter, was written to just one individual, around A.D. 60 or 61.

It is thought by some that Paul might have dictated this letter to Timothy, as well as the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians.  

The deliverers of the message appear to have been Tychicus and Onesimus, according to Colossians 4:7-9.  Note that Onesimus, who was Philemon's servant,  is spoken of as having been "one of your  number," with regard to the Colossians (v. 9).  Various sources refer to Onesimus as having been from Phrygia, and most likely the city of Colossae (where his master Philemon would have also dwelt).  

Concerning slavery of that day, Roy E. Cogdill writes that "Slavery was one of the common practices of the ancient world.  People then saw no more wrong in having slaves than in having domestic servants.  Some authorities think that within the Roman Empire there were perhaps 60 million of these slaves.  This grievous condition was so common it could not be uprooted immediately, so Christianity regulated it with such principles as to make righteous conduct toward it possible, while at the same time, making it very difficult to continue its inequities [unfairness or injustice] and be what Christians ought to be."

This letter is an appeal Paul is making to Philemon that he would be merciful to Onesimus and receive him back -- and now as a brother in Christ.  For, actually, according to the law of the land at that time, Philemon could have severely punished Onesimus -- or even put him to death.  But Paul is appealing to Philemon as a friend and trusting (based on Philemon's character) that he will treat Onesimus as a fellow Christian.  

S. J. Eales points out that, according to Roman Law, run-away slaves "...were to be beaten to death...in the presence of the other slaves," which, of course, would serve as a deterrent toward others trying to do the same in fleeing from their masters.  

Not only do we hear of the type of person Philemon was, in this epistle, but also Onesimus.  For instead of  fleeing to some other place for safety, Onesimus risked his life by going back to his master to face whatever consequences he would.  For under Roman Law, runaway slaves were to be returned -- and that law could demand some terribly heartless penalties.  In referring to such, J. B. Lightfoot writes, "For the smallest offense, he might be scourged, mutilated, crucified or thrown to the wild beasts."  So Onesimus would truly be at the mercy of his master.  

Let us now look into this short letter.  

Paul begins this epistle by referring to himself as "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus..." (1:1).  Unlike many of his other epistles, Paul doesn't include the fact that he is an apostle in his salutation of this letter.  This is also true for Philippians and 1 and  2 Thessalonians -- though Paul does include himself among the apostles in 1 Thessalonians 2:6.  

In all of his prison epistles, Paul refers to himself as being a "prisoner of Christ Jesus" (Eph. 3:1 and Phm. 1:1); a "prisoner of the Lord" (Eph. 4:1); "His prisoner" (2 Tim. 1:8, which pertains to Paul's second Roman imprisonment); and he also indicates himself as being such in Colossians 4:10, where he speaks of "Aristarchus" as "my fellow prisoner."

This does not mean, of course, that the Lord was holding Paul prisoner; but, rather, that he was a prisoner for Christ's sake.  Paul's imprisonment was due to his proclaiming the gospel of the Lord, as he mentions in verse 13, "...my imprisonment for the gospel."  It, therefore, wasn't for any crimes nor misdemeanors that Paul was imprisoned, but for simply serving Jesus.  So because of that, Paul did not need to be ashamed in his imprisonment.  Instead, he could even rejoice in his being persecuted for righteousness' sake, which is exactly what Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:10-12; as well as Peter in 1 Peter 4:12-16, and what we see the apostles doing in Acts 5:40-42.  

Paul also includes Timothy in the salutation, indicating that he was there in Rome with Paul at that time.  Timothy is also mentioned in the opening greeting of  two other prison epistles (Phil. 1:1 and Col. 1:1).  It is most likely that Timothy was also known by Philemon and other Christians in Colossae, in helping Paul with the work in that area.  

This epistle is addressed in Philemon 1:1 "To Philemon."  Thayer defines the Greek word for Philemon as literally "one who kisses," and Adam Clarke shows that this connotes "Affectionate or beloved."  Hence, Paul refers to him as "our beloved brother"; or as the KJV renders it, "our dearly beloved."  It appears to be a play on words; but judging from Philemon's character, Paul is, no doubt, sincere when he says this.  

