Philemon 1-11: An Appeal Based on Love
August 24, 2023
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Philemon is a particularly important book for us today because of its witness to Paul’s desire that a runaway slave be no longer treated as a slave but as a brother. He must bring Philemon around to this point of view and persuade him to see that the gospel is active in this liberation – how will he do it?
First of all, he reminds Philemon of the larger picture. So, from verses 4 to 7, Paul shows Philemon what he thanks God for in his life and what he prays for.
He thanks God for Philemon’s love for all God’s people and his faith in Jesus. This is what matters to Paul. Not how much money Philemon makes, not his social class or standing. But his love for God’s people and his faith in Jesus. This is what really matters. Once we realize what truly matters – faith and love – it helps us see that other matters are of lesser importance, and it also allows us to see those things which may trouble us in the light of the truth and love of this gospel.
Then Paul shows Philemon that Paul is praying that as Philemon shares the gospel with those around him, he will deepen his understanding. Again, if we focus on evangelism, it helps us see what truly matters. Oftentimes, Christians get stuck in lesser or confused understanding because they’re not being active in evangelism. If your understanding of truth in the Bible, or what God is saying to you through his Word, feels dark and unclear, it might be time to become more active in sharing your faith with non-Christians. There are few things that bring greater clarity than being more active in evangelism.
Finally, in this first section, Paul shows Philemon what brings Paul joy. It is Philemon’s love and that his love has refreshed the hearts of the saints. This is what should also make us rejoice: when we see other Christians loving each other in such a way that fellow Christians are encouraged and built up.
Having set the scene in this way, Paul now comes to his difficult request, verses 8 to 10. He comes straight to the point, but he does so in a way that is not bullying or using his rightful authority but making an appeal. Even if we have the power or authority to coerce someone to a certain action, unless that action comes from their heart as soon as we are not looking they will do something else. So, Paul wisely makes an appeal.
For what is he appealing? That Onesimus be welcomed as Philemon would welcome Paul. He wants him now to be a brother, not a slave. Onesimus has come to Christ. And making a word play on the name Onesimus (which means “useful”), he says that because of his conversion Onesimus was now “useful.”
It is a wise and godly approach to a difficult matter. Onesimus is to be treated as a brother. What can Paul do to bring Philemon to see? He points him to the bigger perspective of love and faith. He then appeals to him “on the basis of love.” He is not forcing him, but he is urging him. And he shows Philemon that Onesimus has changed, is now a Christian, and is now indeed useful.
When you come to approach someone to call them to repent or act in a certain way, think of Paul’s approach to Philemon. And start from a bigger picture of faith and love, and then make an appeal based on love.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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