Philemon – Part 2 – Chapter 1, verses 8-21 and Part 3, Chapter 1, verses 22-25

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PART TWO

Paul’s Plea for Onesimus

Philemon, Chapter 1, verses 8-21

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—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.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

Commentary

With verse 8 the apostle begins to directly discuss the primary business of this letter. His plea to Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf is a model intercession, for it is based solely on Christian love. In the previous verses Paul laid the foundation for an appeal to Philemon’s heart. Now he makes that appeal in a direct and forthright manner. Paul was the Lord’s apostle. As an apostle, Paul had special authority in the church. Had he chosen to use that authority, he simply might have commanded Philemon to do what he was about to request. In this case, however, Paul did not want to do it that way. He did not want to lay this request on Philemon as an obligation or a duty. He wanted it to be a matter of love. So he set himself before Philemon not as an apostle with authority but as an old man and a prisoner of Jesus Christ who is appealing to Philemon’s love.

According to our standards, Paul was not really very old. He was probably in his 60s, but life expectancy in the first century was not as great as it is now. Paul had no doubt grown old beyond his years because of the many hardships and deprivations he had experienced in his service and suffering for the gospel. Even as he wrote these words, Paul was imprisoned for the gospel’s sake. Philemon loved and respected the apostle. As a Christian who customarily showed love to others, Philemon would indeed find it hard to refuse a special appeal to love from the beloved apostle.

We 21st-century Christians can learn much from the manner in which the apostle makes his appeal here. We live in a society where demands are more common than appeals. Assertiveness, not tact, we are told, gets people ahead in life today. The apostle here shows us the better way. The most powerful motivating force on earth is not intimidation or threat or assertion of what one perceives as one’s own rights, but love. That is true to an even greater degree among Christians, whose love finds its motive and example in Jesus’ self-giving love for us. On the basis of that love, Jesus constantly intercedes for us with the Father. The most effective appeals from one Christian to another, and even, in a more limited way, from Christians to non-Christians, will be those based on love.

Paul chooses his words very carefully. As a faithful intercessor, he places himself between the one for whom he is pleading and the one with whom he is pleading as he makes the request for which this epistle was written. With tender affection and beautiful tact, calling the runaway slave “my son” and one “who became my son while I was in chains,” Paul brings the subject of Onesimus directly before Philemon.

Using a play on words involving the slave’s name, he describes the wonderful change the Lord has brought about in Onesimus’ heart and life. Onesimus, a rather common slave’s name, means “profitable” or “useful.” Formerly, of course, Onesimus had been untrue to his name. He had been a runaway and a thief, particularly unprofitable to Philemon. Perhaps Philemon cringed at the very mention of the name Onesimus. But now, Paul informs Philemon, the Onesimus who has been instructed in the gospel and converted to Christianity has become truly useful. He has already been useful to Paul, and he will again be useful to Philemon, if only Philemon will receive him. Paul further describes the deep affection that has grown between himself and Onesimus. He is confident that such affection could quickly grow also between Philemon and Onesimus when he tells Philemon, “I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.”

Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon, and Onesimus was willingly returning to the master he had wronged, because both were convinced that this was the proper, Christian course of action. After his conversion Onesimus had become a loyal friend and helper of the imprisoned apostle. He has assisted Paul with Paul’s apostolic labors, probably serving as the imprisoned apostle’s messenger and personal servant. In fact, Onesimus had been so helpful to Paul that the thought had crossed Paul’s mind more than once that he should keep Onesimus with him. Paul could even credit Onesimus’ service as coming from Philemon, he reasoned, because the apostle was sure that Philemon wanted to do something to help him during his imprisonment but was prevented by distance from doing so. How could Philemon have refused such a request from the apostle, if he had made it?

But Paul knew that it would not be proper for him to presume upon Philemon’s generosity in that way. He did not want to put Philemon in a situation in which a generous gesture would be forced upon him rather than flowing spontaneously from a loving heart. So, as far as Paul was concerned, there was only one thing to do. He would send Onesimus back to Philemon. If Philemon then wanted to do something more, perhaps even send Onesimus back to the apostle “on loan” until Paul was released from his imprisonment, that decision would be entirely Philemon’s.

