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Like the first and the second letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus this letter is also written to a person and that is to Philemon. Nevertheless this one has a unique position between the letters that are addressed to persons.
Timothy and Titus received instructions regarding their personal behavior in the church. Paul taught them how they should deal with several situations and what to tell the believers. Those letters are of great importance to you as well. You learn by it what your personal behavior as a Christian should be in a Christianity where there is great confusion. You receive instructions on how you should function to the honor of God and to a blessing to the people around you.
The letter to Philemon has a totally different content. You do not find any doctrinal teaching in it. This letter is only about a practical matter. Paul addresses in this letter a believing master, Philemon, about a bondservant, Onesimus, who ran away from him and who is sent back by him, Paul. It is a letter about a slave who is in debt to his master. Paul intends to help that master to receive his slave, who has wronged him, in love. In this letter you see that the Christian faith not only consists of what you believe, but also of how you practice the faith.
It is not only about having a knowledge of God and the Lord Jesus, but also about exhibiting the features of God and the Lord Jesus. As an apostle Paul could have demanded that Philemon should accept Onesimus back and even release him. But Paul does not take his position as apostle here. He wants to show the practical application of the teaching. He shows that it is not only important that you speak about the truth; it is also that and how you apply the truth in practice. It is not only about saying the good thing, but also that you say it well. It is the tone that makes the music.
You may think: ‘What could I learn from an event that lies so far away from my world of life? It would be more helpful if I learn to know my position in Christ and how to show that in my life than knowing how Philemon should receive his slave.’ That would be a logical error. Precisely the letter to Philemon grants us, like no other letter, an example of how you are to show your position in Christ.
Although the letter does not consist of any doctrinal teaching, you will notice that it could only be written by somebody who has absorbed the whole truth in his heart. When you are reading this letter you will taste that the whole life and the whole mind of the writer are permeated with what he is in Christ. He applies in practice what he writes about the truth of the one body (the letter to the Ephesians) and the mind of Christ (the letter to the Philippians) and the new man (the letter to the Ephesians and the letter to the Colossians).
What is described here ought to be the daily practice of the believers in comparable situations. Although we do not have to do with slavery you may have to do with situations where another person owes you something, like Onesimus did to Philemon. It can be the case that you know of other people who find themselves in such situations. You may take a mediating role then, like Paul mediates here between Onesimus and Philemon. We learn from this letter how we should deal with such situations. That is the purpose of this letter and it should be read in that way.
In this letter you will search in vain for instructions on how to deal with slavery or how you should look at it. It is not about that at all. Christendom does not change circumstances, but the hearts of men. But even when the heart has been changed it does not mean that the believer willingly submits himself to the circumstances. I actually find it quite difficult sometimes how to deal with the injustice that is done towards me. That also indeed depends on the nature of the injustice. In this letter it is about stealing possessions and the refusal of bearing responsibilities.
There is another injustice where something is being taken away in a much deeper sense. Then I think of physical abuse or the manipulation of your will. It will be evident that this injustice is of another kind than the injustice that induced this letter. But in case you do have to do with this terrible injustice, then you need to learn how to deal with it also. That will be quite a difficult process, but with help from the Lord and from the people you trust, you can achieve a lot.
Philemon most apparently lived in Colossae, as it can be derived from the letter to the church there (Colossians 4:9). Therefore there is a strong relation between the letter to Philemon and the letter to the Colossians. There is something else that indicated a strong relation between the letter to Philemon on the one hand and the letter to the Ephesians and the letter to the Colossians on the other hand. In the letter to the Ephesians and the letter to the Colossians the masters of the slaves are actually addressed as such (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1). Philemon is a master like that and he is also directly addressed.
It seems that he came to faith through the service of Paul. That is what you actually could read between the lines in Philemon 1:19. Paul had never been in Colossae (Colossians 2:1) and must have met Philemon somewhere else. That encounter or those encounters ultimately led to his conversion. Afterwards he worked together with Paul and also with Timothy (Philemon 1:1).
Here Philemon is back at Colossae. It is most likely that the woman who is mentioned here, Apphia, is his wife. It has been assumed that Archippus is his son, but that is no more than an assumption. Philemon must have had a fairly large house, for the church gathers together in his house. The fact that he has at least one slave, Onesimus, may imply that he is not impecunious.