Philemon is thought to have been a Gentile and one who was a wealthy individual, based on the following facts: 1) He had his own slave.  2) He could accommodate a church in his house.  3) And he also appears to have been generous and helpful toward the brethren.  

It is believed that Philemon probably came to Ephesus, the capital of the province, and was converted by the apostle Paul who was preaching there during his third missionary journey.  The apostle had actually spent about 3 years in Ephesus, which is where he stayed the longest, out of all the places he went to, during all 3 of his missionary journeys.  But another possibility is that Philemon's conversion took place while Paul and Timothy had been preaching the gospel in Phrygia, during Paul's second missionary journey:  Acts 16:6 states, "They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia."  Then in Acts 18:23, it speaks of the beginning of Paul's third missionary journey: "And having spent some time there [in Antioch, tte], he left and passed successively through the Galatian region and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples."  Colossae had been an important city of Phrygia.  Consider also Philemon 1:19, which seems to indicate Paul's involvement in Philemon's conversion.  Here, Paul parenthetically states, "(not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well)."  Why would Paul say this?  What did Paul do for Philemon that would cause him to owe his own self to Paul?  Would it not be in helping Philemon's soul to be saved?  

Notice how Paul refers to Philemon in verse 1 as "our beloved brother and fellow worker."  There are several in the NT whom Paul speaks of as being a "fellow worker":  "Prisca [or Priscilla] and Aquila" (Rom. 16:3); "Urbanus" (Rom. 16:9);  "Timothy" (Rom. 16:21);  1 Corinthians 3:9, the apostles (implied in the "we");  2 Corinthians 1:24, the Corinthians ("workers with you"); "Titus" (2 Cor. 8:23); "Epaphroditus" (Phil. 2:25); "Euodia," "Syntyche," "Clement," and others not mentioned by name (Phil. 4:2,3); "Aristarchus," "Mark," and "Jesus" who is also called "Justus" (Col. 4:10,11).  In Philemon 1:24, "Aristarchus" and "Mark" are mentioned again as Paul's "fellow workers," along with "Demas" and "Luke."

Paul also gives greeting to "Apphia our sister" (v. 2).  According to Robertson Word Pictures, "Apphia" was "A common name in Phrygian inscriptions...."  It is thought that she was the wife of Philemon.  

Greeting is also given to "Archippus," whom Paul refers to as "our fellow soldier" (v. 2).  Various sources view him as being Philemon's son.  Paul also makes mention of him in Colossians 4:17, "Say to Archippus, 'Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.'"

Lastly, Paul includes in his greeting, "the church in your house" (v. 2).  It was common in those days for churches to meet in someone's home.  For example, in Romans 16:5, Paul exhorts the brethren to "greet the church that is in their house" (the house of Aquila and Priscilla), which is mentioned again in 1 Corinthians 16:19.  Paul also speaks of the church that is in Nympha's house (Col. 4:15).  

This, of course, doesn't mean that having a building for the church to meet in is unscriptural; for it is expedient to have one that can accommodate all the members and visitors.  It, therefore, serves as an aid to help us in obeying the command to assemble and worship.  So buying or renting a place with the Lord's money (the weekly contribution) is scripturally authorized in God's word.  

In Philemon 1:3, Paul desires grace and peace for his readership, which was a common part of Paul's salutation.  For he mentions this in all of his epistles.  

Notice what Paul then says in Philemon 1:4: "I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers...."  Paul then goes on to show why he thanked God on Philemon's behalf: "because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints" (v. 5).  Philemon's love for the saints has been cited as referring to his generosity toward them.  For instance, Zerr defines love in this passage to refer to "a sincere desire to help in the welfare of others in the work of the brethren, and an interest in the progress of the cause of the Lord."

The "faith" that Philemon had was an active faith that complied with God's commandments.  Note, too, that regardless of how godly and generous Philemon had been, he still needed others to be praying for him.  This is also true of each one of us; and it is so because we are all far from perfect and that goal of eternal life is still before us, which we must continually strive for, rather than giving up.  

