Philemon 8-22: The Appeal, Part 2

We’ve covered through verse 14 thus far, yet we still don’t know exactly what Paul is asking of Philemon.  What is the good deed (14) he hopes Philemon will do?  Back to the text we go:

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. 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit (TNIV).

We’ve already observed how Paul constructs his argument carefully due to the delicacy of the situation.  Verse 15 is no different.  Instead of rehashing the events of the past and running the risk of stirring up ill-feelings, Paul offers an interpretation of the situation wondering if it was all part of God’s greater plan—“Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever. . . .” (Moo, 419; cf. Gen 50.20).

Although their “separation” may have seemed difficult and painful, in the grand scheme of things, it was only a minor bump in the road (“a little while”).  Conversely, the benefit that Philemon has received—Onesimus’ conversion—is forever.  The two now experience eternal fellowship (Moo, 421).  This is further confirmed in the next verse where Philemon is told that he will have Onesimus back no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.  The master-slave role that once characterized their relationship is no longer the governing factor; rather it’s Onesimus’ new identity in Christ that matters.

Paul adds He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord (16). But how is Onesimus to be treated as a beloved brother literally, “both in the flesh and in the Lord” (16).  We can understand the in the Lord part: at least on a spiritual level the two are brothers in Christ.  But how is their earthly relationship to be transformed?  The implications are huge.

Scholar Norman Peterson, commenting on the letter, says “Paul’s line of argument strongly suggests that the only acceptable action would be for Philemon to free his slave.”  This would not be out of the question in terms of first-century practices.  By the age of thirty or after one or at most two generations of service, a slave could hope to be freed by his master as a gift for his faithful service and as a sign of a generous spirit (James A. Harril, The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity, 53-54).  But the freed slave would still be expected to remain loyal to the house of their master; and this would ultimately be in the slave’s best interest as he would remain financially dependent upon his master (David A. DeSilva, An Introduction into the New Testament, 672). Perhaps this is what Paul intends here.

Though it’s also possible that although Paul recognizes that the two will once again assume their roles as slave and master (which seems to be an understood reality in Colossians & Ephesians), he nevertheless hopes their relationship will be significantly transformed.  As brothers in Christ they must treat each other as such: putting the other’s interests first, expressing grace, peace, gentleness, self-sacrificial love and the like.  This would radically change the dynamic of their slave/master relationship and relativize the importance of their hierarchical roles.

In the end, I agree with Peterson that Paul ultimately seeks Onesimus’ manumission (see further below on verse 21), but I think it’s of secondary importance, or perhaps better said, a by product of their transformed relationship in Christ.  Freedom in and of itself is not the best possible outcome.  After all, if Philemon sets Onesimus free but continues to mistreat him, then what has been accomplished?  As Dunn notes, the important point is the relationship as a “beloved brother” (336).

Finally, in verse 17 we come to an explicit request.  So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  “Partner” (koinōnos) comes from the same “partnership/fellowship” word group (koinōnia) that we encountered in v. 6, which referred to the close participation or fellowship that Christians share with one another by virtue of their faith in Christ.  This sense ought to be retained here as well; accordingly, we could paraphrase verse 17 as, “If any fellowship exists between us, welcome him as you would welcome me” (Moo, 426).

The weight of this request should not be overlooked.  Masters and slaves did not typically treat each other as equals; this is a radical, counter-cultural request.  But such are the responsibilities and obligations that we have in Christ.  Jesus turned the world’s value system upside down and we must now live by the new order—status in Christ trumps worldly status. 

Next, in verses 18-19, Paul sweeps aside any objections Philemon might make by emphatically asserting that he will pay back any losses that have been incurred.  Some have suggested that the conditional nature of verse 18 (“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything”) reflects uncertainty in the situation.  After all, how do we know who was at fault?  But it’s more likely that Paul’s choice of words simply reflects the delicacy of the situation at hand and his pastoral/mediatory strategy for handling it.  As Dunn states, “…it serves the purpose of taking for granted Philemon’s view that Onesimus was guilty of serious misdemeanor, without wholly conceding that Philemon’s judgment was entirely correct” (338).

Next, in case Philemon has thoughts of “cashing in” on Paul’s promise of reimbursement, Paul says that he doesn’t want to have to remind him of the considerable debt that he owes him (19b).  Virtually all commentators agree that this refers to Philemon’s conversion to the faith through Paul’s ministry.  Whatever wrong Onesimus has committed compares little to the value that Paul gave Philemon in bringing him to know the living God.

