54. Paul's Appeal to Philemon
Paul’s appeal to Philemon.
This letter was written at the same time as the letter to the Colossians about AD 61 from a Roman prison and very likely delivered to
Philemon by Tychicus, accompanied by Onesimus.
Paul was the author of the letter, although Timothy was probably the actual writer, except for verse 19, were Paul says, “I write this with my own hand”, which was the guarantee of the promise to pay back whatever Onesimus owed.
However it is quite obvious that this is Paul’s letter by the personal terms used throughout the letter.
The use of the word “I” is used 15 times, “Me” 2 times, “Mine” once and “Myself” once.
We know that Onesimus was a runaway slave from his master Philemon, he found himself in Rome and sought out the Apostle Paul.
Onesimus came under the teaching of Paul, heard the Gospel and was converted to Christianity.
It appears that Onesimus had also stolen something from Philemon, Phm 1:18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
We know from Paul that Onesimus had been very useful to him, where once he had been a useless slave in that he had abandoned his master, he now after his conversion had become useful to Paul.
Interesting to note, that the name Onesimus, means “useful”.
This is something that we see time and time again throughout
scripture, which we could consider co incidental or see it as God’s providential hand on all the things that happen.
For example it is no co incidence that names seem to show the
character of many people in the Bible.
One of these amazing examples is the genealogy of Adam to Noah.
Adam (Man) - Seth (Appointed) - Enosh (A mortal Man) - Kenan (Sorrow) - Malalalel (The Glory of God) - Jared (Shall come down) - Enoch (Instructing) - Methuselah (His death shall bring) - Lamech (Those in despair) – Noah( Comfort and Rest).
Put together the meaning of these names read:Man is appointed mortal sorrow, the Glory of God shall come down, instructing that His death shall bring to those in despair, comfort and rest.
Is it a co incidence that this foretells the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Or could this be the thumb print of God on His word. His indelible stamp on Holy Scripture. Or, is it there, simply for His Glory?
There are many other examples of this in scripture, such as Isaac the son of Abraham, ( He laughs) Jacob ( Holder of the Heel)
Obviously there is Emmanuel ( God with us).
So Onesimus had lived up to his name in that he had proved useful to the Apostle Paul.
Paul’s Gospel was a message of reconciliation.
2 Co 5:18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;
2Co 5:19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
Men are reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore men are reconciled to one another.
Paul wanted to remind Philemon and the brethren in the church in Philemon’s home that Christian faith and love demands reconciliation between brethren.
Paul was not a social worker, a politician or a William Wilberforce, campaigning for the abolition of slavery. He knew that the correct course of action was to send Onesimus back to his rightful owner. It is the duty of a Christian when he becomes converted to make restitution wherever possible. This is part of repentance. Saying sorry is not enough.
A Christian must show by his actions, a true repentance, by turning away from his past sin and putting right whatever he can. Onesimus must return and make amends to Philemon, throwing himself on the mercy of his master.
It is difficult for us today to understand the slavery issue at this time in history.Slavery was lawful, in fact for many people at that time it was the only means of existence.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, almost everybody could become a slave and that about 35% to 40% of the population was indeed enslaved. As the property of their masters, slaves were considered animated tools and could be bought and sold at their master’s discretion. Slaves were often abused; they could be expelled from the master’s house when they were old or sick. This is important for understanding the urgency of Paul’s letter to Philemon, as a master had the right to kill a slave when he or she ran away.
Paul was thus involved in a potential life or death matter.
However, under Roman law, slavery was only for six years. The law stated that all slaves were given freedom after six years. Many slaves were treated so well and were in some cases treated as part of the family, that when the time came to be set free, they did not want to go. They could then go to court and make a plea to be kept by the master. If this request was accepted, the slave would be pierced through the ear, to show that they were willing to become a slave permanently.
Paul began his appeal to Philemon. He could as an Apostle demand of Philemon but he chose to appeal instead. We see this in verse 8, were Paul says: Phm 1:8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,
Phm 1:9 Yet for love's sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.
He begins by thanking Philemon for his faith and love towards Jesus and the saints. Paul is not being cunning here or using flattery but he is tactfully laying down the groundwork for his following request. It is like saying to someone, “you know last week when you said if I needed your help, well, would you mind doing this for me”. More than that, if you waited until there were other people present, your request would have more chance of being granted.
