Philemon 8-9. 8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.
Philemon 13-14. 13 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, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.
Why do you obey God? Have you ever thought about it? What is your motivation behind your Christianity? Is it law, or is it love?
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians (where Philemon is an overseer), he has shown that the church is now ruled by the indwelling life of Christ. His indwelling love. He opened the letter by commending the church for their love for one another (Col. 1:4,8). He made it clear that they are no longer bound to an external law, regulations, traditions, or the “elemental spirits of this world” (2:8). But instead they should “put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). All so that all thing may be reconciled in Christ (1:20).
The Philemon and Onesimus saga offers an opportunity to see if the gospel actually works in practice. How will Paul handle this situation? How will he appeal to Philemon? What will he say to him? What will he do to make things better?
The easiest way for Paul to handle this whole mess would be to use his apostolic authority to boss everyone around and simply tell them what to do – I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required. He could tell Onesimus to go home, quit whining, and be a good slave. Or he could tell Philemon, “Hey, I’m keeping your slave because he’s useful to me, plus you owe me, plus I’m an apostle and you’re not.”
But Paul doesn’t do anything like that at all. He doesn’t use heavy-handed “law” to get his way. Instead he loves. And he gives an opportunity to love.
The love of Paul.
There’s a very subtle discipling that is going on here in Philemon. As an apostle, Paul has authority over Philemon just as Philemon has authority over Onesimus. But Paul is demonstrating to Philemon what love looks like from those in authority – setting aside your power and privilege. Not using the authority you have to get what you want – but I preferred to do nothing without your consent. Yes, Paul could have said, “Stop it Philemon! Stop owning slaves. Didn’t you read my letter and the part about ‘there is no slave or free’? I command you to let Onesimus stay with me.” But he doesn’t. Rather, Paul is loving Philemon. He’s treating him as an equal. As a brother in Christ. As a human. He’s modeling for Philemon what love looks like in the body of Christ. What the crucified life looks like – setting aside your preferences for the sake of reconciling all things to Jesus.
An opportunity for Philemon to love.
At the same time Paul gives Philemon an opportunity to love – yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you. He appeals to the indwelling life of Christ in Philemon. He lovingly asks Philemon instead of telling Philemon, but he does this trusting that Philemon will do the right and gracious thing and love Onesimus in return.
He trusts in this truth of our union with Christ – that no person that is truly in Christ will ever be frustrated when given an opportunity to love their brother or sister in Christ. No Christian would ever say no to a chance to draw upon God’s divine love, to receive it, and then share it with another. No believer would ever deny themselves to be more fully human. More kind. More generous. More compassionate. More forgiving. More reconciling. More loving. And no one who is indwelt by Christ would ever reject the chance to live the crucified life of self-denial, and self-sacrifice. No one in Christ would forego the mind of Christ, the mind of humility and grace, if appealed to in love.
That is what Paul is appealing to. Not law, but love – that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.
“To live is Christ” has made love the controlling force in our lives. Now we can appeal to one another from love. Not law. From Christ, not compulsion.
How do you appeal to others? With law or with love?
You in Christ
How does being in Christ allow us to appeal to others with love?
Christ in you
Where might you be able to offer someone an opportunity to love today?
Playlist: For love’s sake.