In his short New Testament letter to Philemon, Paul asks for something absolutely outrageous.
Philemon is all about partnership. Paul celebrates the encouragement his friend has been to him (and others) in the past “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement,because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (vs7), and looks forward to being with him for a time of fellowship again soon, “Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers” (vs22). But in between these two clearly tender remarks, which illustrate their close brotherly relationship in the Lord, Paul asks of his friend an outrageous request.
It is a request, an appeal. Though Paul says he could pull rank and order him to obey (vs8), he appeals, vs9, out of love. And the appeal is for the slave, Onesimus.
“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”
Paul is appealing on behalf of this slave Onesimus, who clearly belongs to the well-off Philemon. Onesimus has fled from Philemon’s house, clearly he has wronged his master (either by running away or perhaps some other misdemeanor – the letter doesn’t make that clear). But somehow he has ended up with Paul, and now, wonderfully, he has come to a saving faith in Christ. Paul shows this in calling him “my son” – and we are told in Colossians 4:9 that he is a “faithful and dear brother.”
So Paul makes this appeal: formerly this slave was useless to you Philemon, he wronged you, but now he is in right fellowship with me and before God, and he is of use to you again, accept him back into your household. And accept him not as a slave (vs16) but as a brother. In fact, Philemon, receive him as you would receive me (vs17).
This is an outrageous request, because Philemon and Onesimus couldn’t be more different, and in real terms: they couldn’t be more estranged.
They were not two friends who had a falling our, or siblings who had a row. This is two men at polar opposite ends of the social spectrum, and Paul asks the ‘greater’ of these two men to accept the ‘lesser’ as though they were brothers! It’s the Queen accepting the beggar as a brother, or the CEO promoting the secretary to be her partner. But more than this: Onesimus has wronged Philemon, he’s a runaway slave, Philemon is within his rights to have him put to death! In Roman times the slave was the ultimate possession of the master, and if that slave fled, crucifixion was a perfectly acceptable (and common) punishment. Onesimus had wronged his master in a serious way, there was no worldly coming back from this. And yet Paul appeals. Forgive and embrace him, says Paul. Not as a debtor, not as a slave, but as a brother. Paul is asking the important Philemon to ask a criminal social outcast to be his equal. It’s a radical call to working out his heart of partnership in a costly situation. In the social standing of the day this was the utmost folly. But Paul doesn’t care, he’s only interested in these men enjoying and living in a successful partnership for the Gospel.
Onesimus is, in a worldly sense, next to nothing. He was a possession, and one that needed to be destroyed for his crimes. Philemon was a big deal, he was a homeowner, a slaveowner, clearly a man of social standing. It’s a radical plea from Paul, but it’s made on one qualification only
Onesimus is useful to Paul, and to Philemon. How? Because Onesimus has come to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And because of that one fact, he was useful. Paul is making a pun here – Onesimus’ name means useful: in his crime he was useless, but now, made right in Christ, he is useful. And his use is incredible.
Paul thanked Philemon for the way his love “refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (vs7), likewise Paul hopes that if Philemon obeys his appeal here he will “refresh my heart in Christ” (vs19). The Christian refreshes his or her brother and sister by displaying a Gospel-centred Christ-like love towards them. Any Christian, from the slave to the master, the PhD to the sixth-form drop out, can encourage their brothers and sisters, can be useful to them. God is merciful to use each and every one of us. In our church, our ragtag bunch of Christians from all walks of life, every single person is useful. Because every single person can point us back to the Gospel.
And clearly, from the outrageous nature of Paul’s request, that is the thing that matters most for any and every believer.