Philemon 8-20 – Paul’s Plea for Onesimus

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Phm 8-9

  1. Paul could have commanded Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but then Philemon would not have had the opportunity to voluntarily forgive Onesimus. Instead of commanding, Paul sends Onesimus back and appeals to him to make the right decision himself.
    1. Paul was not afraid to give orders if necessary (1 Cor 5).
    2. Paul knows that true forgiveness can only be voluntary and that the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus can only be established if they both voluntarily agree to it.

Phm 10-12

  1. Paul often referred to those he had converted to Christ as his “children” (Titus 1:4, 1 Corinthians 4:14, 1 Corinthians 4:17, Galatians 4:19, Colossians 4:15).
    1. Since Paul has led both Philemon and Onesimus to Christ, he assumes the role of their parent and believes that they are both brothers.
    2. Like a real parent, Paul is willing to pay one brother’s debts while, like a parent, he urges Philemon to forgive his brother.
  2. Paul writes here a play on words that does not appear in English. “Onesimus” means “useful” and Paul means that Onesimus was not “useful” to Philemon before but now that he has become a Christian he is “useful” to both Paul and Philemon. Later in verse 20, Paul appeals to Philemon to be “useful” by releasing Onesimus.
  3. Given the brutal reality of most slaves at the time, it was very brave of Onesimus to return to Philemon. Had the same thing happened to another slave owner, Onesimus would probably have been crucified.
    1. Presumably Onesimus was the bearer of this letter from Paul, so one can imagine that Onesimus was cold-sweated a bit before Philemon had had time to read Paul’s letter.
  4. Onesimus is mentioned in Colossians 4:9 as “our faithful and beloved brother”.

Phm 13-14

  1. Paul could have used his apostolic authority to command Philemon to do what Paul wanted, but then Philemon would have missed the chance to show love to his fellow man and release Onesimus voluntarily.
  2. Instead of forcing Philemon to do what is right, Paul trusts that there is an inherent morality in every Christian that allows him to decide for himself what is right or wrong. This is so important to Paul that he risks Onesimus’ well-being in order to give Philemon the chance to voluntarily forgive Onesimus.
    1. The new covenant is not based on being forced to obey laws and rules here and there, but on having a new heart that voluntarily wants to do what is right (Jer 31:31-34, 2 Cor 3:6).
    2. Every Christian has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), who teaches us and reminds us of everything Jesus said (John 14:26).
    3. Since Philemon has received the Holy Spirit, Paul trusts that Philemon will be able to make the right decision and forgive Onesimus.
      1. In the same way, every Christian today also has the Holy Spirit in his heart and can freely listen to the Holy Spirit and thus make the right decisions for himself.
      2. A Christian does not have to blindly obey laws and rules but can, thanks to the Holy Spirit, make his own decisions to love his fellow human beings. The difficult thing, however, may be for a Christian leader to trust, as Paul did, that other Christians also have the Holy Spirit and can decide for themselves what is right or wrong. If a Christian leader commands his or her parishioners to obey, the parishioners miss the opportunity to voluntarily love their fellow human beings and miss out on one of the most important aspects of the Christian faith.

Phm 15-16

  1. There has been a big change in Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship. Previously they were master and slave, but now they have suddenly become brothers in Christ. This turns their relationship upside down and everything that had previously happened between Philemon and Onesimus.
  2. Although Paul does not explicitly oppose slavery as such in theory, he does oppose it in practice because it becomes increasingly difficult to own other people as more and more people become Christians.
    1. Paul did not challenge slavery from above by instituting new laws and rules that forbade Christians to have slaves. Instead, Paul challenged slavery from within by appealing to the inherent morality and voluntary will of Christians to love their fellow human beings. Slavery was defeated through love, not coercion.
  3. To make sure that Philemon does not just become a brother to Onesimus in theory, Paul adds that they are now brothers both as “men” and “in the Lord”.
    1. The Christian faith is not just a theoretical belief that one holds in one’s heart; the Christian faith also has consequences in real life. Philemon and Onesimus are not only brothers in theory but also in practice.
    2. As a Christian, you pray not only on Sundays in church, but also on Mondays at work.

Phm 17-19

  1. Even though Onesimus has been saved and forgiven, it was still important that he did the right thing.
  2. Paul knows that Onesimus has done wrong, but still chooses to send him back to Philemon with a message that he himself is ready to take Onesimus’ punishment.
    1. Here Paul becomes “Christ-like” when he does not turn a blind eye to what is wrong, while at the same time he is ready to take the punishment himself, thus creating a reconciliation between master and slave. This is what Jesus has done for us human beings.
    2. We have all been “runaway slaves” who have done wrong. But when we flee to Jesus, Jesus “mediates” between us and our Father. Jesus asks our Father to forgive us and take the punishment for our sins upon himself so that we can live in our Father’s house as “sons” instead of “slaves” (1 Tim 2:5-6).
  3. Here we see that Philemon has most likely been saved thanks to Paul. Philemon has thus received eternal life thanks to Paul’s telling him about Christ. Had it not been for Paul, Philemon would most likely not have been saved and thus Philemon owes an incalculable debt of gratitude to Paul.
    1. Since Philemon owes Paul so much, releasing a Christian brother is the least he can do.

Phm 20

  1. Here Paul again alludes to Onesimus’ name, which means “useful”.
  2. So what Paul is really saying is, “Let me have Onesimus from you.”
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