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ST. PAUL'S EPISTLE TO PHILEMON.
The History of Philemon. Philemon, to whom this epistle was written, was no stranger to the apostle Paul. For in the first and second verses, the apostle addressed all the members of Philemon's family, as well acquainted with them. And ver. 19, he insinuates that Philemon himself was his convert. Nay, ver. 17, Philemon's respect for the apostle is mentioned. He was an inhabitant of Colosse, as appears from the epistle to the Colossians, chap. iv. 9. where Onesimus, Philemon's slave, is called one of them. And ver. 17. the brethren of Colosse are desired to say to Archippus (the person mentioned Philem. ver. 2.) Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received.Besides, the ancients believed that Philemon was an inhabitant of Colosse. So Theodoret says expressly in his commentary on this epistle ; and tells us that his house was still remaining in Colosse in his time ; that is, in the beginning of the fifth century. And Jerome also in his commentary on this epistle, says Philemon was of Colosse : And Theophylact calls him a Phrygian, Oper, tom. 2. p. 861.For an account of Colosse, see Pref. to Colossians.
Philemon seems to have been a person of great worth as a man, and of some note as a citizen in his own country; for his family was so numerous, that it made a church by itself; or at least a considerable part of the church at Colosse, ver. 2. He was likewise so opulent, that he was able by the communication of his faith, that is by his beneficence, to refresh the bowels of the
saints, ver. 6,7.- According to Grotius, Philemon was an elder of Ephesus. But Beausobre speaks of him as one of the pastors of Colosse ; in which he is followed by Doddridge. From the apostle's' employing Philemon to provide him a lodging in Colosse, Michaelis conjectures that he was one of the deacons there. These authors were led to think Philemon a minister of the gospel, because in the inscription of this letter, the apostle calls him his fellow-labourer. But that appellation is of ambiguous signification ; being given, not only to those who preached the gospel, but to such pious persons also, whether men, or women, as assisted the apostles in any manner, while they were employed in preaching. See Rom. xvi. 8. 3 John, ver. 8.
The ancients differed as much as the moderns in their opinion concerning Philemon's station in the church. Some of them reckoned him a bishop. But others, fancying that Apphia was his wife, contended that he had no ecclesiastical character whatever; for they began very early to esteem celibacy in ecclesiastical persons. In particular, Hilary the deacon saith expressly, that he was one of the laity. Theodoret, Oecumenius, and Theophylact seem also to have been of the same opinion. See Whitby's preface to this epistle.
Of the Occasion on which the Epistle to Philemon was written.
Onesimus, a slave, on some disgust, having run away from his master Philemon, came to Rome; and falling into want, as is supposed, he applied to the apostle, of whose imprisonment he had heard, and with whose benevolent disposition he was well acquainted, having, as it seems, formerly seen him in his master's house. Or, the fame of the apostle's preaching and miracles, having drawn Onesimus to hear some of the many discourses which he delivered in his own hired house in Rome, these made such an impression on him, that he became a sincere convert to the Christian faith : For the apostle calls him, ver. 9. his son, whom he had begotten in his bonds. After his conversion, Onesimus abode with the apostle, and served him with the greatest assiduity art affection. But being sensible of his fault in running away from his master, he wished to repair that injury, by returning to him. At the same time being afraid, that on his return, his master would inflict on him the punishment, which
by the law or custom of Phrygia, was due to a fugitive slave, and which, as Grotius says, he could inflict without applying to any magistrate, he besought the apostle to write to Philemon, requesting him to forgive and receive him again into his family. The apostle, always ready to do good offices, very willingly complied with Onesimus's desire, and wrote this letter to Philemon, in which, with the greatest softness of expression, warmth of affection, and delicacy of address, he not only interceded for Onesimus's pardon, but urged Philemon to esteem him, and put confidence in him as a sincere Christian.-And because restitution, by repairing the injury that hath been done, restores the person who did the injury to the character which he had lost, the apostle, to enable Onesimus to appear in Philemon's family with some degree of reputation, bound himself in this epistle by his hand-writing, not only to repay all that Onesimus owed to Philemon, but to make full reparation also for whatever injury he had done to him by running away from him.
To account for the solicitude which the apostle shewed in this affair, we must not, with some, suppose that Philemon was keen and obstinate in his resentments. But rather, that having a number of slaves, on whom the pardoning of Onesimus too easily might have had a bad effect, he might judge some punishment nécessary, for a warning to the rest. At least the apostle could not have considered the pardoning of Onesimus, as a matter which merited so much earnest entreaty, with a person of Philemon's piety, benevolence, and gratitude, unless he had suspected him to have entertained some such apprehension.
