Paul mirrored to Philemon what the apostle saw in him, and what his reputation meant to those who had come to Paul with such good reports of Philemon’s character, ministry, and testimony.
Paul was also making Philemon accountable to the person he was becoming, the sanctified Philemon, the man in whom the Spirit was at work. Philemon, as he read Paul’s letter, spoke those words about himself in the presence of witnesses. Whatever he did next would need to come from this version of himself, for this was his true self.
Discerning the Good
Paul had just finished recognizing Philemon as one who bore much love for Jesus and for the brothers and sisters in Christ. Philemon also had great faith in Jesus, and lived that faith among Body of Christ. Paul, filled with the Spirit, guided by God, told Philemon how he prayed for him.
- That the fellowship of his faith—the intimate fellowship he shared with God and the fellowship he enjoyed with believers—would have a powerful effect on him.
- That Philemon would have the capacity to discern everything good in believers from Jesus,
- And everything good that Philemon could actually bless Jesus with.
What good things, what befitting things, would those be?
Paul actually had written about these wondrous blessings in another letter that had come with this personal note to Philemon.
My guess is, Paul had that whole first chapter in his mind as he thought about the rift between Onesimus and Philemon. Onesimus was definitely the one in the wrong. Now Philemon, as the mature believer, had a chance to do something truly befitting of a follower of Jesus. The good Paul wanted Philemon to discern was being
- Blessed with very spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
- Chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.
- Considered holy and blameless in love, before God, because of Jesus.
- Adopted as God’s child through Christ.
- Redeemed and forgiven of all his trespasses.
- Given a heavenly inheritance of eternal life and glory.
- Marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.
All these things were Philemon’s, and like Peter before him, Jesus would now be calling upon Philemon to extend these riches to the one who had wronged him.
Paul’s prayer in that first chapter of Ephesians sounds an awful lot like the prayer he prayed for Philemon.
—I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason
—I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.
—I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened,
you may know [every good thing]
—what is the hope to which he has called you,
—what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and
—what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe,
according to the working of his great power.Ephesians 1:15-19 (NRSV)
Now Paul would now present an opportunity for Philemon to use his spiritual discernment, and bless the Lord.
A Startling Request
Wherefore I have in Christ much bold freedom to enjoin you [in] what is befitting, because of love much more I am entreating [you], such as this being as Paul, now an elder, and moreover in [the] bonds of Christ Jesus—entreat you concerning one who became my child in the [literal] bonds: Onesimus, one formerly unprofitable to you but now profitable to you and to me.Philemon 1:8-11 (my translation)
I am wondering if this rocked Philemon back on his heels?
Paul and Philemon knew each other and loved each other, and they both loved the Lord and all those made holy in Christ. Philemon had heard the gospel through Paul and had come to saving faith as a result. Both Paul and Philemon knew that he absolutely accepted Paul’s authority as an apostle and an ambassador of Jesus. Paul could have easily—with Philemon’s humble willingness—simply enjoined this respected church leader to do the right thing.
Onesimus’ life was on the line! It already had taken a tremendous amount of courage, wherewithal, and willing cooperation for Onesimus to return to Colossae, and to Philemon’s household! Even with Tychicus there, Onesimus must have felt some fear, for he did not have the law on his side. Though grace, compassion, and mercy are hallmarks of Christian faith, by no means are justice and righteousness ignored.
But Paul wanted more.
He wanted Philemon to mature in his faith, knowing, as Peter would also write, that
the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.1 Peter 1:7 (NRSV)
So Paul refrained from telling Philemon what to do. Instead, because of love, because he loved Philemon, he entreated him as a fellow elder and one bound to Christ, not pulling rank as an apostle. This should sound familiar to us!
Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you.Peter, 1 Peter 5:1 (NRSV)
The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.John, 3 John 1:1 (NRSV)
The apostles all knew Jesus’ way was not to lord it over, but rather to serve, to minister, to pastor, to teach, and to rely upon the mighty wonder-working power of God within people.
A Startling Announcement
Paul had created two plays on words.
- Paul—who had already introduced himself as captive to Christ—now portrayed himself as being in bonds to Jesus, and Jesus producing a son for Paul while he was in literal bonds. This was especially germane to Onesimus who was himself bound to Philemon.
Being in literal bonds is generally accepted to mean Paul had been in prison when he and Onesimus came to know each other.
- Had they both been arrested?
- Had Onesimus been found out in whatever it is he had done to Philemon, and hauled off to prison?
- Or had Onesimus—in need of help—been taken in by Christians who then brought him to Paul to tell his story?
- Was it possible he already knew Paul and had run to him in the first place, knowing he would be a merciful and gracious mediator in pleading Onesimus’ case with Philemon?
However it happened, Paul gave Onesimus what he needed most, the good news of salvation, the truth that would set him truly free.
- Paul also made a play on Onesimus’ name, which meant “Profitable,” and was evidently a common name among enslaved people. “Profitable,” one formerly unprofitable to you but now [actually] profitable to you—and to me [as well].
Jesus had transformed Onesimus, he had become the opposite of who he had been. Tucked into chapter 2 of Paul’s treatise on Christian faith, Epistle to Ephesus, was the story of Onesimus’ life.
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.
. . . But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.Ephesians 2:1-2, 4-5 (NRSV)
Jesus had changed everything.
[Paul and Onesimus in prison | George du Maurier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]