Onesimus is the issue in this letter. Onesimus was an unconverted slave who had fled. He certainly did not flee because of a cruel treatment by Philemon. I think the problem was with himself. To all outward appearances he was an unprofitable boy (Philemon 1:11). Before his conversion he did not justify his name, for the name Onesimus means ‘profitable’. It even appears that he became a thief.
Philemon actually did not chain him, but contrarily gave him freedom to a large extent. Philemon had confidence in him. Onesimus seriously misused that confidence. He not only ran away at a certain moment, but he properly equipped himself. He had to make the best of life, right? He might have justified himself by thinking that he did not take more than the outstanding payment with him. A person who is not being guided by the Lord can have the weirdest ideas about ‘mine and thine’ and will also act accordingly.
It is not told whether he aimed to go to Rome or whether he arrived there after a ramble. Anyway the Lord led it in such a way that he met the apostle there. It is possible that he ‘accidentally’ bumped into the apostle. He ended up into conversation with him and the Lord opened his heart so that he came to conversion. It is also not unthinkable that on his own initiative he searched the apostle about whom he must have heard a lot in the house of Philemon. The Lord might have made his conscience restless and reminded him of Paul who had been imprisoned somewhere in Rome.
What is definitely sure is that he came to conversion by Paul in prison and through the service of Paul (Philemon 1:10). Due to that his relation with God turned out well. Now he still had to put things right in his relation with Philemon. He still had a way to go regarding that.
So you see that through conversion not all problems disappear at once. Conversion is the beginning of a new life. From that moment growing in faith and abandoning the past go hand in hand. Everything of which you know or through which you later see that you wronged someone, you need to put right. That’s why after my conversion I went to the owner of a shop where I as a youngster regularly stole candy. I had an amount with me as a payment. That was, as far as I can remember, by no means the value of the stolen candy, but the owner accepted the payment I had with me and forgave me.
Apparently Onesimus did not think with joy about returning to his master. Nevertheless he acknowledged the necessity of it, probably after he was convinced by Paul. Paul also promised him his unconditional support. He took the responsibility to help Onesimus towards Philemon.
The way he does that is not of the kind that we mean when we are talking about ‘making a plea for somebody’. He did not simply send Onesimus back, but he sent him back with a letter of recommendation. In that letter Paul testifies of the genuineness of Onesimus’ conversion and of the many profits that he received from him after his conversion. You can learn from Paul in this. You can examine in which way you could help and encourage somebody who is dealing with such a situation like that of Onesimus.
You can also learn from Onesimus. By nature you are also a runaway Onesimus, who was unprofitable and of no use at all (Romans 3:12). That has been changed by your conversion. By the power of the Holy Spirit you are now able to be profitable to your environment. That you have changed is most striking for your daily environment, like at home, at school or at your work. Precisely where Onesimus was as a slave he now can show that he is profitable.
That is the way how God sends us back to our environment, our family, working place, in order to be a witness there, to be profitable for the Lord (Mark 5:19). You and I are God’s ‘Onesimus’.
Now read the letter thoroughly one more time.
Reflection: Have you made right, as far as you can recall, the injustice you have done towards others?
Senders, Recipients and Blessing
Philemon 1:1. As it is remarked in the introduction Paul doesn’t take the position of an apostle here. If he had done that, he would have taken his authority as a starting point for what he is going to write. He could have done that, as he later says in Philemon 1:8. Still he does not do that on this occasion. The point is that he is not intending to make known or to defend the truth, but it is about something else. He wants to reach the heart of Philemon; he wants to have a heart-to-heart contact with him. Therefore he doesn’t look at the different positions they have in the church, but what they possess together. Paul wants to talk with Philemon from the grace they both have received from God. Actually Paul takes still a lower step by adopting the attitude of somebody who is asking Philemon for a favor.