Many are of opinion, that Onesimus robbed his master before he ran off. But of this there is no evidence ; unless we think the expression, ver. 18. If he hath injured thee any thing, contains an insinuation of that sort. But the apostle might mean, injured thee by the loss of his service. The words will fairly bear that interpretation. Why then, as Lardner observes, impute crimes to men without proof?—What the apostle wrote to Philemon on this occasion, is highly worthy of our notice : Namely, that although he had great need of an affectionate honest servant to minister to him in his bonds, such as Onesimus was, who had expressed a great inclination to stay with him ; and although, if Onesimus had remained with him, he would only have discharged the duty which Philemon himself owed to his spiritual father ; yet the apostle would by no means detain Onesimus without Philemon's leave ; because it belonged to
him to dispose of his own slave in the way he thought proper. Such was the apostle's regard to justice, and to the rights of mankind !
Whether Philemon pardoned Onesimus, or punished him, is not known. Only, from the earnestness with which the apostle solicited his pardon, and from the generosity and goodness of Philemon's disposition, we may conjecture that he actually pardoned Onesimus; and even gave him his freedom, in compliance with the apostle's insinuation, as it is interpreted by soine, that he would do more than he had asked. For it was no uncommon thing, in ancient times, to bestow freedom on such slaves, as had obtained the esteem and good will of their masters, by their faithful services.
of the Authenticity and Use of St. Paul's Epistle to Philemon.
Jerome, in his Preface to this epistle, says. Volunt aut epistolam non esse Pauli ; aut etiam si Pauli sit, nihil habere quod nos edificare possit. Et a plerisque veteribus repudiatam, dumu commendandi tantum scribebatur officio, non docendi. But Chrysostom in his Preface, hath shewed several excellent uses which may be made of this epistle ; two of which, as they are of great importance, I shall mention. The first is, In this epistle the apostle hath left to churchmen an excellent example of charity, in endeavouring to mitigate the resentment of one in a superior station, towards his inferior, who had injured him; and in endeavouring to restore the inferior to the favour of the other, which he had lost through his unfaithfulness : and that, not only by arguments drawn from reason, but by generously binding himself to repay all the loss which the superior had sustained by the injury of the inferior.—The second use which may be made of this epistle is equally excellent. It sets before churchmen of the highest dig. nity, a proper example of attention to the people under their care, and of affectionate concern for their welfare, which, if it were imitated, would not fail to recommend them to the esteem and love of their people; consequently would give them a greater capacity of doing them good.-I add some other uses; namely, that, although no article of faith be professedly handled in this epistle, and no precepts for the regulation of our conduct be directly delivered in it, yet the allusions to the doctrines and precepts of the gospel found in it, may be improved in various respects for regulating our conduct. For, it is therein insinuated, 1. That all Christians are on a level. Onesimus the slave, on becoming a Christian, is the apostle's son, and Philemon's brother.-2. That Christianity makes no alteration in men's political state. Onesimus the slave, did not become a freeman by embracing Christianity, but was still obliged to be Phileinon's slave for ever, unless his master gave him his freedom.-3. That slaves should not be taken nor detained from their masters, without their masters' consent, ver. 13, 14.-4. That we should not contemn persons of low estate, nor disdain to help the meanest, when it is in our power to assist them, but should love and do good to all men.-5. That where an injury hath been done, restitution is due, unless the injured party gives up his claim.6. That we should forgive sinners who are penitent, and be heartily reconciled to them.--7. That we should never despair of reclaiming the wicked, but do every thing in our power to convert them.
The anxiety which the apostle shewed for the welfare of Onesimus, in return for his affectionate services, could not fail to cherish good dispositions in the breast of Philemon. Nor is it possible even at this day, so long after Philemon and his slave are both gone, to read this letter without experiencing, in some measure, the same happy effect.
In the mean time, if this epistle had served no other purpose, but to shew the world what sort of man the apostle Paul was in private life, it would justly have merited a place in the canon of scripture. For, in it the writer hath displayed qualities which by men are held in the greatest estimation; such as, an high spirit arising from a consciousness of his own dignity, consummate prudence, uncommon generosity, the warmest friendship, the most skilful address, and the greatest politeness as well as purity of manners : Qualities not to be found, either in an enthusiast, or in an impostor.-Doddridge, observes, “ That this epis“ tle, considered as a mere human composition, is a master-piece “ of its kind. For, if it is compared with an epistle of Pliny, “ supposed to have been written on a similar occasion, Lib. is.
epist. 21. that epistle, though penned by one who was reckoned “ to excel in the epistolary style, and though it has undoubtedly “ many beauties, will be found by persons of taste, much inferior " to this animated composition of the apostle Paul.”