I. In the Phlm. 1:1, 2 of the preface we have the persons from and to whom it is written, with some annexed note or title, implying somewhat of argument to the purpose of the letter.
1. The persons writing: Paul, the principal, who calls himself a prisoner of Jesus Christ, that is, for Jesus Christ. To be a prisoner simply is no comfort nor honour; but such as Paul was, for the faith and preaching of the gospel, this was true glory, and proper to move Phlm. upon the request made to him by such a one. A petition from one suffering for Christ and his gospel would surely be tenderly regarded by a believer and minister of Christ, especially when strengthened too with the concurrence of Timothy, one eminent in the church, sometimes called by Paul his son in the faith, but now, it is likely, grown more in years, he styles him his brother. What could be denied to two such petitioners? Paul is not slight in serving a poor convert; he gets all the additional help he can in it.
2. The persons written to are Phlm. and Apphia, and with them Archippus, and the church in Philemon’s house. Philemon, the master of Onesimus, was the principal, to whom the letter is inscribed, the head of the family, in whom were the authority and power of taking in or shutting out, and whose property Onesimus was: with him therefore chiefly lay the business. To Phlm. our dearly beloved, and fellow-labourer; a good man he was, and probably a minister, and on both accounts dearly beloved by Paul. A lover of good men is one property of a good minister (Titus 1:8), and especially must such love those who labour with them in the work of the gospel, and who are faithful therein. The general calling as Christians knits those together who are Christian; but, when conjunction in the special calling as ministers is added, this will be further endearing. Paul, in the highest degree of ministry, not only calls Timothy, an evangelist, his brother, but Philemon, an ordinary pastor, his dearly beloved fellow-labourer—an example of humility and condescension, and of all affectionate regards, even in those that are highest in the church, towards others that are labourers in the same special heavenly calling. With Phlm. Apphia is joined, probably his yoke-fellow; and, having a concern in the domestic affairs, the apostle directs to her likewise. She was a party offended and injured by Onesimus, and therefore proper to be taken notice of in a letter for reconciliation and forgiveness. Justice and prudence would direct Paul to this express notice of her, who might be helpful in furthering the good ends of his writing. She is set before Archippus, as more concerned and having more interest. A kind conjunction there is in domestic matters between husband and wife, whose interests are one, and whose affections and actings must correspond. These are the principal parties written to. The less principal are, Archippus, and the church in Philemon’s house. Archippus was a minister in the church of Colosse, Philemon’s friend, and probably co-pastor with him; Paul might think him one whom Phlm. would advise with, and who might be capable of furthering the good work of peace-making and forgiveness, and therefore might judge fit to put him in the inscription of the letter, with the adjunct of fellow-soldier. He had called Phlm. his fellow-labourer. Ministers must look on themselves as labourers and soldiers, who must therefore take pains, and endure hardship; they must stand on their guard, and make good their post; must look on one another as fellow-labourers, and fellow-soldiers, who must stand together, and strengthen one another’s hands and hearts in any work of their holy function and calling: they need see to it that they be provided with spiritual weapons, and skill to use them; as labourers they must minister the word, and sacraments, and discipline, and watch over souls, as those that must give an account of them; and, as soldiers, they must fight the Lord’s battles, and not entangle themselves in the things of this life, but attend to the pleasing of him who hath chosen them to be soldiers, 2 Tim. 2:4. To those it is added, And to the church in thy house, his whole family, in which the worship of God was kept up, so that he had, as it were, a church in his house. Observe, (1.) Families which generally may be most pious and orderly may yet have one or other in them impious and wicked. This was the aggravation of Onesimus’s sin, that it was where he might and should have learned better; it is likely that he was secret in him misconduct, till his flight discovered him. Hearts are unknown but to God, till overt acts discover them. (2.) This one evil servant did not hinder Philemon’s house from being called and counted a church, for the religious worship and order that were kept up in it; and such should all families be—nurseries of religion, societies where God is called on, his word is read, his sabbaths are observed, and the members are instructed in the knowledge of him and of their duty to him, neglect of which is followed with ignorance and all corruption. Wicked families are nurseries for hell, as good ones are for heaven. (3.) Masters and others of the family may not think it enough to be good, singly and severally in their personal capacities, but they must be socially so; as here Philemon’s house was a church; and Paul, for some concern that all might have in this matter of Onesimus, directs to them all, that their affection as well as Philemon’s might return to him, and that in their way and place they might further, and not hinder, the reconciliation wished and sought. Desirable it is that all in a family be well affected towards one another, for furthering their particular welfare and for the common good and benefit of all. On such accounts might it be that Paul inscribed his letter here so generally, that all might be the more ready to own and receive this poor convert, and to behave affectionately towards him. Next to this inscription is,
II. The apostle’s salutation of those named by him (Phlm. 1:3): Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the token in every epistle; so the apostle writes. He is a hearty well-wisher to all his friends, and wishes for them the best things; not gold, nor silver, nor any earthly good, in the first or chief place, but grace and peace from God in Christ; he cannot give them himself, but he prays for them from him who can bestow them. Grace, the free favour and good-will of God, the spring and fountain of all blessings; and peace, all good, as the fruit and effect of that grace. To you, that is, be bestowed on you, and continued to you, with the comfortable feeling and sense of it in yourselves. From God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit also is understood, though not named; for all acts towards the creatures of the whole Trinity: from the Father, who is our Father in Christ, the first in order of acting as of subsisting; and from Christ, his favour and good-will as God, and the fruits of it through him as Mediator, God-man. It is in the beloved that we are accepted, and through him we have peace and all good things, who is, with the Father and Spirit, to be looked to and blessed and praised for all, and to be owned, not only as Jesus and Christ, but as Lord also. In 2 Cor. 13:14 the apostle’s benediction is full: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all, Amen. Observe, Spiritual blessings are first and especially to be sought for ourselves and others. The favour of God and peace with him, as in itself it is the best and most desirable good, so is it the cause of all other, and what puts sweetness into every mercy and can make happy even in the want of all earthly things. Though there be no herd in the stall, and the labour of the olive fail, yet may such rejoice in the Lord, and joy in the God of their salvation, Hab. 3:17, 18. There are many that say, Who will show us any good? But, if God lift up the light of his countenance, this will put more joy and gladness into the heart than all worldly increase, Ps. 4:6, 7. And Num. 6:26; The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. In this is summarily all good, and from this one fountain, God the Father, Son, and Spirit, all comes. After this salutation of the apostle to Philemon, and his friends and family, for better making way still for his suit to him,
III. He expresses the singular and affection he had for him, by thanksgiving and prayer to God in his behalf, and the great joy for the many good things he knew and heard to be in him, Phlm. 1:4-7. The apostle’s thanksgiving and prayer for Phlm. are here set forth by the object, circumstance, and matter of them, with the way whereby much of the knowledge of Philemon’s goodness came to him.
