In these verses we see the picture of a man greatly changed—changed by Christ. It shows us the difference that a commitment to Christ should make in a life and just how we should receive a person who has made that commitment. By the way, Onesimus was a slave and a thief. Few people would ever want to hang around a slave much less be known as a brother to him. Yet, this is exactly what we are about to see. No matter how low and different from us person is, we are to reach out to him and do all we can to help that person know Christ and be a part of His church. This is a clear picture of a man changed by Christ.
PAUL’S REQUEST FOR ONESIMUS / 8-16
While in prison, Paul had led Onesimus to Christ. So he asked Philemon to forgive his runaway slave who had become a Christ follower and, even going beyond forgiveness, to accept Onesimus as a brother. As believers, we should forgive as we have been forgiven (Matthew 6:12; Ephesians 4:31-32). True forgiveness means that we treat the one we’ve forgiven as we would want to be treated. Is there someone you say you have forgiven, but who still needs your kindness?
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do.NIV The word therefore carries on the thought from verse 7—the love Philemon had shown to the other believers ought to be extended to include Onesimus. Such a request would be bold indeed; in the Roman Empire, a master had the right to kill a disobedient slave. In any other situation, Onesimus’s action of running away would have signed his death warrant. But Onesimus had met Paul, and Paul knew Philemon, so Paul mediated because of their common brotherhood in Christ.
Paul first described his right to make this appeal to Philemon. Paul was Philemon’s friend and spiritual father (v. 19), but Paul was also an elder and an apostle with authority in Christ. Paul was subtly reminding Philemon of his authority. Paul could have used his authority with Philemon and ordered him to deal kindly with his runaway slave. But Paul based his request not on his own authority, but on his friendship with Philemon and Philemon’s commitment to Christ. Paul wanted Philemon’s heartfelt, not grudging, obedience. Paul would explain to Philemon what he ought to do but would not enforce it, hoping, instead, that Philemon would respond by his own choice (v. 14).
|LIFE APPLICATION – RELATIONSHIPS RECONCILED AND REBUILT|
|Paul provides a good example of how to deal with conflict between believers. When reconciling a separation or mediating a dispute, trust must be rebuilt between the conflicting parties. Notice the steps that Paul used to help rebuild the trust:|
|l Paul identified with the people. He called Philemon “brother” and Onesimus “my son.”|
|l Paul requested, not ordered, Philemon.|
|l Paul sought Philemon’s voluntary consent, not his submission to rules or authority.|
|l Paul appealed to Christ-like love, not to power or authority.|
|l Paul agreed to absorb the loss and pay any cost for restoration.|
|Instead of overusing power or position, use Paul’s approach to rebuild a trusting relationship.|
9 Yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.NRSV Although Paul certainly had the authority to tell Philemon what to do, he preferred not to use his authority in this particular situation. He wanted Philemon to make the final decision. The love to which Paul referred may have been Paul’s love for Philemon, Paul’s love for Onesimus, Philemon’s well-known love for the believers (vv. 4-5, 7), or the virtue of Christ-like love in general. In any case, Paul would make his appeal for Onesimus on the basis of love. Paul appealed to Philemon not so he could exercise his authority; instead, he appealed from his heart because of his concern for this new believer’s future.
Yet Paul’s authority was not to be completely forgotten. Philemon ought to be motivated to follow Paul’s advice, not only because Paul was a friend and spiritual mentor, but for two other reasons:
- First Paul was an old man. By referring to himself as an old man, Paul was asking for Philemon’s respect as an elder
- Paul described himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Paul was a representative of Christ whose commitment to his calling had landed him in prison. Paul could do nothing more than write this note to help Onesimus—he couldn’t go with him back to Colosse. Paul’s authority in his appeal to Philemon came not from position or popularity, but from Christ alone.
10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.NIV In the Greek text, Onesimus’s name is the last word in this verse. Paul skillfully crafted this letter, with its introduction and sincere compliments to Philemon, here beginning to state his appeal but only giving Onesimus’s name at the last possible moment, and then never getting to the actual appeal until verse 17. Paul approached Philemon with tact and humility.
Philemon probably had been angered that his slave had disappeared (in Roman times, it was like losing a piece of valuable property). , Paul first explained that his appeal was on behalf of someone who had become his son during Paul’s imprisonment—that is, someone Paul had led to Christ from prison. Philemon would be dealing with a fellow believer. “And, by the way,” Paul added, “it’s Onesimus. Remember him?” That Paul called Onesimus a “son” reveals their close relationship. Paul used tou emou teknou (my child) elsewhere only of Timothy and Titus (see 1 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4), although he often used the father/child analogy for those he had led to Christ (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 4:14-15; 2 Corinthians 6:13; Galatians 4:19; Philippians 2:22).
