The Prison Epistles, Lecture One

Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon are referred to the “Prison Epistles” or “Captivity Epistles” because all of them were written while Paul was in prison. On this there is no debate. The debate is over assigning them to the proper imprisonment. Several of Paul’s imprisonments are mentioned in the book of Acts and almost all Bible scholars rule out the idea that Paul wrote any letters from Philippi. This seems to leave the imprisonments at Caesarea and Rome. Guthrie in his New Testament Introduction makes a compelling argument for an Ephesian captivity, a third alternative. After almost four pages, Guthrie concludes that there is not enough evidence to suggest an Ephesian imprisonment, although, as he states,such an imprisonment is not impossible. In other words, from precisely what prison wrote his letters is unknown and open to some conjecture. However, we will deal with this issue further as we approach epistle in turn.

A Study of Philemon

1. Background and Introductory Comments

Paul’s letter to Philemon is so short, merely 25 verses long, that most people don’t even realize it is in the Bible; they pass over it on the way to Hebrews. Yet is a powerful letter, full of meaning. Darby comments:

It is an expression of the love which works by the Spirit within the assembly of God in all the circumstances of the human life.

Being so brief, one has to ask why it is even in the Bible; it is a personal letter, dealing with a personal matter, although it is also addressed to the church that met in Philemon’s home. When Paul wrote it, he likely had no idea that it would find a home in a collection of writings that would become the Scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ. The occasion that moved Paul to write this letter was his wish to plead with his friend Philemon for a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus.

While Philemon is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, Onesimus is referred to several times, including a mention in Colossians 4:9–

He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

So now we know that Onesimus is from Colossae. It is also noteworthy that the five men mentioned who send their greetings to Philemon; Epaphrus, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, are also mentioned at the end of the letter to the Colossians, suggesting that the two letters were written at the same time.

This letter is extremely valuable because in it we get a glimpse of how the apostle Paul’s mind and ministry worked. The man who could write the theologically profound letter to the Romans could also write a deeply personal letter to a good friend, revealing his tact and his special consideration for the well-being and feelings of others, his understanding of human relationships and psychology and, especially, his remarkable capacity for friendship (Rolston).

2. Commentary

[A] Salutation, verses 1-3

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (TNIV)

In Colossians, Paul refers to himself as a “servant,” but here he writes that he is a “prisoner of Jesus Christ.” Paul is both bound to Christ in faith and commitment, but he is also bound in a Roman prison because of that faith in and commitment to Christ.

The fact that this salutation varies so much from Paul’s other salutations shows that Paul is writing with a distinct purpose and had chosen his words carefully for maximum impact so as to get the right kind of response from Philemon.

Just as in Colossians, young Timothy is by Paul’s side and is included here as one of the letter’s senders. They not only to greet Philemon, the owner of Onesimus, but also his wife Apphia. As the “woman of the house,” she would have had charge over the household help and her opinion in this matter would have been a major consideration as Philemon decided whether or not to receive Paul’s words favorably.

Even though this issue is a personal one between Paul and Philemon, he includes Archippus and the church. Why? Archippus may have been a leading member of the Christian community and pastor of the church that met in Philemon’s house. The early Christian churches often met in large homes; it wasn’t until about the third century that we have records of separate church buildings. Not only could the church bring appropriate pressure to bear on Philemon to make the right decision, but this also shows the interconnectedness of the Body of Christ. Every decision a believer makes can effect their church in a positive or a negative way. If ever a message was important for the church today, this is it. So many of our members have so little regard for their church that they think of it regularly, usually on a Saturday night as they debate whether or not they should go to service on Sunday morning. But here we see the significance and the influence of the church on a member’s life as they are to be included in a personal, seemingly non-church related decision. Really, there is no such thing. We all represent our respective churches in the community.

[b] Thanksgiving and prayer, verse 4-8

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. (TNIV)

As Gould observed, Paul is a master of psychology. He prepares the ground before he plants the seed (Acts 26:2ff). He notices and commends the good before he applies the words of rebuke or correction.

