In our prior lesson we were discussing this portion of the book of Philemon:
Paul States His Purpose in Writing and Expresses His Feelings About Onesimus (Philemon 8-16)
Let's read the verses again and continue with our comments:
"Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you--being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ--I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave--a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord."
Paul really shows his great love and consideration in a couple ways. First, he had sincerely complemented Philemon's faith and love. Offering genuine praise is always wise before bringing up a criticism or difficult matter. And second, Paul shows kindness and care by taking the time to plead the cause of another. This is a good example of Galatians 6:10 - "Therefore, as you have opportunity, do good to all, especially to those who are of the house hold of faith." Paul noted that Onesimus was once unprofitable to Philemon but not anymore! Onesimus had wronged Philemon in running off, but he is now attempting to make things right by returning to his owner. All who live in sin are unprofitable, but becoming a Christian changes this! Onesimus was already being profitable by assisting Paul. So much so that Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him. Onesimus is truly another example of Paul's unceasing labors. Even while a prisoner, Paul continued to teach and his labor was rewarded with the conversion of this slave to Christ. We must never cease to teach and preach the gospel, and our labor will not be in vain. As I Corinthians 15:58 instructs us - "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." Also, Galatians 6:9 - "And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart."
We know that once Onesimus became a Christian he was free from sin, but this didn't mean he was free from his master Philemon. He had a responsibility to return to him. Paul says that "perhaps" Onesimus had left his master for a period of time that Philemon might have him "forever," no longer as a slave but as a precious brother in Christ! Physical relationships do not supersede our spiritual relationships in Christ (cf. Luke 14:26; Matthew 10:34ff). Onesimus was now much more than Philemon's slave! Paul's words here are a marvelous reference to God's providence, because if what Paul says here were not even possible, then there would be no point to the statement whatsoever. But Paul used the word "perhaps" for a reason. Paul believes in God's providence and this is shown even clearer in Romans 8:28 - "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God." God's hand may have been at work in ways Philemon hadn't considered. What a glorious concept (and how often might it be true for us today, as well)!
It would be prudent here to point out the equalizing influence of the gospel of Christ. The gospel wasn't just for the slave owner but also for the slave! It's not just for men but for women too. It's not just for Jews but for Gentiles also, etc. Galatians 3:28 states - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." All mortals stand on equal ground at the foot of the cross. There is one gospel (one plan for all), and the bottom line is that we must embrace that one gospel or perish!
We will continue this study in our next lesson.