Paul’s Delicate Request (Philemon 9-25)

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Paul’s way into his request will sacrifice his position of leadership as an example of what he is about to ask. It is easy to miss this move, coming as it does at the start. In vv. 8-9, Paul says he could command what he is about to ask. He could simply play the leader’s card of power and social rank. He says as much in verse 14, when he says he wants Philemon to act not out of compulsion but out of free will. Paul will not act from a place of power and authority. Out of love, versus status, Paul’s appeal will come not as an ambassador nor as an apostle, but as a prisoner of Jesus Christ. In jail, Paul would rather Philemon act out of what is good and right relationally than force Philemon to act.

The request is on behalf of Onesimus. Paul has fun with the slave’s name, which means “useful.”[1] “Useful” had become “useless” to Philemon, having run away, but now he is useful to them both. It is hard to know if Paul’s original assessment is because Onesimus had run away and thus was unable to serve Philemon or if this is his description of him socially and relationally as a slave, being seen only as property. The former seems more likely that the latter, as slaves were of use to their owners when they served in the house.

Paul is sending the slave back to Philemon, even though Paul would prefer to keep Onesimus and let him serve the gospel on Philemon’s behalf. Paul suggests that the consequence of Onesimus’s running away may have been a shift in the slave’s status, since he came to know Christ in the process. Onesimus has gone from being a slave to being a brother. He has gone from being a slave for a time until death comes, to being in relationship with Philemon forever.

So Paul’s request is that Onesimus be received as if it was Paul coming back to him! What a promotion. Onesimus has gone from slave to brother to “apostle” in just a few sentences. Paul’s request is interesting. He says, “If you consider me a partner (koinōnon), receive him as you would me.”[2] Fellowship means partnership. Onesimus may have one status according to the world, but in Jesus there is another way to look on who he is. He is a brother.

There is to be no doubt that part of what drives Paul’s request here is that Philemon and Onesimus share the faith with Paul. Still the idea of looking beyond mere social status to what one is at a human level would be true even if Onesimus had not been a believer. What drives the commandment to love your neighbor, regardless of who they are, enemies included, is surely predicated on the fact all people are made in the image of God.

Philemon may well be asking, “But what of the risk of being taken advantage of, Paul?” Paul is aware of that question and offers a solution as well. He says if Onesimus has wronged Philemon at all, that this should be reckoned to Paul’s account. Paul will cover any damages Onesimus owes. He even writes the letter at this point in his own hand to make the point as personally as possible.[3] Paul does push his point here, noting that Philemon owes Paul his very own self, probably a reference to Paul’s leading him to and nurturing him in the faith. If Philemon will do this, receive Onesimus as a brother, then this will refresh Paul’s heart. Philemon will do for Paul what he had already done for so many others (see v 7).

Paul is not shy in his request as he notes not only that he is confident Philemon will do this, but that he will do even more than what he asks. This is probably an allusion to the idea of sending the slave back to Paul. He then note he hopes to visit Philemon soon, so Philemon is to prepare a room for Paul.

With that said and the request made, Paul gives some final greetings and signs off commending Philemon to Jesus’ grace.