Father Callan’s Commentary on St Paul’s Letter to Philemon

1-7. Paul, a prisoner in Rome, addresses Philemon, a well-to-do Colossian, and his household, wishing them grace and peace, and thanking God for the charitable manifestation of Philemon’s faith in behalf of the poor Christians. May the Christians derive from their practical experience of the fruits of faith as produced by Philemon a fuller appreciation of the power of the Gospel ! The report of it all has rejoiced the Apostle.

1. Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy, a brother: to Philemon, our beloved and fellow-laborer;
2. And to Appia, our sister, and to Archippus, our fellow-soldier, and to the church which is in thy house:

Timothy. See Introduction to 1 Tim., No, 1. Here is what is written in the introduction: Timothy. Of St. Paul’s many faithful disciples Timothy seems to have been the one dearest to his heart and most according to his own mind. He wrote of him to the Philippians as follows: “I have no man so of the same mind, who with sincere affection is solicitous for you. For all seek the things that are their own, not the things that are Jesus Christ’s” (Phil 2:20, 21). Timothy was born at Lystra in Lycaonia of a Greek father and a Jewish mother, named Unice (Acts 16:1; 2 Tim 1:5). It seems that his father died young, and the child was reared and carefully trained in the Old Testament Scriptures by his devout mother and grandmother. It would appear also that these three embraced Christianity when St. Paul preached at Lystra on his first missionary journey (Acts 14:6 ff.). Timothy was about sixteen or seventeen years old at this time, and, when Paul revisited Lystra on his second journey, he chose the youthful and devoted convert as a special companion and helper in the work of the Gospel, having first circumcised him to facilitate his work among the Jews, and ordained him by the laying on of hands (Acts 16:1-3; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6, 7). Thereafter, from the frequent mention of his name in the Acts and in the Epistles, we see that he was almost constantly with the Apostle. Whether or not he was with his master during the latter’s imprisonment at Caesarea and on the voyage thence to Rome, we do not know; but it is certain that he was in the Eternal City while St. Paul was imprisoned there the first time, because his name appears in the opening verses of the Captivity Epistles—Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. He was also with the Apostle during the interval between the two Roman imprisonments; for it was at this time that St. Paul appointed him Bishop of Ephesus (Eusebius, Hist. Ecci, III, iv, 6; Apost. Constit., vii, 46), and left him in charge of that important see. When the Apostle was nearing his end during his second captivity in Rome, he wrote to Timothy to make haste to come to him before winter (2 Tim 1:4, 4:8, 21). After this we know no more about him, save from tradition, according to which he was martyred at Ephesus in his old age for interfering with the celebration of a licentious heathen feast. St. Jerome tells us that his body was brought to Constantinople and buried there. His feast, as that of a Martyred Bishop, is celebrated in the Latin Church on January 24. He has been declared a Saint also by the Greek, Armenian, Coptic, and Maronite Churches.

We may get an idea of St. Timothy’s character from what is said of him in the Acts and especially in the Epistles, from the duties entrusted to him and the labors performed by him, and from the great love St. Paul bore him. He was intelligent, innocent, gentle, timid, and yet sufficiently strong, courageous, and fearless when virtue and religion were at stake. He could not so well brave the rough world and wicked opponents as did St. Paul, and yet by the grace of God, though trembling and naturally fearful, he could go when necessary into the thick of the battle. Paul could always depend upon him to do his best, in spite of his shrinking disposition and delicate health. He was ever the Apostle’s “beloved son,” tried and true, full of faith and hope and love. He had found the more excellent way, and by the grace of God he walked in it throughout his days. Cf. Heyes, Paul and His Epistles, pp. 465 ff.; Pope, Student’s “Aids” to the Study of the Bible, vol. Ill, pp. 235 ff.

