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Journey Through Scripture: Philemon 1:7-14
September 27, 2019, 11:09 AM

Philemon 1:7-14

"7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.  8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,  9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love -- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.  10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.  11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.  12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel;  14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced."
~Philemon 1:7-14

Interpretation (Exegesis) of 1:7-14

After setting the stage with the idea of fellowship (koinonia) among the Church in Christ, Paul gets to his main point: his request to Philemon on how to treat the runaway slave Onesimus. Love “is the surest sign that Christ is being formed in his people” (NT Wright, “Tyndale New Testament Commentary”, pg.178) and this is how Paul approaches the issue – love rather than compulsion.

Starting in verse 7 Paul praises Philemon again for the benefit he has received due to Philemon’s work in the church. Paul has received “much” joy and encouragement! And not from just any work, but from the love Philemon which had a practical result - that of bringing refreshment to his fellow Christians. The “heart” in the Bible is the seat of the emotions and desires, (Luke 6:45, Acts 5:4, Rom 9:2) and so Philemon’s love has brought a peace and satisfaction by addressing the deep seated needs of his brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul reminded him of that fact so as to expect him to continue in this love with the returned Onesimus!

Verse 8 is a connecting verse (“for this reason”) that leads into the method of Paul’s request. It is important to see that Paul has authority (“boldness in Christ”) he believes he ought not to need use. He may not have secular authority to address an issue between a master and slave, but he did have authority in Christ as an Apostle! (S.J. Eales, “The Pulpit Commentary: Philemon”, pg.2-3) Not only that, but Paul points out Philemon has a “duty”. The Greek word has the idea of that which is proper, fitting, or appropriate (Eph 5:4). Paul sets the stage by informing Philemon what he ought to do – what is the appropriate Christian way to handle the issue. Make no mistake, this is not an open ended discussion - nor is love being used to deny moral demands. Paul is clear that there is a duty to perform, but refuses to command it. Instead he desires Philemon to voluntarily do the right thing.

It is this voluntary basis of the right thing that Paul states in verse 9. In spite of Paul’s authority as an Apostle, and in spite of the reminder about Christian obligation, Paul says he would rather appeal to a higher motivation: that of love. Love in the Bible is not an emotion, but a commitment or faithfulness, often in context of God’s covenant – an act of the will. Paul is not saying “I appeal to warm feelings you have for Onesiums” but rather “I appeal to you on the basis of your commitment to Jesus and the Body of Christ, his Church”! In other words Philemon ought to do his duty, which Paul makes sure to remind him of, without needing to be commanded to do it! For extra measure Paul even points out he is not in a position to enforce anything, being both old and in a Roman prison! Perhaps this is even a rhetorical device – similar to Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings saying “you wouldn’t deprive an old man of his staff, would you?”, Paul is saying “Come now, Philemon, you won’t really make an old man in prison force you to do your duty will you?”

Only in verse 10 and 11 does Paul begin to give Philemon his request! Paul has worked Philemon into a sense of agreement over his need to do his duty out of love – and now Paul tells him what that duty is! Like many things in the Bible, this was not likely easy for Philemon. Perhaps Philemon wanted to follow Roman law and severely punish his slave Onesimus? What would the social and political consequences be for Philemon to treat his slave as a brother in Christ? Perhaps he would rather take the easy way, punish Onesimus, and have everything return to normal. Remember that this letter was very likely handed to him by Onesiums. What do you think Philemon’s reaction was when he got to this part of the letter?

But Paul has other plans for how this ought to work out, and he argues this by making an identification between himself an Onesimus. For now Paul has become a father to him! The Church Fathers agree that this is a result of Paul bringing Onesimus to Jesus – this is the language of a new Christian. Not only that, but Paul uses a play on words to praise Onesimus. The name “Onesimus” was a common slave nickname that meant “useful”. (Craig Keener, “The IVP Bible Background Commentary”, pg.645-6) Perhaps, Paul says, he was at one time “useless” to Philemon, now to Paul he most certainly is! Not just to Paul but to Philemon as well. In what sense? In context of ministry for the Gospel - the very thing that Paul praised Philemon for his own work in earlier. If Philemon truly cares about the Gospel then he will care about his new brother in Christ and the work he does as well.   

Verses 12 and 13 delve more into Paul’s new connection to Onesimus. Paul calls him his “own heart” that has been sent back to Philemon in 12. And in 13 repeats the fact of his usefulness. Not just useful, but “service” in the place of Philemon. The word “service” here is not the usual one for “slave”, but instead diakonas, from which we get the word Deacon! Philemon can’t be with Paul, reasonably so, but Onesimus can and is helpful for the Gospel. Paul has subtly established certain equality between master and slave, arguing Philemon should start seeing Onesimus as an ambassador and free servant, a deacon, rather than a mere slave. Philemon may have escaped as a slave, but he returns as a son and free servant in Christ. For in Christ all roles and relationships have been changed and Paul expects Philemon to act accordingly to this new reality of Onesimus as a child of God. (Darrell Bock, in “A Biblical Theology of the New Testament”, pg.308)

For those reasons of being useful to the Gospel and as a new son in Christ Jesus Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him. But as St. Chrysostom said, “Nothing so shames us into giving like bringing forth the kindness bestowed on others, and particularly when the intercessor is more entitled to respect than they” (Homilies on Philemon 2, in “Ancient Christian Commentary”, pg.312) Here Paul reinforces the earlier point: Philemon ought to do what is proper and good without needing to be compelled. The word the NRSV translates as “without your consent” is in Greek literally “without your mind”, “mind” being the idea of opinion, viewpoint, or intent. Paul desires for Philemon, who is already one in Jesus, to be of one mind on what is proper here. The result of coming to one mind (“in order that”) is that this good deed towards Onesimus would be something willing out of love. Just as in verse 8 Paul wants to refrain from using his authority in this situation, Paul again restates his desire to see Philemon doing such good works in Christ out of a genuine willingness to do so, even if such willingness was prodded by Paul! In a sense it’s a very parental approach. Like a parent saying to their child “you’re not really going to do that are you?” The parent is not commanding their kid, but the implication is clear as to what their child ought to do. Paul is forcing Philemon to think through his next actions and if they will align with Christ or not.

Application and Takeaway

God has given us commands and a duty to perform as Christians, but ultimately he wants us doing it out of desire and not compulsion.

Through Paul God has given us an image of life in Christ as being of one mind with Christ which results in good towards our fellow Christians regardless of social demographics.

In Jesus all of our relationships are to take on new meaning. Onesimus was not longer just a slave – but a son to Paul, a child of God by Faith in Jesus, and called a deacon rather than slave. Do our relationships in the Church look different than those in the world? Why or why not? In what ways do we need to grow in Christ to view each other how God sees us?

It is natural for people to fight over social status and rank in human society. It is natural for people to want to keep their faith in Jesus to themselves so that we act like anyone else in the world. But God calls on us to be different. If we are all one in Jesus, and if there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female in Christ (Gal 3:28) then our relationships with each other shouldn’t be based on those categories. Instead we relate to each other as being in Christ, as being one with Jesus and so one with each other. If this is the case then our actions to each other have different rules than the way our culture may tell us to act. We should consider what the good in Jesus is and become of one mind to do it without compulsion, but act in love towards God which brings us love towards our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.

The takeaway this month:

In what ways do you see yourself doing good out of compulsion or mere duty rather than love? Pray this month for Jesus to move your heart into one of willing consent with his will rather than just obedience to command.