Could this be why Paul wanted this letter to be read to the whole church in Philemon’s house, in the presence of all the saints?
It would have a duel effect.
One, it would encourage Philemon to be graceful and two, it would benefit the body of believers by seeing grace in action.
In Paul’s other writings, he encourages others in imitating him in the same way that he imitates Christ. If Philemon shows mercy in this situation, then the body of believers would receive encouragement to imitate Philemon in showing mercy.
Paul’s prayer for this fellowship is that they receive grace and peace from God verse 3.
Whilst this is a common prayer of Paul’s in many of his letters, it would have a great significance in this situation. We know that in preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul would no doubt teach the sayings of Jesus and verses such as, Matt 5:7 Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. Also, Jas 2:13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment. In verse 4 to 6 we see Paul thanking God for Philemon’s faith and love and praying that it would be effectual in the promotion of the Gospel. Also, recognising that faith and love in practice is a blessing to the brethren. Verse 7, It gives us great joy that the body of Christ is refreshed by your actions.
Paul was now an old man, v17, and was also a prisoner of Rome. He would have loved to keep Onesimus with him but knowing that keeping him without the consent of Philemon would not be appropriate and could undermine the ministry of reconciliation.
Phm 1:14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.
Therefore Paul knew that he must return Onesimus to his rightful master under the law. Paul would know that this attempt of returning Onesimus was very risky. Philemon was well within his rights to punish Onesimus, even with death. Therefore Paul introduces Onesimus as “a beloved brother” Phm 1:16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord.
Paul also points out that the situation between Onesimus and Philemon had now changed, from one of master and slave to brothers in Christ. Paul wants Philemon to receive him as if it was himself that was coming.
Phm 1:17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. Paul also adds here with his own hand writing,
Phm 1:18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
Note again here, that Paul is not seeking the freedom of Onesimus but that Philemon receive him firstly as a brother in Christ.
We know that Paul was hoping that he may see Philemon and the brethren in his house at some future point from Phm 1:22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.
However there is no proof that Paul ever made it to Colossae.
As for whether Philemon forgave Onesimus, again there is no written proof. We have no biblical reference to Philemon’s reaction to Paul’s letter.
Did he take advantage of the Roman laws which would permit him to punish severely, even with death?
Did he set Onesimus free?
Did Onesimus return to his position as slave, but with the fellowship of his newfound brothers and sisters in Christ?
All of these, and probably more, are possibilities.
Ignatius, writing sometime around 110AD, refers to the bishop in Ephesus, Onesimus. Is this the same Onesimus? That certainly is possible. If Onesimus was a fairly young man when Paul wrote to Philemon, it is possible that this could be the same man, though 50 years older.
Unfortunately, there is no certainty these refer to the same person.
Was he kept on as a slave, albeit with an entirely different relationship to his master? We’ll never know, but I would like to think that Onesimus would have been dealt with much better because of this letter, than if had never been written.
The letter to Philemon albeit a personal letter to Philemon, would have been read openly in the church. The fact that it survived and was copied and circulated around the other churches, lends credibility to the idea that this turned out a happy ending and although there would have been many slaves at the time named Onesimus.
What are the odds that a slave became the bishop of Ephesus?
We today should take warning and encouragement from passages of scripture such as these.
In 2Timothy, we are warned that we should avoid being entangled with the things of this world.
We read how Demas, one of Paul’s team abandoned him having loved the things of this world.
2Ti 4:10 For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica;
We must constantly be on our guard knowing that daily we are contending against the world, the flesh and Devil.
On the other hand, we should be encouraged by scriptures that speak of restoration and reconciliation.
Acts 13:13. John Mark who abandoned Paul. Even though he had a good Christian background and mixed with men of great faith, yet gave up and deserted the mission. This caused a split between Paul and Barnabas and Paul lost confidence in John Mark.
Yet later we read that when Paul was in prison in Rome, there is Mark being a blessing to him.
Also concerning Onesimus, a rebellious runaway, who stole from his master, yet repented of his sin and turned to Christ and became a great blessing to Paul.
John Macarthur puts it this way, speaking of John Mark and Onesimus.
Quote: “They have lives that intersect. They were both runaways. Yet in spite of what they did in fleeing, the Lord rescued them both and transformed them from tragic figures to triumphant figures.As He does with every sinner that He saves, God pursued Mark and God pursued Onesimus. And when He caught them, He turned their flaws into strength, and their failures into immense success”.