Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 43: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Philemon Verses 8-14
8. Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,
8. Quapropter multam in Christo fiduciam habens imperandi tibi quod decet.
9. Yet, for love’s sake, I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.
9. Propter caritatem magis rogo, quum talis sim, nempe Paulus senex; nunc vero etiam vinctus Iesu Christi.
10. I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
10. Rogo autem to pro filio meo, quem genui in vinculis meis, Onesimo,
11. Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
11. Qui aliquando tibi inutilis fuit, nunc autem et mihi et tibi utilis.
12. Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:
12. Quem remisi; tu vero illum, hoc est, mea viscera, suscipe.
13. Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:
13. Quem ego volebam apud me ipsum retinere, ut pro to mihi ministraret in vinculis evangelii.
14. But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.
14. Sed absque tua sententia nihil volui facere, ut non quasi secundum necessitatem esset bonum tuum, sed voluntarium.
8. Wherefore, while I have great confidence in Christ to command thee. That is, “though I have authority so that I might justly command thee, yet thy love makes me prefer to entreat thee.”
9. Being such a one. He claims the right to command on two grounds, that he is an elder, and that he is a prisoner for Christ He says that, on account of Philemon’s love, he chooses rather to entreat, because we interpose authority in commanding those things which we wish to extort by necessity even from the unwilling, but there is no need of commanding those who willingly obey. And because they who are ready of their own accord to do their duty listen more willingly to a calm statement of what is necessary to be done than to the exercise of authority, with good reason does Paul, when he has to deal with an obedient man, use entreaty. By his example he shows that pastors should endeavor to draw disciples gently rather than to drag them by force; and indeed, when, by condescending to entreaty, he foregoes his right, this has far greater power to obtain his wish than if he issued a command. Besides, he claims nothing for himself, but in Christ, that is, on account of the office which he has received from him; for he does not mean that they whom Christ has appointed to be apostles are destitute of authority.
What is proper. By adding this, he means that teachers have not power to enact whatever they please, but that their authority is confined within these limits, that they must not command anything but “what is proper,” and, in other respects, consistent with every man’s duty. Hence (as I said a little before) pastors are reminded that the hearts of their people must be soothed with all possible gentleness, wherever this method is likely to be more advantageous, but yet so as to know that they who are treated so gently have nothing less exacted from them than what they ought to do.
The designation “elder,” here, denotes not age, but office. He calls himself an apostle for this reason, that the person with whom he has to deal, and with whom he talks familiarly, is a fellow-laborer in the ministry of the word.
10. I beseech thee for my son. Since less weight is commonly attached to those prayers which are not founded in some cause of just commendation, Paul shows that Onesimus is so closely related to him as to afford a good reason for supplicating in his behalf. Here it is of importance to consider how deep is his condescension, when he gives the name of “son” to a slave, and a runaway, and a thief.
When he says that Onesimus has been begotten by him this must be understood to mean, that it was done by his ministry, and not by his power. To renew a soul of man and form it anew to the image of God — is not a human work, and it is of this spiritual regeneration that he now speaks. Yet because the soul is regenerated by faith, and “faith is by hearing,” (Ro 10:17,) on that, account he who administers the doctrine holds the place of a parent. Moreover, because the word of God preached by man is the seed of eternal life, we need not wonder that he from whose mouth we receive that seed is called a father. Yet, at the same time, we must believe that, while the ministry of a man is efficacious in regenerating the soul, yet, strictly speaking, God himself regenerates by the power of his Spirit. These modes of expression, therefore, do not imply any opposition between God and man, but only show what God does by means of men. When he says that he had begotten him in his bonds, this circumstance adds weight to the commendation.
12. Receive him, that is, my bowels. Nothing could have been more powerful for assuaging the wrath of Philemon; for if he had refused to forgive his slave, he would thus have used cruelty against “the bowels” of Paul. This is remarkable kindness displayed by Paul, that he did not hesitate to receive, as it were into his bowels, a contemptible slave, and thief, and runaway, so as to defend him from the indignation of his master. And, indeed, if the conversion of a man to God were estimated by us, at its proper value, we too would embrace, in the same manner, those who should give evidence that they had truly and sincerely repented.
13. Whom I was desirous to keep beside me. This is another argument for the purpose of appeasing Philemon, that Paul sends him back a slave, of whose services, in other respects, he stood greatly in need. It would have been extreme cruelty, to disdain so strong affection manifested by Paul. He likewise states indirectly, that it will be a gratification to himself to have Onesimus sent back to him rather than that he should be harshly treated at home.
That he might minister to me instead of thee in the bonds of the gospel. He now mentions other circumstances: first, Onesimus will supply the place of his master, by performing this service; secondly, Paul himself, through modesty, was unwilling to deprive Philemon of his right; and, thirdly, Philemon will receive more applause, if, after having had his slave restored to him, he shall willingly and generously send him back. From this last consideration we infer, that we ought to aid the martyrs of Christ by every kind office in our power, while they are laboring for the testimony of the gospel; for if exile, imprisonment stripes, blows, and violent seizing of our property, are believed by us to belong to the gospel, as Paul here calls them, whoever refuses to share and partake of them separates himself even from Christ. Undoubtedly the defense of the gospel belongs alike to all. Accordingly, he who endures persecution, for the sake of the gospel, ought not to be regarded as a private individual, but as one who publicly represents the whole Church. Hence it follows, that all believers ought to be united in taking care of it, so that they may not, as is frequently done, leave the gospel to be defended in the person of one man.
14. That thy benefit might not be by constraint. This is drawn from the general rule, that no sacrifices are acceptable to God but those which are freely offered. Paul speaks of almsgiving in the same manner. (2Co 9:7.) Τό ἀγαθον is here put for “acts of kindness,” and willingness is contrasted with constraint, when there is no other opportunity of putting to the test a generous and cheerful act of the will; for that duty which is generously performed, and not through influence exercised by others, is alone entitled to full praise. It is also worthy of observation, that Paul, while he acknowledges that Onesimus was to blame in past time, affirms that he is changed; and lest Philemon should have any doubt that his slave returns to him with a new disposition and different conduct, Paul says that he has made full trial of his repentance by personal knowledge.