12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. – Philemon 1:12-16 ESV
Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon. And Paul makes it clear that this had not been an easy decision. In a sense, Paul was sending his very heart. He loved Onesimus as if he was his own son. This young man had come to mean a great deal to the apostle and it must have grieved him deeply to think of him leaving his side. But Paul wanted to do the right thing. He knew that the rift between Onesimus and Philemon needed to be healed.
But as difficult as it was for Paul, stop and consider the feelings of Onesimus. They say there are two sides to every story, and in the case of Onesimus, we know next to nothing about how he came to be a slave, why he ran away, or what kind of conditions he had lived under while serving in Philemon’s house. But it seems likely that his decision to escape his condition as a slave was motivated by something. Perhaps it was nothing more than the natural human desire to be free.
It is fascinating to speculate on the back story of Onesimus. Perhaps he had sold himself into servitude in order to pay back a debt he owed to Philemon. Or he could have been born into his condition, the unfortunate son of slave parents. Then there’s the very real possibility that Onesimus had been a prisoner of war who Philemon purchased from the slave market.
But regardless of how Onesimus had come to be a slave or why he had decided to run away, Paul had somehow convinced him to return. What a fascinating conversation that must have been. Just imagine how long Paul must have wrestled with the idea before he ever brought it up with Onesimus. And then, consider how Onesimus must have received Paul’s counsel that he go back to Philemon and make things right.
There were great risks involved. And yet, Onesimus had agreed to follow Paul’s advice, despite knowing that his return could result in his re-enslavement. Not only that, but he could also face severe legal repercussions for his actions. As a runaway slave, he could be beaten, sold, or even put to death. His fate would be in the hands of Philemon. But this young man had willingly chosen to take the risks in order to do what he believed to be the right thing.
In an attempt to prepare Philemon for the arrival of his former slave and newfound brother in Christ, Paul uses an interesting tactic. He implies that all the while Onesimus had been ministering to him during his imprisonment in Rome, he had done so on Philemon’s behalf. And Paul states that he had been tempted to maintain this arrangement, but had not wanted to make that decision for Philemon.
I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. – Philemon 1:13-14 ESV
Interestingly enough, Paul seemed to view Onesimus as a gift from Philemon. And yet, the only way Paul could have known about the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was because Onesimus had divulged it to him. At some point in their relationship, Onesimus had revealed his status as a runaway slave. And when Paul had heard the name of Onesimus’ master, Paul had recognized the hand of God in it all. Philemon was a dear friend of Paul’s. And Philemon had a slave who had run away and ended up in Rome, where he had met Paul and come to faith in Christ. Paul knew that none of this had been the result of happenstance, luck, kismet, or karma. It was the handiwork of God.
And Paul tried to get Philemon to view these events from a divine perspective, stating, “It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever” (Philemon 1:15 NLT). For Philemon, the loss of his slave had been nothing more than a financial setback. He had lost his property. But Paul reminded Philemon that his loss had actually resulted in great gain. He had lost a slave but was receiving back a brother in Christ.
He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:16 NLT
The young man who was about to walk through Philemon’s door was no longer his property, but a fellow member of the family of God. Onesimus was no longer Philemon’s personal possession. His life had been paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ.
At one point, early in his earthly ministry, Jesus had returned to Nazareth, where he had entered the synagogue and read from the book of Isaiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT
And having read this Messianic passage, Jesus handed the scroll back to the attendant and said, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21 NLT). Jesus had come to proclaim liberty to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed. Of course, He was speaking in terms of spiritual captivity to sin and death, and freedom from the oppression that comes with trying to earn favor with God through human effort. And that is exactly what Onesimus had experienced. He had been set free and, as Jesus had said, “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT).
That verse is found in the middle of a discourse by Jesus in which he was discussing the ability of the truth to set men free. And he describes all those who sin as slaves.
“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” – Philemon 8:35-36 NLT
Prior to coming to faith in Christ, Philemon had been a slave to sin. But he had been set free and now enjoyed status as a son of God. But the same thing was true of Onesimus. He had also been set free from slavery to sin and death, and he had become Philemon’s spiritual brother. So, why would Philemon continue to treat his brother as a slave?
Paul was asking both of these men to make difficult decisions. Onesimus had made his choice and was returning home. But Philemon still had a choice to make. How would he respond? What would he do when he saw Onesimus?
Jesus came to change the condition of the human heart. He died so that men might experience the life-transformative power of God, that could not only restore fallen men to a right relationship with Himself but with one another.
“The supreme work of Christianity is to transform men, so that out of their transformed lives shall come the transformation of all social conditions, and the victories of righteousness and of love.” – G. Campbell Morgan, Living Messages of the Books of the Bible
Paul greatly desired that these two men, who both meant a great deal to him, would allow their faith in Christ to transform the relationship between them. Paul knew that their choice to live as brothers rather than as slave and master would be a testimony to the Gospel’s power. And it would spread throughout the local congregation and into the community.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.