Philemon 1:12-13, I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel.
If you remember in the preceding verses, Paul makes a play with Onesimus’ name in writing to Philemon, almost as a way to break the ice. Now that Paul has planted the thought that Onesimus is now actually descriptive of his name, that being useful to both Paul and Philemon, Paul continues on with his commendation of Onesimus.
One thing you need to notice in this letter; though it deals with a circumstance of slavery, Paul is neither condoning or condemning the nature of slavery. It was the law of that time and not always harmonious to say the least. Some slave owners could be very cruel and unforgiving. What is so very interesting in this circumstance though is the way the values of Christ Jesus and what He taught AND exemplified, come through in this situation. You will see this so much clearer as we go along.
Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, most likely with the very letter he is writing and he does this for at least a couple of reasons. First, it is the law. Even though the Romans honored a sanctuary law as discussed earlier, there were still severe penalties for the person harboring a fugitive slave and especially if they were aware of it. The penalties could actually be just as severe for the person harboring the fugitive slave as the penalty to the slave himself. In this instance, even though the Apostle is already in chains, he is abiding by the law of the land. I do not believe for the slightest moment that fear of consequences motivated the Apostle to send Onesimus back, but rather a motive of love for his brother (and son in the Lord, Philemon). Onesimus is the rightful slave of Philemon and as such Paul should do all to make it right. Obeying the laws of the land is one of the things that Paul has written about in his letters, so he is following his own considerations.
Secondly, Paul truly loved Philemon as well as Onesimus and he wasn’t just demonstrating Christ-like values, but also manifesting his love for Philemon and I’m sure, teaching righteousness to Onesimus. It might not seem like love at first, at least from Onesimus’ perspective, but with the teaching that he is now a brother in the Lord, right alongside of Philemon, the opportunity to experience true Christ-like love would be a big stepping stone in walking the Christian lifestyle.
The thing is, that even though accepting Christ Jesus as his Savior, Onesimus’ sins were forgiven and he was thus justified in Christ, but there are still consequences to our actions in the natural world. Paul was however preparing the way to hopefully make those consequences less harsh since Onesimus was now a child of the Lord as was Philemon. The other thing is that we don’t know how long Philemon had been walking in Christ at this time, but it was a great opportunity to be able to demonstrate the stance of a mature Christian in his relationship with Onesimus who was most certainly a young or fairly new convert.
Paul lets Philemon know that he is not just sending his slave back to him, but to Paul what has become an emotional and loving part of his own heart. It is evident also that Paul is not just referring to Onesimus in regards to considering him to be a son in the Lord, but there has become a stronger bond between them. He is imploring Philemon to receive him, accept him back into his household as if it were Paul himself. That’s a pretty strong plea from not just someone you consider a friend, but a highly respected mentor as well! However knowing that Onesimus was his master’s property, Paul had no choice but to send Onesimus back.
More or less, the Apostle is telling his friend in essence, “Philemon, I know this man has done you wrong and deserves to be punished. But consider him as my own heart and be merciful to him.”
Then the Apostle continues on with a somewhat startling statement, he goes on to say, “whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel.”
I love the way the New Living Testament clarifies this same verse so precisely; “I wanted to keep him here with me while I am in these chains for preaching the Good News, and he would have helped me on your behalf.” (NLT).
In the Greek text of The Letter to Philemon, the Apostle’s statement is worded as if Philemon had actually sent Onesimus to assist in Paul’s circumstance. Paul again, is very wise in his wording to lend his writing to have the most impact. As one commentator put it, Paul was very skillful in the art of friendly persuasion! Of course, we cannot forget, and at times it is easy to do so, but the Holy Spirit was instrumental in this situation and most definitely the inspiration behind Paul’s writing!
Sometimes when we consider the everyday lifestyle that the disciples went through, it is easy to believe that it was all their own thoughts. True it was what was on their hearts, but they were most definitely vessels of the Holy Spirit and we can take assurance AND a lesson in that fact, for the Holy Spirit is STILL alive and at work in His students today!
The Apostle’s preference was to keep Onesimus with him and I’m sure that since Paul WAS in literal chains, there was a lot that Onesimus was able to do in service to Paul. This would definitely motivate the Apostle to mention the reason he was in chains which was for the work of the Gospel, which also was dear to the heart of Philemon. So Paul wasn’t just concocting a reason for Onesimus’ usefulness for in fact he had proven to be very useful to Paul in his circumstance. This is most likely the motive behind Paul also stating that Onesimus was serving Paul on behalf of Philemon. In that statement he was acknowledging that Onesimus was Philemon’s slave or servant, but since Philemon couldn’t help Paul, the Apostle was looking at it as if Onesimus was helping him on behalf of his friend, more like Philemon’s assistant, as it were.
In Christianity there is a lot of emphasis put on substitution. It is an underlying theme throughout a lot of Scripture and very definitely in the doctrine of Salvation. It is as if Paul is telling Philemon that Onesimus in a way is a substitute for his inability to minister to Paul, his mentor. It is almost as if Paul is reminding in a very subtle way, Philemon’s indebtedness to Paul for his own conversion, such as you would see from a spiritual son to his father in the spirit.
This also probably carried a lot of weight when Philemon would read the letter. Remember, Onesimus was delivering it to Philemon personally so the impact and/or response would probably be fairly immediate.
God Almighty is our Spiritual Father and we had a debt that we couldn’t pay for His love and grace towards us. Jesus became our substitution and actually still is in that regard until we experience full redemption. We became slaves to sin and Christ Jesus has ministered not just on the Father’s behalf but also to us through His Holy Spirit. One day we are going back to the Father’s house, but in our case, it will no longer be as slaves, but rather as co-heirs in His Kingdom!
That is truly something awesome to think about and contemplate. Come quickly Lord Jesus! Amen and AMEN!