What incredible providence had brought this runaway slave to the door of Paul’s prison—Paul, who also had led this slave’s master to the Lord!
11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.NIV Onesimus’s name in Greek means “useful.” The name was a common name for slaves and is found in many ancient inscriptions. A nameless slave might receive this name in the hopes that he would live up to it in serving his master.
Paul used a play on words, saying that Onesimus had formerly been useless (achreston) to Philemon but had become very useful (euchreston) both to Paul and, potentially, to Philemon. Under Philemon’s service, Onesimus had failed to live up to his name. Phrygian slaves were referred to stereotypically as useless and undependable. Paul was confident, however, that this new man with his new life in Christ would live up to his name if Philemon would take him back. In Colossians 4:9, Paul called Onesimus a “faithful and dear brother” (niv). Onesimus had become known for his faithfulness.
It is interesting to note that Paul did not ask Philemon to free Onesimus. Paul didn’t condemn or condone slavery, but he worked to transform relationships. The gospel begins to change social structures by changing the people within those structures. There were several million slaves in the Roman Empire at this time. Slavery was sanctioned by law and was part of the empire’s social makeup. Because many slaves and slave owners had become Believers, the early church had to deal straightforwardly with the question of master/slave relations. In other letters, Paul simply was stating that slaves should serve well and that masters should be fair (1 Corinthians 7:20-24; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22–4:1). Paul was not interested in trying to change Roman culture; he wanted to build the church as a new community. In the church, relationships should be based on love, not on power or position.
12-13 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.NIV Although Paul would have liked to have kept Onesimus with him, he was sending Onesimus back, requesting that Philemon accept him not only as a forgiven runaway servant, but also as a brother in Christ. This verse suggests that Onesimus himself would deliver this letter to Philemon, so Philemon would need to make his decision as he stood face-to-face with his slave.
Paul described Onesimus as my very heart, once again as in verse 7, referring to the place of deepest emotions. Paul loved Onesimus dearly, as a father loves a child (v. 10). Paul was willing to give away “his very heart,” a part of himself, in order to return Onesimus permanently to Philemon. Onesimus had become part of Paul’s ministry team. This was a sacrifice on Paul’s part, who said, I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel.NRSV Onesimus had truly become “useful” (v. 11)—so useful that Paul would have liked to have kept him in Rome so that Onesimus could be of service to him. Paul knew that if Philemon were available to be with Paul, he would have helped him in any way he could; therefore, if Paul had kept Onesimus, Philemon would have been helping Paul vicariously. Paul implied that he trusted Onesimus so much that Onesimus’s service could be considered in place of Philemon’s; therefore, Philemon should be able to trust him as well. Paul, imprisoned for the gospel, longed for his friends; how difficult it was for him to send away this dear “son.” Yet Paul knew it was his duty to do so—Roman law demanded that a deserting slave be returned to his legal owner (although Deuteronomy 23:15-16 states the opposite). Because Onesimus belonged to Philemon, Paul chose to send him back.
|LIFE APPLICATION – WHO CAN YOU SEND?|
|Paul described Onesimus as much more than just a useful servant. Paul called him his “very heart.” Paul took the risk in faith that Philemon would respond in true Christ-like character and receive Onesimus as a Christian. Paul had such a good relationship with Onesimus that it hurt him deeply to send him back. Do you have anyone who is your very heart and soul that you could send on a mission? Are your children preparing to leave you for the mission field? It may tear your heart to see them go, yet you must send them to do God’s work.|
|Christianity must be more than a practical, functional experience. At times it is painful, but believers must develop relationships that are warm, genuine, and deep with feeling. Seek to be a heart-to-heart type of friend.|
14 But I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.NRSV Paul would have liked to have kept Onesimus with him (v. 13). However, he decided not to try to talk Philemon into allowing Onesimus to return to Rome to serve Paul; Paul might have felt that this was taking undue advantage of his relationship with Philemon. Only if Philemon were to give his consent for this would it have been voluntary.
