Category Archives: Philemon

Philemon 23-25; Brief Thoughts: The conclusion

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Paul concludes his great request by reminding Philemon that he is a part of a community of missionaries. His final greeting includes the names of brothers who have not yet abandoned Paul, but have remained in the mission field with him. His concluding remarks are both a gracious reminder that Christians are obliged to one another and a kind warning that, if Paul is not able to see Philemon, one of these other brothers will.

Grace and Peace are again reiterated to Philemon. As a bookend, Paul concludes his letter with the same greeting as verse three. This is exactly how we ought to address one another as Christians. Open with grace and peace, present concerns, and then close with grace and peace. Consider that for a moment – how often do we offer grace and peace before we lay our request before others? Further, how willing are we to grant grace and peace regardless of the answer or response we receive? Consider what it would look like if we actually did this.

Paul’s incredibly great letter closes with the same charity that he began with.

So who are these brothers?

Epaphras – (Colossians 1:7-8, 4:12, and Philemon 1:23)

Epaphras had a prominent role in the evangelism and teaching in the church at Colossae. His efforts helped to establish the church are mentioned earlier in this letter. Epaphras was a native of the Colossian church, so identified here as “one of you.” He certainly served the church well through teaching the grace of God thoroughly and with much affection. His affection for the church at Colossae is evident in his report to Paul in 1:8. Indeed, such affection for the community of faith is vastly increased when the community of faith has responded to the Gospel with love and affection. Epaphras must have felt a great deal of love for the faithful and he must have reveled in the encouragement from such a family as the Colossian church. This is precisely the encouragement that the churches should give to its ministers. Churches ought to so fiercely follow after Christ and exemplify the changed heart of Christianity that their ministers cannot help but speak of them to others.

In addition to serving the church of Colossae, Epaphras was a “fellow minister,” “a servant of Christ Jesus,” and “a fellow prisoner” with Paul. He was obviously one of the men that Paul utilized in the teaching of the church. He was also a man who exemplified Christian service to the extent that he was recognized as a “servant of Christ.” What a tremendous honor to be identified with such a title from the hand of Paul. His imprisonment and difficulties in his missionary journeys proved a testing ground for the fortitude of the brother who went along with him. Indeed, Mark left the missionary team in Pamphylia (Acts. 15:37-40), The Jews followed Paul from town to town attempting to crush his teaching (Acts 16-17), and, after this letter, Demas will abandon Him as well (2 Tim. 4:10), leaving Paul alone in prison. With this refining in mind, consider the honor given to Epaphras. He does not abandon the work and remains faithful even into prison.

Epaphras also had a deep love for the Colossian believers. He is described as “struggling on [their] behalf in prayer” (4:12). The term used for “struggle” is the same word that we derive the English word for agony. An apt descriptive term, Paul cites that Epaphras is in agony, striving and fighting on behalf of the Colossian believers. Such a labor is not foreign to pastors and ministers of the gospel. Indeed, it is common for a minister to labor in prayer and agonize over the souls of those they shepherd. Sleepless nights and severity of prayer are commonplace among pastors and disciple-makers alike. The content of Epaphras’ prayers for the church is that their character would be refined and that they would exemplify the will of God. That is to say, that they would exemplify the character and nature of God, living out His will on this earth. Epaphras’ prayer has nothing to do with their material well being or safety. Amidst persecution and difficulty, his prayer is that they would be faithful and strong. In their fortitude and strength they will live out the will of God, thereby testifying to His great grace and mercy.

The power of Epaphras’ prayer is only heightened by Epaphras’ own disciplined efforts. This is a man who puts into practice the strength he asks for others. May we all be so disciplined in our efforts toward gospel ministry that we are identified as serving the church in this way.