As he sends Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul makes no attempt to excuse the past behavior of the slave who has been unprofitable. As he encourages Philemon to forgive and receive Onesimus, however, the apostle asks the master to note the various ways in which the Lord had overruled the wrong Onesimus had done and made it serve for good.

Onesimus had been brought into contact with Paul and been converted to Christianity. Paul had gained a devoted Christian friend and a helper for his ministry. There was a definite possibility that, in the end, this whole affair would bring good to Philemon too. When Onesimus had run away, Philemon had been deprived of a slave and that slave’s service. He had suffered loss for a time. Now, if he received Onesimus back, Philemon would have him back permanently, and he would have him back in a new and infinitely better relationship. As a Christian slave, Onesimus would serve Philemon in a much more joyful and efficient manner than he had ever served before. He would now be doing his work for Philemon as if he were doing it for the Lord.

In addition, Philemon and Onesimus would now share a precious spiritual bond that they had not shared before, the bond of a common faith. Beyond their physical relationship of slave and master, they would share a spiritual relationship as brothers in Christ. This blessed fellowship cuts through all earthly and social ties and continues throughout eternity. At the same time, it sanctifies and changes all earthly relationships for the better.

On the basis of all these things, therefore, Paul summed up his plea: “Welcome him as you would welcome me.” Paul knew that if he himself were to come to Philemon, his friend would gladly and hospitably receive him. By faith Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon were now all brothers in Christ. How could one brother in Christ, if he has truly absorbed the spirit of Christ, fail to lovingly receive another brother who came to him in repentance and sought his forgiveness?

There was one other factor that Paul felt should be mentioned, since it posed a potential threat to Philemon’s warm reception of Onesimus. That was the financial loss Philemon had suffered as a result of Onesimus’ previous actions. While Paul never comes right out and says it, it is quite likely that Onesimus stole money from his master before he left for Rome. There was also the matter of the service of which Philemon had been deprived during the time Onesimus was gone. That also could have been valued at a considerable sum.

Paul did not want that factor to stand in the way of Philemon’s reception of Onesimus. If Philemon considered it to be a problem, Paul says, he should charge the debt to Paul’s account. Paul had become Onesimus’ spiritual father. He was ready to assume a father’s obligations. Would Paul have been able to come up with a substantial amount of money if Philemon had requested it? We have no way of knowing. What is clear is that Paul was serious about his offer. He wanted absolutely nothing to stand in the way of Philemon’s receiving and forgiving Onesimus.

Besides, Paul fully expected Philemon to remember that when it came to the matter of settling accounts, he owed the apostle something so valuable that it could not be measured by standards of earthly value. Philemon owed his spiritual life to Paul. It was either directly through Paul’s instruction or indirectly, perhaps through the instruction of Paul’s student Epaphras, that Philemon had become a Christian. Wasn’t the spiritual benefit he had received from the apostle, Paul tactfully suggests, more than enough to counterbalance the material losses he had suffered because of the unfaithfulness of Onesimus?

A positive response by Philemon, Paul says, would bring him true spiritual refreshment. It would bring the apostle a special measure of spiritual joy to see Philemon’s faith and love put into practice in this extraordinary way and to see these two spiritual sons of his be reconciled to each other. A positive answer by Philemon to the apostle’s request—and Paul was confident that such an answer would be forthcoming—would also bring Paul into the blessed circle of those to whom Philemon had given spiritual refreshment by his love. This is always the way it should be among Christians. Those refreshed by the gospel news of love and forgiveness in Christ constantly refresh one another by showing in their lives the loving, forgiving spirit of Christ.

