V1111who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.. When Paul talks about the profit of Onesimus, he first points to the profit that Philemon will have and then only to the profit he himself had of him. He speaks about the profit that Philemon will have of Onesimus as a certainty. It seems that Paul is witnessing a development of the gift of grace in Onesimus. In his imprisonment he had much profit of that and he enjoyed that too.
V1212I have sent him back to you in person, that is, [sending] my very heart,. The value of Onesimus to Paul is that of his heart. That is a real recommendation. In case Philemon had already thought of a punishment for the injustice that Onesimus had caused him and the loss he had suffered, then he still could not hurt Paul’s heart. He actually would if he indeed would punish Onesimus. Paul clothes Onesimus with his own value towards Philemon. He calls him “my heart”. Paul himself comes to Philemon in Onesimus, as it were. Philemon will surely accept him based on everything Paul means to Philemon. Here you learn how to reach the heart of another person.
V1313whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel;. Paul would love to have Onesimus to stay with him. What a help did that fellow bring him and what a joy also. Onesimus not only served him by his presence, but also by his work. He was a very good servant of Paul, whom he would have rather kept with him. Additionally Paul saw in Onesimus a kind of representation of Philemon. When Paul saw Onesimus he saw Philemon. In that way he was always reminded of Philemon. Philemon himself did not have the opportunity to visit the apostle in his imprisonment, but in this way it was being compensated. That must have satisfied Philemon also.
V1414but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.. Paul does not manipulate with words to mentally put Philemon under pressure. He wants to share with Philemon what was going through his mind, that Philemon may be more willing to forgive and receive Philemon. By revealing the considerations of his heart to Philemon in this way he wants to soften the heart of Philemon. He renounces his own benefit he found with Onesimus for the sake of the benefit that Philemon will have of him. That is the true mind of Christ: renouncing something to grant others the benefit of it. Paul prefers to be alone if that will cause others to benefit with what delivered him benefit.
Paul’s policy is different from what the law prescribes. According to the law he was not even supposed to send Onesimus back (Deu 23:15-1615“You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you.16He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.). But grace always goes further than the law, for Paul wants everything to turn out well between Philemon and Onesimus. Therefore he did not want to make use of the right to keep Onesimus with him. He wants to consult Philemon about that, he does not want to force anything at all. Forcing a decision is not the right way. Philemon actually had to, but Paul did not want to deal with it like that. He wants to cause that the good deed of Philemon would not be “by compulsion”, but of his “own free will”.
If Paul had kept Onesimus with him he would have kept the law. He could have written that to Philemon. Then formally everything would have been in order. Philemon would have had nothing to say against that. Paul could have even written to Philemon that he should take up the courage to forgive Onesimus as a kind of obligation, as something ‘that is right and proper to do’. But love is not to be forced. You can only stimulate that by showing that yourself. That causes the other to a voluntary action that is appreciated by the Lord (2Cor 8:8-98I am not speaking [this] as a command, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity of your love also.9For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.; 9:77Each one [must do] just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.).
V15-1615For perhaps he was for this reason separated [from you] for a while, that you would have him back forever,16no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.. In these verses Paul gives another reason to take Onesimus back. Onesimus has become a brother. Paul even speaks about him as a “beloved brother”. He even says that the running away of Onesimus was the cause of his conversion. He does that though, in a way that it is absolutely not compromising the responsibility of Onesimus.
You can see that by the word “perhaps”. That indicates the cautiousness with which Paul draws the conclusion. He doesn’t speak out any absolute certainty because God may still have other aims. Paul speaks about a result that stands by itself and you should see that as a sovereign action of God. Perhaps you know from your own life some situations of which you must shamefully say that you then went your own way and that the Lord still used those situations to bring you back to Him. It doesn’t make your debt smaller, but it rather does make His grace greater.
Paul did not speak about ‘runaway’, but about being “separated”. That separation was “for a while”, but the return is eternal. The master-slave relationship is a temporary one. In that relation Onesimus returns, but a new relation has been added, that of brother. And there comes no end to a brother-brother relationship; that remains to eternity. This relationship is not something you could claim a right for; it is grace. Onesimus is above all a beloved brother to Paul. To Philemon he is both slave (that he is “in the flesh”) and brother (that he is “in the Lord”).
V1717If then you regard me a partner, accept him as [you would] me.. Based on that new and eternal relation, grounded by grace, Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as if Paul himself stands before him. He addresses Philemon as “a partner”. But notice that he calls himself a partner of Philemon and not the other way round. By saying it like this he therefore takes the humblest position and he considers Philemon more excellent than himself.
That is the policy of love and grace. This is really difficult to learn. Do you find it easy to give another person honor for a work that you have done for the greater part? Yet this is the way to fill hearts with the mind of the Lord Jesus.
