“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.” ~ Philemon 13-14
Explanation of the Text: Quite simply, Paul indicates that he would have liked to have kept Onesimus in order to serve him, because he is now useful. Paul indicates that Onesimus would be useful for the purpose of the Gospel, and in fact had probably already been serving in some capacity, thus proving his usefulness. At this time remember, Paul was imprisoned. Although it was more like a house arrest, Paul could not travel freely. However, ministry continued and Paul would depend on people who were willing to give of their personal service. He needed people like Onesimus to help in ministry, especially helping him to communicate with other believers. This dependence on others can be seen in Philippians 2:25-30, where Epaphroditus was sent to aid Paul, first by bringing on offering from the people and then by staying to ministry to him and for him.
While Paul has made his desires known, he left the decision with Philemon. First off, we see that Paul respects Philemon by not acting without first getting the consent of Philemon. Second, Paul allowed the Holy Spirit to work in Philemon in making the decision. The working of God in the life of Philemon was set to determine what Philemon would do. To force Philemon to act as Paul desired would deny Philemon the joy that goes with obeying the Lord.
It should be noted that at this point, Paul does not outright request Onesimus be sent back to him. Paul does not make a direct request, and in fact seems to have the expectation that he will not be in prison much longer since he asks for a room to be prepared for him (verse 22). Second, we do not know if Philemon chose to send Onesimus back. Regardless of the decision that Philemon made, one could not criticize any decision that was made because we simply do not have all of the information. Even if Onesimus was not sent back to Paul, Philemon could have been practical about the decision and/or that he was following the Lord’s leading. Therefore there is nothing to be gained by speculating.
Examination & Application of the Text: In looking at this text, we learn several key points for application. First, while Paul tried to teach and prompt Philemon in the letter, he did not coerce him. Ultimately, believers are called to hold each other accountable, teach them, train them, and guide them. However, the responsibility for obedience to God lies within the person. If one is forced to do something, then it is not real obedience at all. It must be willful on that part of the person, therefore, this should characterize our normal interactions with people. Loving them to obedience.
The second aspect is a humility that we see in Paul. He set his own desires aside, for the sake of others. While Paul desired to keep Onesimus, he focused more on Philemon and what he would do. It is easy for a person to focus on his or her own desires, and to get wrapped up in them. However, sometimes for the cause of Christ, it is important for those to be set aside in order to make the bigger impact. Humility is key in this aspect, recognizing one’s self as a servant of God, and that every thing that we do should be one that glorifies Him, which is done in the midst of humility.
 F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 215.