Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 43: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Philemon Verses 15-19
15. For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;
15. Forte’ enim ideo separatus fuit ad tempus, ut perpetuo eum retineres;
16. Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?
16. Non jam ut servum, sed super servum fratrem dilectum maxime mihi, quanto magis tibi et in carne et in Domino?
17. If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.
17. Si igitur me habes consortem, suscipe eum tanquam me.
18. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
18. Si vero qua in re to laesit, vel aliquid debet, id mihi imputa
19. I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.
19. Ego Paulus scripsi mea manu, ego solvam, ut ne dicam tibi, quod et to ipsum mihi debes.
15 For perhaps he was separated. If we are angry on account of offenses committed by men, our minds ought to be soothed, when we perceive that those things which were done through malice have been turned to a different end by the purpose of God. A joyful result may be regarded as a remedy for evils, which is held out to us by the hand of God for blotting out offenses. Thus Joseph — when he takes into consideration, that the wonderful providence of God brought it about, that, though he was sold as a slave, yet he was elevated to that high rank, from which he could provide food for his brethren and his father — forgets the treachery and cruelty of his brethren, and says, that he was sent before on their account. (Ge 45:5.)
Paul therefore reminds Philemon that he ought not to be so greatly offended at the flight of his slave, for it was the cause of a benefit not to be regretted. So long as Onesimus was at heart a runaway, Philemon, though he had him in his house, did not actually enjoy him as his property; for he was wicked and unfaithful, and could not be of real advantage. He says, therefore, that he was a wanderer for a little time, that, by changing his place, he might be converted and become a new man. And he prudently softens everything, by calling the flight a departure, and adding, that it was only for a time.
That thou mightest receive him for ever. Lastly, he contrasts the perpetuity of the advantage with the short duration of the loss.
But above a servant, a beloved brother. He next brings forward another advantage of the flight, that Onesimus has not only been corrected by means of it, so as to become a useful slave, but that he has become the “brother” of his master.
Especially to me. Lest the heart of Onesimus, wounded by the offense which was still fresh, should be reluctant to admit the brotherly appellation, Paul claims Onesimus first of all, as his own “brother.” Hence he infers that Philemon is much more closely related to him, because both of them had the same relationship in the Lord according to the Spirit, but, according to the flesh, Onesimus is a member of his family. Here we behold the uncommon modesty of Paul, who bestows on a worthless slave the title of a brother, and even calls him a dearly beloved brother to himself. And, indeed, it would be excessive pride, if we should be ashamed of acknowledging as our brother those whom God accounts to be his sons.
How much more to thee. By these words he does not mean that Philemon is higher in rank according to the Spirit; but the meaning is, “Seeing that he is especially a brother to me, he must be much more so to thee; for there is a twofold relationship between you.”
We must hold it to be an undoubted truth, that Paul does not rashly or lightly (as many people do) answer for a man of whom he knows little, or extol his faith before he has ascertained it by strong proofs, and therefore in the person of Onesimus there is exhibited a memorable example of repentance. We know how wicked the dispositions of slaves were, so that scarcely one in a hundred ever came to be of real use. As to Onesimus, we may conjecture from his flight, that he had been hardened in depravity by long habit and practice. It is therefore uncommon and wonderful virtue to lay aside the vices by which his nature was polluted, so that the Apostle can truly declare that he has now become another man.
From the same source proceeds a profitable doctrine, that the elect of God are sometimes brought to salvation by a method that could not have been believed, contrary to general expectation, by circuitous windings, and even by labyrinths. Onesimus lived in a religious and holy family, and, being banished from it by his own evil actions, he deliberately, as it were, withdraws far from God and from eternal life. Yet God, by hidden providence, wonderfully directs his pernicious flight, so that he meets with Paul.
17 If, therefore, thou holdest me to be thy associate. Here he lowers himself still further, by giving up his right and his honor to a runaway, and putting him in his own room, as he will shortly afterwards offer himself to be his cautioner. He reckoned it to be of vast importance that Onesimus should have a mild and gentle master, that immoderate severity might not drive him to despair. That is the object which Paul toils so earnestly to accomplish. And his example warns us how affectionately we ought to aid a sinner who has given us proof of his repentance. And if it is our duty to intercede for others, in order to obtain forgiveness for those who repent, much more should we ourselves treat them with kindness and gentleness.
18 If in any thing he hath done thee injury. Hence we may infer that Onesimus had likewise stolen something from his master, as was customary with fugitives; and yet he softens the criminality of the act, by adding, or if he oweth thee anything Not only was there a bond between them recognised by civil law, but the slave had become indebted to his master by the wrong which he had inflicted on him. So much the greater, therefore, was the kindness of Paul, who was even ready to give satisfaction for a crime.
19 Not to tell thee that thou owest to me thyself. By this expression he intended to describe how confidently he believes that he will obtain it; as if he had said, “There is nothing that thou couldest refuse to give me, even though I should demand thyself.” To the same purpose is what follows about lodging and other matters, as we shall immediately see.
There remains one question. How does Paul — who, if he had not been aided by the churches, had not the means of living sparingly and frugally — promise to pay money? Amidst such poverty and want this does certainly appear to be a ridiculous promise; but it is easy to see that, by this form of expression, Paul beseeches Philemon not to ask anything back from his slave. Though he does not speak ironically, yet, by an indirect figure, he requests him to blot out and cancel this account. The meaning, therefore, is — “I wish that thou shouldest not contend with thy slave, unless thou choosest to have me for thy debtor in his stead.” For he immediately adds that Philemon is altogether his own; and he who claims the whole man as his property, need not give himself uneasiness about paying money.