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14.  Paul

14-1 The Conversion Of Paul / Saul || 14-2-1 Paul And His Brethren || 14-2-2 The Weakness Of Paul || 14-2-3 Paul: A Character Study || 14-3 The Preaching Of Paul || 14-4 Saul Changed To Paul || 14-5 Paul's Relationship With Jesus || 14-6 Paul And Christ  (1) || 14-6-1 Paul's Use Of The Gospels  || 14-6-2 Paul's Quotations From The Gospels: Statistics || 14-6-3-1 Paul's Quotations From The Gospels: Analysis And Implications || 14-6-3-2 Inspiration: The Human Factor || 14-6-3-3 The Enigma Of John's Gospel || 14-6-3-4 The Nature Of The Gospel Records || 14-6-3-5 Memorizing Scripture || 14-6-4 The Supremacy Of Christ || 14-7 Paul And Christ (2) || 14-7-1 Paul's Use Of The Gospels: Further Observations || 14-7-2 Paul And The Parables || 14-7-3 Paul's Use Of The Sermon On The Mount (Mt. 5 - 7) || 14-7-4 Paul's Exposition Of Gethsemane || 14-7-5 Paul And The Characters In The Gospels || 14-7-6 Paul In The Gospels || 14-7-7 Paul And John The Baptist || 14-7-8 Saul, Paul And Stephen || 14-7-9 Following Elders || 14-7-10 Connections Between The Gospels And Epistles: Observations || 14-8 Paul's Heroes || 14-8-1 Paul And Moses || 14-8-2 Paul And King Saul || 14-9   Paul and Corinth || 14-10 Paul And His Weak Brethren || 14-11 Paul's Thorn In The Flesh || 14-12 Paul's Shipwreck  || 14-13 Paul’s Self-Perception || 14-14 Paul, Philemon and Onesimus || 14-15 Chronology of Paul’s Life

14-14 Paul, Philemon, Onesimus

As I see it, the letter of Paul to Philemon is a lived out exposition of grace, and the John 17-style unity that arises from this.

The fact that the Lord intercedes for us means that we should be open to others interceding with us on behalf of another. Paul explains what I mean. In one of his countless allusions to the Gospels, he speaks of how he ‘beseeches’ Philemon to be generous and gracious to his runaway slave Onesimus (Philemon 10). Paul uses the word parakleo- well known for its repeated use in the Gospels to describe how the Lord Jesus is our parakletos, our comforter, interceder, beseecher of the Father for us. Surely he means us to get the connection. As the Lord Jesus beseeches / intercedes the Father for us, Philemon included, so we, and Philemon, should be open to others beseeching us- and respond with a like grace and lavish response. And there’s another allusion to the Gospels in the very next verse of the letter to Philemon. The unprofitable servant of Mt. 25:30 is all of us, the Lord taught. And so when Paul appeals to Philemon to be gracious to his unprofitable servant Onesimus (Philemon 11), he’s alluding back to that parable. And making the point that Philemon is himself an unprofitable servant, graciously received by his Lord; and so he should be likewise gracious to his unprofitable servant.

The point is clearly made by Paul when he says that Philemon should receive Onesimus (Philemon 12,17)- for Paul had written to the Romans years before that they should receive one another, as God for Christ’s sake has received us (Rom. 15:7 s.w.). It seems that the case of Onesimus gave Paul an opportunity to practically exemplify what he had meant. Paul speaks of how Philemon would “receive” Onesimus “for ever”- and yet he is implying Onesimus should be sent back to minister to him in Rome. Surely what Paul has in mind is that if someone is truly our brother, then we will eternally “receive” them as such in the Kingdom ages- and therefore we ought to be doing that right now. The baptism of Onesimus was a hard call for Philemon. He had to believe that that difficult man who had defrauded him was now his brother, even though he hadn’t baptized him. Many an ecclesial upset has been caused by this kind of thing. Paul says that if Philemon received Onesimus, then he received Paul. Paul was one with his new brother Onesimus (:12). And if Onesimus returned to Rome and served Paul there, he would be ministering to Paul as if Philemon was doing this- “in thy stead he might have ministered” (:13). So as Paul was represented by Onesimus, so likewise Onesimus would represent Philemon. This is the John 17-style unity which there is in Christ.