From that attitude he intends to express his feelings and wants to appeal to those of Philemon about someone they both know and that is Onesimus. But each of them knows him differently. Philemon knows Onesimus from the past, Paul knows him from the present. Between the past and present lies the conversion of Onesimus. Paul knows the good consequences of his conversion. Philemon only knows his past life and its adverse results. Paul knows about that. Therefore he doesn’t wipe Onesimus’ past clean or try to pretend that it was not that bad. The only thing he wants is to persuade Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back. That’s why he adopts this humble attitude.
In that way he shows Philemon how he desires that Philemon, the master, deals with Onesimus, the runaway slave. In this way Philemon can show the grace of the apostle, or better said the grace of the Lord. The Lord has humbled Himself more than anyone ever did. Not that He sacrificed anything of what He Himself is. But He was able to do something in His humiliation that absolutely could not be done in any other way. That is to impress the heart of His own by His graceful dealings (John 13:13-Ezra :). In the same way Paul could not deny his apostleship, but he could bypass it for this moment and give an example of a loving approach. In that humble attitude he can plea instead of command.
So Paul doesn’t present himself as an apostle, but as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus”. That must have already directly touched the heart of Philemon. The sender of the letter is someone who endures that pain for the sake of Christ. You can also tell the difference between a letter of someone for whom everything is going very well and a letter of someone who has (had) to go through many hardships. I assume that the one of the latter impresses you more.
Paul also says in other words that he is not a prisoner of men. People are just instruments in the hand of the Lord. Paul knows perfectly well to be in the hand of the Lord. He is not a plaything of destiny with the result to be a prisoner now. No, the Lord has brought him there, in order to have fellowship with this ‘elected vessel’ and to share the deepest thoughts of His heart with the apostle. Due to that we now have three letters that inform us about the richest blessings of the Christian: the letter to the Ephesians, the letter to the Philippians and the letter to the Colossians.
In a special way Paul in his imprisonment also has fellowship with a brother like Epaphras, who shares in his imprisonment (Philemon 1:23; Colossians 4:12). And in this letter we also see how his heart is related with Onesimus, who serves him in his imprisonment.
There is another sender, Timothy. Timothy is not an apostle, but he nevertheless has a special position in the church. But here also there is no mention of that special position. Timothy is presented as a “brother”, an indication which you may see as a title, which also applies to Philemon. It is a title of great significance. In a general sense the sisters are also meant with ‘brothers’. You see that actually when you know that the Lord Jesus is not ashamed to call us His brothers (Hebrews 2:11-2 Kings :). In that way He relates Himself to all the believers.
Paul uses this title several times in order to appeal to the heart of Philemon (Philemon 1:7; Philemon 1:20). This is how Paul was addressed by Ananias directly after his conversion (Acts 9:17). And during the time of his service the heart of the apostle always sought rest in the fellowship of the brothers and sisters.
We are each other’s brothers through all eternity. It is an eternal family relationship that has arisen through the work of the Lord Jesus. His first expression of joy after He fulfilled the work of redemption is: “Go to My brethren.” The fellowship of the believers with their Father and God is that of the Lord Jesus with His Father and God (John 20:17).
Paul addresses Philemon. That name means ‘one who loves’ or ‘rich in love’. He is worthy of that name, as it appears from Philemon 1:5. He is rich in love and has shown his love to others. Therefore it is inevitable for others to love him. He who loves is also loved himself. Paul has experienced his love (Philemon 1:7) and calls him “beloved”. Philemon is loved by God, by Paul and Timothy and by all who have noticed the love of Philemon.
The love of Philemon also goes out to the work of the Lord. He is a “fellow worker” of Paul and Timothy in the service for the Lord. This is again a proof that Paul mentions everything by which he can relate himself with Philemon.
Philemon 1:2. It doesn’t seem farfetched to me to assume that Apphia is the wife of Philemon. It is the only time that the apostle mentions the name of a woman in the salutation of his letters. That would be not appropriate on other occasions, but here it is very appropriate. Apphia has also been a victim, maybe the greatest victim. She lost a servant. Paul also adds something to her name. He calls her “sister”, with which he indicates the precious bond of faith in the Lord Jesus through which they are related to one another. There is also nothing here that indicates that Paul has a higher position in the church.