Verse 20 serves as the climax to the appeal.  Paul’s pleads, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”  This is an important statement and ties many key words and themes together.  It would immediately call to mind verse 7, where Paul had praised Philemon’s love and spoke of how he had refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.  Paul is therefore asking that his heart be refreshed like the others.  And by restating “heart” (σπλάγχνα), Paul also recalls verse 12, which identified Onesimus as Paul’s own heart.  Thus, in order to satisfy Paul’s wishes, he’ll have to refresh Onesimus—this is a brilliantly written and carefully constructed letter.

The appeal is finished.  Paul now leaves himself, and Onesimus, at Philemon’s mercy: Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. It’s up to Philemon to determine what his proper course of action shall be.

I’ve already stated my belief that this should involve releasing Onesimus from his service as a slave.  Several indications from this section seem to support this conclusion: Onesimus is to be received “no longer as a slave,” and “as beloved brother in the flesh” (i.e., there earthly relationship is to change significantly; see above on 16); he is to be welcomed as Paul (17), who is obviously not a slave (Blomberg, Pentecost, 280); and Paul’s confidence that Philemon will do “even more” (21) suggests that the response is to move beyond what’s explicitly stated in verse 17.

Thus, I believe that Paul seeks Onesimus’ manumission, perhaps also hoping he’ll be sent back to Paul in order to aid him in his ministry of the gospel (13).  That said, it’s impossible to for us to know exactly what Paul desired.  But the fact that the letter survived and was held as important in Christian circles suggests that the letter was in fact successful (Dunn 341).

This concludes our study (Congrats–2 books down, only 24 left).  We’re going to do something a little different this time.  I’m going to ask you to help me with the application.

Discussion Questions/Application:

We’ve learned that status in Christ trumps worldly status.  In what ways does this affect how we ought to treat one another?  How might this outlook benefit others and our culture?   __________________________________________________

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Oftentimes our faith calls us to do radical things, sometimes even requiring us to give up our own rights here on earth for the benefit of others.  First describe the ways in which Philemon must relinquish his rights for the benefit of the Kingdom.  Then reflect on and tell us what this might look like today.  What might God be calling you or us to do?

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Are there implications for slavery here?  Even today slavery exists in Africa and Middle Eastern countries (albeit in a radically different from than that of the first century).  Can the book of Philemon offer hope and serve as a conversation partner with those who find themselves trapped in this context?  Or is this letter too far removed from the evils of modern day slavery?  Please explain:

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Is there anything else that you have learned from the letter or our study that you found beneficial?

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7 Responses to Philemon 8-22: The Appeal, Part 2

  1. bill west says:

    Tough Questions! We whould treat each other as equals, ignoring false status symbals.This means that I can learn from my Christian janitor, as well as from my Christian boss. Q(2) Philemon must give up his ownership ($$$) of Onesimus. We are called to give up ownership of some of our $$$ and lifestyle also for the benefit of the Kingdom. Q(3)It would be applicable if this were christianity If the slave were Cristian,YES. Q(4)Reemphasizes the commandment, to preach the Gospel in all the wolrld. Their is no hope for the world except in Jesus.

  2. Leah says:

    Q1 – Our social barriers need to come down and we should treat each other as the equals that we are in Christ….with love, kindness, respect, forgiveness and gentleness. We would all benefit from this; if the Christian community conducted ourselves as we should, wouldn’t others outside of the faith want what we have?
    Q2 – Philemon must give up his slave and treat Onesimus as an equal in Christ; he is no longer just a mere possession. I think he is called upon to soften his heart and follow his Christian commitment, as we all need to do.
    Q3 – If the slave is a Christian, hopefully he would realize his worth in God’s eyes and could possibly share that with others in the same position.
    Q4 – It is interesting how Paul gently and tactfully appeals to Philemon out of Christian love, instead of just ordering him to do what is right. Our actions need to be guided by Christian love and a ‘refreshed heart’; not just by a sense of duty.

  3. Nic says:

    Good work!

    Q1 – Excellent answers from Gbill and Leah. We would be wise to reflect on their responses and ask God to help us put them into practice!

    Q2 – Again, good answers. Philemon’s called to give up his rights to Onesimus, which includes his future service (yes, $$$!) and the rights normally due to him as a master. He must give up the world’s paradigm of master/slave relationship and instead embrace the new reality that is in Christ. He must even forgo his rights to punish Onesimus and receive compensation for his wrongdoings. He must voluntarily give up his rights for the benefit of the Kingdom. As Leah said, “he is called upon to soften his heart and follow his Christian commitment”.

    Implications for us: Gbill provides a helpful application: “Philemon must give up his ownership ($$$) of Onesimus. We are called to give up ownership of some of our $$$ and lifestyle also for the benefit of the Kingdom.”

    We must give up our rights of money (it’s all God’s anyway!). Let’s face it: in relation to the rest of the world, we represent Philemon in the story. We are rich and the ones able to provide benevolence. And, of course, Christmas is a very good time to do just that.

