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Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The MOST Theological Collection: Commentary on the Pauline Epistles (The Thought of St. Paul)

"Chapter 9. Letter to Philemon"


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Paul in the Interval before Philemon: We have not followed Paul's movements recently. Before reading Philemon we need to fill in a bit.

Paul had probably written Romans from Corinth, or at least, from Achaia, most likely early in 58. In Spring he wanted to sail from Corinth to Syria, but a plot by Jews made him decide to go by land instead, by way of Macedonia.

Disciples from Beroea, Thessalonica, Derbe and Ephesus went along. He spent the Passover of 58 in Philippi. Then Paul took ship for Troas, then went by land to Assos, then by ship towards Mitylene, and skirted the coast of Asia Minor, coming from Chios to Samos, then to Miletus.

At Miletus he gave a speech to the presbyteroi of the church of Ephesus, whom he had summoned: Acts 20:17-35.

It is interesting to notice that in 20:17 they are called presbyteroi, but in 20:28 the same men are called episkopoi. This reflects the imprecision of terms at that period.

In speaking to them he said he had never held back the truth from them. He said he was on his way to Jerusalem, driven by the Spirit, who told him several times that chains and trouble awaited him there. He also said: "Attend to yourselves and to the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit of God has placed you as episkopoi to shepherd the church of God, which he acquired through His own blood. I know that there will come forth from you after my departure, savage wolves, not sparing the flock. And from your own number there will arise men speaking perverse things to draw followers after them." Just before these words he had said: "And now, behold, I know that you will no longer see my face, all of you through whom I went preaching the kingdom."

They wept much, and took him to the ship. He sailed on to Cos, Rhodes, Patara in Lycia, Tyre in Phoenicia, Ptolemais, and Caesarea Maritima. Then he went by land to Jerusalem, hoping to be in time for the Pentecost of 58.

At Jerusalem he paid his respects to James and all the presbyteroi (Acts 21:17). Paul told them in detail what God had done among the gentiles by his ministry. They praised God, but then James added: "See brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and all are zealous for the Law. But they have heard about you, that you teach all the Jews who are among the gentiles, to depart from Moses, saying they should not circumcise their children or walk according to the customs."

So they advised Paul to join four men who had made vows and to pay their expenses as a gesture of good will. Paul agreed, and went through the ceremonial days.

When the seven days were almost completed, some Jews from the province of Asia saw him in the Temple precincts. They charged that he broke the law of Moss and defiled the Temple by bringing a Greek into it. They had seen Trophimus the Ephesian with Paul before, and thought he had brought him into the Temple.

Then the whole city was stirred up. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the Temple.

When they wanted to kill him, word came to the commander of the cohort. He at once took solders and centurions and ran down to them. Then they stopped beating Paul. The commander arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Paul asked to speak to the crowd, and did so in Hebrew _ commentators generally say that it must have been Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, which became the most common language as a result of the Babylonian exile. Yet St. Luke must have known the difference.

In his speech Paul told of a trance he had had in the court of the Temple, when he saw Jesus speaking to him, telling him to leave Jerusalem and go to the gentiles. Then the crowd again shouted to kill him. The Roman took him inside, and was preparing to flog him. Paul objected that he was a Roman citizen. The centurion was frightened at that, and asked Paul was it true. The commander said he had bought citizenship at a high price. Paul said: But I am a citizen by birth.

The next day he released Paul from prison, and called the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin. Ananias ordered an attendant to strike Paul. Paul said, "You are the one God will strike, you whitewashed wall." An attendant protested: "How dare you insult God's high priest?" Paul answered that he did not know it was the high priest.

Then Paul noticing that both Pharisees and Sadducees were present said he was a Pharisee, and was on trial because of his hope in the resurrection of the dead. That really started it up again, the Pharisees and Sadducees began to quarrel. The commander feared they would tear Paul to pieces, and so had the troops take him back to headquarters.