Archippus was probably a housemate, otherwise he would not have been mentioned together with the heads of the family in the salutation. It has been assumed that he was their son. There are no indications of that. He might have stayed with them in their house for some time, maybe because he needed some rest and recovery of strength. After all he is a partaker of the fight for the gospel. It may even be the case that he had difficulty with taking part again in the fight. He actually had to be exhorted to fulfill his task (Colossians 4:17).
By mentioning these names he expresses that they have fellowship with each other, that they share a common possession together. Through Christ they are related to one another and have interest in one another. This fellowship goes right through all differences that may be in social positions, in gender, in language. In the light of the cross all differences are resolved. In the new creation God is all things in all. In Christ there is no Jew (Paul), nor Greek (Philemon) and nor slave (Onesimus) nor free (Philemon) (Galatians 3:28).
The church in the house of Philemon is also involved with this matter. They undoubtedly had knowledge of what had happened. When Onesimus comes back they should also know how that happened. They will also know that a new brother has been added to them. The whole church must welcome this runaway slave in the mind of Christ.
In the letter to the Colossians Paul writes nothing about Onesimus as a runaway slave. There he only presents him as a faithful and beloved brother (Colossians 4:9). The problem between Onesimus and Philemon should be made known to the ones who are directly involved.
The church in the house of Philemon is not what is called today in the Western world, a ‘house church’. A house church can arise because of several reasons. It consists of a number of believers who regularly gather in a house, in order to share something with one another about the faith in Christ. Each house church stands by itself. People especially appreciate the small scale and therefore experience the personal attention more.
It is certainly not unbiblical to form a house church, but it is not being a church as you encounter it in the Bible. A church in the biblical sense considers the regulations that are particularly given in the letter to the Corinthians on the gathering of the church. That also happened in the house of Philemon and in other cases where there is mention of a ‘church in a house’ (cf. Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15).
In the Bible there is mention of the church at a certain place. In that place believers may come together in different locations, but that doesn’t mean that there are more churches in that place. This is how the first Christians gathered together to break bread in many locations in Jerusalem (Acts 2:46). It was indeed not possible to gather together with those other thousands of believers at one place in Jerusalem. Nevertheless the Scripture always speaks about the church in Jerusalem and not about the churches in Jerusalem.
The house of Philemon is situated at Colossae. There is the church. The fact that people gather together at two places in Colossae doesn’t mean that at one place (a certain building) there is a large ‘real’ church and at the other place (in that house) there is a house church. Both places together are the one church at Colossae.
Philemon 1:3. Paul concludes his salutation with the well-known greeting. “Grace” is the unmerited favor with which God and the Lord Jesus have saved us and with which They stand beside us. "Peace” is the result of it. It is the rest in view of all circumstances, due to the awareness that everything is in the hand of “God our Father”, that makes you aware of His love for His children. The same goes for “the Lord Jesus Christ” Who is the Lord of His servants.
Now read Philemon: 1-3 again.
Reflection: What is the difference between the salutation of this letter and that in other letters and why?
Love and Faith and a Plea
Philemon 1:4. Paul starts with, as he more often does at the beginning of a letter, giving thanks to God for what he hears about Philemon. Towards Philemon he speaks about “my God”. That indicates a personal intimate relationship that Paul has with God. Such a relationship is of great meaning. I hope that you also can say of God ‘My God’ and that you have an intimate intercourse with Him in supplications for others.
Paul always remembers Philemon in his prayers. When he mentions the name of Philemon in his prayers it is not about telling God about the concerns he has about him. You certainly may bring the concerns you have about others before God. But there are also believers of whom you become very grateful when you remember them, because they have so much love and faith, isn’t it? And do you show them that at a certain moment?
There is no doubt that it did Philemon well that Paul always remembers him in his prayers. In spite of the fact that they probably have not seen each other for some years Paul has not forgotten him. I hope that you also continue to pray for believers whom you have ever met and who made such an impression on you that your prayer for them doesn’t weaken.
Philemon 1:5. The reason of Paul’s gratitude is due to the reports that he received about Philemon. In those reports is testified of his “love” and “faith. ‘Love’ and ‘faith’ go hand in hand. ‘Love’, the main theme of the letter, is firstly mentioned here. Philemon has love “toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints”. That also goes hand in hand. It is not possible for you to say that you love the Lord Jesus and at the same time hate your brothers and sisters (cf. 1 John 4:20). ‘Faith’ means confidence of faith, but can also be translated with faithfulness. Philemon trusts in the Lord Jesus and he trusts the saints.
