Philemon 9-11; brief thoughts

9yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an old man now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – 10I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)

To this point in the letter, Paul has not made a request of Philemon. Issuing reminders of the gospel progress in Philemon’s work, Paul reminds Philemon of the great blessings he has in the faith. Standing in stark contrast to Philemon’s Christian experience is Paul’s own testimony. Paul is in prison, Philemon is in comfort. Paul is alone, Philemon is surrounded by friends. Yet the Gospel has impacted and transformed both of them. Paul has sacrificed for the sake of the gospel. He has surrendered everything for the sake of the mission of God. He has lived a life worthy of the gospel.

There are men and women in the world who, by the sheer magnitude of their character can compel those around them to acquiesce to their encouragements. They are people who have such deep and profound integrity that their gaze seems to see past the surface of a person and into their very soul. These are men and women who have a tremendous presence. It is as if a weight of solemnity is laid upon anyone they come in contact with. Paul was such a man.

Paul’s character and integrity were beyond question because of his willing submission to circumstance over a long period of time. His personal journey began years prior on a road to Damascus. God transformed him in an instant and then trained him for three years before he began his missionary journeys (c.f. Galatians 2:11-24). He suffered and struggled all throughout his ministry being rejected by his Jewish kinsmen and sacrificing status for the sake of the gospel.[1] Even at the time of this letter, Paul has been arrested and is imprisoned for the Gospel. Now, at the approximate age of 60, Paul has been proven. His character has been tested and he has passed.

There is a wisdom in Paul’s age that can only be developed over years of experience. Knowing that Philemon could easily be commanded to set Onesimus free, Paul chooses instead to appeal to Him. When negotiating a plea bargain or a settlement, it is always better to start at a demand and work backward to an appeal. However, Paul is not solely concerned with Onesimus’ freedom. Paul is concerned for the gospel and the result of that gospel in Philemon. So, rather than command Philemon, Paul strongly encourages him to do what is right. In this way, Paul treats Philemon with respect and leaves the decision squarely in Philemon’s hands.

Paul, by mentioning his age and circumstance to Philemon, appeals to Philemon on the basis of personal integrity, not positional authority. Paul could have easily asserted that he was an apostle. He could have cited that he was the one who founded the church in Colossae, where Philemon lived. He could have even have said something to the effect that he could appeal to the apostles in Jerusalem to compel Philemon to release Onesimus. Yet, Paul takes the least aggressive method available to him. Rather than compel obedience to the gospel, Paul lovingly appeals to Philemon’s transformed nature and reminds him of Paul’s transformed nature.

Onesimus now shares in that same transformation that the gospel affords to all true believers. At some point in Paul’s imprisonment, Onesimus became a believer in Christ. The runaway slave turned from sin and was granted freedom in Christ Jesus. So Paul became a father to Onesimus, the once useless slave. The transforming power of the gospel rescued Onesimus and, more than that, made him a useful part of the Kingdom. Paul appeals to Philemon on Onesimus behalf because he loves the gospel. The gospel that has transformed Onesimus must also transform the way that we live in society. We must be completely different than the world. Slavery is not a condition that former slaves permit, whether physical or spiritual. So to, Philemon must no longer live like the world and the surrounding society demonstrate. Rather, he must be different. As Onesimus has been transformed from slave to son, so now, Philemon must accept the appeal of one transformed (that is Paul) on behalf of Onesimus.

Society demands expedience and self-center benefit. It demands a utilitarian view of people, insisting that you evaluate each person as to their benefit to society as a whole. It is this view of humanity that perpetuates slavery and oppression. In society’s view, people are commodities that serve the greater good. Yet, the gospel demands a different approach. People are not commodities to be used to serve our needs. When we think of people as commodities, we will find that they are useless unless they serve our own needs. However, when we recognize the value of a person through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that which was once useless is now useful, that which was once wretched now beautiful! Onesimus’ story is the same as Paul and Philemon. All three were once slaves. Though they now all live in very different circumstances, all three are made valuable through the gospel of Jesus Christ! For the gospel brings value to every person who believes.

[1] A simple read of the book of Acts will provide ample evidence to this truth. Indeed, so antagonistic are the Jews to Paul’s ministry that they follow him from place to place and strive to expel him from almost every town he enters.

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