Paul was a sneaky guy. He uses the law to his own advantage. He rejects obeying the law on one hand but uses the law to establish his point on the other.
Rom 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
Gal 2:16 “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
Paul rejects the law and doing any work of the law will not justify. Now look at Paul’s use of the law to back his statements.
1 Cor 9:8-9 Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about?
1 Cor 7:39 A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.
1 Cor 14:34 Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.
Didn’t Paul say that no one is justified by the law? Why then is he using the law to justify his statements to the church of Corinth? If Paul is using the law to justify his statements, why is he rejecting what the law says in the letter to Philemon? It is much evident that Paul is using the law for his own advantage. He is using the law when he wants to use it, and throws away when he doesn’t not using it.
Let us see in this small letter to Philemon, how Paul is rejecting what the law says.
What does the law say?
Deut 23:15-16 You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him.
To have a bit of background, Onesimus is an escaped slave from Philemon and Paul is sending him back to Philemon. The law very clearly states that the slave must not be sent back to the master. Hence, it is very clear that Paul is doing contrary to what the law says, exposing his hypocrisy in other letters where he uses the law to justify and back his statements.
The letter is also written using a technique called ‘sandwich approach’ where a negative message or an actual request is sandwiched between positive or praising or flattering messages.
Phlm 1:1-3 PAUL, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There are no prisoners of Jesus Christ.
Luke 4:18-21 “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Christ came to free the captives and give liberty to them. He didn’t come to hold anyone as prisoners. Either Paul is lying or not referring to the same Jesus mentioned in the gospels.
Paul the Flatterer
Phlm 1:4-7 I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.
We need to ask ourselves this question: Why did Onesimus run away from Philemon who Paul is flattering as a very good believer of Christ?
Phlm 1:8 Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting,
What? Paul had no clue what Christ taught.
Mark 10:42-44 But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.
Compare Paul’s statement and what Christ taught in the above verses.
Phlm 1:9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you–being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ–
Love’s sake for who? Onesimus? Philemon? or Christ? The previous statement shows His love is not for Christ for He doesn’t follow what He taught. Paul doesn’t care about Onesimus either for his choice is ignored and not mentioned in the entire letter. After all, Onesimus was just a runaway slave to Paul. Compare and contrast Paul’s behaviour with the law.
Deut 23:15-16 You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you.
- He may dwell with you in your midst,
- in the place which he chooses within one of your gates,
- where it seems best to him;
you shall not oppress him.
In the law, the runaway slave has absolute right to dwell wherever he came to, and dwell within the gates and where it seems best for him. Look how much God is giving importance to a runaway slave. What importance did Paul gave to Onesimus? None. It’s all flattering of Paul with no decision or voice from Onesimus.
Paul’s love sake is for what Philemon’s lodging comforts as we read later and possibly his wealth and social status which Onesimus doesn’t have.
Phlm 1:10-14 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
Paul says he had begotten Onesimus as his son and wish to keep him but doesn’t consider him to be a son in his heart which is why he is sending the runaway slave back to his master to get permission for Paul considers Onesimus is not yet free.
Phlm 1:15-16 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 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.
Paul drops the idea of Onesimus being son (which he never considered anyway) and now wants Philemon to accept Onesimus as his brother. Paul also gives the choice to Philemon to accept his request not by compulsion but voluntary, but never gives such option to Onesimus but forcibly sends him back to Philemon.
Phlm 1:17 If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me.
Paul goes from son to brother and now wants to consider Philemon as himself and a partner.
Phlm 1:18-19 But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay–not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.
Paul is saying to put all that Onesimus wronged into his own account. Is Paul pretending to be a good Samaritan? Now Paul says that Philemon owes him. So, what exactly does Philemon owes according to Paul? “himself”. So Philemon owes himself to Paul and the account is settled. Unbelievable! Paul’s good Samaritan cover up just went down the drain.
Phlm 1:20-22 Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.
The closing section is not just flattering but deceiving. Didn’t Paul said earlier that the request in this letter is optional and volunteer and not mandatory? What kind of obedience is Paul talking about? The language is not only flattery but also deceptive. Paul never considers the information in this letter as a request but a command to obey.
Phlm 1:23-25 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
As mentioned in the introduction, there are no prisoners of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18-21).
Col 1:7 as you also learned from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf,
Col 4:12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.
It is possible to assume that Paul was in prison and excuse him for the language. However, looking into his last request to Philemon of preparing a guest room suggests that Paul was not in prison. Also, from Paul’s other letters, Epaphras was not a prison-mate.
The book of Philemon is an excellent book to explore the hypocrisy of Paul where he rejects obeying the law on one hand but uses the law to establish his point on the other. We can also look Paul’s ‘sandwich approach’ of writing letters by inserting a request between flattering and finally saying without actually saying it is not a request but a command to obey. Finally we can see how Paul settle accounts, playing good Samaritan cover up and finally telling Philemon that he owes himself to Paul, so the account is settled.