Philemon 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Paul's Relationship to Philemon

In conclusion, Paul returns to his relationship with Philemon (see 1:8-9) in order to restate his request for Onesimus's manumission in terms of four demands, which are predicated on his (vv. 10-11) and Philemon's (vv. 12-16) relationship to the slave. Critically, Paul makes each demand of Philemon with the exchange of Paul's payment for Onesimus's debt in mind (see Peterson 1985:290-91). While Paul addresses Philemon in an emphatically personal way, each demand, tied to the idea of an exchange, illustrates Paul's Christology: Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is (see especially the commentary on Col 1:18-20).

The logic of Paul's words is inescapable: If Philemon and Onesimus are indeed brothers in Christ and spiritual children of Paul, then they are also partnered with Christ to participate together in God's salvation. Christ's exchange for their common salvation obligates Philemon (and Paul too!) to exchange his right to Onesimus for his salvation (or manumission). Each demand Paul makes aids Philemon in understanding that Christ's exchange for him must be concretely demonstrated by welcoming his slave home as an equal partner (koinonos) in the koinonia of the congregation's life (v. 17); or by paying another's debt (vv. 18-19); or by showing compassion (for a third time, splanchna is used) toward another (vv. 20-21); or by providing a room in his home to a guest (v. 22). Such are the requirements of being a new creature in Christ.

Paul surely recognizes that Onesimus constitutes a testing of Philemon's faith in Christ, even as he knows that Philemon's willingness to exchange personal rights for a generous response will not only produce greater koinonia in his household but also demonstrate publicly that he has been transformed by God's salvation-creating grace. Paul is the patron of both men; thus, while he asks for Onesimus's emancipation, he seeks to secure Philemon's honor and standing within his church.Welcome Onesimus as Me! (1:17)

The first exchange of the imprisoned Paul for the returning Onesimus has to do with their common status as partners (koinonoi) within the faith community (koinonia; see commentary on v. 6) to which Philemon also belongs. As a theological abstraction and spiritual reality, this substitution is perhaps not terribly difficult to swallow. Onesimus's recent conversion to Christianity did result in a new parity with both Paul and Philemon. They are all believers; they all share the very same promises and convictions; they are partners, some more senior than others, in the same religious "firm."

Yet Paul demands that Philemon welcome Onesimus as though he were Philemon's apostle and patron. The verb translated "welcome" (proslambano) suggests the personal reception of one into another's home--a hospitable "homecoming" (Harris 1991:272). There is nothing abstract about this substitution, since it presumes an actual encounter between two persons. Onesimus is a crisis that Philemon cannot avoid; his conversion cannot be acknowledged from afar. Philemon must deal with Onesimus in person, first recognizing and honoring him as Paul's substitute, but then welcoming him as though he were a spiritual partner like Paul within the very household he once served as a slave.

Paul's challenging request serves a practical end. He realizes that religious conversions, such as those experienced by both Philemon and Onesimus, have very public results; they are not events that just happen to one and are then privatized and compartmentalized so they do not intrude on one's other activities. Conversion joins the believer with Christ in the cosmic salvation of God, whose grace transforms every aspect of human life. Philemon and Onesimus both must realize, as we all must, that in the crisis of a difficult reunion, we are sometimes forced to admit that how we relate to one another has changed with the changes that have taken place in us. For example, the changes that have taken place in our son, who is away from home at college, and in us, who experience a home without him, have changed forever the way we talk to and think about each other.

The previous arrangement between Onesimus and Philemon as slave and owner has been changed by their experience of grace. They are now partners (koinonoi) in a koinonia, where they share a new capacity to love one another as never before. The result of granting Paul's request is envisaged by the coupling of the words partner and welcome in characterizing the homecoming of Onesimus: he will be included as a member of the congregation, the equal of everyone in the house he once served as slave. Philemon is no longer his lord but a brother; they are partnered together with the Lord Jesus for their mutual salvation.Charge Onesimus's Debt to Me! (1:18-19)

The second demand Paul makes of Philemon is ironical. On the one hand, the reader supposes that Paul is offering to make good whatever financial or business loss Philemon has suffered as a result of Onesimus's failure (whatever that might be). While Paul owes Philemon nothing, even as Christ owes us nothing, he involves himself in Onesimus's affairs in order to pay his debt, whether financial or interpersonal, even as Christ (who knew no sin) took upon himself the sins of us all (so Rom 5:6-11). Paul's involvement has a firm christological basis.

