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Philemon 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Philemon's Relationship to Onesimus

Paul claims that Onesimus's conversion has resulted not only in his personal transformation but in his usefulness to Philemon. This new situation could not have been immediately clear to Philemon; after all, Onesimus's apparent uselessness has caused him to seek Paul's help, and he is still a slave who is the likely object of Philemon's displeasure (see introduction). In this light, the next section of Paul's letter answers Philemon's unspoken but rather practical question: How is the believer Onesimus now useful to me? Why should Paul send him back to me?

Several recent commentators have argued that Paul is probably not motivated to send Onesimus back to Philemon for legal or financial reasons. Onesimus was probably not a fugitive slave; Philemon was probably not a Roman citizen; and in either case Roman law is unclear on what Paul's responsibilities were in this triangular relationship (see introduction). Clearly, Paul steadfastly resists thinking of Philemon as Onesimus's legal owner. The story behind Paul's appeal is a profoundly religious one and has social implications: Philemon is to regard Onesimus as his Christian "brother" (v. 16) and "partner" in the faith (v. 17), which makes their owner-slave relationship no longer possible. So Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon for their reconciliation; they are both his spiritual sons, and he is the religious patron and responsible for the nurture of both. In my view, under these new and revolutionary circumstances Philemon's only real option is Onesimus's manumission.

Against this religious background, Paul describes Onesimus's twofold usefulness to Philemon: first, he has been Philemon's effective substitute in serving Paul's needs in prison (vv. 12-13), and second, he will be an effective stimulus to Philemon's spiritual growth as his brother in Christ and his partner in the life of the congregation (vv. 14-17). Both benefits are finally understood and appreciated in terms of Paul's paternal and patronal relationship with his two spiritual "sons" and clients; both benefits intend to redefine Philemon's relationship with Onesimus so that Philemon will see Paul's request for their rapprochement (and no doubt for Onesimus's manumission) as in his best interests. In fact, once this particular slave-owner relationship is skillfully redefined by Paul, Onesimus's newly perceived usefulness to Philemon may be rewarded with manumission on more common grounds: a slave's effective service to his master.

The biblical story of Philemon and Onesimus tells its current hearers that our common status in Christ is more than simply a spiritual or eschatological reality. When Paul writes that there is neither a slave nor a master class in Christ, since all are equal (see commentary on Col 3:11), he is articulating a principle that is sociological as well as christological (compare Gal 3:28; Eph 2:11-22). While the social dimension of the gospel should not replace the call to a saving relationship with the Lord, we must understand that God's grace rearranges the various conventions and hierarchies that order society's status quo (that is, "the present evil age"; see Rom 12:2; Gal 1:4). Biblical believers, then, are not surprised that the great majority of the social-transformative movements, such as the nineteenth-century women's suffrage and abolitionist movements and the twentieth-century human rights and prolife movements, are deeply rooted in Christian teaching and indebted to the work of faithful Christians (see Dayton 1990). In my view, the importance of Philemon within the New Testament collection of Pauline letters is that it provides a concrete illustration of this important element of Pauline teaching. So we need to preach and teach Philemon, to remind each other that Christian discipleship includes both a personal and a public praxis.Onesimus as Philemon's Useful Substitute (1:12-13)

In justifying his appeal that Philemon take Onesimus back into his home, Paul is well aware that Onesimus's solicitation of his support has created a delicate situation: a non-Christian slave has come to the apostle, in prison, to gain some advantage over his Christian master. He must make reconciliation possible by asking a trusted colleague for a radical act: the manumission of his slave (see introduction). The motives to which Paul appeals are deeply rooted in Philemon's spiritual obligations to him as spiritual father.

First, Paul is not sending Onesimus back to Philemon, who is probably not a Roman citizen, for legal reasons to secure his official consent (see above; here I differ from O'Brien, Wright and others), but rather because he is Paul's very heart (or splanchna, which means compassion; see commentary on verses 6-7). For this reason, Paul states his personal preference that Onesimus remain with him in prison.

