8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.
(Philemon vv. 8-20 NIV)
Looping back to the prior sections of Paul’s letter to Philemon, we heard Paul’s thankfulness for Philemon and his family and their friendship. We also heard Paul express his gratitude for Philemon’s love for the Lord and for God’s people. Philemon provided the place where the house church met. Philemon had a pastor’s heart and cared deeply for the believers that gathered in his home. Paul told Philemon that the people who met in his home were blessed, and Paul was blessed because the people were blessed.
In today’s text, Paul addresses the issue of Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus. Paul begins gently, appealing to Philemon’s grace and forgiveness as Philemon decides what to do with Onesimus. Paul says that he, as an apostle has every right to command what Philemon should do, but chooses to appeal to Philemon out of love and friendship.
In verse 11, Paul uses a play on words to appeal to Philemon. The name “Onesimus” means “useful”; Paul says that as a runaway slave, Onesimus had become “useless” to Philemon, but now was “useful” to both Paul and Philemon. So what redeemed Onesimus? What made him useful again? The change was spiritual, not physical. Somehow the Lord had arranged the meeting of Paul and Onesimus, and Paul had led Onesimus to the Lord.
Paul saw the value of Onesimus’ changed life. Although Paul would have preferred to keep him in Rome as his helper, he knew the right thing was to send Onesimus back to his rightful owner Philemon. Paul did not want to overstep his relationship with Philemon and demand or claim his right to have Onesimus help him. Instead, Paul humbled himself and did the right thing by sending him back.
Paul tells Philemon that while he may have temporarily lost a slave, he is now gaining back both a slave and a brother in Christ. Onesimus’ value has increased eternally!
Notice that Paul neither approved nor condemned slavery – it was a part of the culture in Paul’s day. What Paul did do, however, was proclaim the infinite value of a person in the eyes of God. In Paul’s day, a slave that was considered a “property” rather than a “person”. But Paul saw through the cultural definition of a slave to God’s definition of a person and their creation in His likeness and their value as such.
Paul is asking Philemon to love Onesimus as a person. And the first step in that fractured relationship is for Philemon to forgive Onesimus. Paul does not specifically tell Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but that is what is implied here.
Paul is also asking Philemon to take the next step beyond forgiveness – to restore Onesimus to service. Philemon could easily sell Onesimus to the slave market to make up for his losses. Instead, Paul asks Philemon to bring his back into his home. Paul even offers to help make up the financial loss that Onesimus caused Philemon. We don’t know how long Onesimus had been gone; Paul likely knew the details and offered to make up the difference financially.
Paul closes this section by asking Philemon to receive Onesimus as if he were receiving Paul himself. Paul says that if Philemon will accept Onesimus as he would accept Paul, this act of love, forgiveness, and restoration would refresh Paul’s heart in Christ.
Forgiveness is often so hard, isn’t it? But it’s what God calls us to do and shows us by example.
And when we forgive, to restore a relationship with someone and make restitution is a whole different level of commitment and love.
Lord, help us to love unconditionally as You love us. Thank You for Paul’s example of doing the right thing, and for reflecting Your character and love in his letter to Philemon.
Help us to learn this lesson of forgiveness well, and to practice it in our daily lives.