Aristarchus (Acts 19:29, 20:4, 27:2, and Philemon 1:24)

A Macedonian believer, Aristarchus was one of Paul’s “companions in travel” (Acts 19:29). He was present at the riot in Ephesus and spent significant time with Paul in Ephesus. In the midst of extreme danger, Aristarchus remained faithful to stand by Paul. Further, exemplifying the Macedonian spirit, Aristarchus has given all of himself to the mission of God. He has sacrificed his own comfort and position by following the Lord even to prison. This man is a bold follower of Christ who stands by Paul in some of the most difficult circumstances. Even in this letter, he is a “fellow prisoner.” What a great encouragement to have brothers such as Aristarchus who will serve even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Mark (Acts 12:12, 12:25, 15:37-39, 2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 24, 1 Peter 5:13)

John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, was greatly involved in the ministry of the early church. He was a member of Paul’s missionary cohort early on until he fell sick and had to return home. He and Barnabas worked to advance the Gospel apart from Paul for a time before they were evidently reunited at Paul’s request in 2 Timothy. Mark’s own journey was one of transformation. He went from being a nuisance to being a valuable part of the mission of God. In his first attempt to live on mission, he was overcome with sickness and then rejected by the leader of the mission. Yet, he persisted and grew as a disciple, faithfully proclaiming the gospel when given the opportunity. So, over time, he is transformed from the sickly and annoying boy that Paul does not want to bother with being one whose presence is requested because he is “useful” (2 Tim. 4:11).

So it is with many Christians. As we grow in the Lord we often find the journey to becoming useful to be a long and rather slow process. Most Christians are more akin to John Mark than Paul. We seldom have a Damascus road experience that changes us overnight. Most of us must walk through failures and successes and learn slowly. Although we have been changed in a moment, we still must grow into that change as Mark grew.

Demas – (Col. 4:14, 2 Tim. 4:9-10, Philemon 24)

Demas is referred to in Philemon as a “fellow worker.” He was one of the cohort of Paul that traveled and served with him. However, somewhere between the writing of Philemon and 2 Timothy, Demas fell “in love with this present world.” No matter the devotion he once showed, his faith did not prove to be genuine. It is valuable to recognize that Demas’ affections were for “this present world.” Demas lacked an eternal perspective and thought it better to achieve in this life rather than the next. Let this serve as a warning. Strive to maintain an eternal perspective, lest you fall away for the affections of this life.

Luke – (Colossians 4:14, 2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 1:24.)

Luke is often a misunderstood character in church history because of the position he holds as “physician.” In modern times, physicians are men of extreme education who are venerated as highly skilled purveyors of life. However, in the first century, physicians were not highly respected men. Often slaves served as physicians and the designation as doctor bore little more significance than asserting a special responsibility. Some have speculated that Luke might have been a freed slave that joined Paul on his missionary journeys after his master set him free. It is common to speculate that Theophilus, the one to whom Acts is written, may have been Luke’s master. However, fascinating these speculations, nothing can be proved.

As a physician, Luke serves as the prototype for medical missions. Moreover, he shows the value of maintaining a physician in the service of missions for the sake of tending to Paul’s ailments. The medical profession during the first century was not a highly regarded field. Often scorned as useless in favor of idolatry, doctors were considered a rejection of the cultic practices of common roman religion. While there were some places where physicians were employed alongside temple practices, most were rejected as superfluous. The fact that Luke is used by God in such a tremendous capacity as Paul’s traveling companion is a rejection of the power of idolatry.

Imagine for a moment: you enter a city and find a temple of idol worship that claims to heal the sick through observance of ritual sacrifice. People are sick and are clamoring for their false gods to answer their pleas. You happen to have a physician who knows that the answer is for them to eat some fruit, take a particular herb, and drink lots of water. People begin to get better as a result of the physician’s advice and now you have an open door to the gospel. The education and talents of a man rejected by the common practices of the world are thereby used to advance the Kingdom of Heaven!

Further, there is no doubt that Luke utilized his education to write both the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. His ability to write served to record the history of the early church and the story of Jesus. His ability as a physician, while not specifically stated, was certainly used to keep Paul and his companions healthy, and the surrendering of his gifts to God was used as a part of His mission. God used a talent often rejected by the culture of the time, to advance His kingdom.

Luke remained with Paul through Paul’s imprisonment. His affection for Paul as a brother is evident in his presence with him in Philemon 24 and in 2 Timothy 4:11. While everyone else left Paul in prison, Luke remained. He was devoted to Paul. More than that, He was devoted to the gospel work.

Consider the contrast between Luke and Demas for a moment. One surrenders everything in this life for the sake of following a gospel call that will inevitably land him in prison or end in death. The other abandons the glory of heaven for the glory of this life. Which one are you? Demas or Luke?[i]

[i] These entries were originally published on noviselkins.wordpress.com in the study through Colossians.

