Paul wasn’t saying Onesimus wasn’t a slave anymore just because he got saved (v. 16). Salvation doesn’t deliver you from your problems, it helps you accept them, knowing God can use you more powerfully in your problems than He can if He delivers you from them because His power is made perfect in your weakness (II Cor. 12:7-9). Paul was saying Philemon shouldn’t receive him as a slave, but as a brother. Like how Paul’s words were the words of a man, but the Thessalonians didn’t receive them that way (I Th. 2:13). He was a man, but the Galatians didn’t receive him that way (Gal. 4:14). This illustrates how God receives us not as sin-ners but as saints, and expects us to receive others that way.
How far “above” a servant should Philemon receive him (v. 16)? The Lord told the 12 they were no longer servants but friends, after He told them all that the Father had told Him (John 15:15). A friend is above a servant. But after He died and rose again He called them brethren because they were one with Him (Heb. 2:11). So are we, so we should receive one another as a brother, as Paul told Philemon.
When Paul told Philemon to receive Onesimus as a “beloved” brother (v. 16), God said that Christ is His beloved (Mt. 3:16,17), so he should receive him as Christ, since he was now “accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:6). God later repeated that Christ was His beloved when they didn’t “hear” Him (Mt. 17:5) say He had to die (16:21,22). So to receive Onesimus as “beloved” means to hear what Christ says in Colossians 3:11-13, where He says that we are His beloved, and so should forgive others as He forgave us.
Onesimus was “special” to Paul because he led him to the Lord, even though they didn’t have much time together. Paul probably wasted no time teaching him to obey his master (Col. 3:22) and sent him back to Philemon for further Bible teaching. But Onesimus was “more” (v. 16) special to Philemon for he had known him a long time. And he would be special to him “in the flesh” (v. 16) since saved servants were often better servants than unsaved servants. And since Philemon had probably witnessed to Onesimus, and prayed for him, and taught him the Scriptures in their home church, he was also special to him “in the Lord.”
A “partner” (Philemon 1:17) is someone who’s part owner in a business. Three of the apostles were partners in a fishing business (Luke 5:6-10). Philemon considered Paul his partner in the ministry, as Paul considered Titus (I Cor. 8:23). Paul’s not pulling rank by asking as an apostle (cf. 1:10), but as a co-worker in the ministry.
But if Philemon is a book that illustrates Pauline doctrine rather than teaching it, what is being illustrated here? It is illustrating that you should receive others in a forgiving way because Paul is your partner in the ministry. What do I mean by that?
Consider that after James and John and Peter left their fishing partnership, they became partners in the ministry. The problem with most Christians today is that they think they are part of that partnership instead of being partners with Paul in the ministry! That means they are fishing for men with the wrong net, the net of the kingdom gospel (John 20:31). Some are even using the net of the Law and partnering with Moses, saying you have to keep the Sabbath and the rest of the Law to be saved.
Now when you tell people you’re partnering with Paul they say you should be partnering with Christ. But this epistle is all about Paul giving Philemon reasons why he should forgive his runaway slave. The Lord would say to forgive him to be forgiven by God (Mt. 6:14).We must be Paul’s part-ner in this, not the Lord’s in His earthly ministry, for Paul says we should forgive because we are forgiven (Eph. 4:32).
Even the “return policy” of the 12 was different. In saying men should forgive others seventy times seven times (Mt. 18:21,22), the Lord was telling them they had to keep forgiving till the end of Israel’s next period of 490 years (cf. Dn. 9:24) which will end in the Tribulation. After that, they won’t need to forgive others since all their persecutors will die at Armageddon. Only Paul’s return policy says to allow others to return forever and keep forgiving them!