Epistle of Paul to Philemon - Chapter 1 - Verse 16
Verse 16. Not now as a servant. The adverb rendered "not now," (ouketi,) means no more, no further, no longer. It implies that he had been before in this condition, but was not to be now. Comp. Mt 19:6, "They are no more twain." They were once so, but they are not to be regarded as such now. Mt 22:46, "Neither durst any man from that day forth, ask him any more questions." They once did it, but now they did not dare to do it. Lu 15:19, "And am no more worthy to be called thy son," though I once was. Joh 6:66, "And walked no more with him," though they once did. See also Joh 11:54; 14:19; 17:11; Ac 8:39; Gal 4:7; Eph 2:19. This passage, then, proves that he had been before a servant -- doulov -- doulos. But still it is not certain what kind of a servant he was. The word does not necessarily mean slave, nor can it be proved from this passage, or from any other part of the epistle, that he was at any time a slave. See Barnes "Eph 6:5".

See Barnes "1 Ti 6:1".

The word denotes servant of any kind, and it should never be assumed that those to whom it was applied were slaves. It is true that slavery existed in the heathen nations when the gospel was first preached, and it is doubtless true that many slaves were converted, See Barnes "1 Co 7:21"; but the mere use of the word does not necessarily prove that he to whom it is applied was a slave. If Onesimus were a slave, there is reason to think that he was of a most respectable character, comp. See Barnes "Col 4:9"; and indeed all that is implied in the use of the term here, and all that is said of him, would be met by the supposition that he was a voluntary servant, and that he had been in fact intrusted with important business by Philemon. It would seem from Phm 1:18, ("or oweth thee aught,") that he was in a condition which made it possible for him to hold property, or at least to be intrusted.

But above a servant, a brother beloved. Christian brother. Comp. Notes, 1 Ti 6:2. He was especially dear to Paul himself as a Christian, and he trusted that he would be so to Philemon.

Specially to me. That is, I feel a special or particular interest in him, and affection for him. This he felt not only on account of the traits of character which he had evinced since his conversion, but because he had been converted under his instrumentality when he was a prisoner. A convert made in such circumstances would be particularly dear to one.

But how much more unto thee. Why, it may be asked, would he then be particularly dear to Philemon? I answer, because

(1.) of the former relation which he sustained to him -- a member of his own family, and bound to him by strong ties;

(2.) because he would receive him as a penitent, and would have joy in his returning from the error of his ways;

(3.) because he might expect him to remain long with him, and be of advantage to him as a Christian brother; and

(4.) because he had voluntarily returned, and thus shown that he felt a strong attachment to his former master.

In the flesh. This phrase is properly used in reference to any relation which may exist pertaining to the present world, as contradistinguished from that which is formed primarily by religion, and which would be expressed by the subjoined phrase, "in the Lord." It might, in itself, refer to any natural relation of blood, or to any formed in business, or to any constituted by mere friendship, or to family alliance, or to any relation having its origin in voluntary or involuntary servitude. It is not necessary to suppose, in order to meet the full force of the expression, either that Onesimus had been a slave, or that he would continue to be regarded as such. Whatever relation of the kind, referred to above, may have existed between him and Philemon, would be appropriately denoted by this phrase. The new and more interesting relation which they were now to sustain to each other, which was formed by religion, is expressed by the phrase "in the Lord." In both these, Paul hoped that Onesimus would manifest the appropriate spirit of a Christian, and be worthy of his entire confidence.

In the Lord. As a Christian. He will be greatly endeared to your heart as a consistent and worthy follower of the Lord Jesus.

On this important verse, then, in relation to the use which is so often made of this epistle by the advocates of slavery, to show that Paul sanctioned it, and that it is a duty to send back those who have escaped from their masters that they may again be held in bondage, we may remark,

(1.) there is no certain evidence that Onesimus was ever a slave at all. All the proof that he was, is to be found in the word doulov -- doulos -- in this verse. But, as we have seen, the mere use of this word by no means proves that. All that is necessarily implied by it is that he was in some way the servant of Philemon -- whether hired or bought cannot be shown.

(2.) At all events, even supposing that he had been a slave, Paul did not mean that he should return as such, or to be regarded as such. He meant, whatever may have been his former relation, and whatever subsequent relation he might sustain, that he should be regarded as a beloved Christian brother; that the leading conception in regard to him should be that he was a fellow-heir of salvation, a member of the same redeemed church, a candidate for the same heaven.

(3.) Paul did not send him back in order that he might be a slave, or with a view that the shackles of servitude should be riveted on him. There is not the slightest evidence that he forced him to return, or that he advised him to do it, or even that he expressed a wish that he would; and when he did send him, it was not as a slave, but as a beloved brother in the Lord. It cannot be shown that the motive for sending him back was, in the slightest degree, that he should be a slave. No such thing is intimated, nor is any such thing necessary to be supposed in order to a fair interpretation of the passage.

(4.) It is clear that, even if Onesimus had been a slave before, it would have been contrary to the wishes of Paul that Philemon should now hold him as such. Paul wished him to regard him "not as a servant," but as a "beloved brother." If Philemon complied with his wishes, Onesimus was never afterwards regarded or treated as a slave. If he did so regard or treat him, it was contrary to the expressed intention of the apostle, and it is certain that he could never have shown this letter in justification of it. It cannot fail to strike any one that if Philemon followed the spirit of this epistle, he would not consider Onesimus to be a slave; but if he sustained the relation of a servant at all, it would be as a voluntary member of his household, where, in all respects, he would be regarded and treated, not as a "chattel, or a "thing," but as a Christian brother.

(5.) This passage, therefore, may be regarded as full proof that it is not right to send a slave back, against his will, to his former master, to be a slave. It is right to help one if he wishes to go back; to give him a letter to his master, as Paul did to Onesimus; to furnish him money to help him on his journey if he desires to return; and to commend him as a Christian brother, if he is such; but beyond that, the example of the apostle Paul does not go. It is perfectly clear that he would not have sent him back to be regarded and treated as a slave; but being able to commend him as a Christian, he was willing to do it, and he expected that he would be treated, not as a slave, but as a Christian. The case before us does not go at all to prove that Paul would have ever sent him back to be a chattel or a thing. If, with his own consent, and by his own wish, we can send a slave back ta his master to be treated as a Christian and as a man, the example of Paul may show that it would be right to do it, but it does not go beyond that.

(6.) In confirmation of this, and as a guide in duty now, it may be observed, that Paul had been educated as a Hebrew; that he was thoroughly imbued with the doctrines of the Old Testament; and that one of the elementary principles of that system of religion was, that a runaway slave was in no circumstances to be returned by force to his former master. "Thou shalt NOT deliver unto his master the servant that is escaped from his master unto thee," De 23:15. It cannot be supposed that, trained as he was in the principles of the Hebrew religion -- of which this was a positive and unrepealed law, and imbued with the benevolent spirit of the gospel -- a system so hostile to oppression, the apostle Paul would have constrained a slave who had escaped from bondage to return to servitude against his will.

(7.) It may be added, that if the principles here acted on by Paul were carried out, slavery would speedily cease in the world. Very soon would it come to an end if masters were to regard those whom they hold, "not as slaves," but as beloved Christian brothers; not as chattels and things, but as the redeemed children of God. Thus regarding them, they would no longer feel that they might chain them, and task them, and sell them as property. They would feel that, as Christians and as men, they were on a level with themselves; and that they who were made in the image of God, and who had been redeemed with the blood of his Son, ought to be FREE.

{b} "brother beloved" Mt 18:8; 1 Ti 6:2 {c} "and in the Lord" Col 3:22

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