It may be easy to have faith toward the Lord Jesus, but do you also have faith toward your brothers and sisters? It is an essential condition for a healthy fellowship that you trust one another. That has got nothing to do with ignorance. Of course you are realistic enough to know that it may even occur that you are cheated by someone. Nevertheless you are not overconfident when it comes to saints. If you are suspicious about them, if you assume that they are not honest without having any clear indications of that, it will be harmful for the fellowship. Suspicion is a great evil. With Philemon you see the contrary.
Paul does not say these things to flatter Philemon. It is really true that Philemon has love and faith toward all saints. At the same time Paul certainly says that with the intention to prepare him for what he will soon plea for Onesimus. This runaway slave now belongs also to ‘all saints’. It is as if Philemon is now being tested in his love by showing that love toward Onesimus. You probably experience that yourself at times that it is sometimes easier to love brothers and sisters who live far away from you than those whom you daily meet and with whom you have daily intercourse.
When you get to know each other more and more the result may be that the love diminishes and even fades away, but it also may possibly increase. Of course the intention is that the latter happens. It is also like that in a marriage. At the beginning you see no evil in one another. But once you get to know each other better you also learn about the less pleasant sides of one another. It turns out wrong when you start to blame each other. It makes the bond stronger and stronger when you accept each other in that.
Philemon 1:6. After expressing his thanks for what he heard about Philemon Paul tells him why he prays for him, indicated and introduced by the word “that”. He wishes that the “fellowship of” Philemon’s “faith may become effective”, that it may acknowledge that every good thing that is in them for Christ. This also serves as a preparation to bring the heart of Philemon in line with the feelings of Paul. Philemon will have to be strong in his fellowship of the faith, in order to be able to forgive Onesimus and to welcome him as a brother. Onesimus belongs now to that fellowship of faith. In order to see him as such it means to Philemon, who has been cheated by him, that he needs the strength of the Lord. The Lords wants to give him that.
To make that clear to Philemon Paul wants Philemon to know what is in his heart for the Lord. His heart is full of the good for Christ. When the heart of Philemon is also full of kindness for Christ it will be easier for him to forgive and welcome Onesimus. Paul is not making an explanatory presentation on all good things that are in his heart for Christ. He prays that the Lord will make that clear to Philemon.
You don’t have to propagate about everything that you do for the Lord and how great your life of faith is that other people may notice that. People who speak highly of their great knowledge and faith are more occupied with themselves than with the Lord. If you want others to discover Jesus Christ in you then you should pray about that.
The good in you is not the flesh. Nothing good dwells in it (Romans 7:18). The good is the faith and its effect. Where there is faith there is also the good. Where there is no faith there is nothing good.
Philemon 1:7. Paul has heard good things about the service of Philemon. The most inward feelings of the saints have been refreshed by Philemon. Everyone who came into contact with him saw and experienced his faith and love. They were quickened by that, which has to do with rest, with a labor break, through which new strength is being gained to continue the work.
These reports also have a bountiful effect to Paul, who is being pleased and comforted by them. It is wonderful when you can have such a joy from the good reports you hear about someone.
Paul again addresses him as “brother”. It is fitting for the structure of a letter with a special appeal to the feelings of the believer. In this way Paul emphasizes that he and Philemon stand on the same ground of grace. There is no sharpness to be found in his attitude.
Philemon 1:8. It is not that Paul doesn’t dare to command him to welcome Onesimus as a brother. He even has “enough confidence” to do that. It is also not boldness of men, but boldness “in Christ”. It is as if Christ gives him the liberty to command. In case he had done that he would not have done anything wrong.
Philemon 1:9. Nevertheless he doesn’t make any use of that boldness because he has a higher motive: that of love. You see that, even though you have the boldness to do something, it is not a natural thing to make use of it.