The next day some Jews made a conspiracy, vowed not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. They planned to get him brought down for examination, and to kill him on the way. But a son of Paul's sister heard about the plot and warned Paul. Paul had him report to the commander, so the commander sent Paul to Caesarea at night, with a heavy guard, to Felix the governor. Felix kept Paul in prison for two years, hoping for a bribe (Acts 24:26).

Then Porcius Festus became the new governor. To please the Jews, he left Paul in prison. Festus went to Jerusalem. Jews there urged him to send Paul to Jerusalem, hoping to kill him on the way. Festus invited them to send leading men to Caesarea. Festus asked Paul if he was willing to go to Jerusalem. Paul then appealed to the Emperor, and Festus had to make ready to send him to Rome.

Before Paul left, King Agrippa and his queen Bernice came to Caesarea and called on Festus. Festus invited them to hear Paul. Paul told the story of his conversion and said: "The Messiah had to suffer, and as the first to rise from the dead, He will proclaim light to our people and to the gentiles." Festus shouted, "Paul, you are insane." But Agrippa sided with Paul and said that in a little more Paul might make him a Christian. Festus and Agrippa talked it over and Agrippa remarked that Paul could have been set free if he had not appealed to the Emperor. As a citizen, Paul had that right of appeal, and as soon as he did so, lower authorities lost rights over him.

Paul and some other prisoners were put on ship. Luke seems to have been along, for he said: "We boarded a ship from Adramyttium heading for ports in the province of Asia." The next day they put in at Sidon, where Julian a centurion kindly allowed Paul to visit friends. Then they sailed around Cyprus, crossed the open sea off Cilicia and Pamphylia, and came to Myra in Lycia.

There they changed to an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy. But they made little headway because of winds. They sailed past Crete, on the south side. It was autumn, and Paul warned of disaster. They normally would not sail after about the first of November. The centurion would not listen. When they were sailing along the south coast of Crete, a hurricane struck. They were shipwrecked at the island of Malta.

They had given up hope, but Paul told them of a vision saying they would be saved, but the ship would be lost. Luke adds that there were 276 on board (Acts 27:37). Soldiers during the wreck thought at first of killing the prisoners, so no one could escape. But the centurion insisted on saving Paul, and told those who could swim to jump in and swim to land. The others were to hold on to planks or debris from the ship.

On the land a poisonous snake bit Paul on the hand. The natives began to say he must be a murderer, for justice would not let him live. But Paul had no effect from the bite, so they began to say he was a god.

One of the chief men of the island, Publius, gave hospitality for three days. His father was sick, and Paul cured him and many others on the island.

Three months later they sailed in an Alexandrian vessel to Syracuse in Sicily. They spent three days there, then went on to Rhegium, in the toe of Italy. A few days later they reached Puteoli, farther up the west coast of Italy. There were some Christians there, and Paul was escorted by them to Rome. Paul was invited to take a lodging of his own, with a soldier to guard him. He was allowed to preach freely.

After three days, Paul invited the Jewish community, told his story, tried to convince them about Jesus. But after hearing it all, they began to leave without reaching any agreement. Paul then said: "The Holy Spirit said it well when He said to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah: 'Go to this people and say: You may listen carefully, but you will never understand; you may look intently, but you will never see. The heart of this people has grown sluggish. They have scarcely used their ears to listen. They have closed their eyes so they might not see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their minds, and repent, and I would have to heal them.'" Paul added: "Now you must see that this salvation of God has been sent to the gentiles, and they will heed it."

Some commentators claim to see a difficulty here. In Ephesians 2:11-22 we read that those who once were far off (the gentiles) have been brought near, and Jew and gentile have been made one in the blood of Christ. But here in Acts Paul gives up on the Jews. But the answer is so simple if one has eyes to see. There are three groups in the actual situation: 1) gentiles who are converted to Christ; 2) Jews who accept Christ (as in Ephesians); 3) Jews who reject Christ, as those whom Paul met in Rome.

Paul remained two years in this house arrest, and preached without hindrance. The period was 61-63 A.D.

The Acts of the Apostles ends here. We are not sure why. Perhaps Luke intended to write a follow-up volume. Or perhaps his purpose was to show how the faith came to Rome, the center of the world.

