In the last section Paul praised Philemon’s love. Now he bases his appeal upon it:
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, [b] who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any [good deed] you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. 22And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers (TNIV).
The length of time it takes for Paul to actually get to his appeal (and even when he does it’s not all that clear what he wants!) clearly indicates that this was a delicate situation between two estranged parties, one that required careful diplomacy.
Although Paul could pull rank and simply order his request to be carried out, he prefers to appeal based on love (8). This same sentiment is repeated in verse 14 where Paul informs Philemon that he wanted him to act not out of compulsion but out of his own free will. Paul lays aside any of the rights he would normally have and instead appeals to the higher law of love. As we’ve said before, Paul knew that only the power of faith and love in action could produce the redeeming effects that he sought for this situation.
Next, Paul hopes to gain some sympathy as he appeals not as the bold courageous apostle but as a weak elderly man and as a prisoner (9). Playing to Philemon’s emotions is intentional and part of the rhetorical strategy—wouldn’t you do whatever you possibly could to help out a dear old friend who’s suffering in prison for the Christian cause?
In verse 10, Paul finally starts to reveal what his request is concerning. The Greek word order is important to preserve, “I appeal to you for my child, whom I begot in my chains, Onesimus.” Paul holds off from mentioning Onesimus for as long as he can because he wants the attention on the close relationship that he and his new convert share (“my child”). And while Paul acknowledges Onesimus’ shortcomings of the past (11), he quickly moves on focusing instead on his new state as a Christian. Onesimus has changed since coming to faith in Christ. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Evidently, Onesimus has become extremely dear to Paul, so much so that he refers to him as his very heart (yes, his splagchnon) and says that he would have liked to keep him there to aid him while he was in chains for the gospel (12-13). But again, he didn’t want do anything without Philemon’s consent (14). Philemon has to make the call here. But at this point we still don’t know what Paul wants him to do! The only thing we have to go by right now is Paul’s said desire to keep him with him. Is he therefore appealing for Onesimus’ manumission, so that he can aid Paul in his ministry?
To be continued…
Application: If there’s something for us to take away from this section, it’s that Jesus changes lives. Through his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus has forgiven us of our past so that we may find and live a new life. This is the power of the cross. Over the last two thousand years there are millions and millions of stories of lives changed through this grace—Onesimus is one of these stories. Lord Jesus, may we never forget the cross and the power it has to change lives.