No Longer Just a Slave (Philemon 12-16)

Listening to this letter within the community of his own house church, Philemon hears Paul’s affection for Onesimus. He is not only Paul’s child but Paul’s own “heart.”

“I am sending my heart back to you,” Paul writes.

This simple statement has several significant rhetorical functions. First, Paul not only does not secretly hide Onesimus from Philemon by keeping him in Ephesus (presumably) but returns Onesimus to Philemon. Paul holds nothing back. He is, we might say, “above board” with his “beloved co-worker” (verse 1).

Second, rather than hiding this from Philemon, he fully invests in their relationship by returning Onesimus to him. Paul makes the first move toward reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon to which—I presume—Onesimus is fully committed as well. Onesimus seeks reconciliation, too, as I imagine a scenario where Onesimus approached Paul as a mediator between himself and Philemon (in contrast to a runaway who happened to meet Paul in prison—but we don’t know the real situation).

Third, Paul commends Onesimus. Not only is Onesimus now “useful” to both Philemon and Paul, he is Paul’s own “heart.” This is not the normal word for “heart” in Greek; it is a word similar to our metaphorical use of “guts.” It is the emotional center of a person—their guts (in Greek, splagchna). This communicates both Paul’s affection and hints toward Paul’s hopes for the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. Earlier Paul commended Philemon for how he had habitually refreshed “the hearts (splagchna) of the saints.” Clearly, Paul wants Philemon—and will request such in a few moments—to refresh his own splagchna, who is Onesimus.

“I am sending my heart back to you” is how Paul initiates the reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. It is a first but risky—for Paul but more especially for Onesimus—step toward reconciliation, which is the central purpose of this letter.

Voluntary, Not Out of Necessity

Given the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon (presumably Onesimus is Philemon’s slave), Paul regards Onesimu’s “service” to him as something that Onesimus renders in the place of Philemon. This is substitutionary language; Onesimus stands in for Philemon. This is how Philemon serves (diakone) Paul during Paul’s imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. We might even say this is part of what Paul may have meant by calling Philemon his “co-worker” in verse 1, though more is probably intended (such as past relationships as well).

Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him to continue this service. We presume he could have kept this secret from Philemon, though that seems unlikely given their relationship. He may have retained Onesimus and simply informed Philemon by letter about the fact or askedPhilemon to consent to what Paul had already decided to do.

Paul, however, chooses to return Onesimus, initiate a process of reconciliation, and make his request in a way that applies the least possible demand upon Philemon (given the power/authority relationship implicit in their history). Paul wants Philemon to act out of love rather than duty (verse 9) and to act as one committed to the story he believes rather than under the pressure of an obligation without authentic, heartfelt consent.

Paul wants Philemon fully involved in the decision. He does not want to do anything without Philemon’s knowledge (gnomes) because he wants Onesimus’s service to arise out of Philemon’s decision rather than out of some kind of necessity. This is something Philemon must decide voluntarily, that is, what Philemon truly wants. It cannot be forced or arise out necessity (anagken).

Interestingly, Paul makes exactly this same point when seeking to persuade the Corinthian church to share their resources with the poor, Jewish saints in Jerusalem in 2 Corinthians 9:7-8. Because God loves a cheerful giver, God does not want any gifts that arise from “compulsion” or “necessity” (anagkes). As in the letter to Philemon, Paul does not “command” but requests, and the request is not an apostolic imposition of authority but an appeal to the Corinthian’s investment in the story that they claim to believe.

That is what Paul wants and it is that for which he prayed earlier in the epistle. In verse 6, he hoped that their shared faith would give Philemon eyes to see the “good” (agathou) that the community (the whole church) is doing “for Christ.” Now, Paul offers Philemon the specific opportunity to participate in the “good” (agathon) Paul is doing for Christ as a prisoner for the gospel.

What will Philemon do? Paul has not yet made any specific requests.

Something Has Changed

Whatever Paul might actually request, verses 15-16 reflect the ground for the request. Something has changed.

