July 22, 2011

Prisoner For Christ XXI: We're All Onesimus

Philemon is the first book I have worked all the way through its Greek...of course its only 25 verses. The first thing that stands out in the Greek perhaps more so than the English are the words revolving around slavery, imprisonment or the general idea of on being restrained, whether it be to a man or God. It is obvious Paul is being very deliberate in his use of words (as he always does) to maintain a consistency of thought and to bludgeon home a point to his reader. The following verses contain these concepts in some form.

Verse 1: (a) desmios/δέσμιος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ / Prisoner of Christ Jesus; (b) sonergo / συνεργῷ ἡμῶν / fellow-worker of us (Aland et al 560, Rienecker et al 658) or a wordplay on the idea of being a servant or slave in Christ and also a brother.

Verse 6: koinonia/κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς /fellowship of the faith. Paul is speaking here of a fellowship or a mutually beneficial social intercourse. This is something that will not be possible if Onesimus is to remain in bonds and subjugated. This we will see surface again five verses later in the verse 11 wordplay of useless. A former state in which Onesimus was only a slave but not a brother in contrast to his current state of being useful to both Paul and Philemon in his capacity to provide fellowship or koinonia (Evans 695, Keener 646, Ridderbos 318).

Verse 7: We see two intersecting terms in this verse (a) paraklesin/παράκλησιν para meaning alongside and klesis(in) meaning to call or literally to call alongside. The obvious connection here is the comparison to the Holy Spirit’s other title as the Paraklete one of the cognates of parakleto. We see a manifestation or fruit of the Spirit here in the form of consolation or comfort in the fellowship between these men mentioned in an indirect manner by Paul. As they are all Christian and dwelling in Christ it would not be surprising to see comfort and a refreshing internal feeling of (b) anapepautai/ἀναπέπαυται (Aland et al 561, Rienecker et al 659) or as we would say in English, because of their fellowship in Christ they are comforted by the Spirit and their stomachs are not “tied in knots”, instead they are relaxed and at peace because of Philemon’s love. This is an obvious appeal to the pathos of Paul’s reader(s): Philemon and us.

Verse 9: Again we see desmios/δέσμιος: a prisoner…or idea of being detained by authority.

Verse 10: desmois/δεσμοῖς: bonds…the idea of a restraint on someone.

Verse 12: splagchna/σπλάγχνα or bowels (Aland et al 561, Rienecker et al 660) being the seat of emotion in the Hellenized world Paul is essentially saying that he is sending Onesimus as if he would be sending his own heart (Evans 697). Paul is emphatically trying to convey how important it would be for Philemon to take Onesimus back as a brother for the sake of Paul himself (Wiersbe 271).

Verse 13: (a) diakone/διακονῇ -“you be serving”- the idea of serving something greater than oneself or acting as a servant. (b) Here we now see Paul say something unique and profound contrasting Philemon’s status as a free man and slaveholder, Onesimus’ as a runaway slave and Paul as a prisoner or a person in bonds: En tois desmois tou euaggelion/ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς τοῦ εὐαγγελίου-“in the bonds or restraint of/for the Gospel”. This one floored me. The one who is detained unjustly in prison (Paul) for preaching the Gospel, which is a righteous thing to do, is saying this at the very core of this letter to Philemon. He is asking Philemon to please release a slave or detainee for being held unjustly…and Paul does it in a way that is morally reasonable. That is profound. He cares more about Onesimus’ freedom and well-being than his own.

Verse 16: (2x) doulon/δοῦλον - slave.

Verse 17: Again we see the idea of fellowship or unity in Christ with koinonon/κοινωνόν. We also see another plea to Philemon about the value of Onesimus being equal to that of Paul with the statement that Philemon needs to accept him back as he would accept Paul or auton os eme/αὐτὸν ὡς ἐμέ- or literally, him as me (Paul) (Aland et al 562, Evans 698, Rienecker et al 661).

Verse 23: If there was any doubt about Paul’s sematic intent concerning slavery or the idea of restraint in the letter, that doubt is soundly thrashed here. In the closing verses we see what appears to be a poignant inclusion by Paul of the names of his fellow prisoners or sunaicmalotos/συναιχμάλωτός μου ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ or “fellow prisoners of me in Christ Jesus” (Aland et al 562, Rienecker et al 661). In my opinion Paul is delivering a slight underhanded poke at Philemon to get him to realize that there are many working for the furtherance of the Gospel that are now being held prisoner or in restraint like Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Wiersbe 273). Being Christian, why would Philemon want to appear the same as a non-believer or like the people of the world (or perhaps even worse), by holding his own brother-in-Christ as a slave?

Of special note in this letter is verse 11 and I have singled it out because of Paul’s use of achreston/ ἄχρηστον meaning unprofitable or useless and euchreston/ εὔχρηστον meaning profitable or useful (Aland et al 561, Hendriksen 217, Rienecker et al 660). “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Philemon 11. The wordplay here is not necessarily embedded in Greek so much as it is in the concept of the letter itself and Onesimus’ name which means “useful”. Here, Paul is asking essentially for leniency on behalf of Onesimus if not outright freedom now that the former slave is a believer and part of the body of Christ. He is also asking on account of Onesimus' utility and usefulness for the Lord. Onesimus initially ran away because his "utility" and "usefulness" were being used and taken for granted as a slave. He is now returning for the exact same reasons he left. The difference is Onesimus ran away serving as a slave/δοῦλον to man, he returns serving as a slave/δοῦλον to Christ (Aland et al 561, Rienecker et al 660). In short, Paul is asking that “Useful” (Onesimus) remain free because he will be more useful by being utilized by the Lord as a brother and example of Christian reconciliation, rather than being used as a slave (Hendriksen 217-218). Clever Paul, clever.


In the end, what looked like a misfortunate situation from man's point of view was a great outworking of God's grace and providence. It is also a wonderful example of the Christian's new life and the change it should have on the believer. Philemon is a small but very mighty book. The longer the letter to Philemon is studied the more value it produces. The return is vastly greater than the time that was put into writing it. Paul was right about Onesimus being euchreston or useful. He was indeed more valuable free than enslaved. By keeping him free it would show the true change of a person (Philemon) that becomes a new creation in Christ. Not only was Onesimus and his story useful to Philemon and Paul, it was useful to every person that has read or heard it since it was written. To God, we are all Onesimus. Runaway slaves that have stolen from God in some shape or form. Only in Christ can we be reconciled to one another and to God Himself. Understanding the letter in his manner makes the letter useful to all of us.

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