1. Here is the object of Paul’s praises and prayers for Philemon: I thank my God, making mention of thee in my prayers, Phlm. 1:4. Observe, (1.) God is the author of all the good that is in any, or that is done by them. From me is thy fruit found, Hos. 14:8. To him therefore is all the praise due. 1 Chron. 29:13, 14, But [or for] who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? For all things come of thee, both wherewith to offer, and the will and heart to do it. On this account (says he) we thank thee our God, and praise thy glorious name. (2.) It is the privilege of good men that their praises and prayers they come to God as their God: Our God, we thank thee, said David; and I thank my God, said Paul. (3.) Our prayers and praises should be offered up to God, not for ourselves only, but for others also. Private addresses should not be altogether with a private spirit, minding our own things only, but others must be remembered by us. We must be affected with joy and thankfulness for any good in them, or done by them, or bestowed on them, as far as is known to us, and seek for them what they need. In this lies no little part of the communion of saints. Paul, in his private thanksgivings and prayers, was often particular in remembering his friends: I thank my God, making mention of thee in my prayers; sometimes it may be by name, or at least having them particularly in his thoughts; and God knows who is meant, though not named. This is a means of exercising love, and obtaining good for others. Strive with me, by your prayers to God for me, said the apostle: and what he desired for himself he surely practised on behalf of others; so should all. Pray one for another, says James, Jas. 5:16.
2. Here is the circumstance: Always making mention of thee. Always—usually, not once or twice only, but frequently. So must we remember Christian friends much and often, as their case may need, bearing them in our thoughts and upon our hearts before our God.
3. Here is the matter both of his praises and prayers, in reference to Philemon.
(1.) Of his praises. [1.] He thanks God for the love which he heard Phlm. had towards the Lord Jesus. He is to be loved as God superlatively, as his divine perfections require; and as related to us, the Lord, and our Lord, our Maker, Redeemer, and Saviour, who loved us, and gave himself for us. Paul thanks God for what he heard of this, the signal marks and expressions of it in Philemon. [2.] For his faith in Christ also. Love to Christ, and faith in him, are prime Christian graces, for which there is great ground of praise to God, where he has blessed any with them, as Rom. 1:8; I thank my God because your faith is published throughout the world; and, in reference to the Colossians (Col. 1:3, 4), We give thanks to God since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus. This is a saving grace, and the very principle of Christian life and of all good works. [3.] He praises God likewise for Philemon’s love to all the saints. These two must go together; for he who loveth him that begat must and will love those also that are begotten of him. The apostle joins them in that (Col. 1:3, 4), We give thanks to God since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which you have to all the saints. These bear the image of Christ, which will be loved by every Christian. Different sentiments and ways in what is not essential will not make a difference of affection as to the truth, though difference in the degrees of love will be according as more or less of that image is discerned. Mere external differences are nothing here. Paul calls a poor converted slave his bowels. We must love, as God does, all saints. Paul thanked God for the good that was not only in the churches, but in the particular persons he wrote to, and though this too was known to him merely by report: Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast towards the Lord Jesus, and towards all saints. This was what he enquired after concerning his friends, the truth, and growth, and fruitfulness of their graces, their faith in Christ, and love to him and to all the saints. Love to saints, if it be sincere, will be catholic and universal love towards all saints; but faith and love, though in the heart they are hidden things, are known by the effects of them. Therefore,
(2.) The apostle joins prayer with his praises, that the fruits of Philemon’s faith and love might be more and more conspicuous, so as that the communication of them might constrain others to the acknowledgment of all the good things that were in him and in his house towards Christ Jesus; that their light might so shine before men that they, seeing their good works, might be stirred up to imitate them, and to glorify their Father who is in heaven. Good works must be done, not of vain-glory to be seen, yet such as may be seen to God’s glory and the good of men.
4. He adds a reason, both of his prayer and his praises (Phlm. 1:7): For “we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother. The good thou hast done and still doest is abundant matter of joy and comfort to me and others, who therefore desire you may continue and abound in such good fruits more and more, to God’s honour and the credit of religion. The administration of this service not only supplieth the want of the saints, but is abundant also by many thanksgivings unto God,” 2 Cor. 9:12.