What if a letter addressed to you showed up in the church mailbox from the Apostle Paul–and it was meant to be read in front of the whole church family on Sunday?
The book of Philemon is a very specific letter to a very specific person about a very specific issue. As he begins, Paul prays “that the fellowship of your faith, [Philemon], may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing” (Phm. 1:6, NASB). What Paul means is that true faith is never satisfied to remain hypothetical. When it sees an opportunity to live out the Gospel, true faith seizes upon that opportunity. Faith longs to be put into practice. Paul has written this letter to bring to light one very specific good thing that Philemon can do to make his faith effective.
There are two ways Paul could have gone about this. He mentions one of them in verse 8: “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required…” Option #1: Paul could have commanded Philemon. He could have leaned on his authority as an apostle. Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus all begin, “Paul, an apostle”. Paul has every right as an apostle of Jesus Christ to command Philemon to do the right thing.
But instead, Paul begins his letter to Philemon, “Paul…a prisoner.” He intends to appeal to something other than authority. But what?
Think about it, parents. There are two ways to get your kids to obey. There’s Option #1–the command: “Clean your room. I’m your father, do as I say.” But there’s another way, Option #2: “Son, I know you love your mommy. And mommy has been working hard all day. Do you think, because you love mommy, you could show your love to her by cleaning your room?”
Paul writes to Philemon, “Yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus” (Phm. 1:9). Instead of commanding, Paul appeals to Philemon’s brotherly love.
Brothers and sisters, let us learn to be easily swayed by brotherly love.
Why does Paul mention his age? Why does he again remind Philemon of his chains? Because Paul knows that Philemon is a man easily swayed by brotherly love. He endears himself to Philemon: Do you remember me, dear brother? Do you remember your elderly, locked-in-prison-for-Jesus-Christ, brother Paul? Paul embraces his humiliation, because a man like Philemon doesn’t find power and pomp and brute force attractive. Christians like Philemon are drawn in by Christlike humility, gentleness, and meekness.
If Paul wrote a letter asking you to sacrifice in a very specific and public way for the sake of Jesus Christ, which avenue would he have to choose? Would he have to command you to get a result? Or could he appeal to brotherly love? You see, we want to be people who are so easily swayed by brotherly love–whose affections for Jesus Christ are so strong, whose love for the church is so warm–that it takes almost nothing to convince us to act.
For example, let’s say we are talking about giving to the church. Are you the kind of person where your pastor has to beat you over the head with your responsibility to give to the Lord? Does he have to appeal over and over again to the commands to obey and give? Or is your heart so touched by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that even the mere mention of his blood spilled for you makes your heart overflow with offerings of thanksgiving?
This plays out in a thousand different ways in our church families. Whether it’s looking to the preferences of others, bending our schedules, making room for two more at a dinner table, last minute changes of plans for your wife and kids–there are as many specific ways to put your faith into practice as there are sons and daughters of God. In those moments, will the Lord have to strong arm you into obedience or will brotherly love compel you to action?
The letter to Philemon confronts our hearts. When it’s my turn, I often respond with either hesitation or frustration. I look for a way out of doing the very specific good thing I know I should, or I do it with anger in my heart. Both are signs of deficient brotherly love.
Let us pray and plead with our older brother, Jesus Christ, to form in us hearts that are easily swayed by brotherly love. Without hesitation, without anger or frustration, may we freely give ourselves to one another. As we lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in the family of God, they will be able to say,
“I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Phm. 1:7)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)