By receiving Onesimus with grace, there would be “benefit” and “profit” for Philemon (Philemon 11,14). Humanly speaking, there was only loss. For Onesimus had defrauded Philemon (Philemon 18 Gk.), and Paul was implying that Onesimus send him back to Rome to help him, with Philemon’s ‘agreement’ [AV “mind”] (Philemon 13,14 GK.). But by showing grace in this case, the material loss would become a spiritual profit for Philemon in the last day. And continuing the theme of ‘profit’, Paul says that Onesimus ‘owed’ him his very self because Paul had converted him; therefore any material debt that Onesimus ‘owed’ Philemon should be forgiven with pleasure (Philemon 18,19). The unpayable debt that we have should lead us to be forgiving of whatever others owe us. Note in passing how Philemon ‘owed’ his very [eternal] life to Paul. This is the power and responsibility of witnessing to others. The saviour is the Lord, and yet the preacher manifests that salvation to others to such an extent that effectively we owe our salvation additionally to the person who converted us. The same basic theme of a third party being responsible for the fortunes of another brother is reflected in verse 22. Paul trusted that through the prayers of Philemon he would be released; and he was so confident in the answer to that prayer that he asked him even to prepare a room for him ahead of time!

In the same way as God had done for us exceeding abundantly above   all we could ask or think (Eph. 3:20), so Philemon was to do more [s.w.] than the grace that Paul was suggesting (Philemon 21, 16 s.w.). It’s not just a case of forgiving each other because we were forgiven; it’s a question of lavishing the grace upon each other which the Lord has upon us. And notice the context of all this. Paul says that as Philemon’s elder, he could just “enjoin” him to do that which was required of those in Christ. But he prefers not to work through a command from an elder, demanding obedience. Instead, he appeals to Philemon’s own experience of personal grace, and sees in that an imperative, a command to be ‘obeyed’ (Philemon 8,21). The picture we get of Philemon is that he was an active and good brother in many ways. He had an ecclesia that met in his house, probably, by implication, comprised of his own family / “house” whom he had converted. The “beloved Aphia” refers to a female [agapete]- probably his wife. He was well known for a truly generous spirit to the brethren, and for a deep faith (:5-7). And yet he his whole standing with the Lord, Paul implies, was going to be revealed, and stood now under question, over the issue of his attitude to his runaway slave who had now accepted Christ. If he wouldn’t accept him, then all this good upright living was in vain. Paul was giving him a test. He could’ve just kept Onesimus with him in Rome. But he sent him all the way back home to Philemon, to get his ‘agreement’ (Philemon 14, AV “mind”) that Philemon accepts Onesimus as a brother, and sends him back to Rome to serve Paul. He could’ve “retained” Onesimus; but instead, he seeks a “benefit” [spiritually] for Philemon by bringing the issue to a pointed head (:13,14). And so it can be with us, that providence brings one specific case or person into our lives to test whether or not we have really accepted grace in the very core of our hearts. And on this, all else ultimately depends. And these things ‘God works oftentimes with man’. We find ourselves living out the situations of both Onesimus and Philemon. The crucial challenge of grace comes to us time and again in ecclesial life, and we too present it to others. Upon our response to it, our salvation-by-grace depends.

In this context, though, one final point. Paul recognized that Philemon “refreshed the bowels of the saints”, and he rejoiced that this was the case. Yet there was one saint whose bowels Philemon had not yet refreshed- and that was Paul himself. For Paul uses this very phrase in asking Philemon to rejoice his bowels by receiving Onesimus (:7,20). Here we see grace to the extreme. Paul could rejoice that a brother was genuinely loving and encouraging to other brethren, even though that brother had not been so to him personally. It’s so easy in personal disputes to write a brother off as totally no good because he was unkind or inappropriate or downright wrong in his treatment of us personally; we so easily forget that in many other walks of his life, he is a wonderful servant of the Lord. Yet Paul modelled the very grace which he asked Philemon to show to Onesimus.