Life Group Notes: Paul and OnesimusOctober 31, 2021
Paul and Onesimus
Life Group Notes
Paul and Onesimus
QUESTION: Have you ever found yourself in trouble because of your own actions and needed someone else to bail you out?
This week Pastor preached from Ephesians 6:5-9. This is a notorious difficult passage, and must be handled with great care. This sermon is not an endorsement of slavery, though it has been read that way in the past. Rather Paul is giving instructions to early Christians living within a society in which slavery was extremely common. He was not writing to people who had any real power to change Roman law or custom around slavery. Many early Christians were powerless and poor and many even slaves themselves. So, Paul instructs Christians to find ways to do good even in this oppressive system.
In the book of Philemon, another of Paul’s letters, Paul addresses an individual situation between a slave and a slave master. The slave owner was named Philemon, and the slave was Onesimus. Although it is not clear exactly what series of events led to Onesimus being with Paul (he may have fled from Philemon, or he may have been sent intentionally to Paul and not returned), it is clear that while with Paul, Onesimus has become a believer. In the letter to Philemon, Paul advocates on behalf of Onesimus. The letter is a model for how we can use our influence and authority for the sake of others who are powerless or socially disadvantaged.
Paul the Advocate
In verses eight through ten of Philemon, after Paul has praised Philemon for his generosity, Paul appeals to that generosity in advocating for Onesimus.
8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment (Philemon 8-10, NIV).
When Paul says that he had become Onesimus’s father he means that Onesimus has become a follower of Jesus because of Paul’s teaching. However Onesimus came to be with Paul, the result has been his coming to know Jesus. Paul takes a special responsibility for Onesimus because he has led him to faith in Jesus.
QUESTION: Do you think that leading someone to Jesus creates a special responsibility for that persons continued growth and welfare?
When Paul appeals to Philemon, he is careful to avoid a direct command as someone in authority. But Paul is not ashamed to use his place of authority to influence Philemon. Paul appeals to the Christian love that he had commended earlier in the letter (see verses 4-7) as the basis for his appeal to Philemon, but Paul also invokes his own position in relation to both Philemon and Onesimus. Paul takes care to make and effective plea on behalf Onesimus.
QUESTION: Have you ever had someone in a position of authority advocate for you? What did that mean to you?
More than a Slave
Paul tells Philemon that he is sending Onesimus back to him, but makes clear that he hopes that Philemon will receive him back as more than a slave. He challenges Philemon to think outside of the typical categories of slave and master which were so ubiquitous in the ancient word and to see Onesimus in the context of the family of Christ.
12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 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 (Philemon 12-16, NIV).
In these verses, Paul handles a difficult social situation with care, but is not shy about applying all of his influence on behalf of Onesimus. While scholars disagree on the meaning of Paul’s request in verse 16, a likely reading is that Paul is asking that Onesimus be given his freedom and welcomed back as member of the family of Christ. While the social system of the Roman Empire said that Onesimus was property, in the family of God Onesimus was a brother.
QUESTION: Do you think that there are any applications of this principal in our day? In what ways can we give value to our brothers and sisters in the Lord that may be denied to them in our society?
Paul Follows the Model of Jesus
In the next verses, Paul puts his own status with Philemon and in fact his own resources on the line for the sake of Onesimus.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say (Philemon 17-21, NIV).
Paul asks that Philemon forgive any debt owned to him or wrong done to him by Onesimus. Paul is not clear on what these debts and wrongs would have been, but no doubt Philemon would have known precisely what Paul meant. Philemon had the legal right to make demands of his slave. Paul invokes his own right to make a request to Philemon to forgive any debt owed because of Paul’s relationship to Philemon in the Lord. As he has done elsewhere in the letter, Paul suggests that the relationship of the family of Christ ought to supersede those defined by Roman law and society.
QUESTION: How can we learn to think of one another in terms of the relationship that we have in Christ, rather than the relationships that are defined by our social or political status?
In this section Paul has offered his own resources to pay Onesimus’s debt. In Roman society, this debt and whatever other wrong Onesimus has done to Philemon would have been considered a mistake or failure of Onesimus. Paul is willing to give of himself to pay for the consequences of another person’s mistake. Paul often presents this as the appropriate attitude of Christians because it is what Jesus has done for us.
QUESTION: In what ways do you see Paul modeling what it means to follow the example of Christ in these verses?