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Philemon 21-22; Brief thoughts

21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

There is no more intimidating visit than a man who has laid his life down for the gospel who has asked for a favor. Consider for a moment Philemon’s position. He is a leader in a church that lives in relative ease and is surrounded by a great many brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul is a man who has surrendered every comfort in effort to spread the gospel of Jesus. The magnitude of such a character could intimidate the strongest of men. By concluding his letter with a clear statement of expectation followed by a promise of his own appearance, Paul is expressing both hope and issuing a warning.

Paul’s hope is based on confidence that the gospel does and will transform Philemon to live contrary to the world’s system. The nature of the gospel is transformation. Because Philemon has claimed to follow Christ, he ought to be transformed and thereby compelled by his own new nature to defy the world’s systems. If he truly believes, Philemon will obey. Do not misunderstand, Philemon is not compelled to obey because Paul is somehow forcing obedience. Philemon is compelled to obey because the gospel demands that Christians exemplify the freedom of the gospel in there everyday life. Thus, slaves must be released and made family in the same way that Jesus has done for those who believe. Christians can be expected to manifest a changed life because they have been given a new nature that is free from sin and is being renewed after the image of God (c.f. Rom. 6:1-11, Col 3:9-10, Rom. 8:9-11). Confident that this change of nature has been wrought in Philemon, Paul trusts that he will do “even more than [Paul] say[s].”

Simultaneous with his expression of confidence, Paul issues a warning – “I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you” (v.22). He is coming to visit. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the first church planter, the founder of the church in Colossae (where Philemon lives and hosts the church). Paul intends to follow his letter with his presence. The colossus of Christian missions is coming to visit following the letter he has sent with his “child” Onesimus. What can Philemon do except grant the request? If he denied such a request, then the gospel has not taken root in his heart and he is not a believer.

Paul’s warning is couched in surrender. Notice the language – “I am hoping through your prayers to be graciously given to you” (v.22). Paul is surrendering his right to command and acknowledging that Philemon’s prayers and efforts have value. Paul hopes to be “given” to Philemon. His efforts to visit are in order that he might pay the debt of Onesimus (c.f. v18). Paul is coming to take on the debt of his child, Onesimus. Yet in his coming he recognizes that Philemon’s prayers have contributed in some part to Paul’s own success. Further, he is aware that Philemon is in a position to refresh him and to aid him in the ministry. He has surrendered his right to command and has entrusted himself to the hands of Philemon. He is coming and he is coming in grace.

Paul’s concluding statements to Philemon exemplify how Christians are to treat each other in difficult situations of reproof. Note the structure of his appeal in verses 17-22.

  1. He establishes Philemon as a fellow leader (v.17).
  2. Accepting Philemon’s point of view, Paul takes on the debt of Onesimus (v. 18-19)
  3. He provides a clear statement of expectation (v. 20).
  4. He assumes the best response from Philemon (v. 21).
  5. He submits himself to Philemon’s hand and acknowledges Philemon’s efforts (v. 22).

This conciliatory attitude ought to be present in all Christian community. Christians are to be marked by our love for each other (John 13:35). So that love should be evident in Christian interactions within the church. Here are three things that Christians ought to take from Paul’s example.

  1. Assume the best in other believers. Because the gospel has transformed the hearts of believers, Christians ought to assume the best of one another. Further, Christians should express that assumption in words that are obvious and unambiguous. We ought to tell each other what we expect with transparency and forgiveness.
  2. Make expectations known. The world tells you to manipulate those around you. So great is the pervasive nature of deception in this world that entire academic degrees hinge on learning to manipulate and deceive people into doing what you desire. Christianity demands honest transparency. Christians are to be honest and open with those who they interact with. In this way a Christian lays everything out before others and entrusts him or herself to the work of the Lord.
  3. Prepare to speak in person. Paul’s confidence in Philemon is not the only step he takes to ensure Philemon’s obedience to the gospel. He is also coming to visit. In his visit, he will most certainly discuss Onesimus’ condition and offer to pay whatever has been lost. This kind of direct communication is common in Christianity. As those who have surrendered pride in favor of grace, we are uniquely suited to have loving discussions that engage each other with honest integrity.

Philemon 20; Brief Thoughts

20Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

In polite society, direct expressions of expectations are awkward. Most people do not particularly enjoy the clear communication of expectations because it demands a response. When someone declares that they expect something specific, the person addressed must then determine if they are going to say yes or no to the request. Propriety demands that one provide a passive method of rejection. For example, it is impolite to ask someone to sacrifice something they own for your interest. Rather, you’re supposed to make your need known and see if they decide to meet that need. One does not request direct action without sufficient passive aggressive escape.