Philemon . . . Appia . . . Archippus, etc. See Introduction to this letter, No. 1. Here is what is written in the introduction: Philemon. This correspondent of St. Paul’s, to whom the Apostle addressed the shortest but one of the most beautiful of his letters, was most probably a native of Colossae. It is very likely that he owed his conversion to St. Paul, some time during the latter’s long residence at Ephesus (Phlm. 19; Acts 19:26). The Apostle speaks of him as his dear and intimate friend, and calls him his “fellow-laborer” (Phlm 1, 13, 17, 22). That he was a man of means appears from the facts that he owned slaves, that he was charitable and hospitable to his fellow-Christians (Phlm 2, 5-7), that he was able to give a part of his house for the use of the faithful (Phlm 2), and that St. Paul could feel free to ask him to prepare a lodging for him on his forthcoming visit to Colossae (Phlm 22).

3. Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord
Jesus Christ.

See on Eph 1:2. Here is what is written there: This is Paul’s usual salutation. Grace, God’s special help and favor, is the root and source of our supernatural union with Him and with Christ, and peace is the blessed fruit of that same union.

4. I give thanks to my God, always making a remembrance of thee in my prayers,

Thanksgiving and intercession were a part of the epistolary convention of St. Paul’s time, but they have a deeper meaning in his Epistles. See on Eph 1:15, 16.

5. Hearing of thy charity and faith, which thou hast in the Lord Jesus, and towards all the saints:

Philemon’s active faith in behalf of the Christians at Colossae explains St. Paul’s thanksgiving to God.

Charity and faith embrace the whole Christian life.

6. That the communication of thy faith may be made evident in the acknowledgment of every good work, that is in you in Christ.

The Apostle here explains what he asks in prayer for Philemon, namely, “that the communication, etc.,” i.e., that the fellowship or share the faithful have had in the charitable distribution of material and spiritual goods on the part of Philemon, may produce around him a true appreciation or recognition of the power of the Gospel in “every good work” (i.e., in practical results) “in Christ Jesus” (i.e., for the glory of Christ).

7. For I have had great joy and consolation in thy charity, because the bowels of the saints have been refreshed by thee, brother.

The report of Philemon’s charity was another reason for the Apostle’s prayers of thanksgiving.

The word “bowels” among the Hebrews represented the seat of tender feeling; hence “hearts” is a better translation of the sense here and in similar passages of Scripture.

BODY OF THE LETTER, 8-22~Paul pleads with his friend Philemon to receive back his runaway slave who has become a Christian while in Rome (ver. 8-21), and asks that a lodging be made ready for himself in preparation
for his forthcoming visit to Colossae (ver. 22).

In 8-12. St. Paul is commending the faith and charity of Philemon, which are well known and highly appreciated; and in view of so fine a reputation he makes his plea for the fugitive slave, Onesimus.

8. Wherefore though I have much confidence in Christ, to command thee that which is to the purpose,

Wherefore though I, etc. The Apostle means to say that, in virtue of his authority as an Apostle of Christ, he could command Philemon to do his Christian duty by Onesimus and pardon him, but, relying on the faithful charity of which Philemon has given so much proof, he prefers to exhort him to receive back the runaway, who now as a Christian is profitable, not only to his master, but to Paul also.

Confidence. Better, “boldness.”

To command. More literally, “to command in plain speech.” Which is to the purpose. Better, “what is fitting.”

9. For charity sake I rather beseech since I am such an one as Paul, an old man, and now a prisoner also of Christ Jesus.

Charity may refer to the deeds of charity which Philemon has been performing, or to the love of friendship existing between him and St. Paul.

Beseech. Better, “exhort.”

An old man. Paul’s age and afflictions will appeal to Philemon.

The Vulgate cum sis talis ought to be cum sim talis, as in the Greek, referring to Paul as “an old man,” or as “an ambassador” (R. V. Margin), i.e., an envoy of Christ in prison, which would mean that he is no ordinary man who is petitioning Philemon for mercy to Onesimus.

10. I beseech thee for my son, whom I have begotten in my bonds,
Onesimus,

I have begotten, in Baptism.

