Text: Philemon vs. 7-20
For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother. Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ— 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…
What do you think when you hear the word “rhetoric”? Does it many anything to you? The basic definition of rhetoric is “the art of making persuasive speeches” or even “the use of language to persuade people.” It was a staple of classical society, and its resurfacing during the Renaissance had a major influence on the Protestant Reformation. Rhetoric is a very important thing. But for many people, the term makes them think of dishonesty or trickery. “That’s just a bunch of rhetoric,” they might say. And it is true that rhetoric can be misused to mislead or trick people. Flowery language can hide things, and emotional language can often cover up illogical arguments. But we can’t ever let the misuse of something take away its original use. Rhetoric is something that is good and very useful, even for Christians. Speech moves men, and we see this throughout the whole Bible. God used rhetoric. In our text this morning, Paul puts rhetoric to good use, and it is the major way he tries to persuade Philemon to freely comply with his wishes.
Last week I mentioned that Paul wanted Philemon to set his slave, Onesimus, free. But he didn’t want to force him to do this. He wanted Philemon to do it voluntarily, and Paul’s argument is meant both to encourage and inspire. As we said, the way he makes the request is just as important as the request itself. And so this morning I’d like to walk through Paul’s “ask,” if you will, and detail what Paul says. By the end of it we will see that Philemon’s obedience is not a constrained set of “works” done in response to a command but instead a free gift that refreshes Paul’s heart.
Paul starts off by leveraging the conversation. He first praises Philemon for his past faithfulness and generosity, noting how that kind of loving behavior has refreshed the hearts of the saints. He says, “For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother” (vs. 7). This isn’t flattery. Paul really means it. But he is pointing it out at the beginning in order to make his request seem like an opportunity rather than a burden.
Immediately after this, Paul does lean in a bit. “I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting” (vs. 8). Here Paul does two things. He states clearly that what he is about to ask is “fitting” or correct, and he also reminds Philemon of their relationship. Paul had the right to issue commands to Philemon, if he had wanted to. A bit later in verse 19 Paul also reminds Philemon of what he owes Paul, “…not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.” This is most likely a reference to the role Paul played in Philemon’s conversion. Through Paul’s ministry, Philemon was set free from sin and bondage. He was saved. And so now he owes Paul.
Paul never explicitly asks that Onesimus be freed. Still, it’s clear enough. Paul says that he had wished to keep Onesimus with him, so that he could be a representative of Philemon, ministering to Paul. “Whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel” (vs. 13). Again, Paul is leveraging the negotiation, but he’s also making it easy for Philemon. Freeing Onesimus will not be a “loss,” but instead a way to minister to Paul. Won’t you do this good thing for me?
The most direct reference to freedom comes in verses 15 and 16. “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” (vs. 15-16). Onesimus is no longer to be received as a slave but as a brother. To make sure there’s no misunderstanding or spiritualizing of the request Paul also qualifies it, “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Onesimus needs to be raised from the status of a slave to a brother, and this needs to happen externally and internally, physically and spiritually. It needs to happen both in the flesh and in the Lord.
To top it all off, Paul adds that Onesimus is now his representative and that however Onesiums is treated will be understood to also be the way Paul is treated. “If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me” (vs. 17). A “partner” is one who has a shared leadership role, and Paul is asking that Onesimus be treated in that way. It’s also worth knowing that the Greek term for “partner” is koinonon, one who is in communion with another. Thus the communion of the saints is invoked to show how individual Christians should relate to one another. Additionally, the words “as you would” are English additions. The original text literally says, “receive him as me.” Onesimus is Paul and Paul is Onesimus because of their Christian communion.
So put all this together and you tell me, what is Philemon supposed to do?
Paul is also careful to explain that Onesimus has been transformed. This comes from his salvation. In fact, Paul, who is himself in chains, describers this as him having given birth to a son. “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains” (vs. 10). When Onesimus was “born again” through the gospel, he became a son instead of a slave, and he became a son to God and a son to Paul.