Christianity is not polite society. In the Christian community, direct statements are made in love to one another (c.f. Ephesians 4:15). Paul has gently urged Philemon to release Onesimus throughout the letter. He has appealed to Philemon’s conscience and his Christianity in gentle terms that could be overlooked. In gentle and polite terms he has offered to pay any debt that is owed to Philemon. Keep with societal norms, Paul has not condemned nor directly attacked Philemon’s inaction with regard to slavery. Yet, Christianity is not polite nor constrained by society’s opinions. So, in verse 20, Paul expresses definitively, “I want some benefit from you in the Lord.”

The benefit Paul speaks of is the gospel exemplified in the lives of Philemon and Onesimus. Paul seeks the tangible benefit of knowing that His ministry has not been in vain. He longs for the gospel to transform the soul, that it would be proved in this world. He desires that those he has taught would manifest the truth of what he has taught in a real and obvious way.

Indeed, every teacher that professes the truth of Jesus longs for the truth of Jesus to transform passive aggressive polite society into truth saturated messy conglomerations of souls that have been redeemed. Those who teach of Jesus long for a redeemed society that embraces freedom. To that end, Paul aggressively assures Philemon that he is indeed asking for something. There can be no ambiguity on this subject. While Paul has been respectful and gentle in his tone throughout this letter, he does not want to be misunderstood – Philemon is to release Onesimus as a favor to Paul.

Paul is not simply rejecting acceptable lifestyles of society. Much more than a simple rejection of what is wrong, Paul wants Philemon to do what is right “in the Lord.” He is not asking Philemon to do something that is normative practice in the world. Rather, his request is that Philemon would behave as one who is “in the Lord.” A person who is entrenched in the world will not recognize the holiness that is necessary for joy. Yet, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, Christians are able to live in righteousness. In the Lord, Philemon is empowered to contradict society and do what is right.

The greatest refreshment we can receive from each other is the manifestation of the gospel in our world. So Paul requests that Philemon live out the gospel on this earth for the sake of refreshment.

As a pastor, I can affirm that the greatest refreshment I receive from my congregation is in the transparent faithfulness of the brothers and sisters in Christ. When Christians live holy and separate from the world and do what is right when they don’t have to, then I am reminded that the gospel is real and changes things. So, if you want to refresh your pastor: give him the benefit of your faithful gospel-saturated life that pursues holiness!

Philemon 17-20; Brief Thoughts

17So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it – to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

The nature of Christianity is one of transformation. Transformation of the heart that demands the transformation of society. Each believer is freed from death and sin to life and grace. It is this transformation that inspires Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:16 and Galatians 3:28, explaining that Christians no longer separate people according to the cultural and societal distinctions of this present life. Christians identify people simply as believing or non-believing. If they are believers, then they have been taken from the kingdom of darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of Light. The exchange of kingdoms has wrought a change of citizenship. A citizenship that takes precedence over the powers of this earth. A citizenship that changes our perspective.

Society expects that everyone stays in the position in which they are assigned. Slaves are to be slaves, the poor are to remain impoverished, aristocracy is supposed to remain wealthy, and authorities are supposed to remain in power. Consider for a moment stories that inspire us – the slave who escapes slavery, the poor man who overcomes poverty, the chronicles of changing power. These stories are so inspiring because they fly in the face of expectation. The alteration of societal norms surprises us and as a result, we are in awe of defiance of societal expectations.

Christianity demands that positions are leveled and everyone is treated with equity. Those who have confessed Christ and have been transformed by the Holy Spirit are brought into a family of faith that is connected through grace. It is through grace. Grace – unmerited favor. Grace – an undeserved gift. Grace – the great equalizer. If one has received grace, then they must behave accordingly. Slaves can no longer remain slaves when they are family. The class divisions are ended and those who have need are connected to those who have means. Injustice remains in the world yet Christian community defies the world.

