In line with all this I have a favour to ask of you. As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him, I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request.
10-14 While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to.
15-16 Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me—he’ll be even more than that to you. (The Message).
In the Roman Empire a runaway slave could expect the death penalty, at worst, and the most severe punishment at best.
In the case of Onesimus, there may be an inference that not only did he abscond, but he also stole from Philemon as well (17-20).
But Paul’s letter exudes an atmosphere of mercy. He signals a clear expectation that Philemon will receive his runaway back – not merely as a forgiven slave (which would be radical anyway), but as a brother in Christ. He says that although as an apostle he could command this, he believes he doesn’t have to. He is shrewd in his handling of the situation, applying gentle pressure to Philemon. He reminds him that he owes him (19). Also, although this is a personal letter to Philemon, there is a local church listening in. So Philemon is, in a sense, being held accountable.
(It was impossible for Christians living under the tyrannical rule of Rome to campaign for the abolition of slavery. But it has been said that Paul, in his letters, sows the seeds of its destruction. It was truly radical that slave and master could be together in a church community and call each other ‘brother.’)
I believe the Bible teacher, David Pawson, made the point that Onesimus was ‘re-cycled.’ As we have noted previously, there is an interesting play on words with his name. It means ‘useful.’ He who had previously proved ‘useless’ (11) had now been made ‘useful’ by Jesus. Pawson said that this is what salvation achieves in us all. We are re-cycled.
We can only thank God for His mercy and grace.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for giving this runaway a welcome home, and a warm place in your family. Thank you so much for using me in your service.
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