8-16: Paul's main goal is to reconcile Onesimus to Philemon. Onesimus was Philemon's slave who had run away from his master. Somehow, he came into contact with Paul, who was under house arrest in Rome.
There are four distinct instances in this passage where we see Paul attempting to smooth things over with Philemon. He does this when:
- He informs Philemon of Onesiums' conversion (vs. 10).
- Paul refers to Onesimus as his son, stressing the relationship that Paul has to Onesimus (vs. 10).
- He stresses Onesimus' new found usefulenss (vs. 11, 13).
- Paul calls Onesimus 'his very heart' again stressing the intimacy of relationship (vs. 12).
8-10: Here Paul starts to get into the heart of the matter. What should Philemon do with Onesiums? Paul, as an apostle, has the authority to command Philemon to take the course of action that Paul feels is best. However the apostle does not do that for two reasons. As we saw last week, Philemon exemplifies Christian love, so Paul has confidence that he will do the right thing. Second, Paul wants this to be an opportunity for Philemon to grow in his love, and following a command does not give the same opportunity for growth that allowing Philemon to act of his own initiative in following the Spirit allots. Thus Paul is testing the depths of Philemon's love.
The big thing to see in these verses is that the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus must be transformed because they are now brothers in Christ.
11: Here Paul is making a play on words, 'Onesimus' means useful. The stress again is on the transformation of Onesimus from unbeliever to Christian.
12-14: Paul decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon, even though he wanted to keep him. While under house arrest Paul couldn't go anywhere, so having someone dedicated to him who could meet his needs as well as carry information to and fro would be of huge advantage to him. Apparently a very close relationship developed between Philemon and Paul. Paul calls him his very heart, which could be rendered 'self.' This phrase paves the way for vs. 17.
Here, Paul also gives the first hints of Philemon's obligation to Paul, who was probably directly involved in Philemon's conversion. Paul wants Onesimus to be freed so he can go back and continue serving Paul, but he doesn't want to force that decision on Philemon, even though Philemon owes him.
15: Paul has a strong view of the providence of God. We see here that he implies that perhaps God was behind Onesimus' flight with the end being Onesimus' salvation. This is reminiscent of Jospeh's statement about his brothers selling him into slavery in Genesis 50:20, 'As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today' (ESV).
16: The ESV handles the translation of this verse best, 'no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.' Paul isn't simply looking for Philemon to free Onesimus to come back and serve Paul, he badly wants to see reconciliation. Paul's statement here is revolutionary. He's implying that our relationships with fellow believers are grounded in the reality of our union with Christ and with one another. Onesimus' status as a Christian overrides his status as a slave, thus he is a brother to his master. This kind of close, familial relationship between master and slave was frowned upon in the ancient world, which is not surprising, since a master-slave relationship inherently implies an unequal relationship. So Paul seems to be implicitly suggesting that Philemon manumit Onesimus.
17-18: This is the climax of the letter. Here Paul acts like Christ in reconciling Philemon and Onesimus. Philemon loves Paul and has a very positive view of him. Paul asks that that same love and positive view be extended to Onesimus. Not only that, Paul is willing to pay any debt that Onesimus may have incurred by his absenteeism. The main point, which I make at greater length here, is that Paul is willing to go the distance in bringing about reconciliation, even if it's very costly to himself.
19: In this verse Paul legally binds himself to pay for the Onesimus' damages if Philemon does not forgive them.
20: Paul badly wants to see them reconciled. Just as Philemon has refreshed God's people in the past, Paul wants to see Philemon act out of love by reconciling with Onesimus and treating him as an equal in Christ.
21: This verse is interesting. Paul has been careful to not command Philemon, but to encourage him to act out of love. Why would Paul say that he's confident of his obedience? Paul has made clear that, even while not specifying what Philemon should or should not do in this situation, there is a correct range of responses, loving responses. What Paul is saying here is that he is confident that Philemon will follow Paul's hints and that the Holy Spirit will direct Philemon to act in a maximally loving way, and the preservation of this letter is attestation to the fact that Philemon probably did.
22: Paul hopes to be released and wants to visit Philemon. This is not as much of an imposition as it might seem to us, since the privacy of the home was not a sacred ideal like it is far too often today.
23-24: Here we have a list of coworkers of Paul, perhaps Philemon knew them, he certainly would have known of them.
25: If Philemon is to do the right thing, he must be filled with grace. For it is only by the grace of God that we can act graciously towards one another, especially when they don't deserve it by human standards.