After praise and thanksgiving, after warm encouragement and prayer, Paul introduced both a startling announcement and a startling request: Onesimus—whose name meant “Profitable”—yet had left Philemon in the lurch, had returned a new man.
While in prison, Onesimus and Paul had connected, and through that interaction had come Onesimus’ saving faith and commitment to mission. Paul knew the rupture between Onesimus and Philemon must be repaired, and it required both men to step out in faith to accomplish it. Onesimus had done his part, voluntarily returning, not knowing what reprisals he might face, though imprisonment and fines were certainly possible, or even execution.
Now it would be Philemon’s turn to incarnate Christ towards this person who had so wronged him, yet now came hat in penitent, repentant hand.
Though he could have commanded Philemon, and knew Philemon would have complied, Paul preferred this respected church elder to respond to Christ’s conviction, and, moved from within, to do what was good and befitting a Christian.
To forgive and restore.
Only With Your Consent
Him who I sent to you, this one is my heart. One [who] I myself was of a mind to keep [for] myself, in order that on behalf of you would be of service to me in the bonds [in prison because] of the gospel. But without your intention I do not want to do anything, in order that your good would not be forced but rather be voluntary.Philemon 1:12-14 (my translation)
However way Onesimus ended up in the same town as Paul, in fact the same prison as Paul, it is very likely he knew the apostle already. I would not be surprised if Onesimus had actually sought Paul out, for he was in some kind of trouble, with little recourse. Philemon—though a loved and respected leader in the church—was still a high status man in the GrecoRoman world, and would have had the law and tradition on his side.
It seems a relationship had grown up between Paul and Onesimus, who had already made himself of great service to the apostle. Healing must have happened during that time, in Onesimus’ heart. Whatever he had done, and however he had wronged Philemon, he now wanted to set it right.
It was Paul who had been torn.
Onesimus had become quite beloved to him, and he had had it in mind to keep Onesimus beside him, while he was in prison, perhaps train him as Paul had trained Timothy and Tychicus, and many others. Paul knew that it would have been Philemon’s pleasure to allow Paul to keep one who had, after all, run from Philemon, and was “not profitable” to him.
It seems Philemon had already been in a position to provide resources and help to Paul. The release of Onesimus would have fallen well within Philemon’s means and generosity.
But Paul knew it would not be right, allowing his affection for Onesimus and his immediate and present need, to take advantage of the situation. He could have sent word to Philemon, and Philemon would have complied, maybe even approved. But good deeds done when others have made it difficult not to do them, cannot rightly be called good deeds.
It is a quandary! We want people to do the right thing, but we cannot make them do it!
And Paul had often taught on the freedom God grants us in Christ. In his letters, the word for law shows up over a hundred times, the word for grace seventy-five times.
You are not under law but under grace.Romans 6:14 (NRSV)
Now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.Romans 7:6 (NRSV)
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.2 Corinthians 3:17 (NRSV)
But we still try, nonetheless, to legislate goodness and righteousness. We still try to make people do good, and prevent—by laws and rules and punishments—people from doing bad.
Though Paul also outlined ways for communities of believers to draw boundaries around wrongdoing, and to address willful harm to others, this was to be a choice of last resort. Instead, our call is to encourage, build up, forbear in patience, and entreat.
Paul knew it would have been a misuse of their relationship, it would have been a subtle but distinct abuse of Paul’s power as an apostle to leave Philemon out of the decision tree.
Many, including myself, have complained the tone of Paul’s letter, even the wording, seems manipulative. How could Philemon make an honest decision, sprung from God at work in his heart, with Paul first complimenting him (ego strokes), then talking about Onesimus in such affectionate terms (pressure) and finally referring to himself as a mere elder asking permission (which seems to pluck the strings of guilt and shame)?
Added to all this, Philemon was not alone. He had Apphia and Archippus, at the very least, with him, as well as Tychicus and Onesimus, who were delivering Paul’s three epistles. So there were witnesses.
It looks bad, does it not?
I certainly thought so, for years.
Listen to how Paul talked about his time with the believers in Thessalonica.
We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.
So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters;[ we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children;
urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.1 Thessalonians 2:7-12 (NRSV)
This is the real Paul, the man from whom Philemon had received not only the gospel, but tender and gentle care. Philemon knew what it was to become dear to Paul, to be so loved by a pure, upright, and blameless man. This had to have been a familiar place for him, to be encouraged by Paul as a father would his children, pleading with Philemon that he lead a life worthy of God, who called him into God’s own kingdom and glory.
This was a genuine request.
He truly meant it.
Paul did not want to do anything without Philemon’s consent, and would honor whatever Philemon decided to do.
Perhaps God Is At Work
For perhaps through this he was separated for a time in order that you would receive him for eternity, no longer as in bondage, in subjection, but rather above bondage and subjection, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much better to you both in [the] flesh and in [the] Lord.Philemon 1:15-16 (my translation)
Perhaps, Paul wrote, there was a reason for Onesimus’ leaving you for a while. Perhaps God has been in this from the beginning, the unseen force that propelled Onesimus to me so that he could come to saving faith. Whatever the circumstances were for this distance between you, now you have an opportunity to receive him for all eternity.
The word Paul used for time literally means “hour” compared to “eternity.” A small sacrifice for such a great gain!
But now the mind fills with questions!
- No longer as in bondage and subjection? The word Paul used was δοῦλος | doulus, which literally means in bondage to, subject to, and was the common word for slave. Was Onesimus a slave?
- How did Onesimus end up being gone? Paul said he had “sent” Onesimus to Philemon, and acknowledged they had been apart for a time. The sense is that Onesimus’ departure was unauthorized, or if he left with Philemon’s permission, he stayed away overlong. Was Onesimus a runaway?
- Brother in the flesh? That’s an even more intriguing detail! Were Onesimus and Philemon brothers?
- Beloved? Paul used a form of the word agape, indicating godly love. Had there been already a strong bond between Philemon and Onesimus?
[Conversion of Onesimus | Benjamin West, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]