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Paul's Relationship to Philemon (1:17-22)

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.

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