The Epistle Itself: Philemon was a young, well-off, respected Christian of some town in Phrygia, probably of Colossae. He had a house-church. His name means "beloved." Paul will play on that as well as on the name of his slave, Onesimus, which means "useful."

Onesimus the slave had run away, after either stealing something or causing his master notable damage. He came to Rome, where Paul seems to have converted him. Eventually Paul learned he was a slave of Philemon. Paul would have liked to keep him with him, but decided to send him back. Paul promises to repay the damage caused by Onesimus. So he sent him back with Tychicus, who also carried the Epistle to Colossae (4:7-9). Colossians 4:9 suggests that Onesimus was a Colossian. There is also an Onesimus who appears as Bishop of Ephesus.1 It may have been the same person.

It is clear that this little Epistle was written during Paul's house arrest, 61-63. There is no good reason to question it. Everyone accepts it as a work of Paul.

On the matter of St. Paul's attitude to slavery, please see again our comments on 1 Corinthians 7:17-24.

Summary and Comments on Philemon

Since this Epistle is so short and easy, we will put both summary and comments together, with the comments in square brackets.

Paul, a prisoner of Christ and Timothy his brother, and Apphia his sister, and Archippus his fellow worker, send greetings to Philemon the beloved [a play on the meaning of Philemon] and to the church that meets in the house of Philemon.

Paul gives thanks to God always when he remembers them in his prayers, for he has heard of the love and faith they have towards the Lord Jesus and all the holy ones [that is, Christians _ set aside for God by the covenant]. He prays that the sharing of their faith may bring good effects by the knowledge of all the good that is in them in regard to Christ Jesus. Paul had much joy and consolation over their love, for Philemon has refreshed the hearts of the holy ones.

Even though Paul is sure he could command what Philemon should do, yet he entreats through love _ he, Paul, the old man [the word is presbytes, which would mean between ages 50 and 60] and even now a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

Paul entreats Philemon on behalf of his child whom he begot in his bonds, namely, Onesimus _ who once was useless to Philemon [beginning a play on Onesimus, which means useful] but now is very useful both to Paul and to Philemon. Paul has sent him back with this letter, Onesimus, Paul's heart. Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus with him so he could help him with the work of the Gospel when Paul is a prisoner. But he did not want to do anything without the knowledge of Philemon so the good Philemon may be free and not compelled.

Perhaps Onesimus was separated from Philemon briefly, so that Philemon might have him back forever, not as a slave, but more than a slave, as a brother, beloved [play on Philemon, again] especially to Paul, even more to Philemon, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

If then Philemon shares with Paul [probably, in the faith] Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as if he were Paul. If Onesimus wronged Philemon in leaving [damage or theft?] Paul says: Charge it to me. He will pay _ not to mention that Philemon owes Paul even his very self [Paul gave him eternal life].

Paul asks Philemon to be useful [play on Onesimus] to him in the Lord, to refresh his heart in Christ. Paul is confident Philemon will obey [he could mean "the obedience that is faith," as in Romans 1:5] and has written this letter knowing Philemon will do even more than Paul asks. Paul asks Philemon to also get ready a room for him, for Paul hopes through the prayers of Philemon, to be given back to him.

Greetings from Epaphras, Paul's fellow prisoner in Christ, and Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, who work with him. [Epaphras was a Colossian, probably converted by Paul at Ephesus. He seems to have brought the faith to Colossae, and probably also Hierapolis and Laodicea: cf. Colossians 4:12-13. Mark is probably the John Mark who deserted Paul at the start of his first missionary expedition. Aristarchus was a native of Thessalonika, who worked with Paul: cf. Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2. Demas seems later to have deserted: cf. 2 Timothy 4:10, which says: "Demas, in love with the present world, has left me and gone to Thessalonika." Luke seems to be the Evangelist].

Paul asks that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ may be with their spirit. Amen.


1 C.107-17: cf. St. Ignatius, Epistle to Ephesians 1-6.

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