Yesterday we saw the way Paul challenged Philemon to see Onesimus differently now that the slave had become a Christian. Today, Paul challenges another common Roman practice: the treatment of runaway slaves with severe punishment.
Given this cultural expectation and Onesimus’ slave status, Paul’s plea was quite radical. He was urging Philemon to treat Onesimus not with punishment but with love, respect, and welcome.
Now that Onesimus was a Christian, Paul highlighted their partnership with one another and urged Philemon to put into practice his own “partnership with us in the faith” (v. 6). Notice Paul’s emphasis on partnership, which he repeats throughout this letter: “If you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17). That deep Christian fellowship is emphasized again when Paul asserted: “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (v. 18).
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we must not only change the way we view one another, we must also treat one another in ways that reflect that new relationship. Paul’s earlier words were already pressing Philemon in this direction, but then he went further. He asked Philemon to have “some benefit (onaimen) from you in the Lord” (v. 20), a play on the slave’s name Onesimus, which means “benefit.” Not only was Paul asking Philemon to view and welcome Onesimus as a brother, he was asking Philemon to release his slave for service to Paul, to allow the “beneficial one” (Onesimon) to remain a “benefit” (onaimen) to Paul by staying with him. For a first-century slaveholder, this was a radical request indeed, but in light of the gospel, it was the full realization of their true relationship in Christ.