Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus

There are few Christians who have not pondered with delight the tender and intimate relationships which grace had formed, on the one hand between Paul and Onesimus, and on the other between Paul and Philemon. It has been well said that the epistle in which these touching particulars are preserved "is an expression of the love which works by the Spirit within the assembly of God, in all the circumstances of individual life." In addition to the names at the head of this paper, Apphia,* probably Philemon's wife, and "Archippus our fellow-soldier" are mentioned. The latter is also named in Colossians 4:17, in connection with the ministry he had received of the Lord, and he is urged by the apostle to take heed that he fulfil it - an exhortation which every servant of the Lord might well lay to heart. It would appear also, from the description of Onesimus in Colossians as "one of you," that Colosse was the place where both he and Philemon lived.

*The more generally accepted reading is "to the sister Apphia" instead of "beloved Apphia."

The occasion of the epistle is very interesting. Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon, had fled from his servitude, and had found his way to Rome, where Paul, at that time, was in captivity. In some way or other, Onesimus had been brought into contact with the apostle, and had heard the gospel from his lips. God had been watching over this poor unhappy bondsman (for indeed He had chosen him in Christ before the foundation of the world); and now, in His own way and time, He led him to the house where the apostle of the Gentiles was a prisoner. How often is it that God allows a soul to drink the very dregs of wretchedness just as He is about to manifest Himself in grace for salvation! One can well imagine with what a heavy heart Onesimus passed through the portals of Paul's prison-house on that eventful day. But the glad tidings of the gospel are especially sent to heal the broken-hearted, and Onesimus, the subject of the grace of God, heard and believed. The apostle, therefore, could speak of him as his son Onesimus, whom he had begotten in his bonds. (v. 10.)

Converted, a difficult question had at once to be faced. Onesimus had wronged his master by his flight. He might, in some circumstances, have been tempted to argue that slavery was not according to God, and that he was entitled to freedom. But the Christian is never permitted to redress his own grievances, or to seek to establish his rights, even if he possess any. Besides, the apostle was at hand to counsel him, and to instruct him in the way of the Lord more perfectly. Not only so; but in the strength of his affection for this new convert, his "own bowels" as he terms him, he undertook his cause with Philemon. And the reader may remark how fully Paul recognizes Philemon's claims, even when fervently pleading for the slave. He did not fail, at the same time, to remind Philemon of the new relationship which had been established by his servant's conversion - "Not now," he says, "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."

Let us, then, glance a little at this inspired letter to Philemon, written under the circumstances which we have considered. The first three verses are the superscription and the salutation. It will be perceived that Philemon received the assembly in his house, and the apostle, although writing on a personal matter, includes the church in his greeting. We learn from it that even the individual interests of the people of God are of necessity connected with the assembly; that we are so intimately bound up with one another that we cannot isolate ourselves from the general state and welfare. This may be illustrated from the case before us. If Philemon, for example, had entertained hard thoughts of his fugitive servant, he would have affected for evil the church in his house. Including, therefore, the assembly in his salutation, he omits the word "mercy" which he employs in the personal epistles (1 Tim.; 2 Tim.; Titus), and writes, as in all the epistles to assemblies, "Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

In the next four verses (4-7), Paul expresses his love for, and tender interest in, Philemon himself. He tells him that he always made mention of him in his prayers, and thanked God as he heard of his love and faith which he had toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints. What a privilege to be thus laid on the heart of the apostle! And what a testimony is thus borne - divinely borne - to Philemon! Paul's desire for Philemon was (we give another translation to make it simpler) "that thy participation in the faith should become operative in the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in us towards Christ Jesus"; and he then states the ground on which he was encouraged to make this request, in the affecting words, "For we have great joy (or, as some read, thankfulness) and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother." What the apostle then prayed for was, as we understand it, that Philemon might perceive that Paul, in writing to him on this subject, was animated by the glory of Christ Jesus. Christ, in other words, was both his motive and object - this was the "good thing" in him which he hoped Philemon would acknowledge. He wrote from the heart to the heart, in the power of the Holy Ghost, and the foundations of his appeal, thus laid, could not but secure the desired response. It was a mighty outflow of the affections of Christ, which it would be impossible to resist.

After such a preface, the apostle proceeds to the matter in hand. Having a title to enjoin what was "fitting," he would not use it; "for love's sake" he would rather beseech, "being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ." What emotions would be produced in Philemon's heart as he read these words! And what a preparation for what was to follow! "I beseech thee," Paul continues, "for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds," etc. (vv. 10-19.) It is not only an exquisite picture of spiritual affections - of the indestructible ties which exist between Christians, and especially between the servant and the converts who have been vouchsafed to his ministry; but it is also a striking presentation of the heart of Christ for His own. It is true that it is Paul's feelings, Paul's tender love, and Paul's pleadings; but in all these he was but the vessel of Christ. We should not therefore read these words aright unless we discerned the heart of Paul's Lord expressing itself in these affecting beseechings. "That ye love one another, as I have loved you," the Lord once said; and when it is in any measure done, it is His own love flooding our souls, which overflows towards His people.

A few special points may be indicated in the apostle's appeal to Philemon. The meaning of the name Onesimus is "profitable," and Paul alludes to this in v. 11, as he says, that in past days Onesimus had been "unprofitable," but now he would answer to his name both to Philemon and to the apostle himself. Notice, moreover, how fully Paul identifies himself with his convert - "receive him," he says, "that is, mine own bowels." Again, "If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself." (v. 17.) Yet once more, "If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it." (vv. 18, 19.) Christ has "repaid" (and how much more!) what we owed to God, for He charged Himself with the whole of our responsibility; and He has given us, in association with Himself, His own place and relationship with the Father, so that we are received as Himself. How blessed the correspondence between the servant and his Master! May we all follow in this, the example of the apostle.

Nor should we omit to remark upon the delicacy with which the apostle, while recognizing Philemon's claims over his servant, commends Onesimus to his master's care and affection. Paul would fain have retained him for needed service in the bonds of the gospel; "but," he says, "without thy mind would I do nothing." Whatever might be done on Philemon's part, must be the free acting of his own heart in the Spirit, the fruit of the spontaneity of love, which could not suffer any external compulsion, even from the apostle. Paul, therefore, sent Onesimus back - not only as a slave, but as "a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord." Wonderful effect of Christianity, which, while it ever maintains the relative positions and duties (Eph. 6:1-9), reveals that in Christ Jesus there is neither bond nor free, because all are one in Him. (Galatians 3:28.) It is to enforce his appeal - but to enforce it with a full heart - that the apostle reminds Philemon that he owed unto him his own self besides. It would appear, therefore, that Philemon was indebted for his conversion, equally with his servant, to Paul's instrumentality. Having said so much, he can now add, "Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord."

It is remarkable, it may be pointed out in conclusion, that the apostle has the full assurance of the desired response to his loving appeal. He has entire confidence in the obedience of Philemon, and he plainly says that this led him to write, "knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say." With a full heart of love, he counted on an abounding answer from Philemon. Himself in the truth of grace, which delights to give, he expected the unstinted action of grace from his friend and brother. Last of all, he prefers a personal request: "But withal prepare me also a lodging" (or receive me as a guest): "for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you." Further comment is unnecessary; but at a time when the exhibition of love in the Spirit is not, perhaps, a general characteristic, this precious epistle may be commended to the reader's study. May the Lord Himself produce in all our hearts a larger response to His own love, that we may be the more distinctly characterized by love one to another!