    Our church is participating in the Advent Conspiracy, “an international movement restoring the scandal of Christmas by substituting compassion for consumption” (Check it out!). When we were teenagers our family started doing something similar, giving the money that we would have spent on Christmas to various organizations (Heifer International was always a favorite). My grandparents and parents set a good example for us in this way. Was it as exciting as coming downstairs to receive several new Nintendo games and lots of toys? No, probably not. But it felt right, and it gave us more time to just be together as a family on Christmas morning—to read the Christmas story, to have a relaxed meal, and to just be together.

    Time to bust out the Christmas spirit and bless those who are in need. Consider Vision Trust, or perhaps in light of Philemon we ought to consider the International Justice Mission, which is “a human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression.” What are you favorite organizations to support?

    Q3 – I think that our brothers and sisters who suffer under slavery or oppressive systems can cling to the hope that this letter represents a community who lived out the implications made possible by the Christ event. The cross changes things—there is hope for a better world, a better way of doing things.

    Now, the responses rightly indicate that yes, we must stand up and fight for any Christians suffering under oppressive regimes. But this begs the question, what about the non-Christians who are suffering? Should we not also stand up and fight for them? I realize we’d have to step outside of Philemon to draw this conclusion.

    I’m struck, again, by the parallel of the Christmas story. Jesus came to those who were far off, who had no hope in order to bring them near (Ephesians 2.11-22). If we are to be imitators of Christ (1 Thes 1:6; 1 Cor 11:1; Phil 2:5ff), shouldn’t we too come to the aid of those with no hope? What an excellent way to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. May we, the blessed ones, hunger and thirst for justice (Mt 5.6).

    At one time we were all under the bondage of sin (Rom 7.14). But thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior (Rom 7.25)!

    Q4 – Thanks for your participation and for giving attention to this little book that has been far to neglected (and even abused) in Church history!

  4. Mark says:

    I guess I am going to be indirect in answering the questions by asking more questions. Mostly I ask these as a matter of curiosity but it intrigues me. Ah yes Philemon gave up status for the kingdom, but what status? I am curious as to what type of person Philemon was prior to Paul converting him. I have a gut feeling, and that is all that it is – pure conjecture- that Philemon could have been like Paul before Paul’s conversion. Was he a persecutor of Christians or just a very wealthy master? Is there any non biblical reference on this? I ask this because is also makes me wonder why Onesimus followed Paul. Was he so amazed by the transformation of his master that he had to follow Paul, no matter what? Paul tells Philemon he knows Onesimus was useless to him and I find that curious as his name means useful. Therefore was what Onesimus ‘stole’ funds and supplies to follow Paul, or the time and service that he provided to Philemon, or indeed some treasure of Philemon’s? Here Paul acknowledges that there is value to worldly treasures and that it is wrong to take what is not yours. He therefore addresses this is a gentle way saying he would personally right the wrong that Onesimus committed but I conjecture that he feels the wrong was committed for the right cause. Thus he reminds Philemon of the great debt that he really owes Paul for bringing him to the kingdom of God and that treasures are not all that important in the grand scheme of things. So what does that have to do with us? I think that we need to be apostolistic in our actions to bring people to the grace of God, and when we see those in need that we find ways to help them. Yes this can be done through giving to various organizations but it can also be done through society to provide the basic needs for all of those on our planet. What does that mean, that we should work to help people help themselves so that they can have clean drinking water, clothes to wear, food to eat, and basic health care. If we care about all of humanity then we do not provide help with strings attached. Paul called on Philemon to cut the strings when he reminded him of the debt he owed Paul. We can not provide assistance to countries, as we do now, that benefits our farmers while it discourages locally grown commodities (to pick on food as one example). It is our hope that the Christian example if gently applied would be the example that other cultures would adopt.

    It is important that we express our love to any human being regarless of his status. This does not mean we accept wrong doing but it does mean that we do not ignore people because they are different. Philemon story should bring joy, even to slaves of today, if they can look at this story and see that their plight is not unseen and that God through Jesus Christ hears their plea and asks them to bear witness to Jesus and if they act in a Christian way towards their ‘masters’ that they will become useful to Jesus and receive His Kingdom. I guess it is a matter of the heart, and God knows what is in our hearts, if we say ‘this is mine and I earned it and I do not want to have any of it taken away will we have lost it all in the end? Rather I have seen many times that those who have earned their wealth and our generous and give or allow it to be used by others elsewhere are often re-rewarded. If not now, then in the greater Kingdom. A radical idea to not worry about your money? It reminds me of when we were kids and get into a neighborhood spat of who’s property something was, the last argument was always, ‘No it’s God’s!’ I sometimes wonder that it is through his grace and glory that we have what we have and in the end it is all his anyway. I know I did not exactly answer your questions in order and I rambled a little but hopefully we can put our hearts in God’s hand and let him lead us to treat all individuals as another person that God also loves equally to ourselves. Mark