Yet behind Paul's offer is the common awareness that he is Philemon's spiritual patron--that Philemon is obliged to Paul even as Onesimus is. At day's end, then, Paul's offer to pay Onesimus's costs--if he has done you any wrong or owes you anything--is canceled by Philemon's own debt--you owe me your very self. The force of Paul's words is neither coercive or paternalistic but firmly persuasive. Even the rhetorician's trick of mentioning the unmentionable (not to mention that you owe me; compare v. 8) does not seem heavy-handed (see Wright 1986:188). It rather calls attention to what is true about Paul's relationship with both Philemon and Onesimus and perhaps explains, therefore, why he requests a change in Onesimus's status but then offers to pay all his debts: the spiritual reality (what Philemon owes Paul) naturally yields a social result (what Paul requests of and offers to Philemon).

Harris says that the final reference to Philemon's debt to Paul in verse 19 qualifies Paul's offer to pay off any monetary debts; however, there are no legal debts in view (see introduction). Paul's concern is reconciliation, not the settling of debts (Harris 1991:274); and reconciliation will have its result in Onesimus's freedom.

Further implicit in Paul's offer is that Onesimus himself has satisfied Philemon's obligation to Paul (and therefore paid his debt in full) by taking care of Paul's needs while in prison (see commentary on v. 13). Behind the prospect of Paul's exchange, then, is the satisfaction of Onesimus's. What Paul offers to do as an agent of God's reconciling grace has already been done by Onesimus! There is a sense, then, that Onesimus has already proved himself as Philemon's brother and partner; it is left then to Philemon to acknowledge his debt to Onesimus by treating him as his brother and partner as well.Show Me Compassion! (1:20-21)

The NIV fails to translate Paul's opening "yes" (nai), which introduces his subsequent wish as a more emphatic repetition of his request that Philemon welcome Onesimus as a partner (Harris 1991:275). While Paul recognizes that such a radical departure from social convention would derive from Philemon's status in the Lord, he also recognizes in the parallel phrase that Philemon has a proven capacity for "refreshing hearts" (see commentary on vv. 6-7). Now, having made his request, the apostle translates his earlier thanksgiving into an emphatic, personal demand: Philemon, refresh my heart in Christ.

Again we find that in concluding his request, Paul emphasizes Philemon's spiritual capacity to refresh my heart (splanchna, v. 20). The believer's participation in the Lord / in Christ transforms his capacity to act in "refreshing" ways that build koinonia (see commentary on vv. 6-7). Paul's confidence that Philemon will treat both him and Onesimus, for whom he is substitute, in the same way he has treated the other saints is based on what takes place in Christ.Prepare My Room! (1:22)

The final demand seems to be made as an afterthought: And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me. Yet Robert Funk has called attention to the theological importance of these offhand references to Paul's itinerary that are found in most of his writings (Funk 1967; also Jervis 1991; Wall and Lemcio 1992:142-60). Funk suggests that Paul's declared interest in visiting a congregation (such as in Rom 1:10; 15:22-24; 1 Thess 2:17-18; 3:11) or a person (in the case of Philemon) is a metaphor of his apostolic authority and power: until Christ's parousia, Paul stands in for Christ as his substitute for God's redemptive power (see commentary on Col 4:7-9). When he comes to visit (the "apostolic parousia"), the power and truth of God's reign are present in him. Paul visits people, then, to test and empower them for ministry. In this sense, the stated reason for Paul's visit and the congregation's prayers implies the hope of dispensing the gift of his apostleship. In fact, restored (charizomai, literally "to give a gift") may very well have a double meaning: on the one hand it refers to Paul's release from prison (a gift in answer to the congregation's prayers), and on the other hand it refers to Paul's opportunity to now give this congregation the "gift of his apostleship" (compare Rom 1:5, 10-11).

Another more pointed way of saying this is that without the benefit of Paul's apostolic gift, Philemon will not be well grounded in the truth and praxis of Christian faith. Indeed, Paul's request for Onesimus's emancipation would be imperiled by spiritual immaturity. True, he wrote letters and sent others in his place when circumstances prevented him from coming in person; but these were inferior substitutes for his own apostolic persona, which conveyed the full powers of the apostolic charisma God had given him. For this reason, the letter he now writes to Philemon and even Onesimus's role as his substitute are second best: Paul wants to visit Philemon and the others in person to fortify their resolve with regard to Onesimus.

This interpretation is at odds with many commentators who think Paul's remark carries no implied threat or warning. However, if we recognize this verse as another use of Paul's "apostolic parousia" motif, we must also suppose that the intent of his anticipated visit is not friendly and casual but apostolic and official (although certainly neither unfriendly nor unwelcome). More than anything else that might come from such an official visit, the apostle wants to make certain that his request is acted on by Philemon and that the results in the congregation's life are positive. If not, then Paul's ministry in person would no doubt enable Philemon to mature to the point of granting Paul's request. R. P. Martin is surely correct is saying, then, that Paul's mention of his travel plans is "no courtesy gesture" but a convention of his writing used to "drive home a point" (1991:145).

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Philemon's Relationship to Onesimus

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