Three Requests (Philemon 17-20)

Up to this point, Paul’s letter has greeted the community where Philemon serves, thanked God for Philemon’s service in that community, and described his relationship with Philemon’s slave Onesimus. Only now, in verses 17-20, does Paul get to the point. What does Paul want Philemon to do? Why is he writing him?

Paul only uses the imperative mood—typically commands or requests—four times in Philemon. Three are in this section (verses 17-20) and one in verse 22.

  • welcome him as you would me (v. 17)
  • charge that to my account (v. 18)
  • refresh my heart in Christ (v. 20)
  • prepare a guest room for me (v. 22).

This litany of requests—one on top of the other—is focused on the central reality Paul wants to emerge within Philemon’s believing community. Probably the best word for this, which itself epitomizes the central focus of the Christian Faith, is reconciliation.

As this letter is read at Philemon’s house church where Philemon’s other slaves, his family, and other believers are present along with Onesimus himself, Paul envisions this community as a reconciled one, where slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and male and female share life together as a family, the body of Christ. The question remains, however, whether Philemon will express the heart of his own faith by reconciling with Onesimus.

The three requests present in verses 17-20 build on each other. The first lays the foundation for the others.

If you consider me your partner (koinonon), welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me.”

Paul assumes a partnership or fellowship in the gospel. Philemon and Paul are co-workers and dear friends in the shared life of the family of God. If this communion is real—if Philemon is authentically committed to this shared life—then Paul not only requests but expects that Philemon will welcome Onesimus.

Welcome is a significant theological word. Paul uses it three times in Romans 14-15 to describe how believers should treat each other, that is, strong believers should “welcome” weaker believers (Romans 14:1, 3; 15:7). Paul roots this “welcoming” in how both God and Jesus have welcomed us into God’s own life. We welcome—or “accept”—each other because God has already welcomed us. We welcome each other because Christ has already welcomed us. We do not pursue this course out of some self-interest but “for the glory of God.”

To welcome the other, and for Philemon to welcome Onesimus, is at the heart of the gospel. If the gospel means anything, it means the Christian community must reflect God’s own welcoming, and if God has welcomed Onesimus into the family, so must Philemon. In other words, Onesimus appears in Philemon’s house church as a brother in Christ rather than as a slave. Within the Christian community, his status is family rather than slave; his status is heir rather than servant. Whatever status Onesimus bore in the social world of Roman, in the familial world of the body of Christ he is a brother.

Indeed, Paul requests Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. In other words, Onesimus status—as part of the family of God—is no longer one of a slave but a brother. And Onesimus is no second-class brother but one who should be received, as per Paul’s request, as if he were Paul himself. Paul identifies Onesimus with himself and expects that Philemon will receive and treat Onesimus like he would receive and treat Paul. This elevates Onesimus’s status—it is the status that belongs to Onesimus as a brother in Christ, a member of the body of Christ.

Moreover, “if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” With his own signature (“I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand”), Paul signs an “I owe you” over to Philemon.

Though Paul could have asked Philemon to forgive any debt since Philemon owes Paul his own life (perhaps because Paul is Philemon’s father in the faith), he does not exercise that right or privilege. Instead of seeking an equal exchange, Paul assumes whatever debt Onesimus owes Philemon. Paul forgoes his rights (what Philemon owes him) in order to assume the status of debtor to Philemon.

In this Paul embodies the gospel itself. This is a kenotic move. I allude to the word Paul uses in Philippians 2:7 to describe the move the Son makes when he becomes incarnate. Though the Son was existed in the form of God as an equal with God, he “emptied himself” when he took on the form of a human being. This “emptying” is kenosis; it is self-giving.

Paul does the same here. He “empties himself” by taking on a debt that does not belong to him. Instead of asserting his status or exercising his right, Paul embodies the gospel in this self-giving or self-emptying. In this moment Paul embodies Christ for Onesimus’s sake.

When Paul asks for Onesimus’s debt to be charged to him, Paul models the gospel in a way that calls Philemon into that same way of living. Just as Paul is willing to live kenotically, so Philemon is called to live in a self-emptying and self-giving way as well. Even though Paul is willing for Philemon to charge everyting to Paul’s account, Paul’s own self-emptying example, which is an imitation of Christ, also calls Philemon to empty himself as well.

This leads to the third request: “refresh my heart (splagchna) in Christ.” His request renews Paul’s thanksgiving where Paul expresses joy and hope for Philemon’s consistent practice of his faith as he continually “refreshed” the “hearts (splagchna) of the saints” (verse 7). Paul is grateful for Philemon’s faithful history, and Paul asks Philemon to continue his faithful walk by refreshing his own heart. Paul’s heart, we should remember, is Onesimus himself (verse 12).

In other words, refresh Onesimus! The word carries the meaning of rest, renewal, and rejuvenation. It is as if it were a new beginning or a new start. Refreshment is reconciliation.

It is difficult to imagine exactly how this might have looked on that day when this letter was read to the church at Philemon’s house. One can imagine the looks, the tension, and the anticipation.

Did Philemon welcome Onesimus as a brother within the community, or did he treat him as a slave who must honor his superior? Did they embrace as family members or did Onesimus kiss his ring?

We know Paul’s hope and expectation but we don’t know what happened. The letter is open-ended. We don’t know the rest of the story. We don’t have any postscript which says, “And Philemon…..”

What we have, however, is a narrative that challenges us as it challenged Philemon. And the question for us is what will we do? How do we receive each other?

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