    • Nic says:

      Well regarding the background q’s, the theory was that Onesimus sought out Paul in order to have him mediate on his behalf, to try and restore Philemon and Onesimus’ broken relationship. Onesimus has likely been at many of the church meetings held in Philemon’s home. He therefore knows the profound impact that Philemon’s faith in Christ has had on his life as well as the influence that Paul has on his master. So, it’s not that Onesimus felt compelled to follow Paul no matter what, but that he intentionally sought him ought in order to plead on his behalf because he felt that his master might listen to his well-respected friend of his master, Paul. And we don’t really know if Onesimus stole anything, so probably best to not make too much of that. Make sense?

      And yes, you’re right–in verse 11 Paul calls Onesimus useless. But he was referring to his life before Christ. “Who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.” Now, having come to Christ, Onesimus might finally live up to his name!

      Regarding your statement, “Yes this can be done through giving to various organizations but it can also be done through society to provide the basic needs for all of those on our planet.” I don’t think we should separate the two. The ministries I listed were ones that I believe in that I feel do a good job of yes, providing the basic human needs, but do so in a way of removing the people out of the cycle of poverty or injustice. You mention water–perhaps we could look at partnering with a ministry such as Enlace. They provide clean water to those who don’t have it, but they do it through the local churches and do it in such a way that the people will not have to continue to depend on the westerners for help. And the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached as the reason and fuel of their mission! Providing the basic needs is essential, but I don’t think it’s sustainable if it’s not done in the name of Jesus. I really don’t.

      I know that’s essentially what you were trying to say—that we need to remove the poor from the cycle they’re in and move them onto a position of self-sufficiency—but I didn’t want you to misunderstand and think that I was suggesting it’s just about writing a check to a good cause. My point was that we need to partner with ministries that are already doing this well. And as the rich, like Philemon, Christmas would be an excellent opportunity to substitute consumption with compassion. But I realize that I’m preaching to the choir here as all my followers are extremely generous. But you, as leaders of your church, can carry the message to others because this is a real problem in our society.

      Hope that helps. NDS

  5. Jan says:

    ok-here goes.
    Q1-We should treat everyone the same way Jesus did. I think that’s one reason He walked on earth–so we could learn how to live like Him. Sometimes I treat people like I think He would and sometimes I don’t. Spending time w/Him everyday would help me-I know.

    Q2-I think maybe Philemon had to give up his “right” to be important–if he was. Maybe giving mercy to Onesimus was in some peoples’ eyes a show of weakness. It might have been similar to Jesus and Zaccheus. Or Jesus and the woman at the well. Not the cool thing to do, but the right thing to do.
    Today, a similar situation might be socializing w/someone who has served prison time. Or being friends to someone who disagrees with me politically.
    I think God is callilng us to just letting people see Him in us.
    Q3-I do not know of anyone who is involved in slavery but if I did, I do think the book of Philemon would offer hope and lead to their end of involvement in slavery. Other types of slavery are addictions. Definitely, people who have addictions need mercy and help from God.
    Q4-I wish I could have heard Paul speak these words. In one way, I think he might have sounded very pushy, but if his tone was sincere-and I think it was- then he probably really touched Philemon’s heart. Speaking w/love rather than force will lead people to God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. Although, I know God told many individuals in the Bible to be bold and maybe even very forceful. We just need to ask God for His direction in speaking to people about Him. Just like you sent me another email to do this! Thank you.

  6. MAS says:

    We are in complete agreement in what we were talking about and thanks for the answers to my q’s. I guess that I just do not see enough listings or discussions in our churches about such organizations. Our denominations should continually bring these most worthwhild missions to the forefront. I read about people doing things selfishly but do not see it being applied in our churches. Maybe we should have each denomination take up a particular cause and then it would not be so overwhelming. Currently I look at so many causes but can not contribute to all. Another way that we should give is this: If we are given a tax deduction for a particular benefit then should we deny that benefit to others who pay taxes that support our benefits!?, when their employeers do not provide that benefit or they are contract labor and have no direct access to that benefit? Pilemon means a lot to me in that we should all be treated fairly. Those of us who ‘have’ need to recognise that some of what we ‘have’ has been given to us by others, (As Paul did for Philemon tax payers have paid for our deduction) we should not begruge the needs of others- for somewhere they will be useful to us also when this is done in the name of the father or because of our religious background and ethics.

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