Philemon 8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…
We’ve begun a series at church on grace filled living. We’re focusing in on Philemon. It’s the shortest of the Pauline letters, and for that reason, many have glossed over its contents. It’s placed at the very end of the Pauline Corpus, and if it weren’t right before Hebrews, one of my favorite books, I probably would ignore it.
But don’t let the brevity of the book deter you from its true brilliance.
Paul, as he was in all of his letters, is acting very pastorally.
The letter is written by Paul sometime during his imprisonment. We’re not entirely sure where Paul is, but we know that he has come into contact with a certain Onesimus, the runaway slave. Paul writes this letter directly to Philemon, but there appears to be an entire congregation involved with Onesimus’ running away. He begins by addressing Philemon, individually, but then includes Apphia, our sister, Achippus, and the entire church that meets in his house. This letter was never meant to be a private one. That much is sure. The concerns expressed in this letter are placed within a context of social relationships within the Christian community: the way Philemon responds to what Paul writes will have serious implications for his church.
He could use his authority to diffuse the situation, but instead, Paul encourages Philemon to act in a Christian manner. Paul has all the authority that he needs in this situation to tell Philemon to act the way that Paul wants him to act, but Paul appeals to him on the basis of love.
Paul, in essence, is allowing Philemon to live out this Christian faith on his own. Paul’s acting very fatherly in this scenario. I remember numerous occasions in which my parents would kind of dictate how I should act. As I grew older, they lessened their control and allowed me to really live on my own. It was in these situations that I truly felt like I was the one responsible for the good deed, and that sense of ownership motivated me to continue living a good life. Though I was for sure coached by my parents to live an upright life, it was in the situations where I was “on my own” that it became a bigger deal.
It’s like learning how to ride a bike. The training wheels are there for protection, but eventually, you have to learn how to ride without them. Bikes with training wheels are fun, for sure, but they aren’t the whole experience of riding.
Paul is using his authority over Philemon as the one who taught him in the ways of Christ to show grace to Onesimus. Paul is giving Philemon the opportunity to do it on his own.
We’re put in these situations all the time because we all are in places of authority. Whether that is in our friend group, small group, job, school, etc. We all have authority in some way. But this authority that we have is God-given. Paul understood this. Everything that he had in his life was because of God. That is why he is able to give Philemon the opportunity to succeed on his own.
We are given authority in places not to lord it over people. We are given authority in places in order to show Christ the Lord. In all things, we proclaim Christ.
Paul wants Philemon to not see Onesimus as “the other” but as his “brother.” This is only possible by the wonder-working grace of Christ. It’s another instance of the upside down values of the Kingdom of God. Paul’s authority in the situation as the leader is not to dictate from above, but instead, Paul stands between Onesimus and Philemon as a model of reconciliation. He gets into their mess as their spiritual leader, and he helps them along in it. He doesn’t just use his authority to tell them what to do.
He uses his authority to show grace.
This post was written by Michael Sterns.