Paul models the truth of Christian transformation by connecting himself to a slave who is indebted to his master. He challenges Philemon to think the same way. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge it to my account” (18). Paul takes the debt of the slave upon himself and determines to answer Philemon’s frustration by paying the debt. He does not deny that there may be some debt owed, in fact, he concedes the debt. Paul recognizes the pain that Philemon may have felt and the reparations that may be owed and becomes the slave on behalf of Onesimus. Philemon has been wronged in some manner by Onesimus. The slave has rebelled against the master. So, Paul exemplifies the gospel to Philemon by taking the punishment or debt upon himself. Just as Jesus has taken upon Himself the debt of rebellious slaves (Romans 5:8-10). Grace has leveled the class structure and Paul models that leveling. Christian, if grace has been so extended to you by the Almighty, so you must extend such grace to each other.

As a part of the family of God, Paul addresses Philemon directly, in his “own hand.” In doing so he passively reminds Philemon of the debt that Philemon owes to Paul. Indeed, Philemon was given the gospel of Jesus by Paul and no doubt owes Paul his very soul for such a gift. Whether or not Paul has any other debt that could be required of Philemon we are not told. The gift of the gospel and the salvation of the soul ought to be enough to compel Philemon to submit to Paul’s request.

Consider this carefully Christian. Those who have taught you the Word of God and have brought you to the throne of the Lord are owed a debt that you are never REQUIRED to pay. It is a debt of love and fealty that compels grace extended living. Once grace has been granted to us, we are compelled to grant grace to the brothers in faith, even to the world.

Paul is right to ask such a favor from Philemon. He has labored to teach the gospel and Philemon reaps some eternal benefit from Paul’s temporal labors! So he states plainly that he expects some reward from Philemon. Though Paul need not demand the reward and certainly would trust the Lord and eternal reward beyond any material good in this life, Philemon’s acquiescence will validate the gospel and prove grace.

The reputation of grace and transforming power of Jesus is what is at stake here. This is not merely a matter of debts and forgiveness of one slave. Philemon’s actions either prove or invalidate the gospel. So many Christians fail to realize that our social interactions are incredibly important testimonies for Christ. By our actions, we either validate the gospel, or we give reason to the skepticism of the world. To be clear: the truth of God does not depend on the actions of man. The gospel is true in spite of Christians’ willingness to live it out. However, the communication of the truth is certainly hindered through the wickedness of Christians who refuse to live grace-extended lives.

Philemon 15-16; Brief Thoughts

15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

“Why?” It is the first question humanity asks when difficult circumstance arise or relationships falter. Innate within every person is a deep need to know the meaning behind difficulty. It is unique to the negative experience though. No one asks why when things go well. It is difficulty that propels us to question. We don’t seek understanding for blessing, we seek understanding of tragedy. It is natural to seek the meaning behind tragedy, to wonder at circumstance, and to mourn loss whether it is material or relational. In the economy of redemption, the question “why” is answered with the gospel.

Christians seek to interpret experience through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As relationships struggle, circumstances overwhelm, and external pressures threaten, true believers will seek to renew their minds through consistent engagement with the gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:1-2). For Christians, life is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, the responsibility of those who trust in Jesus to learn to view life as subservient to and empowered by the gospel itself. So, while the world around us asks, “why this meaninglessness?” we ask, “where is the gospel in this?”

Paul urges Philemon to have a gospel-centered mindset. He has already reminded Philemon of his own circumstances. Philemon is healthy, well provided for, and surrounded by brothers and sisters. Paul is in prison, alone, and struggling. Yet, the gospel transcends both conditions of wealth and poverty, sickness and health, lowliness and exaltation, or slavery and freedom (c.f. Philippians 4:12-13). Paul sees a triumph for the gospel in the transformation of Onesimus from an enemy of God to adopted by God and he longs to see the tangible reality of that condition in Onesimus’ freedom with regard to Philemon. So Paul speculates, “perhaps this is why.”

Perhaps Onesimus ran away from Philemon, encountered Paul, heard the gospel, and is now voluntarily returning to Philemon so that the transforming power of the gospel in their relationship could be made manifest. Consider for a moment what this tells us about the heart of God. God cares about our relationships with other people. He longs for people to live in right relationship with Him and with each other. His design from the beginning was harmony between all people and the great destruction of that harmony is sin. So, in the gospel, Jesus rescues us from sin and thereby enables us to live in right relationship with each other. In the Christian community, there is no longer slave or free but all are Christ’s (Col. 3:11). The Lord delights in the restoration of human relationships to their original intent.

