Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 8–16)
How often people paint a picture of the Apostle Paul as some sort of hard-hearted zealot. They haven’t read this! Paul doesn’t want to order Philemon about, but rather he appeals to his heart. Paul is by now an old man in prison, probably in Rome where he was martyred. It would appear that Onesimus became a Christian under Paul’s ministry (“whose father I became”), and now Paul is sending him back to Philemon.
I wonder if Paul was concerned about how Onesimus might be received? The runaway returns, but what will be waiting for him? Look at Paul’s words: Omnesimus is his “very heart”; someone who is his spiritual “child”; someone useful to the aged and imprisoned Apostle. All heartstrings are being tugged.
Then Paul turns to the providence of God, the idea that God works through all things to his glory. What if God had intended Onesimus to run from Philemon? After all, didn’t he come to faith through his escape? Now Paul is able to send him back, not as a bondservant but as a brother! A brother in Christ to Paul, but all the more so to Philemon.
Paul understands that Christianity has a radical message at its heart: as we are united to Christ we are united to one another. God is no respecter of rank or wealth, and so we welcome all Christians and brothers and sisters in Christ, whoever they may be.