In addition to the marvelous example it gives us of a loving, tactful appeal from one Christian to another, Paul’s eloquent intercession for Onesimus in these verses can also be regarded as a reflection of our Savior’s loving intercession for us. Like Onesimus, we sinners have all wronged and run away from our heavenly master. We deserve nothing but his wrath and condemnation. But, just as Paul found and rescued Onesimus, Jesus has found and rescued us. He stood between the Father and us. He identified himself with us by taking on our nature and becoming our substitute. He not only offered to pay but did pay our sin-debt on the cross to satisfy divine justice. Now, as our Great High Priest, he intercedes for us daily whenever we sin. The Father cannot refuse to listen to the intercession of his Son or refuse to pardon those who by faith are Christ’s brothers and sisters and his own children. “We are Christ’s Onesimi,” Luther put it, “if you will receive it.”

PART THREE

Other Related Matters; Farewell and Benediction

 

Philemon, Chapter 1, verses 22-25

And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Commentary

Paul does not even have to wait until he hears whether or not Philemon has acted on his request. He is confident that his Christian friend has thoroughly received the spirit of the gospel, and he trusts Philemon to do what is fitting, loving, and right. Paul, in fact, is sure that Philemon will find ways of doing even more than what has been requested of him. So as far as the apostle is concerned, the major matter that prompted the writing of this letter is settled and closed.

There is one more request, however, that Paul has to make of Philemon. The fact that he unhesitatingly makes it is yet another evidence of Paul’s confidence that Philemon will honor the intercession of this letter and that this whole incident will result in further cementing the bonds of their friendship. Paul expects to be released from his imprisonment in the near future. After his release, he wants to visit Colosse. During that visit he and the various assistants that traveled with him will need a host and a place to stay. Paul asks Philemon to be that host.

Among the first-century Christians, when traveling was difficult and there was nothing comparable to our modern motels, hospitality was considered a special virtue. Well-to-do Christians like Philemon frequently “refreshed the . . . saints” (verse 7) by providing necessary accommodations for their fellow believers, like the apostle, when these people traveled through or stopped to work in their cities.

That he expects his release from imprisonment to take place rather soon is something the apostle credits to the prayers of his fellow Christians. Paul began this epistle with a reference to prayer. He closes it in much the same way. Not only has the apostle been praying for Philemon and the Colossians; he knows that they also have been praying for him. This is as it should be. Those who share God’s grace in the gospel should regularly remember one another before the throne of grace.

The apostle’s expected release, a release for which so many Christians had been praying so fervently, would be dramatic evidence once more that God is moved to gracious actions by believers’ prayers. All the evidence we have indicates that Paul was released from this particular imprisonment and was permitted to make more journeys on behalf of the gospel, and he did use the guest quarters at Philemon’s home.

The greetings Paul conveys in this epistle are from five of the men mentioned in Colossians 4:10-14. The reader may wish to review what was said about each in that section. Epaphras is mentioned first, probably because he had been Philemon’s pastor at Colosse. Jesus Justus, who is mentioned in Colossians, is not mentioned here, probably because he was not personally known to Philemon.

The fact that these servants of the gospel sent their greetings shows that they too had a vital interest in the outcome of this matter. Like Philemon, they were fellow laborers with the apostle Paul for the cause of the gospel, and all were convinced that the cause of the gospel would be wonderfully served and promoted if Philemon showed his returning slave forgiving love modeled on and motivated by the love of Christ.

Upon Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and all who gathered for worship in their home—yes, on all the Colossian believers and on every believer down through the ages who reads this epistle—Paul, God’s apostle, pronounces God’s grace. Grace, God’s unmerited love for lost and fallen sinners, is his most important gift to sinners, and it is the source of every other spiritual blessing. As it fills believers’ hearts through the gospel, it gives birth to a peace beyond human understanding, and it empowers believers to live lives that give evidence of that love.

There is no postscript attached to this epistle. We have no knowledge of Philemon’s reaction to Paul’s plea, but a positive inference is inescapable. If Paul was absolutely confident that Philemon would honor his request, why should we not be confident? The very fact that this letter has been preserved for the church is a silent argument that its eloquent plea fell upon a sympathetic ear. May each of us likewise be moved by this beautiful little epistle to seek and to practice a faith that, in all circumstances of life, works by love.

Soli Deo Gloria


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