I. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK OF PHILEMON
The book of Philemon was written by the Apostle Paul while he was in prison with Timothy and a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul is writing to his “brother in Christ,” Philemon, asking Philemon to accept Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. However, Onesimus is no longer the person he once was. Onesimus is now “a brother in Christ” whom Paul has helped become a Christian while in prison.
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It is significant that even though Paul is writing the letter to Philemon and making a request of Philemon, Paul also addresses the letter to: Apphia: Philemon’s wife,
- Archippus: Philemon’s son, and
- The Church that regularly met at Philemon’s house: This body of Christians serves as “accountability partners” for Philemon because they are not influenced by emotions and feelings about the situation between Onesimus and Philemon.
Sending the letter to these “accountability partners” helps to influence Philemon to do the right thing. Even though Paul is the most powerful person mentioned in the letter (more on this later), he strategically uses his influence by enlisting others to make sure Philemon makes the correct decision and does the right thing, which is to send Onesimus back to Paul so Onesimus may be used to spread the gospel with Paul.
People reading this letter might believe that Philemon is the most powerful person mentioned in the letter. However, Paul is the most powerful person here. If we dig into the historical context of the world of Paul, it was considered a great honor to suffer on Christ’s behalf. Having had a personal encounter with Jesus, like many people of the early Roman Christian Church, Paul is willing to face suffering and persecution for the cause of spreading the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.
Paul made three missionary journeys by now and has journeyed to Rome to continue spreading the Good News before being arrested and imprisoned (D. Edmond Hiebert, The Pauline Epistles, vol. 2 of An Introduction to the New Testament 244. Yes, Philemon owns a home, has a family, is doing good work, and hosts a church in his own home. But his spoken words are not as powerful as Paul’s, who is considered to be the greatest living Christian at that time and is clearly the unofficial leader of the early Christian Church spreading throughout the Roman Empire.
Onesimus, who is a runaway slave converted to become a Christian, is caught in the middle. Onesimus was once considered to be a low class citizen as a slave. But since then he has lowered his status in society even more by becoming a runaway slave, and on top of that, he might have committed a crime that lands him in jail (which is how he might have come into contact with Paul).
II. PAUL’S DESIRE FOR ONESIMUS
Paul leads Onesimus into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and Paul decides it is time for Onesimus to reconcile with his earthly master, Philemon. We can only guess that Onesimus is surprised by this decision. At that time, being a runaway slave was not a good position to be in. Onesimus probably hoped for as little punishment as possible from his Christian master which could have consisted of “whipping, branding, or execution” (NLT Study Bible, 2076).
However, because Onesimus has discovered his spiritual gifts working under Paul, we know that Onesimus would be very fortunate to be allowed to return and work with Paul. 1 This means Onesimus would be help Paul with the great work of spreading the gospel and strengthening churches, which is very different than being a slave working on a farm or in a home. If Paul is able to successfully extend his influence to Philemon, Onesimus will benefit by being allowed to stay with Paul and continue doing great work to serve and help others.
This is the motivation for Paul setting up his letter to Philemon in a way that it is almost impossible for Philemon to say, “No” to Paul’s request. We see Paul write,
I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people (Phlm 4-7).
Since Paul is portraying Philemon as a righteous man who is already doing good work, this positions Philemon to have to say, “Yes” to Paul’s request in order to stay congruent with Paul’s accolades about his righteous work. On top of that, Paul is not the only one to believe that Philemon is doing great work. We see Paul say, “I keep hearing” which means Paul is hearing about the good works of Philemon from other people throughout the Roman Christian Church. As a result of this good reputation, Paul hopes that Philemon lives up to that good reputation in this situation by allowing Onesimus to be sent back to Paul to continue their work together. This is evidenced when we see Paul request, “That is why I am boldly asking a favor of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do. But because of our love, I prefer simply to ask you. Consider this as a request from me—Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus” (Phlm 8-9). Paul is the unofficial leader of the Roman Christian Church, and he is probably the most influential Christian at that time. On top of that, Paul mentions that he is now imprisoned as an old man “for the sake of Christ Jesus.” A man who is the most powerful Christian in the church who is also imprisoned for spreading the gospel is asking a favor of you. Are you going to tell him, “no.” I don’t think so. Paul asks Philemon to do him a favor and reminds Philemon that he has the authority to demand it. But instead Paul wants Philemon to do the right thing for the benefit of Onesimus, and he hopes that Philemon lives up to this reputation that Philemon has built for himself among the Christian Church.
When reading and studying the text of Philemon, we can argue that Onesimus was useful to Paul and the church at that time, which happens to be the Hebrew meaning of his name (J.B. Lightfoot, “Philemon,” in The Definitive Bible Commentary, 1439). In the past as a slave and possible criminal, Onesimus was not useful. Now, Onesimus has become a Christian and more than likely has found his spiritual gifts. Paul writes, “He (Onesimus) is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me” (Phlm 16). Paul sees Onesimus as a partner in working to spread the gospel. They are “beloved brothers” who share the same spiritual father and who serve the same God. Then Paul writes “Now he (Onesimus) is very useful to both of us” (Phlm 11). And finally, further explaining how useful Onesimus now is, Paul writes “I wanted to keep him (Onesimus) here with me while I am in these chains for preaching the Good News, and he would have helped me on your behalf” (Phlm 13). Before, when Onesimus was working with Philemon, Onesimus was not much use for either Paul or Philemon. But now, Onesimus has committed his life to following Jesus Christ, he has discovered his spiritual gifts, and he is now very useful in Paul’s work of preaching the gospel and strengthening the church.
III. ONESIMUS WOULD BE USEFUL
When reading and studying the text of Philemon, we can argue that Onesimus was useful to Paul and the church at that time, which happens to be the Hebrew meaning of his name (J.B. Lightfoot, “Philemon,” in The Definitive Bible Commentary, ed. Owen Collins, 1439).
