Philemon 8–16 (NKJV)
Paul has just greeted and complemented Philemon for his love and compassion toward others, and now moves to an appeal for Onesimus. This man was a slave in Philemon’s house, and fled Philemon’s household to go to Paul. The result of this visit and Paul’s wish are the subject of this section of the letter.
8 Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, 9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ—10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, 11 who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.Philemon 1:8-11
Paul does open this section with a bit of a power play, stating that he would be within his rights to command Philemon on how to handle this situation. However, he wishes to make an appeal to him rather than command him. He loves both men involved in this situation, and is now an old man, in prison, and offers a more mellow request than what might normally have come from the apostle of Asia Minor. Paul appeals to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, a slave of Philemon’s household. He calls him a newly-begotten son, saved during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Paul admits that Onesimus came to him as an unprofitable servant, having neglected his obligation and having run away from Philemon. However, Paul now sees him as profitable, converted to the faith, saved from his sins, and useful to Paul and to Philemon. A real change has taken place in the heart and life of this runaway slave, and Paul makes an appeal to his master.
12 I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. 14 But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.Philemon 1:12-16
Paul states that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon and asks him to receive him without punishment, knowing that Paul has discipled him and help transform him from a slave to a brother. Paul calls him “my own heart,” signifying the degree to which Paul loved Onesimus. Paul told Philemon that he would have loved to keep him with him in Rome, for he ministered to Paul during his imprisonment. However, Paul did not want to do that without the consent of the one to whom Onesimus was obligated. It is apparent that Paul would not mind if Philemon sent Onesimus back to him, but he did not want to have Onesimus as a helper without Philemon’s voluntary consent.
Paul speculates, or at least surmises, that Onesimus may have come to him for a time so that Paul could lead him to salvation and disciple him. That new man, Onesimus the Christian rather than Onesimus the slave, could be a brother to Philemon, more useful to him than ever before. This wording, “that you might receive him forever,” does not necessarily mean that Onesimus will be his slave forever, but that he will be his brother forever. The idea of an indentured servant could be drawn from this wording, signifying that Onesimus could serve Philemon for a lifetime instead of a temporary servant, as some persons did serve another for a time in order to earn money or pay off a debt. After a time, some servants commit to serve the master for the rest of their lives voluntarily. However, in this situation, it appears that Paul is not talking about servitude, but rather relationship that will last forever. Paul has received a runaway slave, but is sending back a brother in the faith. Therefore, Paul appeals for a different response from Philemon than what could have been expected, the response of a brother rather than a spurned master.
Paul’s love for Onesimus is exemplary. He could have just sent the slave back to his master for punishment and reacclimation to the life of slavery. However, Paul instead nurtured the slave, led him to salvation through Christ, and sent him back to Philemon as a brother. How can we rehabilitate errant souls who have forsaken their responsibilities? By giving them Jesus Christ. Salvation is about more than forgiveness of sins. It is also about transformation that takes a rebellious runaway from a life of irresponsibility and disobedience to a life of holiness and right living. Instead of condemning an errant soul, give them a new start, a fresh outlook by giving them the gospel of Jesus Christ, which can save a soul from sin. Lead souls from being slaves to being brothers and sisters in the faith. That is the call we hear, that is the mission we have been given.
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Side Note: That is the message of Christmas, that Jesus came to set the captives free and bring souls into the family of God. Merry Christmas, everyone!