« PreviousContinue »
The subject of the present discourse is the epistle of Paul to Philemon, which, as it will be repeated in the course of the sermon, I shall not now recite. This epistle, though the shortest, and in some respects the least important, which has reached us, of this apostle, is, notwithstanding, one of the most interesting. It is a private letter from one man to another, written on an occasion not very extraordinary; admitted, however, and retained in what is called the canon of the New Testament, in consequence of the apostolical character of the writer. It neither presents us with any summary of doctrines, nor statement of important facts; but it invites the attention of christians by the place where it is found, the well known character of the author, the characteristic merit of the letter itself, and, last of all, by the consequences, which, I think, may bè deduced from it. Its brevity will allow us to consider it in a single discourse; and such is its plainness, that it does not call for a more close and critical examination, than may be given from the pulpit, or comprehended by a promiscuous assembly. The apostle, when he wrote this letter, was in confinement at Rome, fastened, it is supposed, by a chain of a convenient length, to the soldier, who guarded him, and in the house which he had hired; so that his confinement was of such a nature as not to restrain him from preaching at home, and receiving converts to the faith of Jesus. Philemon, to whom he writes, was a rich, generous, and eminent christian at Colosse, in Phrygia, one of whose slaves, named Onesimus, had absconded, and, as was natural, had found his way to Rome, the metropolis of the empire. Here, it appears, he had by some means met with Paul, who converted him to the christian faith. The apostle seems to have discovered in him the best dispositions; not only a sincere repentance for his fault, but an honest disposition to return to his master. Accordingly, though Paul had become exceedingly attached to him in his confinement, he sends him back to Colosse, furnished with this letter, in which the apostle entreats Philemon, instead of punishing Onesimus with death, as the Roman law authorized him to do, to receive him again without taking notice of his crime, and, for his friend Paul's sake, to treat him in future as a penitent and faithful servant, and, what was more, as a convert to the same faith with himself, and peculiarly dear to the apostle. Such is the simple occasion of the epistle. I shall now recite it from the beginning, interweaving observations on the few expressions, which have in them any obscurity.
“ Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy, our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow labourer, and to our beloved Apphia, and Arehippus, our fellow soldier, and to the church in thy house, grace to you, and peace, from God our father, and the Lord Jesus Christ." - The only remark to be made on this common christian salutation, is, that Paul forbears to style himself an apostle, as usual in his epistles to societies, because he was now writing, not in the character of a minister to enjoin obedience, but in that of a friend, to solicit a favour. It may be added, that by the church in the house of Philemon it is not intended, that all the christians in Colosse assembled for worship under his roof, but rather, that all the members of his family were converts. This, at least, is the interpretation of some of the fathers, and is confirmed by similar expressions in other epistles.*
“ I thank my God, (making mention of thee always in my prayers,) hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus Christ, and toward all saints.” — By a very common transposition, faith is to be referred to Christ, and love to the saints, that is, to the christians, who especially needed the kindness and hospitality of their richer brethren, in those days of poverty and persecution. The whole passage, beginning with this sentence, is an introductory civility, adapted to conciliate the favour of Philemon, and repress the first emotions of passion toward his slave.
The next clause is the only one in this letter, which remains obscure. “ Making mention of thee always in my prayers, that the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.”
-The apostle seems to express a wish, that the generous disposition and good offices of Philemon might produce in others a persuasion of the worth of the gospel, and an acknowledgment and imitation of its benevolent effects in this distinguished convert.
“For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints (i. e. the hearts, minds, spirits of the christians) are refreshed by thee, brother.” This phraseology is common in scripture, and it is not without care, that Paul has introduced the engaging and endearing appellation of brother.
* Vide Col. iv. 15. Rom. xvi. 5. and Macknight ad locum,
He now proceeds to the main object of his letter, the restoration of Onesimus. There is a mixture of tenderness and of authority, of affection and politeness, in this short letter, an earnestness of intercession, united with a care not to offend even by a word, a choice of phrases the least obnoxious, of arguments the most honourable, and of motives the most penetrating, which show the writer to have been a man of great address, as well as of strong affections, and master of a persuasion not easily resisted.
“ Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee what is convenient, (or fit,) yet for love's sake I rather beseech ; (being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ,) I beseech thee for my son, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus.”—This keeping the reader in suspense till the very close of the period, as to the name of the offender, has been often produced as a great rhetorical beauty in the apostle's style. But the crowd of motives, which he has contrived to collect in these few words, is yet more re. markable. He reminds Philemon of his reputation for kindness, of his friendship for the writer, of his respect for character, and especially for age, of his compassion for his bonds; and, with all this, lets fall an insinuation, that perhaps some deference was due to his wishes as an apostle. On the other hand, he presents before Philemon the repentance of Onesimus, and his return to virtue, his christian profession, and the consequent confidence and attachment of Paul, his spiritual father.
“ (Onesimus) who in time past was to thee unprofitable, (a very mild expression indeed of his fault,) but now profitable (or rather of value) to thee and me, whom I have sent back again-do thou,
therefore, receive him, that is mine own bowels, (or as a part of myself,)—whom I wished to have retained with me, that, in thy stead, he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel, (i. e. during my confinement on account of preaching the gospel) but without thy mind, (or consent,) would I do nothing, (not even retain him an hour;) that thy benefit, (rather, thy goodness,) should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.” * The apostle means by this, that he chose, that Onesimus should first go and put himself in his master's power, so that the pardon might be perfectly voluntary on the part of Philemon. For, if the apostle had detained Onesimus, till, by his intercession, there had been obtained from his master a previous promise to receive him kindly, the act of goodness in Philemon would have been neither so free, nor so disinterested, as that which he had now an opportunity to exert.
Observe, in the next clause, the softness, with which the apostle mentions the offence of Onesimus, as if it were simply a providential separation of the master and slave, with a view to a future and superiour good. “ For, perhaps, he therefore departed (or, as in the Greek, was separated) from thee for a season, that thou mightest have him forever ; no longer as a servant, but above a servant, as a belov. ed brother; specially so to me, but how much more to thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord;" that is, in modern phrase, both as he is a man, and a christian.
The apostle continues his intercession by every mode of persuasion, which his ardour and generosity can suggest. “If thou count me therefore a partner, (or a friend,) receive him as myself. If he have wronged thee in any thing, or oweth thee aught, put that to my account. I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it; not to say to thee,