Paul truly did pray for his brethren, and this passage in Philemon 1:4,5 sounds very similar to what Paul wrote to the Ephesians (Eph. 1:15,16).  Consider also Romans 1:8,9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-3; Philippians 1:3-5; and 2 Timothy 1:3, "I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day."   So it appears that in Paul's prayers, he would sometimes mention specific individuals, as well as certain churches, by name, to the Father.  

Commenting on this, Albert Barnes makes a good observation of what kind of person Paul was: "though encompassed with many cares and sorrows, and about to be put on trial for his life, he did not forget to remember a Christian brother though far distant from him, and to bear him on his heart before the throne of grace. To remember with affectionate concern these churches and individuals, as he did, Paul must have been a man of much prayer."  

From what we have  seen in just these few verses, that does most certainly appear to be true: Paul was very much given to prayer.  

The KJV renders the first part of Philemon 1:6 as, "That the communication of thy faith may become effectual...."  The NASB translates this as "that the fellowship of your faith may become effective...."  The communication or fellowship of Philemon's faith pertains to the good deeds that his faith would lead him into doing that would indicate to others that his faith was genuine and produced good results.  

We can compare this to what James writes about faith and works in James 2:14-18.  True faith will demonstrate itself in righteous acts, and the one who has that kind of faith will be setting forth a good example for the world -- and an example that can be very beneficial to others.  Corresponding to this, Jesus instructs, "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).  Similarly, with the same purpose and goal in mind, Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:12, "Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation."  Seeing good deeds in others can often encourage us to do likewise (cf. Heb. 12:1-3 and James 5:10,11).  

The faith and love of Philemon had led to the refreshing of the hearts of the saints, which also caused Paul to have much joy and comfort in just knowing that.  The term "hearts" in the KJV, for this verse, is translated as "bowels," which long ago was used to pertain to the intellectual part of an individual.  For the ancients had believed that kindness, benevolence, compassion, tender mercies, and affections had stemmed from the intestines.  The refreshing of their hearts refers to, as Lipscomb writes, "the relief and rest given by Philemon because he had encouraged and refreshed the souls of the saints by his labors and gifts in their behalf."

(In our next Gospel Observer, we will continue in considering this epistle of Philemon.)


News & Notes

After hearing September 20 that my sister (Helen Bott) was given just 1 or 2 more weeks to live, I flew out to Nevada to spend time with her; but she passed away while on my way there, not even making it to one week.  We then had her funeral on September 27.  I was truly moved by all the people who had shown up for it.  Helen was well liked and well loved.  I could see that she would be genuinely missed.  I solict prayer, from the saints, especially for her 23-year old son Tommy, as well as for all the relatives and friends of my sister.  Many of these have been giving much moral support to Tommy, during this difficult period.  I appreciate Linda Mancini, a very good, long-time friend of my sister, who flew back to Tampa, Florida, during the middle of her two-week vacation in Italy, with her husband, so that she could then turn around and fly out to Nevada for Helen's funeral and to help Tommy with all the paper work.  Linda had just recently gone through this type of thing, in trying to get all in order, during the death of her husband's brother.  So she knew of all the things that needed to be taken care of, and did so.  She was a very big help.  She also wrote Helen's obituary and helped select the pictures that were used in Helen's memorial video.

I also learned just yesterday that Agnes Shuff, a former member of the Myrtle Street church of Christ in Denham Springs, had passed away October 5, as if drifting off to sleep.  Her funeral will be this Saturday in Winnsboro, Louisiana.  Just a week before, she had celebrated her 80th birthday.

Let us also be praying for Cheryl Crews, who continues to be having health problems, not feeling well, and undergoing treatment.   

The Steps That Lead to Eternal Salvation

1) Hear the gospel, for that is how faith comes (Rom. 10:17;  John 20:30,31).
2) Believe in the deity of Christ (John 8:24; John 3:18).
3) Repent of sins (Luke 13:5; Acts 17:30).
4) Confess faith in Christ (Rom. 10:9,10; Acts 8:36-38).
5) Be baptized in water for the remission of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27; 1 Pet. 3:21).
6) Continue in the faith; for, if not, salvation can be lost (Heb. 10:36-39; Rev. 2:10; 2 Pet. 2:20-22).

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