In this section of the letter Paul at last introduces the name of Onesimus, which means ‘profitable’. He has delayed doing so until the atmosphere is right and the sympathies of Philemon are aroused. We shall now look at some of the things Paul says about him:
Paul introduces Onesimus as his son. This suggests the dignity of the position. The two extremes in any household were the sons and the slaves. The former were heirs; the latter were dispossessed. Now Paul says that Onesimus is his son. If Philemon had love and respect for Paul, and he did, then those same attributes should be given to Paul’s spiritual son as well. The use of the word ‘begotten’, v. 10, suggests that much travail had been expended in bringing the son to birth, and in addition it had all happened while Paul was in prison. How wondrous are the ways of God - past finding out!
In verse 11 Paul acknowledges that prior to his remarkable conversion Onesimus had been unprofitable. This was stating the obvious - think of what he had done. But conversion changes a man - and in this case dramatically so, for now the opposite was true - ‘profitable to thee and to me’, v. 11. He was profitable to Paul in that he ministered to his needs and to Philemon in that part of the blessing coming to Onesimus for his good works would accrue to his owner.
As far as we are concerned we too were unprofitable and guilty sinners, but since Christ Jesus came into our lives we have been completely changed - or have we? It is a great pity that today many are satisfied with a ‘bolt-on’ kind of modular Christianity, whereas we should acknowledge and expect to see a complete new start. We are taught scripturally that if any man is in Christ he is a new creature. All old things have passed away and all things become new. What a challenge! The conversion of Onesimus was clear cut and begged no doubting from anyone.
Once converted in Rome Onesimus, in spite of the obvious dangers, identified himself with Paul and willingly served him. He did so more than adequately and Paul was keen that this should continue - Onesimus was doing the very things Philemon would have done were he able. This fellowship was sweet, the work of the slave reliable and his character trustworthy.
However Paul was unhappy about this arrangement because while he enjoyed gain Philemon suffered loss. It was important that matters should be put right. So too today when people are saved their sins are forgiven, but in those cases where restitution to those injured by one’s actions is possible, it should be made.
Paul decides that in these circumstances he cannot keep Onesimus ‘without the agreement of Philemon. Thus he makes the beautiful statement in verse 14, ‘But without thy mind would I do nothing’. Paul did not wish Philemon to be forced into an arrangement, he wished him to do it willingly so that there would be all-round benefit.
Verse 12 explains the action Paul took, ‘Whom I have sent again’. He sent him back, or referred him back, not only to Philemon, but as the sense of the phrase is, ‘to you all’. As far as reception to the house was concerned he referred him back to the family. As far as reception to the assembly was concerned he referred him to the church. It is very important that in matters of reception and discipline the whole church is involved and not only the leaders. When someone asks for fellowship without a letter of commendation, previously having been with another assembly, it is always right to refer back to the original source for things to be put right.
Paul then refers once again to the closeness of his fellowship with Onesimus in verse 12, referring to him ‘as mine own bowels’. Furthermore he suggests that Onesimus, in the divine plan, ‘departed for a reason, that thou shouldest receive him for ever’.
So, Onesimus was on his way back. It was not easy for Paul to send him back. It was not easy for Onesimus to go back nor was it easy for the family to receive him back, but it was right. Someone has said, ‘The way back is hard, and God will not readily forgive the man who makes it harder’. We therefore do well to ease the path of repentant ones who wish to make a fresh start.
Onesimus was returning ‘not now as a servant’, v. 16, i.e. not only as a servant. His salvation had not released him from the obligations of slavery However, previously he had been only a slave, but now he is also a brother and indeed ‘a brother beloved’, v. 16.
While Onesimus retained his position among the other household slaves yet spiritually he was on the same plane as Philemon - they were both dearly beloved, vv. 1, 16. Thus after salvation we continue in our calling unless it be one which requires us to be disloyal to the One who has saved us. What a change had been wrought; he was beloved in the flesh and in the Lord. The physical and the spiritual go hand in hand.
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