There is a play on words in the Greek that goes unnoticed in the English. Even though there are a number of people addressed in this letter, it is clear that the comments are directed to Philemon. In verse two, we read the phrase, “in your home.” The “your” is singular, referring to Philemon’s home. Here, in verses 4 to 7, the words “you” and “your” are also in the singular, referring again to Philemon. This is important because we learn something about Philemon. His love for people was legendary, as was his faith in Christ. He was a faithful partner with Paul in the ministry and he demonstrated his love in all he did, both materially and spiritually for the community of faith. Paul’s intent is that he should continue to demonstrate that faith in action in his treatment of his runaway slave, Onesimus. This is the thought that pervades the whole letter, and in the next group of verses is expressed explicitly.

So, Paul’s expression of gratitude for Philemon is combined with a prayer for him. Paul prays that Philemon’s love and his treatment of those in the faith, might continue because that is would be a demonstration of Christian maturity. Love finds it’s roots in actions which bring glory to Christ.

What a pertinent message for the Church of the 21st century, which is full of talk but very little action. What makes a believer mature in grace are actions that are born out of a relationship with Jesus Christ. As we engage in “good works” for Him, that glorify Him, we are filled with knowledge of Him. This is Paul’s prayer for his friend Philemon.

[c] Plea for Onesimus, verses 8-16

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. (TNIV)

This is the heart of the letter. Arthur Rupprecht makes the insightful observation that is often overlooked in studies of this letter. Paul’s circumstances are just as significant as those of Onesimus. Because Paul was in prison, he could not do the things a free man could do to help the slave. All he can do is ask his old friend to for clemency for his new-found brother in the Lord, and he can suggest that as soon as he is able, he will visit his friend. Had Paul been free, under the law he could have assumed responsibility of a runaway slave.

Onesimus, for his part, had reached the lowest that one could reach in the ancient world. Being a runaway slave, he had no social status and no protection under the law. This made him subject to all kinds of abuse at the hands of whoever might find him.

Consider the precarious position Paul put his friend Philemon in. In asking for forgiveness and restitution for Onesimus without punishment, Paul is doing something that cut against the cultural grain of his day and stood in defiance of Roman tradition.

Verse 8 reveals Paul’s sense of authority. He uses the Greek parresia, which as it is used here, means “right” or “authority.” Paul is saying, he could literally order Philemon to do something because of his apostolic authority. But he wants Philemon to do this voluntarily from a sense of love, which he knows his friend possesses. There are times when leaders need to command, and other times when the stronger position is to let the followers come to a decision on their own.

In verse 9 Paul refers to himself as an “old man.” Since Paul was a young man at the stoning of Stephen, by now he was probably in his late 50’s or at the latest in his very early 60’s, so he wasn’t that old. The word he used was presbytes, from which we get our word “presbyter.” It means “old age,” but usually has a hint of authority. In antiquity, wisdom and old age were assumed to go along with advanced age. Some versions use the word “ambassador” instead of “old man,” and that is not a bad way to look at Paul.

Finally Paul mentions the subject of his plea, Onesimus. The imagery could not be stronger. Paul calls him his “child,” whose father he has become in his incarceration. This means that Onesimus became a Christian through the witness of Paul and he has grown in his faith to the point where Paul can think of him as his spiritual son, as he wrote of Timothy.

There is a humorous play on words in verse 11. Onesimus was a very common name for slaves. It means “useful” or “profitable.” He who had been “useless” has now become “useful,” finally Onesimus is living up to his name! But there is a secondary play on words that is much more clever. There is another Greek word that means the same things as Onesimus, and it the word chrestos. That in turn sounds a lot like Christ, so much so that the Roman historian Suetonius thought that was Jesus’ name: Useful.

With verse 12, we see how precious Onesimus had become to Paul. If he was so precious to Paul, then he was certainly worthy of consideration and kindness on the part of Philemon. Yet, Paul waits for fully five more verses before making the request of Philemon. He paves the way for the request by saying that he will be sending the slave back a changed person. Onesimus, the once-vagabond slave (Erdman) has become so special to the apostle that sending him away was like losing his right arm! One can only imagine the thoughts running through the minds of both Philemon and his wife as they read those words.

