Philemon Part 2: From Slave to Brother

Last week we looked into the greeting and first remarks of Paul to Philemon, and saw how much affection and bond of friendship Paul feels towards Philemon. We also saw how in the first 7 verses of this small letter Paul is preparing Philemon to hear the request he is about ask of him. Paul employs a careful and calculated gospel-logic in his appeal, and we can learn much from it.

Now let’s turn our attention to Philemon 8-16

Philemon 8-9

Paul here states clearly that though he could’ve commanded Philemon to obey his command with the power he wields in his God given apostolic ministry, for love’s sake he rather appealed to Philemon and simply asked, as a friend asks for a favor. Remember how Paul began the letter? He didn’t begin with his usual “Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus…” but “Paul, prisoner for Christ Jesus…” Now, there is a place and time for a command and a call to obedience rather than appealing using his apostolic authority. Paul even gives two reasons as to why he could command him. First is that Paul is older than Philemon and second is that Paul is a prisoner of Christ. But by simply asking rather than commanding Paul is making much of the love that should exist between two Christians.

By this example we get a window into the nature of the work of elders. If our work isn’t done with a sense of grace to it, it is done wrongly. Even more, elders of all people must be those who draw disciples with grace rather than dragging them by force. In this manner, leaders worth anything should be those who serve the people graciously rather than those who dominate or stand over and above the people only to look down disdainfully.

And did you notice what it is that elders are to teach the people? Look at v8, “…to do what is required.” Paul is only asking Philemon to do what godliness demands, nothing more. And here yet again we see the pattern for all who minister to others, the only thing we should teach or ask others to do, are those very things required of us to do in the Word of God and nothing else. So hear me closely: if you ever receive instruction from a leader that asks you do something other than what the Bible requires, not only call them on it, but it is your duty to disobey them and obey God instead. But if they plead or ask you to be holy graciously (like Paul’s doing here) and they point you toward the Truth, you should obey them.

Philemon 10-16

v10 Paul says “I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whose Father I became in my imprisonment.” That he became Onesimus’s Father means that God through the ministry of Paul redeemed Onesimus, and that because it was Paul who shared the gospel with him it is fitting that Paul be viewed as his Father in the faith and that Onesimus be viewed as his son in the faith. Pail isn’t implying any opposition between God’s Fatherhood or God’s power to save with his own, rather Paul is seeking to show what God has done to save Onesimus through him. It is also striking and shows the power of God’s work through the proclamation of the gospel that a runaway slave would now have and own the name of ‘son.’

Never forget how strong the gospel is and how easily it re-makes us.

Whatever lie about yourself that you believe, whether you believe that you never measure up, that you’re too fat, too skinny, too tall, too loud, too shy, too young, too old, too much of a failure, etc., when you embrace the gospel what God says about you becomes more real and tangible than what you or others say about you. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) Also don’t miss how Philemon would’ve heard this because v19 reminds us that Philemon himself was saved by God through Paul’s ministry and therefore he is also a ‘son’ to Paul through the gospel. So all of the sudden, because of gospel-grace, Philemon and Onesimus, master and slave, are equals as brothers in Christ.

v11, “(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)” There is a wonderful word play at work here in the original Greek. Paul states that before Onesimus became a Christian he was useless to Philemon, but now that he’s been saved he is useful for Philemon and for Paul. The word play exists here in that Onesimus’ own name literally means ‘useful.’

Thus, by becoming united to Christ by faith and becoming a Christian Onesimus literally becomes what his name means – useful.

Because Onesimus is useful to Paul in his gospel-labor, Paul says in v12-13 that he is sending him back to Philemon even though it would have been a very great help to keep him. Paul doesn’t waste words, when he says in v12 that sending Onesimus back is like sending his very own heart he means that to part with his new ‘son’ in the faith is like parting with his own heart. What language to use here! Have you ever had a brother or sister in Christ so dear to your own heart? They truly are a gift from God, and if you’ve known what that kind of relationship is like, you’ll understand how painful and difficult it is for that relationship to come to and end. v14, “…but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.” Paul wanted to keep him, but didn’t want to act without the voluntary consent of Philemon. Even here in v14 we get a hint that Paul is asking Philemon something, but he hasn’t quite gotten there yet. What Paul is being implicit about here he will be explicit about in v17-21. That Paul didn’t just do what he wanted to do and would rather have Philemon agree to his request freely is gracious to say the least.

Saying more, I’d say this is the profound gospel pattern that’s at work within each of us. Rather than coercing us against our will, the gospel transforms us from the inside out so that everything in our hearts wants to obey call of the gospel and be reconciled with those at odds with us. The grace of God is irresistible. Once you see it, and once it takes a hold of you, you won’t turn away from it because everything in your heart will want it.

Lastly, look to the end of our text, v15-16, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

Paul here gives a reason why Onesimus, under the sovereign plan and ordination of God, might have been allowed to run away. Hearing that God may have been behind the departure of his slave would have soothed the heart of Philemon because God intends a good purpose out of a frustrating thing. The reason given in (v15) is that because Philemon lost him for a moment, maybe now he’ll gain him forever. Meaning that Onesimus’ status as a slave is temporary, it will end one day, but Onesimus’ status as a forgiven, adopted, and redeemed member of the family of God through faith in Christ is forever, and that will never end. This changes things for these men. Sure they may be master and slave for a moment in the whole grand scheme of things but for all eternity what will they be? Brothers in Christ; worshipping the King of kings, and basking in His glory forever and ever.

Who would of ever thought this could’ve happened? Onesimus lived in a religious and holy family and by leaving Philemon’s household he deliberately went far from God and from eternal life. Yet God, in His wise and hidden providence, wonderfully directs his fleeing so that he meets the Apostle Paul. The elect of God are sometimes brought to salvation by a method that could not have been believed.

The gospel changes everything, amen?

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