“Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
Philemon was about to make a decision that would impact his spiritual life. If he accepted Onesimus as a brother in Christ and forgave him (which would be the proper thing to do as a believer) Philemon would continue to have a ministry to the church at Colossae. Paul wanted Philemon to be operating on his own spiritual self-confidence and the doctrine stored in his soul. Therefore Paul hesitated to use his apostolic authority to command Philemon to do the right thing. If he ordered Philemon, then Philemon would merely be acting under Paul’s orders without making a decision of his own. Therefore he would lose his own ability to function in grace. This was a case where the believer must be spiritually self-sustaining or spiritually independent. For the mature believer his authority is in his soul, which means he takes orders from his own doctrine-filled soul. This means he is spiritually self-sustaining. Paul had taught Philemon doctrine, now Philemon had to use his own free will in this grace crisis. Through doctrine Philemon was prepared for this crisis. He must use his own spiritual resources to make a decision. Every believer must resolve the grace crisis on the basis of doctrine resident in his own soul. He must not lean on another believer, whether it is a pastor, a friend, or an alleged or apparent “spiritual giant.” In other words, each believer must live his own life as unto the Lord.
Philemon must operate on his own motivation as well as his own inner resources or he would destroy his motivation and neutralize his own resources. If Paul commanded him then Paul was living Philemon’s life. So Philemon had to pass the grace crisis on the basis of doctrine resident in his own soul on the basis of his own motivation. He was a believer-priest, he was a member of the Royal Family of God, and he had free will (could not use someone else’s). We cannot afford to lose the use of our free will. When a believer must constantly rely on someone else to make his decisions he is obviously not advanced in the Christian Way of Life. Failure to use his inner resources means he has neglected them and/or loss interest in Bible doctrine.
In verse 9 Paul demonstrated confidence in the doctrine in the soul of Philemon. As a mature believer, Philemon was occupied with Christ, he had maximum doctrine in his soul, and he was able to choose grace over his right as a Roman citizen. Paul appealed to the proper motivation which was occupation with Christ. The Greek word for aged is “presbutes” meaning an ambassador or to be far advanced so as to be a proper representative. Paul was not standing on his rank as an apostle. Paul put himself on the same level as Philemon. Every believer is an ambassador for Christ and therefore Paul, being an ambassador and Philemon being an ambassador, set aside rank in order to avoid any pressure from Paul’s authority. Instead this was the common meeting ground of equality between Paul and Philemon as they are both ambassadors for Christ. For Paul to use his rank would destroy the issue of grace. Instead he allowed Philemon to make his own decision on the basis of his own inner resources based on the Bible doctrine Paul had taught him. Every believer must live his own life before the Lord. In a very gracious sense Paul had delegated his authority to Philemon to deal with the problem of the runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul had done all he could do for Onesimus in his present condition as a prisoner so he leaves the rest to Philemon.
“I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart.”
In verse 10 we have the beginning of the appeal from Paul to Philemon to take Onesimus back as a fellow believer not as a slave. To Paul, Onesimus was his spiritual child, a student in Paul’s “travelling seminary.” Paul both evangelized and taught Onesimus. Onesimus came to Rome as an unbelieving slave, but he would leave as a mature believer. He mentioned the name last to prepare Philemon for the shock. His runaway slave was now a believer and had been a student of Paul’s. The uselessness of Onesimus to Philemon in his previous life as his slave is a reference to being spiritually useless. Now that Onesimus was a mature believer, he would be useful to Philemon, spiritually, as he was already to Paul. Paul obviously had a great love for Onesimus from his statement in verse 12 that he was sending his very heart.
As a Royal Ambassador of Christ, you represent God before the world. Therefore, as royalty, you are to conduct your life accordingly. This calls for high standards of excellence in every area of your life. It calls for honor in your dealings with your fellow-believers and with unbelievers alike. With Jesus Christ as our example, we are to exhibit the same kind of love that He exhibited. This kind of love can be accomplished only by a believer with Bible doctrine in the soul, who is being controlled by the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 13:1-8)
“Whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the Gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.”
Paul did not really want to part with Onesimus because he was such a blessing to Paul. Every day Paul kept Onesimus after he reached spiritual maturity he was keeping him from his own spiritual destiny; his grace destiny could never be resolved as long as Paul retained him. If Philemon had come to Rome, he could not have done more for Paul than Onesimus did. Therefore Paul suggests that Onesimus was “on loan” from Philemon (so that he might minister to me). But Paul was confident that Philemon would do the right thing by forgiving Onesimus and accepting him as a brother in Christ. And Paul reemphasized the fact that he was not commanding anything from Philemon, but simply making a plea on the behalf of a fellow believer.
“For perhaps it was for this reason that he was separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
The issue in the book of Philemon is a grace (divine viewpoint) solution versus a legal (human viewpoint) solution. For a while is a reference to the two years Onesimus was away. Regardless of the extent of time, grace makes it short in duration when a person goes from unbeliever to believer to spiritual maturity. Time is meaningless to the Lord - He counts a day as a thousand years. There was a benefit to Onesimus running away which became evident when he met Paul and trusted Christ as his Savoir. The man who had stolen from Philemon was not the same man that would return to him.
Though still a slave, Onesimus was equal to Philemon in spiritual matters. Whether Onesimus remained a slave or was given his freedom, he was still a fellow believer, a member of the Royal Family of God, and spiritually mature. Paul stated in this verse his admiration for Onesimus and he wanted Philemon to share in this admiration. Onesimus was a person who was down and out when Paul met him, but through the grace of God he was no longer. Now he was beneficial to everyone. The phrases in the flesh and in the Lord mean that Onesimus would be useful to Philemon if he remained a slave or if he was set free as a brother in Christ. Either way Paul left the choice of what to do with Onesimus in Philemon’s hands.