If you want to reach a well-considered decision like Paul makes here, it is necessary to be very close to the Lord, to have His mind and to seek only the interest of the Lord and that of the other. After all, it is much easier to command somebody to do something, certainly when you are qualified to, than to, with a great deal of difficulty, persuade another person to take a certain action. To act like that, you absolutely must, like Paul, have understood something of the love of God as the core of Christendom. That is not about commanding, the fulfilling of a law, but about faith that works through love (Galatians 5:6).
There are certainly rules you are to obey (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 3:6). But here it is about showing grace and love, about dealing with one another as believers, accepting one another. You cannot achieve that through a command. To achieve that an appeal to love must be made, like Paul does to the love of Philemon. Besides, a command wouldn’t be fitting to the love that Philemon is known for.
Paul places himself before the heart of Philemon as “such a person as Paul, the aged” and also as “a prisoner of Jesus Christ”. Paul must have been about sixty years of age here. That is not really old for our understanding. Yet he calls himself an old man, which is undoubtedly due to the many hardships he went through. Apparently you could tell that from his face.
Anyway, for the spiritual eye of Philemon no impressive appearance arises, a man with personality and a fervent speech. For the natural feeling the once great apostle has no dignity anymore. But precisely this presentation appeals more to the affection of Philemon’s heart when he hears the great apostle plea in such a humble manner for the sake of Onesimus. He sees how Paul takes the place of a poor beggar (Proverbs 18:23).
Philemon 1:10. Up till now Philemon could have been wondering what Paul’s intention was, what the appeal he wants to make, consists of. Then Paul comes up with his purpose. He wants to make an appeal to Philemon for the sake of Onesimus. If Paul would have mentioned that name just like that, all kinds of unpleasant memories and bad feelings could have arisen with Philemon. But Paul precedes the name Onesimus by a description that undoubtedly have softened the feelings of Philemon.
Paul speaks about Onesimus as “my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment”. This message sounds almost like a birth announcement. A birth goes together with joy. Often the card of the birth announcement says that ‘with joy’ the birth is being announced. Likewise you feel the joy of Paul when he announces to Philemon by this description that he had begotten a spiritual child in his imprisonment.
Most apparently the sensitive Philemon must have felt, while reading this, that this event must have been a great consolation to Paul. Paul experiences there, while he is restricted in his movement that he was allowed to bring someone to the Lord. That is without question God’s work.
I do not know whether he was then already able to rejoice with Paul about this new birth, but it nevertheless must have softened his feelings. The letter is still not finished. Paul continues the preparatory work that should cause Philemon to reconcile with Onesimus.
‘We call him Onesimus.’ This is what could have been written on the birth announcement card. The meaning of that name is ‘useful’ or ‘profitable’. His parents have expressed their expectation by that name that his life would be like that. However, he did not meet with the expectations of his parents. It appeared to be the contrary. But that also changed through his conversion. The unprofitable one becomes a profitable one.
Each brother and sister should be like that. Love assumes that each brother and sister has a profitable input. Conversion changes a person: one who only thinks about himself and who seeks his own advantage, into a person who is profitable to other people, and of whom others have profit.
Now read Philemon :4-10 again.
Reflection: What could other people say about your love and faith?
Put That on My Account
Philemon 1:11. When Paul talks about the profit of Onesimus, he first points to the profit that Philemon will have and then only to the profit he himself had of him. He speaks about the profit that Philemon will have of Onesimus as a certainty. It seems that Paul is witnessing a development of the gift of grace in Onesimus. In his imprisonment he had much profit of that and he enjoyed that too.
Philemon 1:12. The value of Onesimus to Paul is that of his heart. That is a real recommendation. In case Philemon had already thought of a punishment for the injustice that Onesimus had caused him and the loss he had suffered, then he still could not hurt Paul’s heart. He actually would if he indeed would punish Onesimus. Paul clothes Onesimus with his own value towards Philemon. He calls him “my heart”. Paul himself comes to Philemon in Onesimus, as it were. Philemon will surely accept him based on everything Paul means to Philemon. Here you learn how to reach the heart of another person.