V18-1918But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account;19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well).. Paul surely has that mind. That definitely becomes obvious when he says to Philemon that he can put everything that Onesimus was indebted to him, on his account. Apparently Onesimus had stolen some things when he ran away or did something that might have made his master angry. Paul does everything in his power to calm Philemon down. The best thing he can do is to take all the blame. What has been stolen is to be given or paid back. Paul is therefore willing to stand bail. He takes the whole responsibility for the debts. He will pay everything back.
Don’t you see the mind of the Lord Jesus here, Who perfectly took the blame of the other, of you, on Himself? Also the evil that may have been done to you was borne by Christ. He has said: ‘I will repay.’ The Lord has written that with his own hand. I can imagine that Philemon, while reading this, thought of that. In that way Paul did not focus the thoughts on himself but on the Lord Jesus.
If you focus yourself on Him you will always find the right motive for all your actions (1Jn 3:1616We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.). Only by looking upon Christ you will, when a brother has done injustice to you, react in the right way. A person is never a loser when he accepts any abuse for the sake of the Lord.
But there is another thing. In the case of Paul and Philemon you may also speak of a settlement of debts. Philemon owes Paul more than the other way round. Philemon owes Paul. He also came to faith due to the service of Paul and therefore Paul is his spiritual father. Besides that Onesimus is his brother now, Onesimus also has the same spiritual father like Philemon. Would not that also have a beneficial impact on his attitude toward Onesimus?
V2020Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.. By saying “yes, brother” Paul expresses himself positively about what he expects of Philemon. Love hopes all things (1Cor 13:77bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.). Again Paul calls Philemon ‘brother’ and again he does that in relation with the refreshment that Philemon gives (verse 77For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.). He expects to have profit from Philemon. Do you also look in faith at your brothers and sisters like that?
Needless to say that this has got nothing to do with the misuse of the kindness of others by some people. The benefit that Paul seeks lies in the attitude of Philemon. The refreshment of his heart may be that Philemon receives Onesimus in grace as he himself was received by God in grace. Paul seeks nothing for his own sake. Everything he seeks is in Christ.
V2121Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.. Paul has written his letter with the confidence that Philemon will receive Onesimus. He even expects Philemon to release Onesimus. He speaks about that in veiled terms (“do even more than what I say”), but clearly enough to those who understand the language of love. It could just possibly be the case that Philemon gives Onesimus the room to use his gift for the service of the church. That would imply that Philemon will not keep him for himself and for domestic duties.
V2222At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you.. After having written so extensively on the preparation of the return of Onesimus, he still adds some lines with a request for his own sake. He asks Philemon to arrange accommodation for himself. That means that he will soon be released from prison.
For that release he does not count on the kindness of Caesar, but on the prayers of brothers and sisters. He sees his whole life in relation with the Lord and his brothers and sisters. This request for accommodation, which includes the soon coming of Paul, will also be another stimulation for Philemon to meet Paul’s request, regarding Onesimus.
V2323Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you,. He concludes his letter by conveying the greetings of some brothers. Those are the same brothers who are also mentioned in the letter to the Colossians (Col 1:77just as you learned [it] from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf,; 4:1212Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you maystandperfect andfully assured in all the will of God.). Of Epaphras you read something here that is not mentioned in the letter to the Colossians. In this letter, which says so much about the feelings of a servant, Paul also finds consolation in Epaphras as a fellow sufferer. Knowing that someone is going through the same as you, can be very encouraging and give strength to persevere (cf. 1Pet 5:99But resist him, firm in [your] faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.).
V2424[as do] Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers.. Then Paul mentions four names of people of whom he says that they are “fellow laborers”. Mark is the man for whom the life in the service of the Lord has become tough, but who is now useful again (Acts 13:1313Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem.; 15:37-3837Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also.38But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.; Col 4:1010Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’s cousin Mark (about whom you receivedinstructions; if he comes to you, welcome him);). Aristarchus has been a journey companion of Paul with whom he had gone through turbulent times (Acts 19:2929The city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed with one accord into the theater, dragging along Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia.). Demas is still a member of the company here, but he will quit later (2Tim 4:1010for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens [has gone] to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia.). In that way he is the counterpart of Mark. Encouragement and disappointment often lie close to each other. Finally he mentions Luke, the medical doctor. He must have gratefully made use of him for his physical condition.
V2525The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.. His personal greeting is not addressed to Philemon alone, but to all. The word “your” is in plural. He wishes that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is with the spirit of all.
How important is that wish nowadays. Your spirit is daily exposed to countless impressions. Your mind is being influenced by everything you see and hear. It is certainly important to keep your spirit pure. The grace of the Lord Jesus wants to lead you to cleanse yourself “from all defilement of flesh and spirit” (2Cor 7:11Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.). Then you will be free in your spirit and able to learn to know the Lord Jesus better. You will be more able to understand His Word and to do His will. His mind will be revealed more in you; is that not the main theme of this letter?
Now read Philemon: 11-25 again.
Reflection: How can you refresh someone’s heart in Christ?