11. Who hath been heretofore unprofitable to thee, but now is profitable both to me and thee,

Onesimus means “Useful” or “Helpful.” But when he deserted his master, and perhaps robbed him besides, Philemon considered him “unprofitable,” to say the least. Now, however, by his conversion he has greatly benefited St. Paul, and will be of great profit in his future faithfulness to Philemon.

12. Whom I have sent back to thee. And do thou receive him as my own heart:

I have sent back, an epistolary aorist, as also in ver. 19.

And do thou receive. These words are wanting in some of the best MSS.

My own heart. See above, on ver. 7.

13. Whom I would fain retain with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered to me in the bonds of the gospel:
14. But without thy counsel I would do nothing; that thy good deed might not be as it were of necessity, but voluntary.

St. Paul says Onesimus was so useful to him in Rome that he would have liked to retain him, but that he would not presume to do so without the free consent of Philemon.

Thy good deed. The reference may be to Philemon’s wellknown kindness, on which Paul could have presumed in retaining Onesimus; but more likely to the pardon which Paul hoped Philemon would freely grant Onesimus.

15. For perhaps he therefore departed for a season from thee, that thou mightest receive him again for ever:
16. Not now as a servant, but instead of a servant, a beloved brother, especially to me, but however much more to thee both in the flesh and in the Lord.

He departed. Better, “he was parted,” i.e., ran away.

For a reason. The Apostle suggests that perhaps it was providential that Onesimus left his master, since that was the occasion of his conversion to Christianity, and his consequent usefulness to St. Paul as a helper in the work of the faith, and his double usefulness to Philemon “in the flesh” (i.e., as a member of Philemon’s family) “and in the Lord” (i.e., as a Christian).

17. If therefore thou count me a partner, receive him as myself.

St. Paul now asks Philemon, in virtue of the faith and charity that are common between them, to take Onesimus back as if he were the Apostle himself.

A partner, i.e., a sharer in the same faith and charity.

18. And if he hath wronged thee in any thing, or is in thy debt, put that to my account.
19. I Paul have written it with my own hand: I will repay it: not to say to thee, that thou owest me thy own self also.

If he hath wronged thee, etc. This would seem to imply that Onesimus had in some way caused his master a loss, for which Paul is willing to compensate the latter.

I have written it, etc. St. Paul for the moment takes the pen into his own hand, as a sign of the earnestness of his promise to make up any loss sustained by Philemon on account of Onesimus; but in doing so he does not forget that he is the Apostle Paul to whom Philemon owes his conversion to Christianity—a debt which he can never pay.

Not to say to thee, etc. Better, “to say nothing of thine owing me thy very self.”

20. Yea, brother. May I enjoy thee in the Lord : refresh my heart in Christ.

May I enjoy thee in the Lord. Better, “let me have this profit from thee in the Lord.” There is a play on the words here, for Onesimus means profitable.

My heart. See above on verse 7.

The Vulgate in domino should be in Christo, as in the Greek.

21. Trusting in thy obedience, I have written to thee: knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

St. Paul appeals to the Christian obedience of Philemon to grant his request in behalf of Onesimus, and “more”—hinting, perhaps at the latter’s liberation from the state of slavery.

22. But withal prepare me also a lodging. For I hope that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.

Philemon can hardly refuse what St. Paul asks, since their relations are so intimate, and to stress this intimacy at this psychological time, the Apostle asks Philemon to be ready to give him hospitality on his forthcoming visit to Colossae.

23. There salute thee Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus;
24. Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke my fellow-laborers.
25. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

CONCLUSION OF THE LETTER~23-25. St. Paul in closing includes the greetings of his companions in Rome, who are the same as those mentioned at the close of Colossians (4:10-14), with the exception of Jesus who was called Justus. The blessing is for Philemon and his household, as in verse 2.

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One Response to Father Callan’s Commentary on St Paul’s Letter to Philemon

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | stjoeofoblog

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