Philemon Slave-ish Obedience


Questions: Does Paul really love Philemon? Why? While does Philemon love all the saints? What makes for effectual faith? How does this bring Paul joy? In what way is Onesimus useful? Why does Paul phrase his request so oddly? Is love truly transitive? How much dare we rely on it? How sure is our hope?

“Read More” to pursue answers from Philemon.

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Lord, make me a Fountain of your Love.
Draw me into your Presence
And fill me with your Holy Spirit
That I would know you as my Father
And manifest the image of Christ
In this world, and the world to come. Amen.

Philemon 1:1-25

Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy [our] brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,

This letter starts out typically enough, with the usual pleasantries. Though Philemon is the title character, he’s not the only addressee:

And to [our] beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:

So, clearly this is a semi-private letter. Well, duh; obviously it was circulated after Philemon (can I call him “Phil” for short?) received it, or I wouldn’t be reading it now. But, presumably Phil received it first, and read it as directly to him — which I think will be significant later.

Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I know this is a bit of a cliche, but considering that Paul is in prison it is no small thing for him to be preaching grace and peace to others!

I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;

There are few greater joys than to know people who love those whom you love — especially when you can’t be there. Perhaps that is why even weak family ties can outlast the strongest friendships, because of all the other people you both love (and are loved by) that help bind you together. Phil really does fulfill the desires of Paul’s heart towards the church there; no wonder he is grateful (and prayerful).

And what exactly is the end of that desire?

That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

Whoa, big words, at least in this translation. The word “communication” is koinonia, the latest Christian buzzword. Our koinonia should not be just a passive, inward experience; but a dynamic expression of God’s goodness.

Which Phil’s certainly is:

For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.

Ick; that makes it sound like an enema! I think “heart” is the more natural translation in modern English. Paul clearly takes great joy in Phil’s ministry to the saints.

I have to say, though, I can’t help but wonder if Paul is buttering Phil up in preparation for his real reason in writing this letter. Not that he needs to:

Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,

Certainly, Paul hasn’t hesitated to exercise authority when necessary. But, in this case, he seeks to plead rather than command:

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.

I must admit, this is starting to sound a bit manipulative. Is he playing on Phil’s sympathy? Especially since he only now gets to the point:

I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:

The name meaning profitable/useful, which Paul plays upon to make his case:

Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

I suppose the English name ‘Worthing’ (worthy) could be used the same way.

Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

Paul’s clearly taken a leap of faith in sending Onesimus to Phil, rather than keeping him:

Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:

The rationale for this behavior seems particularly significant:

But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.

This may also be why Paul is phrasing his command as a request (rather than vice versa). And therefore Paul is trying to persuade Phil to not be angry about Onesimus running away:

For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;

Or, really, to not even think of him as property, but as family:

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?

As Phil presumably thinks of Paul:

If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.

As Paul thinks of Onesimus:

If he hath wronged thee, or oweth [thee] ought, put that on mine account;

We talk so much about the “family of God” that it is easy to think of it as a cliche. In reality, though, it is an extraordinarily scandalous innovation, cutting across boundaries of race, class, and culture. It creates a transitive imperative: if I love you as a brother, then anyone who loves me as a brother must love you (and vice versa)– or else deny the very essence of our common faith. It doesn’t matter if that person has deeply hurt you, or comes from a community that historically oppressed yours. The love of Christ compels us; not because of ecclesiastical authority structures, but the intrinsic nature of our bond with Him.

Of course, that bond is manifest in the relational ties within the community, which Paul does not scruple to rely upon:

I Paul have written [it] with mine own hand, I will repay [it]: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.

And his plea sure sounds like a command:

Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.

So, is this really just a manipulative way of Paul shaming Phil into doing what he wants?

Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

Maybe — but maybe not. What if Paul really did know Phil’s heart? In that case, rather than feeling shamed into doing what he did not want, Phil would actually be encouraged at Paul’s faith in him — and delighted at the chance to demonstrate his love for Paul in his treatment of Onesimus. The certainty of love turns what would otherwise be a burden into a source of joy.

And a token of hope:

But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.

Of course, that’s the flipside: even if Paul guessed wrong, Phil would probably feel pressured to comply, especially if Paul’s coming to visit. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Is there a place for being shamed into doing what we know deep down is right, by those who truly love us?

I honestly don’t know, but it is something to ponder. In the end, our spirits must all answer to the Lord Jesus Christ — and, frankly, to the community of believers:

There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus; Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be] with your spirit. Amen.


God, I find myself uncomfortable with Paul’s treatment of Philemon, even as I celebrate his care for Onesimus. i suspect it is because I can’t really grasp how much Paul loves Philemon, and vice versa. Father, teach me to love men like that. Teach me to pray for my pastor, and all those in authority, who have given me so much. Teach me to sacrificially give myself to those under my care, that I may love them as you do. Grant me the courage to step out in love Amen.

Author’s Note:
Well, it has been a fun run through the pastoral epistles — but I don’t want to use up all of Paul at once! So, for our next session I’m planning to go back to the Old Testament, probably Leviticus. Stay tuned.

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