While it is not clear why Paul should speak of Onesimus as his very heart, two possibilities seem best: (1) the imprisoned Paul may be designating Onesimus as his agent, so that by delivering this letter to Philemon, Onesimus can be the mediator of Paul's heart (or compassion) in his absence (O'Brien 1982:293); or (2) Onesimus himself may be a source of compassion for the imprisoned Paul. I am inclined toward the second meaning, since it best explains Paul's hesitancy in sending Onesimus home. He has been Paul's faithful servant (v. 13) and has been his only source of compassion while he is in chains for the gospel. Yet when Paul prayed for Philemon's compassion in verse 7, heart was coupled with koinonia and indicated the requisite capacity of a nurturing congregation. Perhaps Paul implies the same here: Onesimus is useful to Philemon as one who has the capacity for compassion and therefore can help Philemon and his household church reach its ideal of koinonia (see Phil 1:5).

A second and perhaps more critical reason is located in the purpose clause at the end of verse 13, where Paul says that Onesimus's ministrations are so that he could take [Philemon's] place. Paul's language is of substitution, suggesting he "assumes that Philemon would have wished to attend to Paul's needs personally if such had been possible" (Harris 1991:264). Such are the obligations of the spiritual son to his father and of the indebted client to his patron. Moreover, Paul has already expressed his confidence in Philemon's capacity and readiness to dispense compassion in order to build Christian partnership (v. 7). Rather than stressing Onesimus's usefulness as his substitute or proxy, Paul underscores Onesimus's usefulness as Philemon's substitute in the important work of heartfelt servanthood (see commentary on vv. 18-19). Ironically, Onesimus continues to function as Philemon's slave, but now as Paul's servant.

Finally, Paul's word choice for helping (diakoneo) is striking because it comes from a different word for "slave" from the one he then uses in verse 16 (doulos). According to O'Brien, Paul uses words from the diakoneo family when speaking of gospel ministry (as in Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7, 17) rather than of the degrading work associated with a prisoner's slave (1982:294). But it seems to me that Paul's intent is more ironical: Onesimus is no longer a slave (doulos, v. 16), even though his labor of love could well be seen as degrading work; rather, he is Paul's minister and therefore a useful substitute for Philemon. On this basis, then, Philemon's manumission of Onesimus can be rightfully granted.Onesimus as Philemon's Useful Brother in Christ (1:14-16)

A second purpose clause, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced, focuses the second part of Paul's explanation of Onesimus's usefulness to Philemon, and why his manumission (that is, the specific favor asked of Philemon) makes good sense. Why is Paul concerned that Philemon not be pressured into this decision? Surely Paul understands that Philemon may perceive him as exploiting their relationship to Onesimus's unfair advantage. Under such circumstances, his granting Paul's favor would be a hollow triumph and might even create bitterness between them. Sharply put, Paul here imagines a situation where his explicit appeal (manumission) is granted, but its implicit objective (reconciliation) is not accomplished. Paul's solution to this potential problem is to maintain Philemon's honor: the condition for the favor is that it be spontaneous and not forced; it must be an act of worship, freely offered to God (see O'Brien 1982:294-95).

In light of his concern for Philemon's honor, Paul's anticipation of the spiritual aftermath of Onesimus's manumission transforms the conventional perceptions of the relationship between a manumitted slave and his former master. Yet even before describing this new perception in verses 16 and 17, Paul mentions that Philemon's choice must be pressure-free and made in the awareness that his separation from Onesimus was short-term and not permanent (v. 15). While the meaning of the phrase he was separated from you remains contested among scholars, many now take it as a reference to the outworking of God's will rather than to Onesimus's fugitive status. The verbal voice is passive, implying that something or someone besides Onesimus is responsible for Onesimus's action. (O'Brien calls this a "divine passive" because it suggests the working out of God's will; 1982:295.) Further, Paul couples this phrase with the adverb perhaps (tacha), which is sometimes used in Jewish literature to introduce a theological exposition. For Paul, Onesimus's departure provides the setting for the work of God. Thus, Chrysostom's suggestive comparison of this text with the Old Testament Joseph story about divine providence (Gen 45:4-8; 50:15-21) seems quite right to me (see O'Brien 1982:295; Wright 1986:184-85): in both cases, God's redemptive purposes are achieved by the act of freeing a slave.