Philemon 1:13. Paul would love to have Onesimus to stay with him. What a help did that fellow bring him and what a joy also. Onesimus not only served him by his presence, but also by his work. He was a very good servant of Paul, whom he would have rather kept with him. Additionally Paul saw in Onesimus a kind of representation of Philemon. When Paul saw Onesimus he saw Philemon. In that way he was always reminded of Philemon. Philemon himself did not have the opportunity to visit the apostle in his imprisonment, but in this way it was being compensated. That must have satisfied Philemon also.
Philemon 1:14. Paul does not manipulate with words to mentally put Philemon under pressure. He wants to share with Philemon what was going through his mind, that Philemon may be more willing to forgive and receive Philemon. By revealing the considerations of his heart to Philemon in this way he wants to soften the heart of Philemon. He renounces his own benefit he found with Onesimus for the sake of the benefit that Philemon will have of him. That is the true mind of Christ: renouncing something to grant others the benefit of it. Paul prefers to be alone if that will cause others to benefit with what delivered him benefit.
Paul’s policy is different from what the law prescribes. According to the law he was not even supposed to send Onesimus back (Deuteronomy 23:15-Nehemiah :). But grace always goes further than the law, for Paul wants everything to turn out well between Philemon and Onesimus. Therefore he did not want to make use of the right to keep Onesimus with him. He wants to consult Philemon about that, he does not want to force anything at all. Forcing a decision is not the right way. Philemon actually had to, but Paul did not want to deal with it like that. He wants to cause that the good deed of Philemon would not be “by compulsion”, but of his “own free will”.
If Paul had kept Onesimus with him he would have kept the law. He could have written that to Philemon. Then formally everything would have been in order. Philemon would have had nothing to say against that. Paul could have even written to Philemon that he should take up the courage to forgive Onesimus as a kind of obligation, as something ‘that is right and proper to do’. But love is not to be forced. You can only stimulate that by showing that yourself. That causes the other to a voluntary action that is appreciated by the Lord (2 Corinthians 8:8-1 Samuel :; 2 Corinthians 9:7).
Philemon 1:15-Nehemiah :. In these verses Paul gives another reason to take Onesimus back. Onesimus has become a brother. Paul even speaks about him as a “beloved brother”. He even says that the running away of Onesimus was the cause of his conversion. He does that though, in a way that it is absolutely not compromising the responsibility of Onesimus.
You can see that by the word “perhaps”. That indicates the cautiousness with which Paul draws the conclusion. He doesn’t speak out any absolute certainty because God may still have other aims. Paul speaks about a result that stands by itself and you should see that as a sovereign action of God. Perhaps you know from your own life some situations of which you must shamefully say that you then went your own way and that the Lord still used those situations to bring you back to Him. It doesn’t make your debt smaller, but it rather does make His grace greater.
Paul did not speak about ‘runaway’, but about being “separated”. That separation was “for a while”, but the return is eternal. The master-slave relationship is a temporary one. In that relation Onesimus returns, but a new relation has been added, that of brother. And there comes no end to a brother-brother relationship; that remains to eternity. This relationship is not something you could claim a right for; it is grace. Onesimus is above all a beloved brother to Paul. To Philemon he is both slave (that he is “in the flesh”) and brother (that he is “in the Lord”).
Philemon 1:17. Based on that new and eternal relation, grounded by grace, Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as if Paul himself stands before him. He addresses Philemon as “a partner”. But notice that he calls himself a partner of Philemon and not the other way round. By saying it like this he therefore takes the humblest position and he considers Philemon more excellent than himself.
That is the policy of love and grace. This is really difficult to learn. Do you find it easy to give another person honor for a work that you have done for the greater part? Yet this is the way to fill hearts with the mind of the Lord Jesus.
Philemon 1:18-Psalms :. Paul surely has that mind. That definitely becomes obvious when he says to Philemon that he can put everything that Onesimus was indebted to him, on his account. Apparently Onesimus had stolen some things when he ran away or did something that might have made his master angry. Paul does everything in his power to calm Philemon down. The best thing he can do is to take all the blame. What has been stolen is to be given or paid back. Paul is therefore willing to stand bail. He takes the whole responsibility for the debts. He will pay everything back.
