Philemon 1:12

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, Philemon 1:12

The Greek verb of the first sentence is what as known as an epistolary aorist. It literally reads, “I did send.” The letter assumes the arrival of Onesimus at the time it is received, even though he is with Paul at the time it is written. Paul has either asked Onesimus to return to Philemon, or Onesimus desired to return and Paul agreed that it was right to do so. Being a runaway slave, Philemon then has the right to do with him as he wished. He could even have him executed. But the return of Onesimus now almost required leniency by Philemon. And this for several reasons.

First, the tense of the verb assumes that Onesimus is standing there with Philemon. If Onesimus had desired to take the letter and run away in the opposite direction, Philemon would not be reading the letter. Thus, Onesimus voluntarily returned to his master.

Secondly, Paul then says, “You therefore receive him.” Though this is a recommendation, it is based upon everything he has written up to this point. All of the heartfelt words which preceded this note concerning the return of Onesimus would have to be rejected. Philemon’s state as a Christian in Paul’s eyes was on trial.

Would he prove to be a merciful brother, a faithful friend, and a loving follower of Christ? Or, would he throw all such thoughts to the wind and come down on Onesimus with a heavy hand? Had Philemon understood the infinite display of mercy that was extended toward him in Christ? The offense by Onesimus was actually trivial in comparison to it. How would he respond to the heartfelt pleas of his aged, imprisoned friend?

A variation in source texts arises here. Some leave out the words, “You therefore receive.” The difference is noted between the following two translations:

I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. (ESV)
I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, (NKJV)

This difference is not as great as it seems. The word “receive” is found in verse 17, and so a copyist’s eyes may have seen it there and then looked back down and added into the text. Or, it was a part of the original. However, either way, the intent is the same because of it being included in verse 17.

Thirdly, Paul then says of Onesimus, “that is, my own heart.” Speaking of Onesimus, he now shows the extent of love he has developed for Onesimus. He had become Paul’s son (verse 10), and he was profitable to him (verse 11). And yet, he was willing to send him back to Philemon to face whatever might happen because of his certainty that it was the right thing to do. Onesimus, despite being his very heart, was still the property of Philemon. To not send him back would make Paul a possessor of another’s property. To send him anywhere else would make him guilty of agreeing to wrongdoing. This is explicitly stated in Ephesians 6:5-8 –

“Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.”

To write these words in Ephesians, and then to not expect them to be followed through with because Onesimus had become “my own heart” to him, would make Paul (and Onesimus) guilty of violating the very prescriptive words that he had penned elsewhere. Such could not be considered acceptable. A duty to Philemon existed, and it needed to be accomplished.

Now in this verse is seen the reason for all of Paul’s carefully penned words which preceded it.

Life application: Commentaries on this verse, and the verses to come, follow along with the personal views of the commentators on the issue of slavery. Some justify slavery based on Paul’s needing to send Onesimus back to Philemon. Thus, it is argued that slavery is wholly condoned by the Bible. Others argue the exact opposite, claiming that Paul’s words appeal to ending Onesimus’ slavery (as seen in the coming verse) despite the issue of property which needs to be settled first. Neither view is acceptable concerning the issue. The Bible makes no statement either way. It simply accepts slavery as a part of the human condition and leaves it up to the ruling powers to choose how they will handle the matter. It is wholly inappropriate to use the Bible as a tool to promote one’s personal agenda by taking select verses out of their intended context.

Lord God, Your word is far too precious for us to use it for justifying personal views on issues which we find offensive or that we favor, if those verses are taken out of context in the process. Help us to keep your word in its intended context at all times. From there, we can make our own decisions concerning moral issues and work to have them realized in the land (and in the government) in which we live. Help us to never misuse Scripture in the process. Amen.

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