Given the importance of allusions to Old Testament types and texts in Paul's writings (see Hays 1988), Paul may have the Joseph story in mind as he writes his appeal to Philemon. That is, Paul recognizes Onesimus to be a type of the biblical Joseph. The relationship between the two may well suggest Paul's principal theological conviction in this case: God's good intentions for people are often worked out in the redemptive consequences of choices that free brothers make about slave brothers. Of course, in Joseph's story a bad choice (brothers' selling another brother into slavery) results in a good end because of divine intervention. In this case, Philemon's good choice (a "brother" manumitting another "brother" from slavery) would result in a similar end. From God's perspective, then, Philemon's favorable decision, which has been shown to make sense in light of Onesimus's past usefulness to him, would make even more sense when he considers the prospect of a redemptive result.

The intriguing comparison between for a little while and for good (aionion, literally "for an eternity") refers less to a changed social status (although see Harris 1991:266) than to the eternal destiny of both brothers, Philemon and Onesimus, who will share together the salvation of God (so O'Brien 1982:296). Paul's point is not that our decisions about social conventions bear witness to our convictions about God; rather, our convictions about God ought to prompt our decisions about the social order. Because Philemon trusts that God purposes good ends for God's people, Paul trusts that he will make a natural, free decision about Onesimus that will result in good.

Curiously, Wright does nothing with his interesting suggestion that Paul's use of aionion is an allusion to the teaching on Hebrew slaves found in Exodus 21 (1982:185, n. 1; see also Moule 1968:156). According to the legal code in Torah, the slave who rejected his sabbath manumission in order to stay with his master (see Ex 21:1-5) was first "brought" by the master to God as the condition for "lifelong" (literally "eternal") service (see Ex 21:6). In the Old Testament, God and eternity together frame a central tenet: whatever God's people consecrate to their eternal God in worship must then be embodied in their ongoing life together. I would argue that this is Paul's point here: Philemon is expected to make decisions toward his slave that embody his worship of God.

The results of Philemon's act of worship in manumitting Onesimus are twofold: (1) Onesimus is no longer a slave but a brother (v. 16), and (2) Onesimus is no longer a slave but a "partner" (v. 17). In both senses of their new relationship as brothers and partners in Christ, Onesimus acquires new responsibilities of spiritual usefulness to Philemon.

Some scholars do not think Paul envisions Onesimus's manumission from slavery, since no longer as a slave refers to his spiritual but not social status. While I agree that Paul chooses his words carefully, I do not agree that he makes a formal distinction between the social and spiritual realms so that the two cannot be fully integrated in Christ (see commentary on Col 1:15-20 and 3:22--4:1). The phrase makes a rhetorical point: Paul does not presume Onesimus's emancipation because such a decision is Philemon's to make freely, so the presumption would contradict Paul's earlier statement (v. 14).

Further, to contend that Philemon can make perceptual but not substantial changes in his relationship with Onesimus fails to integrate "seeing" with "doing" in the new creation. If Philemon decides to "see" Onesimus as a dear brother (compare this with Paul's greeting of Philemon in verse 1, "dear friend"), then his decision must be to emancipate him. Paul's additional phrase he is very dear to me but even dearer to you recalls his earlier expression of love for Onesimus as his "son" (v. 10). If both Philemon and Onesimus are Paul's spiritual sons, then they are indeed brothers in the Lord.

The fundamental shift of Onesimus's social status from "slave" to "dear brother" is repeated in the phrase both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. Again, Paul does not suppose that the social (as a man, literally "in the flesh") and the spiritual (as a brother) can be kept as two disjointed spheres of human existence. While God's creation includes both the visible and the invisible, they are integrated and held together by the one Lord. Thus, the spiritual well-being of the congregation will always be demonstrated publicly by the well-being of its social relationships (see commentary on Col 1:3-12; 3:1-11; 3:12-17). Harris's interpretation, so common among evangelicals, that Paul is speaking of a change of attitude rather than a change of social relationship--so that Onesimus will resume his position as a household slave, as before his conversion (Harris 1991:268)--fails to observe the calculus of Paul's gospel. In fact, Paul's letter to Philemon clarifies and extends the ethical implications of the gospel set forth in the household code of his letter to the Colossians (3:22--4:1). The book of Philemon's moral vision is that social hierarchies, such as the one between a powerful owner and his powerless slave, are dismantled in Christ. The presence of koinonia within a society of classes, hitherto divided between those who have power and value and those who do not, gives public testimony to the empowering grace of God.

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