Imagine for a moment, what the world would be like if mankind were in complete harmony with one another. If no one person was subjugated to unjust systems. Imagine a world without hate or oppression. Consider what it would be like if there were no injustice… if human trafficking did not exist… if your neighbor was your brother or sister. We would look at what others have and ask, “Do they have enough?” rather than “What do they have that I want.” The gospel empowers us to live this way. The freedom presented to Christians enables those of us who believe to surrender self-exaltation and seek to lift others up to worship Jesus. Are you facing difficult relationships that need redemption? Are you struggling to find meaning in loss or fractured relationships? Perhaps these difficult relationships that we struggle through understanding are there to prove the gospel in and through our lives.

Philemon is to receive Onesimus as a man forever changed. Onesimus is no longer the same man enslaved by sin and a subject to a sinful system. He has been set free from slavery to sin by the gospel and now the relationships between Onesimus and the Christian community must reflect that transformation. He is no longer a slave to Philemon and Paul but has become a brother, and people do not enslave their family.

Take note of Paul’s final phrase in verse 16, “both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v.16). There is no excuse for citizens of the Kingdom of heaven to live like the world. Citizens of heaven do not submit to the social norms of earthly society. Rather, the citizens of heaven live above society’s moral standards. One cannot excuse sinful behavior simply because the world says its ok. Christians must be Christians both in “the flesh” and “in the Lord.”

Philemon 12-14; brief thoughts

12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.

When a person does good deeds because it is required or demanded of them, it is not truly good. If a person is compelled to love someone because circumstance demands it, then that person is not truly acting in love. For an act to be truly good, it must come from a motive that is equally good. For example, it may be good to serve the poor, but if ones motive is to be heralded as a great person, then the action of serving at a soup kitchen becomes an attempt to serve self-interest and not others. So it is with Philemon. Philemon must do what is right because it is right. Rather than keeping Onesimus and simply demanding that Philemon comply with Paul’s wishes, Paul offers Philemon the opportunity to prove the transforming power of the gospel.

The transforming power of the gospel is evident in the actions of the one transformed. Jesus says it this way, “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). So it is with all who believe in Jesus Christ, the heart is transformed and then it is manifest in the hands (or outward actions). Paul’s exhortations to Philemon are, in their most basic sense, a call to behave like a Christian. So here in verse fifteen he passively suggests that, assuming he has heard the gospel and been empowered to do what is good, Philemon could send Onesimus back to serve with Paul.

When making his request, Paul willingly submits to the potential rejection of Philemon. He submits to the rejection, knowing that the gospel will compel Philemon to do what is right and free Onesimus from slavery. Further, Paul increases the strength of his request by reminding Philemon of three things. First, Paul explains that Onesimus is very dear to him calling the former slave, “my very heart” (v.12). Paul’s love for Onesimus is due to the radical change that God wrought in Onesimus through the gospel. A change that should be manifest both in Onesimus’ deeds and circumstance. Philemon is in the arbiter of Onesimus’ circumstance. Second, Paul hints that he could have kept Onesimus without asking permission. It would have been perfectly acceptable for Paul to assume that Philemon, professing to be a believer, would release Onesimus and rejoice over the gospel ministry. Still, Paul models grace and respect for Philemon’s position and submission to Philemon’s decision. The responsibility to exemplify the gospel is Philemon’s. Finally, Paul reminds Philemon of the circumstance of imprisonment and, by inference, the freedom Philemon enjoys. Onesimus has served alongside Paul in prison. He has been a slave and, like Paul, has willingly submitted himself to an unjust system. A system that the gospel can and does change. A system that subjects people to unjust imprisonment and slavery. A system that Philemon can easily defy and reject.

One of the most unique features of Christianity is mutual submission. Paul could demand that Onesimus be freed, and still, he persists by leaving the emancipation to Philemon. This is true Christianity – that each person is responsible before God to do what is right and that the rest of the community of faith extends grace to them for the sake of the gospel. The gospel is proved in the work of the Spirit through individual believers who voluntarily lay down their own preferences, submitting to one another in love. Christians submit to one another out of trust that God is going to work in our hearts to lead us to righteousness. So Paul appeals to Philemon, by the gospel! Likewise, we should appeal to each other with the same love and submission.

Consider what a community would look like if believers did this well. A community of faith that lived in grace and understanding with one another. Bearing with one each person’s failings and misgivings. Forgiving the individual behaviors that so dramatically offend. Overlooking flaws and failures to understand what is required. This is the true Christian community. One that appeals based on truth and love. One that exhorts the believer to live like a believer because they have been changed.

