Philemon 1:15

Friday, 20 July 2018

For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, Philemon 1:15

Paul now sums up his thoughts of verses 12-14, as is indicated by the word “For.” He is making a summary statement as to why he is sending Onesimus back, including a possible reason why things turned out as they had. This is indicated by the word tacha, translated as “perhaps.”

The word’s meaning is “quickly,” and thus it is used in the sense of “quick to assume as true.” Paul is making a speculation about why things turned out as they did concerning Philemon, Onesimus, and himself. He knows it is not mere chance, but he also cannot speak for God as to why things occurred as they did without God specifically revealing the matter to him. And so to avoid claiming something as God’s actual intent without knowing what the actual intent was, he simply speculates. And the speculation is based on the separation which occurred between Philemon and Onesimus.

The words, “he departed,” fail to convey Paul’s masterful use of the language employed here. The word is in the passive voice, not the active. First, he doesn’t say, “ran away.” This would have reopened a wound which he has spent many verses trying to heal. To say he ran away would simply bring back to memory the need for punishment of his disobedient slave. Everything said thus far would be overshadowed by the act of disloyalty perpetrated against him. He also doesn’t say “departed,” which would indicate an active leaving for whatever reason – be it to escape permanently or to take off for a summer to join the circus. Rather, the passive voice should be translated as, “was parted.” This then fits like a glove over the word “perhaps,” uniting them into a combined thought concerning the guiding hand of God.

God was still behind what occurred. Even if it was active on Onesimus’ part, it was still passively directed by God. This then would correspond to the similar account of what occurred between Joseph and his brothers. They actively cast him into the pit, and they actively sold him off to slavery; but Joseph confirms that God was in the background, directing the events for a greater purpose –

“But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Genesis 45:5

Next, Paul notes that this parting was “for a while.” The Greek reads, “for an hour.” It was both a finite amount of time, and a short one at that. If there was a parting, the time was well used in meeting a set, determined purpose. Philemon could argue over a long separation, filled with exotic travels and interesting stories, but how could he not see that such a short separation, filled with such obvious, carefully orchestrated, and specific events was intended to reveal the behind-the-scenes workings of God? In this, he could not argue that he was truly deprived of his property in an unnecessary way.

Understanding Paul’s intent of these words, he next says that all of it was “for this purpose…” It is an introductory statement leading to his climatic conclusion which is, “that you might receive him forever.”

He said that they “were parted.” There was intent and purpose in what occurred, and there was an end to that parting, as is evidenced by Onesimus standing there awaiting Philemon’s completion of reading Paul’s letter. Now, instead of a parting there is receiving. In the parting there was perceived loss. However, in his return there is gain. The Greek word Paul uses here, apechó, signifies “to have by separating from.” In other words, by letting go of one thing, you are able to possess another. It is used at times to signify “receiving payment.” Someone lets go of their time in employment in order to receive payment in return.

Therefore, Paul is saying that Onesimus was parted from Philemon so that Philemon could receive Onesimus in a new way. The parting was temporary (for an hour), but now the return can be “forever.” The word Paul chooses, aiónios, is consistently translated as “eternal.” There was the breaking of a lesser-quality human bond, and there is now new gain in an eternal one. The spiritual has replaced the carnal. This is not speculation on Paul’s part. Even if the purpose of God for the separation was not fully known, the result of that separation is. Onesimus has become a believer, and so – by default – there is now a new relationship between him and Philemon which exists. It will now be up to Philemon to decide which relationship is of the highest value to him.

Life application: Paul would not claim inspiration in what occurred when it was not specifically granted to him. He, an apostle of Jesus Christ, was denied the full revelation of events which specifically pertained to him and to two of his brothers in Christ. What an absolute tragedy that people believe the lies of preachers and other supposed “holy men of God” who continually make claims concerning God’s purposes in things they have no idea about. The very best thing you can do is run from someone who claims they have a word from the Lord or a special insight into what God intends – be it prophecy (the rapture is next week!) or life guidance (give, and your breakthrough is just ahead!). Stand on the word of God alone, and know that not everything that occurs will be explained to us in this present life.

Lord God, help us to be wise and discerning concerning people who claim to have “a word” from You. It is true that we have “the word” from You in the Holy Bible. That is sufficient. Those who go beyond this are showing their true nature; a nature we should quickly walk away from. Help us to be sound in our theology, reasonable in what we believe, and not duped by those who falsely claim that they have special revelation from You apart from Scripture. Amen.

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