Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Onesimus and Philemon ~ Receiving a Brother

In his section on household relationships (Colossians 3:18-4:1), Paul gives extra attention to how slaves and masters who are believers are to share their new life in Jesus. Though he speaks in general terms, he also has some specific individuals in mind. There is a man named Philemon, a faithful follower of King Jesus, who hosts meetings of the church in his home in or near Colosse. At the same time Paul writes to the believers there, he also prepares a brief, personal letter to Philemon. Paul’s desire for him is, “that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus” (Philemon 6).

Philemon has a servant named Onesimus, who ended up in Rome, where Paul is imprisoned for preaching the gospel of King Jesus. Most likely, Onesimus had some sort of falling out with Philemon and ran away to make an appeal to Paul, because Paul exercised spiritual oversight for the church at Colosse. This journey took an unexpected turn for Onesimus, however, when Paul led him to faith in Jesus the Messiah.

Paul now writes Philemon seeking a kindly disposition towards Onesimus. He does not speak by spiritual command but by the appeal to love (vv. 8-9): “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me” (vv. 10-11). Paul speaks of him as a son begotten in the faith by Paul himself. In his letter to the believers at Colosse, Paul speaks of Onesimus as a “faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you” (Colossians 4:9).

In Paul’s thinking, and indeed in the new reality of King Jesus, Onesimus and Philemon were on equal footing. It was the existing culture and economy — leftovers from the principalities and powers that Jesus disarmed — that needed to be addressed here. The old way of masters and slaves makes no sense to the new life we have in Jesus and so must give way. “I am sending him back,” Paul says and then adds, “You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart” (v. 12).

Paul wants Philemon to receive Onesimus, not as a runaway slave who has been returned and subject to severe treatment, but as dearly and affectionately as Paul himself has received him. An even greater desire, however, is that Onesimus be able to come again to Paul and assist him in the ministry of the gospel (v. 13). But Paul will not do that without Philemon’s consent, nor will he compel Philemon to do so (v. 14). His appeal is purely that of love and the order of new life in King Jesus, so that Philemon might receive Onesimus fully as a brother in the Lord.
For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (vv. 15-16)
Though we do not know for certain the outcome of this appeal, it is hard to imagine that Philemon would refuse Paul’s request — when you realize that someone is your brother, how can you any longer treat him as anything less? The historical tradition of the Church is that Onesimus was martyred for his faith shortly after Paul’s death. He has been canonized as a saint by several Christian communions and is remembered every February 15.

Focus Questions
  1. Paul wants Philemon to be effective in sharing his faith. How does his request of Philemon play into this?
  2. Though Paul had spiritual oversight of Philemon, he did not want to “command” him in this. Why not?
  3. What are other ways believers might treat other believers as less than brothers or sisters?

The Focus of Our Faith
The Focus of Our Faith
Paul’s Letters to the Jesus Believers at Colosse
Bite-Size Studies Through Colossians
by Jeff Doles

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