Philemon 9-11; brief thoughts

9yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an old man now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – 10I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)

To this point in the letter, Paul has not made a request of Philemon. Issuing reminders of the gospel progress in Philemon’s work, Paul reminds Philemon of the great blessings he has in the faith. Standing in stark contrast to Philemon’s Christian experience is Paul’s own testimony. Paul is in prison, Philemon is in comfort. Paul is alone, Philemon is surrounded by friends. Yet the Gospel has impacted and transformed both of them. Paul has sacrificed for the sake of the gospel. He has surrendered everything for the sake of the mission of God. He has lived a life worthy of the gospel.

There are men and women in the world who, by the sheer magnitude of their character can compel those around them to acquiesce to their encouragements. They are people who have such deep and profound integrity that their gaze seems to see past the surface of a person and into their very soul. These are men and women who have a tremendous presence. It is as if a weight of solemnity is laid upon anyone they come in contact with. Paul was such a man.

Paul’s character and integrity were beyond question because of his willing submission to circumstance over a long period of time. His personal journey began years prior on a road to Damascus. God transformed him in an instant and then trained him for three years before he began his missionary journeys (c.f. Galatians 2:11-24). He suffered and struggled all throughout his ministry being rejected by his Jewish kinsmen and sacrificing status for the sake of the gospel.[1] Even at the time of this letter, Paul has been arrested and is imprisoned for the Gospel. Now, at the approximate age of 60, Paul has been proven. His character has been tested and he has passed.

There is a wisdom in Paul’s age that can only be developed over years of experience. Knowing that Philemon could easily be commanded to set Onesimus free, Paul chooses instead to appeal to Him. When negotiating a plea bargain or a settlement, it is always better to start at a demand and work backward to an appeal. However, Paul is not solely concerned with Onesimus’ freedom. Paul is concerned for the gospel and the result of that gospel in Philemon. So, rather than command Philemon, Paul strongly encourages him to do what is right. In this way, Paul treats Philemon with respect and leaves the decision squarely in Philemon’s hands.

Paul, by mentioning his age and circumstance to Philemon, appeals to Philemon on the basis of personal integrity, not positional authority. Paul could have easily asserted that he was an apostle. He could have cited that he was the one who founded the church in Colossae, where Philemon lived. He could have even have said something to the effect that he could appeal to the apostles in Jerusalem to compel Philemon to release Onesimus. Yet, Paul takes the least aggressive method available to him. Rather than compel obedience to the gospel, Paul lovingly appeals to Philemon’s transformed nature and reminds him of Paul’s transformed nature.

Onesimus now shares in that same transformation that the gospel affords to all true believers. At some point in Paul’s imprisonment, Onesimus became a believer in Christ. The runaway slave turned from sin and was granted freedom in Christ Jesus. So Paul became a father to Onesimus, the once useless slave. The transforming power of the gospel rescued Onesimus and, more than that, made him a useful part of the Kingdom. Paul appeals to Philemon on Onesimus behalf because he loves the gospel. The gospel that has transformed Onesimus must also transform the way that we live in society. We must be completely different than the world. Slavery is not a condition that former slaves permit, whether physical or spiritual. So to, Philemon must no longer live like the world and the surrounding society demonstrate. Rather, he must be different. As Onesimus has been transformed from slave to son, so now, Philemon must accept the appeal of one transformed (that is Paul) on behalf of Onesimus.

Society demands expedience and self-center benefit. It demands a utilitarian view of people, insisting that you evaluate each person as to their benefit to society as a whole. It is this view of humanity that perpetuates slavery and oppression. In society’s view, people are commodities that serve the greater good. Yet, the gospel demands a different approach. People are not commodities to be used to serve our needs. When we think of people as commodities, we will find that they are useless unless they serve our own needs. However, when we recognize the value of a person through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that which was once useless is now useful, that which was once wretched now beautiful! Onesimus’ story is the same as Paul and Philemon. All three were once slaves. Though they now all live in very different circumstances, all three are made valuable through the gospel of Jesus Christ! For the gospel brings value to every person who believes.

[1] A simple read of the book of Acts will provide ample evidence to this truth. Indeed, so antagonistic are the Jews to Paul’s ministry that they follow him from place to place and strive to expel him from almost every town he enters.