THE PLEA FOR ONESIMUS
Philemon 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.
After a complementary introduction, Paul states the true purpose of his letter to Philemon - his plea for the runaway slave, Onesimus. Although, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul had the right to command a just settlement of this problem, he, instead, pleads that it be resolved in Christian love (See preceding vss. 8-9). In his plea, he said that I beseech thee. On nineteen other occasions, Paul uses this same term of pleading in his epistles. What a great Christian characteristic this is! All should adopt this same approach to problem solving, both within the body of Christ, and in the secular world. To "beseech," is to beg, plead, entreat, and implore. It is to solicit a favorable, and just response, earnestly and with eagerness. There is no doubt that many problems that exist among brethren in Christ, and among people throughout the world, could be solved by the plea of beseeching one another to solve differences, that may exis,t rather that threatening retribution. Given all choices of settling problems, the Christian characteristic of beseeching others will serve best!
It is true that Onesimus was a servant of Philemon; yet, to Paul he was his spiritual son. No doubt Paul was instrumental in the conversion of Onesimus to become a Christian, and probably did so while a prisoner in Rome. Although bonds physically restricted Paul, his preaching of the cause of Christ was not bound. No doubt the difficulties under which Onesimus was converted made him even more endearing to Paul - he loved him as a son.
Formerly Onesimus was an unprofitable servant of Philemon. The lesson text indicates that he was probably a discontented servant, one that failed to carry out the tasks assigned to him, and finally, he was a slave that ran away his responsibility to his master. However, now, after his conversion to Christ, he has become both profitable to thee and to me. Repentance is the first step to righteous reconciliation. It was so with the "prodigal son," and, likewise, it was so with Onesimus. Both "came to themselves" and, with humility and a glad heart, reconciled themselves to those whose trust they betrayed.
Nowhere do we find the penitent Onesimus being berated or criticized by Paul, even though his past was sinful in the sight of God. Onesimus, by repentance and obedience to God's call to salvation, was first reconciled to God; after which he recognized his sinful actions to his master, and was then desirous of being reconciled to Philemon. Righteousness toward God requires righteous actions toward all mankind, especially to those to whom we have wronged, or to whom we are indebted. Onesimus was now ready to do what was right toward his master, Philemon - to return to him and diligently serve him.
Encouraged by Paul, Onesimus was more than willing to return to Philemon. It is possible that he carried this letter of commendation with him, that was written on his behalf by the apostle Paul, or he possibly accompanied other messengers that carried it to Philemon. Paul's plea was that Philemon would receive the penitent Onesimus with open arms, just as he would receive Paul himself. He was to receive him back, not only as a servant, but, more importantly, as a fellow Christian. Paul told Philemon the manner in which he desired him to receive Onesimus: If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself (Vs. 17 following).
Had there not been an obligation for Onesimus to return to Philemon, Paul would have retained him to serve him in the bonds of the gospel. No doubt, Philemon was indebted to Paul for his conversion, by which he gained the hope of eternal salvation (See Vs. 19). However, Paul was not presumptuous enough to require Philemon to allow Onesimus to remain to serve his own needs. But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. Service to God, and the cause of Christ, should never be demanded - we must serve willingly, as Philemon was beseeched to do.