Verse 13 is masterful and is the climax of Paul’s appeal, even before making that appeal. In one single verse, without any fanfare or warning, Paul makes a statement that elevated the slave to the level of the slave owner, and the slave owner to the level of the slave:

I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. (TNIV)

Paul had just finished praising Philemon for his spiritual maturity and Christian witness, and he declares that Onesimus can take his place. How that must have made Philemon feel. This reminds of a couple of verses:

So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matt. 20:16, TNIV)

And Galatians 3:28–

There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (TNIV)

Some have been critical of Paul for not demanding Philemon to free his slaves. After all, if Philemon was such a super-Christian, surely he shouldn’t want to own slaves! Paul actually does that implicitly. Notice what he says in verses 14-16; Philemon may have Onesimus back “forever,” not as a slave, but “better than a slave”: a brother in the Lord. Erdman writes that earthly friendships become eternal if they are grounded in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. The sense of brotherhood in Christ is what bound Paul to Onesimus to Philemon together in an eternal friendship; none more important than the other.

[d] A Profound Lesson, verses 17-20

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. (TNIV)

Not only are Philemon and Paul friends, but they are partners. This is a translation of a Greek word koinonos, which is related to a more familiar word, koinonia, or “fellowship.” As it is used here, it has the idea of being a “business partner.” That is quite a statement to make in regards to a slave! Philemon is to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul himself, as a friend and as a business partner. Only God can do that; only God put all people on a level playing field!

Given what Onesimus did, this is a remarkable request for Paul to make. First, there is no record of what Onesimus did to make him so valuable to Paul, but it seems as though Paul really didn’t want him to go. Second, Onesimus not only ran away from Philemon, but he stole property from Philemon. Not only must Onesimus repent, which he has done, but there must be restitution. It’s relatively easy to repent, but restitution is another matter all together. The great apostle anticipates this, and makes one of the most prodigious statements in all Scripture:

I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back… (verse 19a, TNIV)

Paul is not only responsible Onesimus’ salvation, but he has assumed the convert’s guilt and debt. As if to emphasize his seriousness and genuineness, Paul says he wrote this pledge himself, in his own hand, making it not only a pledge, but a promissory note: an IOU. Again, to quote Rupprecht:

Philemon’s spiritual indebtedness to [Paul] should easily cover all of Onesimus’ wrongdoing. Again, Paul’s hint can hardly be missed: “I will repay it. Charge it to the bank of heaven.”

Verse 19 is so deep on so many layers. It shows, first, that no matter how serious we think things on earth are, they pale in the face of eternal values. Whatever loss Philemon may have experienced, it’s relatively unimportant compared to faith. But second, and more importantly, what Paul did for Onesimus reflects the infinitely greater intercession and redemptive act of Christ for us. Gary McSpadden wrote these lyrics many decades ago:

He paid a debt He did not owe;
I owed a debt I could not pay.
I needed someone to wash my sins away;
And now I sing a brand new song “Amazing Grace,”
Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.

He paid that debt at Calvary,
He cleansed my soul and set me free.
I’m glad that Jesus did all my sins erase:
I now can sing a brand new song “Amazing Grace,”
Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.

Martin Luther said:

Here we see how Paul laid himself out for poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleaded his cause with his master, and so set himself as if he were Onesimus, and he himself had done no wrong to Philemon. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, this also did Paul for Onesimus with Philemon. We are all his Onesimi, to my thinking.

[e] Concluding requests, verse 22

And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. (TNIV)

Here we see another glimpse of how Paul worked. In all likelihood, Paul never made it to Colossae. This may well have been one of last things Paul ever wrote. But he fully expected to be welcomed when he arrived, and he fully believed that his friend was praying for him.

3. Concluding Comments

It is obvious after studying these few verses why God thought it was so important they find a place in this collection of inspired writings. First, for many people, the heady theological concept of Christ’s substitutionary and atoning death are difficult to understand. But almost everybody can grasp the ideas of debt and indebtedness. Everybody can appreciate having a friend who can “bail you out” of trouble. And there isn’t a person alive who has never needed somebody to help them out of trouble. This is what Paul did for Onesimus, and it is a human illustration of what Jesus Christ did for us. And secondly, we see here a perfect example of tact; of how to broach a difficult and embarrassing situation where feelings could be hurt.

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