Today’s post is part 2 of 4 blog posts from the book of Philemon about how a leader extends his or her influence for the benefit of his or her follower.
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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.
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.” 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. 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
 Philem. 1:4-7
 Philem. 1:8-9
 J.B. Lightfoot, “Philemon,” in The Definitive Bible Commentary, ed. Owen Collins (London: HarperCollinsReligious, 1999), 1439
 Philem. 1:16
 Philem. 1:11
 Philem. 1:13