Phm 1:10-14 “I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.”
It is generally agreed by scholars, based on the language and circumstances described in Philemon, that Onesimus was a run-away slave. He had escaped Philemon’s household, and had at some point come into Paul’s company. Knowing it was the right thing to do, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon.
Paul did not make request of Philemon for Onesimus, Philemon’s servant, but rather for Onesimus, Paul’s son. The Lord of glory had apparently used Paul to show Onesimus the grace and mercy of Jesus, whom both Paul and Philemon served. Paul referred to having begotten Onesimus in his shackles (see Strong’s definition of “bonds”). While we know that Paul was in a literal prison at the time of the writing of this letter, it was as the prisoner of Jesus Christ that he had begotten Onesimus.
In Paul’s description of Onesimus, we find a truth about ourselves and all of God’s children: in time past we were unprofitable. We walked according to our own designs giving little or no thought to the things of God. We were not of any benefit to ourselves or to others before the Spirit convicted us of our state in sin and demonstrated in us the redemptive work of Christ. It is the revelation of the work of God in our lives that moves us from being useless to being useful in His kingdom for His glory.
In God’s service, we may often find that our path leads us back to the place where it seems we were once most unprofitable. Onesimus had run away from Philemon and had possibly stolen from him in the process (Phm 1:18). By God’s grace, Onesimus was made willing to return to the last place he would have ever gone if left to his carnal nature. Knowing this, Paul intercedes on Onesimus’ behalf that Philemon would receive him as if Paul’s life depended on it. The tender compassion that Paul expresses here should speak to the hearts of each of us and guide the way we treat each other.
Paul wanted to be sure that Philemon understood how much Onesimus’ life had been affected by Paul’s guidance according to God’s purpose. Paul confessed that if it were up to him he would have kept Onesimus by his side. He went so far as to compare the ministry of Onesimus to the ministry of Philemon. Onesimus’ ministry to Paul was in the bonds of the gospel as had been Philemon’s. Our ministry to each other should also be the result of our being shackled together in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It was Paul’s desire that there would be healing and fellowship between Philemon and Onesimus. It was important that Philemon show forgiveness in receiving Onesimus as a fellow laborer in the gospel and not as a servant. At the same time, it was important that Onesimus return to Philemon that their bond in the gospel be strengthened.
Paul hints at the fact that he would like to have Onesimus with him, but he would not do anything without knowing Philemon’s mind on the matter. It was needful that Philemon’s receiving Onesimus and approving of his ministry to his friend Paul be done freely. Paul desired to see Philemon act out of the love of Jesus rather than be constrained by his fellowship with Paul.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we may sometimes have the ability to make requests of each other as a matter of debt (or necessity). It is far better that our actions toward each other be motivated by love and forgiveness. When we have occasion to intercede on another’s behalf, we should not be reluctant to do so. However, it should be done in the bonds of the gospel that we may be comforted together in Christ.
May God bless us to leave our unprofitable lives behind us and rather be a benefit to His children here in His holy kingdom through our imprisonment to the Lord Jesus Christ!