In the past as a slave and possible criminal, Onesimus was not useful. Now, Onesimus has become a Christian and more than likely has found his spiritual gifts. Paul writes, “He (Onesimus) is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me” (Phlm 16). Paul sees Onesimus as a partner in working to spread the gospel. They are “beloved brothers” who share the same spiritual father and who serve the same God. Then Paul writes “Now he (Onesimus) is very useful to both of us” (Phlm 11). And finally, further explaining how useful Onesimus now is, Paul writes “I wanted to keep him (Onesimus) here with me while I am in these chains for preaching the Good News, and he would have helped me on your behalf” (Phlm 13).
Before, when Onesimus was working with Philemon, Onesimus was not much use for either Paul or Philemon. But now, Onesimus has committed his life to following Jesus Christ, he has discovered his spiritual gifts, and he is now very useful in Paul’s work of preaching the gospel and strengthening the church. Paul, arguably the greatest Christian alive at that time, saw Onesimus as useful to him for the work they were doing together, so useful in fact that he repeats it three times. Paul extends his influence and takes a risk for someone he leads in the work of Jesus Christ because he sees Onesimus as useful. This is a great benefit to Onesimus that a leader such as Paul would extend his influence to make sure Onesimus gets to stay in a place where he is “useful” in deploying his spiritual gifts to serve Jesus and Paul in spreading the gospel (Phlm 13).
IV. PAUL EXTENDS HIS INFLUENCE AS A LEADER
Like Paul, you too can extend the influence you have for the benefit of the people who follow you. How honored Onesimus must have felt to have a leader such as Paul advocating for him. Onesimus must have truly felt that he was useful for the benefit of Paul and the Good News. That is the benefit you offer when you—as a leader—extend your influence for the benefit of a follower. You give them tremendous encouragement to do the work they were meant to do. As a result of you extending your influence for the benefit of the person who follows you, that person gains belief in herself, and she gets to be placed in a position to use her spiritual gifts. That is what happened Onesimus, as I will explain more in the final paragraph.
Depending on your own position working at an organization, you can also extend your influence for the benefit of the people who follow you. This is especially true if you are the leader of a successful company, nonprofit organization, government, or church. You have tremendous influence given to you because of the position you have earned. Paul used his influence to place Onesimus in a place where he could use his spiritual gifts to spread the gospel. Do your best to use your influence for the benefit of the people who follow you to help them work in the area of their spiritual gifts because those are the areas that God wants them to be.
In my own unique way, like Paul, I can extend my influence for the benefit of the people who follow me. I have some influence as a leader because I have founded and run a program for five years called A Day of Hope where we fed families in our community for Thanksgiving. Recently I wrote a book by the same title, A Day of Hope: Leading Volunteers to Make a Difference in Your Community. Both of these experiences and accomplishments give me some influence that I can lend on behalf of others. If you dig into your background of experiences and accomplishments, I am sure you can find at least a few things you can point to that make you someone who has influence to lend.
V. YOUR INFLUENCE AS A LEADER
Similar to Paul, I can utilize my influence among others based on what I have done for the community as a whole (serving the needs of families, similar to Paul serving the church).
I can lean on the work I have done for one individual person (mentoring a young man individually, similar to Paul leading Philemon to Christ). Or, I can mentor a young man one-to-one, teach some guys in my Bible study, lead them in a growing relationship with Christ, or I can help clarify their gifts to be helpful in spreading the Gospel.
As the leader who serves them, I have the opportunity (just like Paul had) to use my influence for good so they may be in a place where they are able to use their spiritual gifts to serve God (just as Onesimus was positioned in a place where he could use his gifts under Paul, instead of being a slave).
Thinking about lending my influence to others takes me back to the four years of Auto Shop class I took while in High School. On the cover page of this paper I have displayed the picture of a ¼ size Craftsman wrench. A wrench can be very useful when you need to loosen or tighten a nut. If a nut needs to be loosened or tightened, the ¼ Craftsman wrench has the ability to loosen that nut so it can be taken off the bolt, free of being attached to the bolt. And, that same Craftsman wrench has the ability to put the nut on a bolt, and tighten it down to do the good work of holding a piece of machinery so it can work properly. The variable is what size nut there is, and what size wrench there is. The benefit of a wrench is that it is about nine inches along which gives you leverage to loosen nuts that are very tight and to tighten nuts onto bolts so they do not move.
Paul, like a wrench, uses his influence and leverage as the prominent leader of the Roman Christian Church to loosen Onesimus from the tight hold his master, Philemon had on him. And after Paul loosens Onesimus from Philemon, he tightens Onesimus down into doing the good work of spreading the gospel and strengthening churches. This, lands Onesimus into the place he was supposed to be, all because Paul was that wrench who had the leverage and influence (leverage) loosen Onesimus from his position as a slave, and tighten him down to do the good work of spreading the gospel.
VI. THE IMPACT LONG TERM
If you study ancient literature, the name Onesimus appeared again in a letter about 55 years later referencing Onesimus to be the highly-regarded bishop in the province of Asia (NLT Study Bible, 2076-2077). We do not know if it was the same Onesimus mentioned in the book of Philemon, but it likely was. This shows that Paul truly did extend his influence for the benefit of his follower. As a result, his follower went on to do great things for the kingdom of God and spread the good news throughout an entire province. If this is what happened as a result of Paul extending his influence on behalf of Onesimus, think about the possibilities you and I both have to extend our influence on behalf of the people who follow us so that they may be useful in using their spiritual gifts.
- Read more about Paul’s teachings about new believers receiving “spiritual gifts” in 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, Romans 12:1-8, and 1 Peter 4 ↩