Paul uses a play on words to illustrate his point to Philemon. He says of Onesimus. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is useful to both you and to me” [v.11] Onesimus’ name means “useful” or “profitable” Paul is intimating that he could actually use Onesimus in the ministry, but that wants to do things right and to return the slave to his owner It was after all against the law to harbor a runaway slave.
Paul’s appeal to Philemon is to receive Onesimus not as a runaway slave [which could result in extremely harsh treatment] but rather as a brand new brother in the Lord. Nowhere does Paul call for Onesimus o be ‘freed’ but to be treated in manner worthy of a brother in the Lord. Although this falls short of an abolitionist campaign, it is certainly revolutionary for the times.
An obvious question is, “Did Philemon do what Paul asked? The answer lies in the very existence of the letter for posterity, if he had refused, and if he gained a leadership position on the church later, would Philemon have preserved this letter? Most assuredly not. It is safe to assume that he received him graciously. In fact, fifty years later Ignatius, bishop of Antioch who makes reference to this letter uses the same play on words Paul did. In mentioning the bishop of Ephesus at he time, one Onesimus [not sure if this was the same guy] Ignatius says, “may I always have “profit” from you. This certainly gives evidence of Ignatius’ familiarity with the contents of the letter all those years later.
The manner in which Paul closes the letter gives the impression that he expected to survive this particular imprisonment. He requests that a room be available to him should he be able to visit. The list of Co-laborers Paul mentions at the end of the letter is almost identical to the list at the end of Colossians:
If Philemon did end up in leadership in the region, it is clear that his handling of this difficult situation uniquely qualified him to lead people. How we treat people who have wronged us is indicative of a heart attitude. Leaders must be able to view people, not as they appear on the surface, but as they fit into God’s scheme of things.
Philemon obviously heeded Paul’s exhortation to not look at his man as mere runaway slave, but as an emerging leader in the Body of Christ who had already demonstrated a changed heart and record of service to the saints. God give us the grace to do the same with those who may have wronged us