No Longer as a Slave
Philemon 12 I am sending him--who is my very heart--back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-- 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. (NIV)
The Apostle Paul is writing this letter to Philemon during his first imprisonment in Rome, about 64 A.D. Philemon lives in Colossae, Asia Minor, which is present day southwest Turkey. Philemon hosts a house church in Colossae. He is a man of some means, and the master of Onesimus, a slave. Onesimus has run away from his master, seeking refuge with Paul in Rome. Paul then led Onesimus to Christ and Onesimus has served Paul, helping with personal and, perhaps, ministry needs.
Paul has become very fond of Onesimus, describing him as “my very heart” (v. 12). He has given him refuge according to the Old Testament Law, “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). But now he is “sending him…back” (v. 12).
Paul has given him refuge for a time, and he has not handed him over to his master. He is sending Onesimus back, on the honor system. Paul understands that Onesimus still has the freedom to seek refuge elsewhere, if he chooses. Paul also has the confidence in Onesimus, with his new found Christianity, that he will obey the law and return to Philemon. He is sending Onesimus back, with this letter.
Onesimus was a great help to Paul, and he “would have liked to keep him” (v. 13a). He even mentions to Philemon that “he could take your place in helping me” (v. 13b). Perhaps this is a reference to the help Philemon had given Paul in his ministry to the Colossians. Or, perhaps, Paul wanted Philemon to come help him at Rome. Either way, we know that Onesimus was useful to Paul, and his ministry. The name “Onesimus” actually means “useful”.
So we know that Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus. And, we know that Onesimus came to Paul, and stayed with Paul, of his own free will. But Paul “did not want to do anything without” Philemon’s consent (v. 14a). If Philemon chooses to favor Paul with Onesimus he wants him to do it out of Christian love, not because he is “forced” (v. 14b).
Paul had led Philemon to Christ, and had discipled him. Now he turns the whole event into a teaching moment. He wants Philemon to see the whole picture. He wants him to see the event of a runaway slave returning to him as a divine appointment. Perhaps he had in mind the story of the prodigal son.
He suggests that the reason “he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good” (v. 15). Paul is suggesting that if Onesimus returns of his own volition, that he will stay. Not only would Philemon have him back for good, he would have him back even better, as a “brother” in Christ instead of a slave (v. 16a). Paul is suggesting that Philemon release Onesimus from slavery. Onesimus could be an even greater help, by helping Philemon to promote the gospel.
Onesimus was “dear” to Paul, but Paul suggested to Philemon that he could be “even dearer to you” (v. 16b). This could be accomplished not as a slave, but as a “man” and a “brother in the Lord” (v. 16c) working alongside Philemon to promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes it is not a matter of doing what is good, or doing what is bad. Sometimes it is a matter of doing what is good or doing what is best. Philemon could do what is good by keeping Onesimus as a slave and have him fulfill his duty, because it was the law of the land at the time. But Paul says “no longer as a slave.” Paul suggests that Philemon do what is best by releasing Onesimus from his duty so that he could work for the Lord. The work of the Lord is always the best. It is the best use of our time on this earth. It is the only work that lasts. It is the only work that has eternal consequences.
Online Bible Commentary