By Greg Sapaugh
*The following is part of Greg’s commentary in the Grace New Testament Commentary.
Paul begins his intercession for Onesimus with an appeal based on love rather than command. Paul’s boldness in Christ, perhaps reflecting his apostolic authority, takes a back seat to Christian love and fellowship. Paul’s reminder of his age and difficult circumstances serves to deepen the heart felt nature of the intervention on behalf of Onesimus.
The initial aspect of the mediation for Onesimus is his new life in Christ. Paul’s description of him as his child and having been begotten means that Paul led him to faith in Christ while in prison. Paul, Onesimus’ “spiritual” father, used the same terminology for Timothy (1 Cor 4:17; 1 Tim 1:2, 18; 2 Tim 1:2; 2:1), Titus (Titus 1:4), and the Corinthian church (1 Cor 4:15).
Since he is now a believer in Christ, Onesimus is useful in ministry for both Paul and Philemon. He is no longer unprofitable, a fugitive runaway, but is now profitable, ready to be a productive member of the Body of Christ. Onesimus’ name meant “profitable” or “useful.” When he ran away, his actions did not match up with his name. Now, as a new believer in Christ, Onesimus can live a life that reflects his very name.
On the one hand, Paul would like to keep Onesimus. He would be of service to Paul while he is imprisoned for the sake of the gospel. In this way, Onesimus would be a kind of substitute minister for Philemon since a thousand miles separate he and Paul. But on the other hand, Paul’s earnest desire is for Philemon to take Onesimus back. Paul realizes that reconciliation between these two estranged brothers is the higher priority. Philemon’s obedience to the command to receive Onesimus will fulfill the longing in Paul’s heart.
Paul reiterates the idea that Philemon’s good deed in taking Onesimus back should be because he wants to, not because he has to. Forgiveness and reconciliation done under compulsion do not really reflect the grace and mercy of God. But a voluntary humbling of oneself to do what is right reflects true forgiveness in the heart.