We don’t know exactly what precipitated the separation of Onesimus from Philemon. Perhaps Onesimus ran away. Perhaps a problem arose between Onesimus and Philemon—apparently, Onesimus is indebted to Philemon in some way (v. 18)—and Onesimus went looking for Paul to moderate the dispute or help with the problem. Perhaps Onesimus is not a runaway but seeks to resolve a problem by enlisting Paul’s help. We don’t know, though it appears Onesimus initiated the separation.

But the separation has a serendipitous result. Onesimus has become a believer. Though Paul uses the word “perhaps” to soften the pain of the separation as he prepares to make his requests, the word seems to indicate that Paul himself believed that this was a “God-thing” (we might say today). His strategy may be more rhetorical than theological. In other words, Paul uses the word to open the eyes of Philemon to a possibility without making any assertive claim (though Paul may have believed the claim itself). In Paul’s mind, the separation resulted in good, and God is the one who works all good things and brings good out of broken circumstances. God is at work here, and the “perhaps” reflects Paul’s humility as well as his rhetorical approach characteristic of the whole letter.

Relationship between Philemon and Onesimus



Separated Returned
For a while Forever
In the Flesh In the Lord
Slave Brother


What changed? In a word: status.

Whatever we may say about slavery in the Roman empire, the status of an enslaved human being was at the bottom of the social ladder. Slaves had no inherent legal rights; they had no power within the social order, which was fundamentally a top-down, hierarchical system. This extended to all facets of their lives, including who they might marry, to whom their children belonged, and their inability—except by the grace of the master—to change their situation. Slaves were powerless within the Roman social order. However some might mitigate the reality of Roman slavery by comparisons with other social situations or slave conditions, life as a slave in the Roman world was dehumanizing.

As I read verses 15-16, Paul contrasts the slave world of the Roman society with the familial world of the house church (or, the fellowship). In the flesh, Onesimus was separated from you and useless (v. 11). I take “flesh” here to mean not only a kind of physicality but also a kind of existence in the social order of the Roman world. We live “in the flesh,” that is, we still live in this broken, sordid order that characterizes social relationships in wider society. In that order, Onesimus is a slave. It is a social reality.

At this point in the letter, he still is a slave, though not (just) a slave. Paul has made no request that Philemon release or free his slave. Onesimus is returned as a slave, not as a free person. The “in the flesh” relationship still exists.

But something has changed.

Onesiumus is now a brother, a member of the family. He is more than a member of Philemon’s household as a slave. Now Onesimus is a member of God’s household, the fellowship of the body of Christ, which is fundamentally relational and mutual in character.  It is a shared life; it is a fellowship (koinonia), a family or relationships that are mutually enriching and reciprocal.

This move is powerfully significant. Though the Roman social order still exists as part of the old creation (“in the flesh”), new creation has broken into that order through a familial relationship of sister and brother “in Christ.”

This new creation, though its presence is incipient within “the flesh,” is a subversive element for the social order not only for the Roman world but for the old creation itself.

However, at this moment, Paul does not employ this new creation theology to make a specific request but only to not the change of status. His requests will follow in the next few verses.

Imagining the Change

We might imagine this change of status in the context of the social world of this house church in Colossae in this way in order to illustrate the significance of Paul’s announcement.

In the Roman world, slaves did not eat with their masters. They served them during their meals. They would stand around the tables or prepare food elsewhere, but they did not sit at the table with them.

In Philemon’s house church, we might imagine that slaves sat at the same table with their masters as they ate the Lord’s meal together—not simply bread and wine but a meal honoring the risen Lord where communion was shared across all the social barriers that are part of “the flesh” (old creation).

In contrast to the surrounding Roman social order, what we would see at the Colossae house church was a table where men and women, slave and free, and Jew and Gentile would eat a meal together at the same table.

Onesimus was more than just a slave; he was now a brother.  In one world, he is powerless to sit at the table; in another world, he is invited.

One Response to “No Longer Just a Slave (Philemon 12-16)”

  1.   Tommy Drinnen Says:

    John Mark,

    I just wanted to say thank you for this post. Because of the circumstances of this day in my life, it is especially meaningful and encouraging. I just wanted to say thank you for that.

    In Christ,


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