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 with your consent
in order that you goodness might not be by compulsion
but of your own accord.
Now we shift from words to action. Paul is laying it all on the line.
Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, in the flesh. He has no idea how Philemon will respond. He could beat or kill Onesimus, which would be his right as an owner. Or, Philemon could respond in love.
Paul not only used words, but he sacrificed himself.
Onesimus is referred to as Paul’s “very heart.” Such emotional words! Onesimus was not only Paul’s son, but it was as if he had become a vital organ in his body. But Paul was willing to tear out his heart to do what is right.
He’s not only giving emotionally, but physically. Onesimus was Paul’s hands, mouth and feet. Where Paul could not go because of imprisonment, Onesimus went. Who Paul could not greet with a holy embrace, Onesimus could embrace. What news or insight Paul wanted to share, Onesimus could share.
And Paul saw Onesimus as an extension of Philemon. He recognized Philemon as Onesimus’ owner, and in his own mind, he knew he could justify Onesimus helping him. After all, Paul had shared the message of salvation with Philemon. Surely Philemon was too busy to help him in prison, and Onesimus was available. Surely Philemon would want this…
But Paul did not justify his feelings into what was right: what was right legally, by consent, and what was right ethically, for the growth of character in all of them.
For Philemon, he had the choice to give freely, not by compulsion but in love.
For Paul, he had the choice to sacrifice something precious to himself, in hopes that the sacrifice would be blessed and returned in full.
For Onesimus, he had the opportunity to experience forgiveness and new life, modeled by his spiritual mentor and his physical owner. As Jesus was God and man, Onesimus could see how God rules on earth.
God allows us to go through experiences to develop our character.
But it’s not until we go from what we believe in our heads and hearts to action, that we see results in our character.