I also think there’s relevance to the fact that Onesimus is Paul’s son but Philemon’s brother (see vs. 16). In one sense they are all brothers, since they are all sons of God in the Lord. But in another sense, Paul stands as a father to both Onesimus and Philemon. He has been instrumental in converting both men to Christ, and therefore both are like his sons. This increases Paul’s authority over Philemon, and it puts Philemon and Onesimus on equal footing.
Then Paul mentions that Onesimus is no longer “useless” but “useful.” Onesimus “who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me” (vs. 11). There is a play on words here, as the name Onesimus literally means “profitable.” Yet he had not been living up to his name in the past. As a slave, he was probably not working as hard or as well as he could. And as a runaway slave he was certainly not helping Philemon. He was gone! Now that he has been converted to Christ, however, Onesimus can be useful to Philemon, to Paul, and to Jesus Himself. This is also a way that Paul is asking Philemon to set Onesimus free. Since Onesimus is now “useful,” he needs to be useful to the church at large. He should not remain a private slave. He needs to go out and minister.
“But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary” (vs. 14). Paul wants everyone to be free, Philemon included. This is because the gospel transforms everyone. It sets them free. And we also see that free people free people. In fact, free people free people freely. This happens by the work of the Spirit in our lives and by our noticing the work of the Spirit in others and responding accordingly.
Paul even promises to pay any outstanding bills on Onesimus’ part. Whether Philemon would have required or even accepted Paul’s repayment is not at all obvious. He probably would have declined it. Still Paul offered. Everyone voluntarily submits themselves to the other, and in that way everyone is free.
Refresh My Heart
Paul then wraps things up by returning to that expression, “refresh my heart.” “Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord” (vs. 20). This is the same way he had led into his request, and so we can see that everything in between verse 7 and verse 20 is a description of how Philemon can give Paul joy and refresh his heart. Of course he will want to comply.
What this point means is that Philemon’s obedience is not simply obedience. He is not bowing to a superior force. He is not just following orders. No, his obedience is a gift to Paul. It is a way that he can give him joy and refresh his heart. It is a form of Christian charity. It is free love.
And this is how our obedience today should be understood as well. We are not engaged in a power play when we ask favors of others. We are not trying to be “in charge.” We are not trying to prove our point. And we are not being imposed upon when others ask things of us. We are not under a new law. We are simply living in Christian community, giving one another love and refreshment by treating them right and doing more than we need to. We are being open, generous, free, and freeing. And this ought to all be the kind of stuff we want to do. We should have a hard time not doing it.
Does Christianity free slaves? Yes. But it does not free them because of the rights of man. It frees them because of the crown rights of King Jesus. Christianity frees slaves because Jesus Christ frees slaves. It does so because the gospel means we are all changed now and must respond to one another as brothers in the Lord. And we have to do this because we want to.
There’s also a lesson for us here more broadly. All of our obedience to one another is a sacrifice, but it is a gift-offering, something we give to honor the other person. We should honor those who have done good things for us. We should honor those who have brought us to the Lord. We should honor those who have been partners with us in the Lord. And we should honor those who are honored by other Christians, by our other brothers and fathers in the faith. This isn’t a “have to.” This is a “get to.” It should be something that we are very eager to do because we really believe in the communion of the saints. We are all in it together. We must really believe that we are a family, brothers in Christ and sons of God.
And we learn a bit about persuasion as well. The way that we speak matters. We should compliment first. We don’t have to make all of our requests in the most direct and explicit way. Protocol matters. But this means we have to be listening for this as well. If someone is asking you to do something without asking you to do it, don’t get irritated. Pay attention. See what you can learn and what you can do. Free offerings are much better than responses to requests, and so we should be eager to relieve people of the burden of having to ask.
Basically the lesson is this. We should be Paul and we should be Philemon. Indeed, we should be Paul and Philemon because we have all also been Onesimus. We were once slaves until Christ set us free, and this happened through the kindness of other Christians moved by the Spirit. Let us show our gratitude by going out and doing the same to others in the name of Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.