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Paul’s Plea for Onesimus November 11, 2012

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on Philemon 8-25.

Summary: Paul begins by telling Philemon that although he has apostolic authority – giving him privilege of speech – he entreats him, having respect to the claims of love. Although he has authority from Christ Jesus – especially the office of prisoner – he entreats Philemon on behalf of Onesimus – who has come to faith during his imprisonment. In fact, even though Onesimus had been useless to Philemon, he is now useful to both of them.

Paul then notes that he is sending Onesimus – along with this letter – back to Philemon. He notes that he would prefer that Onesimus remain in Rome and continue to assist him (implying that Philemon would have helped him in the same way if he had been present) in his imprisonment – the state that gives him authority. Yet he does not want the benefit arising from Philemon to be coerced. Indeed, God parted Philemon from Onesimus for a short season that he would have him in return – yet not only as a slave, but as a brother in Christ; this is the case in both the material sphere and the sphere of the Spirit.

Thus, Paul tells Philemon that if he holds him to be an intimate friend, he should welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ. Now if Onesimus has injured Philemon in any way, Paul will make restitution to him, and he formally signs a deed to confirm this – not to say that Philemon owes his being to Paul. He desires to find comfort in Philemon as a believer. Not only this, but he is confident that Philemon will emancipate Onesimus.

Paul then tells Philemon to prepare a lodging for him, as he is contemplating a visit to Colosse.

Paul notes that Epaphras – the evangelist of Colosse – sends Philemon greetings, along with Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke.

Paul concludes by wishing God’s unmerited favor to be with Philemon.

Thoughts: Here is the question that many believers contemplate after reading this letter: “how did Philemon respond to it?” Lightfoot weighs in on this issue in his commentary:

Of the result of this appeal we have no definite knowledge. It is reasonable to suppose, however, that Philemon would not dash the apostle’s hopes, and that he would receive the slave back as a brother, and that he would even go further and meet the exact terms of St. Paul’s petition and emancipate the penitent. But all this is mere conjecture.

I am definitely eager to meet both Philemon and Onesimus in the next life and learn how Philemon responded to this letter. Was he filled with anger at his reunion with Onesimus; did he want to torture and/or kill him on the spot? How did Onesimus overcome the temptation to escape from Tychicus as they traveled from Rome to Colosse? Was Philemon at least somewhat mortified by this private letter being revealed to believers through the ages? Did Philemon grow as a Christian as a result of reading and digesting the words that Paul wrote to him?

One intriguing aspect of this passage is Paul’s internal struggle between 1) his desire to assert his genuine authority in Christ and 2) his desire to entreat Philemon. Lightfoot offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verses 9-10:

The mention of his personal name involves an assertion of authority, as in Ephesians 3:1; compare Galatians 5:2…In Galatians 4:19 he speaks of himself as having a mother’s pangs for his children in the faith.

I found this this apparent conflict to be rather intriguing. Clearly Paul could have ordered Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ and treat him accordingly – yet he chose to appeal to Philemon and place Onesimus in his hands. Now I wonder how Philemon received Paul’s candor in expressing this conflict; did he think that Paul was implicitly ordering him to welcome Onesimus? Also, verse 22 can be perceived as a move by Paul to evaluate Philemon’s response to this letter; in that case, was he actually placing Onesimus in Philemon’s hands? Paul is well-known for his frankness; one must wonder how Philemon perceived his frankness, though.

In verse 21, we see that Paul exhorts Philemon to go beyond his explicit instructions regarding Onesimus. Lightfoot offers some insights on this point:

Did he contemplate the emancipation of Onesimus? If so, the restraint which he imposes on himself is significant. Indeed, throughout this letter the idea would seem to be present in his mind, though the word never passes his lips. This reserve is eminently characteristic of the Gospel. Slavery is never directly attacked as such, but principles are inculcated which must prove fatal to it.

Now this note by Lightfoot actually dovetails with a quote by Hodge that I referenced here. Perhaps it is impossible for slaves and their masters to have a genuine Christian relationship; if a Christian master genuinely perceives their slave as a brother in Christ, looking out for their best interests must entail eventually releasing them from their obligations as a slave. Now in that case, I wonder if the Christian master could hire their (former) slave and still reap some economic benefit from them while maintaining their Christian relationship. It would seem – at first glance – that an employee and their employer could cultivate a genuine Christian relationship.

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