Whether Onesimus was sent back to Paul is unknown. Paul had willingly returned Onesimus to Philemon, preferring that Philemon make the final decision in the matter. The good deed probably was not allowing Onesimus to return to Paul, because the Greek structure of the sentence does not imply that Paul was asking this. Rather, Paul simply did not want to do anything about Onesimus without Philemon’s consent. Paul wanted to place no constraint on Philemon other than to deal in Christ-like kindness and love toward his slave. Paul hoped that Philemon would do a “good deed” in pardoning his slave from severe punishment, especially since Onesimus had become a new person in Christ. Philemon had to think of Onesimus not as a piece of property, but as a brother in the fellowship.
15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good.NIV Paul considered that all that had happened—Onesimus’s desertion and subsequent conversion to Christ—had been part of God’s providence. God can overrule and bring good out of human sin and folly. Onesimus had caused trouble and heartache, but he had become a new person, and Philemon would soon have him back. The Greek means, “have him for yourself in full possession.” The little while of Onesimus’s absence would be overshadowed by the devotion that would bind him to his master for good. They would be together for eternity, but Paul also wanted Philemon to take Onesimus back into his service permanently now.
Paul may still have hoped that Onesimus would be returned to him. However, he knew that true reconciliation could only occur if (1) Onesimus himself went back to Philemon willing to return to service, and (2) if Philemon willingly accepted Onesimus back.
|LIFE APPLICATION – PROVIDENCE|
|Paul acknowledged that God was at work behind the scenes in this separation of Onesimus and Philemon. God carried out his hidden purpose even in the apparent turmoil of human events.|
|Although Philemon lost Onesimus, it was only for a time. Philemon eventually regained his slave, but even more, he gained a new brother in Christ.|
|When we face painful separations or difficult times in relationships with loved ones, we must trust in God’s loving care and in his wisdom and power over all events. God may be using the difficulty to bring people to himself, to develop character, and to help us grow. Can you trust God enough to leave the situation in his hands?|
16 No longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.NIV For Philemon to accept Onesimus back, he would have to do so with the understanding that Onesimus had a new status—he was a person (that is, not merely a possession), and he was also a brother in the Lord.
The phrase no longer as a slave has caused much debate. Was this Paul’s way of asking Philemon to free Onesimus? Or was it his way of stating that there should be a new relationship of brother to brother even though they still would be master and slave? According to 1 Corinthians 7:21, Paul encouraged slaves to gain freedom if they could. , it would be consistent for Paul to ask for Onesimus’s freedom in this case. Paul’s asking for Onesimus to be part of his team would be equal to freeing him permanently. But since Paul didn’t ask for the freedom directly, we can’t be sure what he meant. If Onesimus was supposed to return to Philemon as his slave, Philemon would be expected to treat his slave in accordance with their relationship in Christ. Paul had given guidelines for slaves and masters in other letters (1 Corinthians 7:20-24; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22–4:1). Onesimus’s new status as a believer did not negate his responsibilities to Philemon.
Paul knew how difficult it might be for Philemon to deal with Onesimus as a dear brother after the trouble he had caused. Paul made it clear that he not only trusted Onesimus (v. 13) but that he considered Onesimus a brother in Christ. With these words, Paul deftly placed himself, Philemon, and Onesimus all at the same level. While this prisoner, landowner, and slave had very different social positions, they were equals in Christ.
While Onesimus had become very dear to Paul, he was even dearer to Philemon because Onesimus’s former relationship with Philemon had laid the groundwork for a lasting relationship between them.
|LIFE APPLICATION- STATUS UN-CONSCIOUS|
|What a difference Onesimus’s status as a Christian made in his relationship to Philemon. He was no longer merely a slave, he was also a brother. That meant that both Onesimus and Philemon were members of God’s family—equals in Christ. A Christian’s status as a member of God’s family transcends all other distinctions among believers. Do you look down on any fellow believers? Remember, they are your equals before Christ (Galatians 3:28). How you treat your brothers and sisters in Christ’s family reflects your true commitment to Christ.|
The point is well made: when Christ changes a life, that life is changed eternally. Earthly relationships are changed forever. The changed person becomes a dear brother. It does not matter what the relationship has been…
- a master-slave relationship
- a friend-enemy relationship
- a victim-criminal relationship
- a love-hate relationship
- a marriage-divorce relationship
- an abused-hurtful relationship
If the person has been truthfully changed by Christ, then he is to be received as a dear brother. Why? Because God has put His hand upon the person and changed him forever.
Next time we’ll look at verses 17-25 which will finish the book of Philemon.
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Until next time, Darrell
— Bible Exposition Commentary (BE Series) – New Testament
— Life Application Bible Commentary
—New International Version of the Bile
—New Revised Standard Version of the Bible
—Preacher’s Outline and Sermon Bible – Commentary