Bible Verse Explanations and Resources


Philemon 1:12

Adam Clarke
Bible Commentary

Whom I have sent again - The Christian religion never cancels any civil relations; a slave, on being converted, and becoming a free man of Christ, has no right to claim, on that ground, emancipation from the service of his master. Justice, therefore, required St. Paul to send back Onesimus to his master, and conscience obliged Onesimus to agree in the propriety of the measure; but love to the servant induced the apostle to write this conciliating letter to the master.

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible

Whom I have sent again - That is, to Philemon. This was, doubtless, at his own request, for:

(1) there is not the slightest evidence that he compelled him, or even urged him to go. The language is just such as would have been used on the supposition either that he requested him to go and bear a letter to Colosse, or that Onesimus desired to go, and that Paul sent him agreeably to his request; compare Philemon 2:25. “Yet I suppose it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother, and companion in labor,” etc.; Colossians 4:7-8. “All my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a faithful minister and fellow-servant in the Lord: whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that he might know your estate,” etc. But Epaphroditus and Tychicus were not sent against their own will - nor is there any more reason to think that Onesimus was; see the introduction, Section 2. See (4) below.

(2) Paul had no power to send Onesimus back to his master unless he chose to go. He had no civil authority; he had no guard to accompany him; he could entrust him to no sheriff to convey him from place to place, and he had no means of controlling him, if he chose to go to any other place than Colosse. He could indeed have sent him away from himself; he could have told him to go to Colossae, but his power ended there. Onesimus then could have gone where he pleased. But there is no evidence that Paul even told him to go to Colossae against his own inclination, or that he would have sent him away at all unless he had himself requested it.

(3) there may have been many reasons why Onesimus desired to return to Colosse, and no one can prove that he did not express that desire to Paul, and that his “sending” him was not in consequence of such a request. He may have had friends and relatives there; or, being now converted, be may have been sensible that he had wronged his former master, and that he ought to return and repair the wrong; or he may have been poor, and a stranger in Rome, and may have been greatly disappointed in what he had expected to find there when he left Philemon, and may have desired to return to the comparative comforts of his former condition.

(4) it may be added, therefore,

(a) that this passage should not be adduced to prove that we ought to send back runaway slaves to their former masters against their own consent; or to justify the laws which require magistrates to do it; or to show that they who have escaped should be arrested and forcibly detained; or to justify any sort of influence over a runaway slave to induce him to return to his former master. There is not the least evidence that any of these things occurred in the case before us, and if this instance is ever appealed to, it should be to justify what Paul did - and nothing else.

(b) The passage shows that it is right to aid a servant of any kind to return to his master, if he desires it. It is right to give him a “letter,” and to plead earnestly for his favorable reception if he has in any way wronged his master - for Paul did this. On the same principle it would be right to give him pecuniary assistance to enable him to return - for there may be cases where one who has fled from servitude might wish to return. There may be instances where one has had a kind master, with whom he would feel that on the whole he could be more happy than in his present circumstances. Such cases, however, are exceedingly rare. Or there may be instances where one may have relatives that are in the neighborhood or in the family of his former master, and the desire to be with them may be so strong that on the whole he would choose to be a servant as he was before, rather than to remain as he is now. In all such cases it is right to render aid - for the example of the apostle Paul goes to sustain this. But it goes no further. So far as appears, he neither advised Onesimus to return, nor did he compel him; nor did he say one word to influence him to do it; - nor did he mean or expect that he would be a slave when he should have been received again by his master; see the notes at Philemon 1:16.

Thou, therefore, receive him, that is, mine own bowels - There is great delicacy also in this expression. If he had merely said “receive him,” Philemon might have thought only of him as he formerly was. Paul, therefore, adds, “that is, mine own bowels” - “one whom I so tenderly love that he seems to carry my heart with him wherever he goes.” - Doddridge.

Matthew Henry
Concise Bible Commentary
It does not lower any one to condescend, and sometimes even to beseech, where, in strictness of right, we might command: the apostle argues from love, rather than authority, in behalf of one converted through his means; and this was Onesimus. In allusion to that name, which signifies "profitable," the apostle allows that in time past he had been unprofitable to Philemon, but hastens to mention the change by which he had become profitable. Unholy persons are unprofitable; they answer not the great end of their being. But what happy changes conversion makes! of evil, good; of unprofitable, useful. Religious servants are treasures in a family. Such will make conscience of their time and trusts, and manage all they can for the best. No prospect of usefulness should lead any to neglect their obligations, or to fail in obedience to superiors. One great evidence of true repentance consists in returning to practise the duties which have been neglected. In his unconverted state, Onesimus had withdrawn, to his master's injury; but now he had seen his sin and repented, he was willing and desirous to return to his duty. Little do men know for what purposes the Lord leaves some to change their situations, or engage in undertakings, perhaps from evil motives. Had not the Lord overruled some of our ungodly projects, we may reflect upon cases, in which our destruction must have been sure.