Don’t you see the mind of the Lord Jesus here, Who perfectly took the blame of the other, of you, on Himself? Also the evil that may have been done to you was borne by Christ. He has said: ‘I will repay.’ The Lord has written that with his own hand. I can imagine that Philemon, while reading this, thought of that. In that way Paul did not focus the thoughts on himself but on the Lord Jesus.
If you focus yourself on Him you will always find the right motive for all your actions (1 John 3:16). Only by looking upon Christ you will, when a brother has done injustice to you, react in the right way. A person is never a loser when he accepts any abuse for the sake of the Lord.
But there is another thing. In the case of Paul and Philemon you may also speak of a settlement of debts. Philemon owes Paul more than the other way round. Philemon owes Paul. He also came to faith due to the service of Paul and therefore Paul is his spiritual father. Besides that Onesimus is his brother now, Onesimus also has the same spiritual father like Philemon. Would not that also have a beneficial impact on his attitude toward Onesimus?
Philemon 1:20. By saying “yes, brother” Paul expresses himself positively about what he expects of Philemon. Love hopes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7). Again Paul calls Philemon ‘brother’ and again he does that in relation with the refreshment that Philemon gives (Philemon 1:7). He expects to have profit from Philemon. Do you also look in faith at your brothers and sisters like that?
Needless to say that this has got nothing to do with the misuse of the kindness of others by some people. The benefit that Paul seeks lies in the attitude of Philemon. The refreshment of his heart may be that Philemon receives Onesimus in grace as he himself was received by God in grace. Paul seeks nothing for his own sake. Everything he seeks is in Christ.
Philemon 1:21. Paul has written his letter with the confidence that Philemon will receive Onesimus. He even expects Philemon to release Onesimus. He speaks about that in veiled terms (“do even more than what I say”), but clearly enough to those who understand the language of love. It could just possibly be the case that Philemon gives Onesimus the room to use his gift for the service of the church. That would imply that Philemon will not keep him for himself and for domestic duties.
Philemon 1:22. After having written so extensively on the preparation of the return of Onesimus, he still adds some lines with a request for his own sake. He asks Philemon to arrange accommodation for himself. That means that he will soon be released from prison.
For that release he does not count on the kindness of Caesar, but on the prayers of brothers and sisters. He sees his whole life in relation with the Lord and his brothers and sisters. This request for accommodation, which includes the soon coming of Paul, will also be another stimulation for Philemon to meet Paul’s request, regarding Onesimus.
Philemon 1:23. He concludes his letter by conveying the greetings of some brothers. Those are the same brothers who are also mentioned in the letter to the Colossians (Colossians 1:7; Colossians 4:12). Of Epaphras you read something here that is not mentioned in the letter to the Colossians. In this letter, which says so much about the feelings of a servant, Paul also finds consolation in Epaphras as a fellow sufferer. Knowing that someone is going through the same as you, can be very encouraging and give strength to persevere (cf. 1 Peter 5:9).
Philemon 1:24. Then Paul mentions four names of people of whom he says that they are “fellow laborers”. Mark is the man for whom the life in the service of the Lord has become tough, but who is now useful again (Acts 13:13; Acts 15:37-Zechariah :; Colossians 4:10). Aristarchus has been a journey companion of Paul with whom he had gone through turbulent times (Acts 19:29). Demas is still a member of the company here, but he will quit later (2 Timothy 4:10). In that way he is the counterpart of Mark. Encouragement and disappointment often lie close to each other. Finally he mentions Luke, the medical doctor. He must have gratefully made use of him for his physical condition.
Philemon 1:25. His personal greeting is not addressed to Philemon alone, but to all. The word “your” is in plural. He wishes that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is with the spirit of all.
How important is that wish nowadays. Your spirit is daily exposed to countless impressions. Your mind is being influenced by everything you see and hear. It is certainly important to keep your spirit pure. The grace of the Lord Jesus wants to lead you to cleanse yourself “from all defilement of flesh and spirit” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Then you will be free in your spirit and able to learn to know the Lord Jesus better. You will be more able to understand His Word and to do His will. His mind will be revealed more in you; is that not the main theme of this letter?
Now read Philemon: 11-25 again.
Reflection: How can you refresh someone’s heart in Christ?
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Philemon 1". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter