So Philemon was in a position where he had to think about whether it was right to exercise his right to do whatever he wanted with Onesimus.
Now when someone speaks about a “right” to do something, they’re saying that what they want to do conforms with justice, law, or morality. For example, if you say, “I have a “right” to do such-and-such,” it means that the thing that you want to do is OK because it is just, lawful, or moral.
However, Christians have an additional responsibility to consider before they simply go ahead and exercise a right. You see, just because you have the right to do something doesn’t always mean that you should do it- you first have to think about two important things:
- Will this honorably represent God?
- How will other people be affected if I do this?
There’s a Biblical principle found in Romans 12:10 that we can use when thinking about these questions and especially about how other people might be affected by what we choose to do. Here’s what that verse says as it’s translated in different versions:
- “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (NIV)
- “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another” (NKJ)
- “Love each other with brotherly affection and take delight in honoring each other” (TLB)
- “Love each other devotedly and with brotherly love; and set examples for each other in showing respect” (JNT)
- “In love of the brethren be tenderly affectioned one to another; in honor preferring one another” (ASV)
- “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor” (NAS)
So this Biblical principle tells us that Christians should not only think about what’s best for them, but they must also think about what’s best for others as well. In this instance, it would have been perfectly within Philemon’s legal right to punish Onesimus as he saw fit, but what’s right isn’t always what’s best. Paul clearly wanted to Philemon to consider all the implications (including the spiritual consequences) before making a final decision on how to deal with Onesimus.
But Paul wasn’t content to sit back and tell Philemon what to do- he was also willing to back up his request by taking action as well…
“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back– not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask” (Philemon 1:18-21 NIV).
In these verses, Paul shows just how far he is willing to go to help Onesimus. Even though he was in prison for preaching the gospel when he wrote this letter to Philemon, Paul guaranteed that he would personally take care of anything that Onesimus owed once he got out of jail. But notice that Paul also reminded Philemon of something else: “I will pay it back– not to mention that you owe me your very self.” If Paul was texting or emailing this comment to Philemon today, he might express this idea in modern-day language by saying, “Don’t forget, Philemon- you owe me your life.”
It seems here that Paul is providing a quick reminder that he was one through which God made His offer of salvation to Philemon. This indicates that Paul’s lifestyle and obedience to God provided a good example and a powerful tool to use in encouraging others to do what was right.
While Paul wasn’t going to force Philemon to do something that he didn’t want to do, he was willing to use the motivational tools that he had to encourage Philemon to do what was best. In another sense, Paul was also imitating Jesus’ larger example through his willingness to take responsibility for the sin that Onesimus committed and pay for it himself.
“And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 1:22-25 NIV).
It’s believed that Paul’s letter to Philemon was delivered along with the Biblical book that we know today as Colossians. One reason for this is the fact that each of the men mentioned in these verses are also mentioned at the end of the book of Colossians as well (see Colossians 4:10-17). This seems like a pretty good indication that Paul’s letter to the Colossians and his letter to Philemon were both going to the same general place.
So now that we’ve come to the last verse in the book of Philemon, you might assume that we’re all done with this study, right? Well, not quite- you see, there’s one historical footnote to the book of Philemon that you might find interesting.
Here’s the story: History tells us that there was a church bishop who lived in the town of Ephesus in 110 AD. At that time, a bishop was a person who was entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing the church within a particular area. As it turns out, the Bishop of Ephesus in 110 AD happened to be a man named Onesimus.
Now if Onesimus, the Bishop of Ephesus was the same Onesimus spoken of in the book of Philemon, then it means that Philemon almost certainly took Paul’s request and followed through on it. This means that Philemon did something that was good for Onesimus, but unknowingly did something that would later benefit an entire church.
But the benefits didn’t stop there because Philemon’s response to Paul’s letter is still having a positive, lasting effect to this day through the Biblical letter that carries his name. The lesson here is that you never know how big an impact you may have when you show respect and obedience to God’s Word.