This is Part 3 in a series about relationships by Pastor Andy Woodfield. We are unpacking this letter around the theme of grace relationships – relationships established by God through faith in Christ. Catch the full series at these links:
Part 1: 5 ESSENTIAL MINDSETS FOR GRACE RELATIONSHIPS
Part 2: 4 ESSENTIAL ATTITUDES FOR GRACE RELATIONSHIPS
Part 3: ESSENTIAL INTERVENTIONS FOR GRACE RELATIONSHIPS
Essential Interventions for Grace Relationships
Philemon is a letter about the power of God’s grace through the gospel to bring about an uncommon forgiveness and reconciliation.
Just as we are born into a natural family by the will of God without personal choice of our siblings, so too we are born again by the will of God and placed into a family where we don’t choose who our brothers and sisters are. Just as we have to work at our natural relationships, so too we are to work at our spiritual relationships, knowing that it is God who is at work in us to will and to do according to His good pleasure.
In Philemon 8-14, Paul intervenes by way of appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, a converted runaway slave. This is truly a beautiful story, and a gracious approach on Paul’s part, bringing forgiveness and reconciliation between these two men. He calls Philemon to risk his reputation and forgive his slave of the serious wrongs he had done, and to receive him back, not just as a slave, but now much more – as a brother in Christ.
Consider three helpful features of Paul’s appeal that leads to true forgiveness and reconciliation.
An Appeal From a New Motive: vs.8-9
“Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
The inferential conjunction “therefore” clarifies for the reader that the foundation of Paul’s appeal flows from his commendation of Philemon who was transformed by the grace of God. Philemon is a man who expresses Christ’s love and holds firmly to the doctrines of Christ, growing in a real knowledge of every goodness that is his in Christ. He brought much joy to Paul’s heart because he loved and refreshed the saints in Colossae.
The motivation behind the appeal is not authority or age, or even emotion, but it is love. He could have easily played the Apostolic card and ordered Philemon to do what is proper for two brothers in Christ. But he does not even mention his apostleship. He mentions instead his age, being an older man, and his imprisonment for Christ. One gets the sense by this of his weakness and helplessness to do anything or have any influence in the matter. Instead he says “yet for loves sake” I rather appeal to you. This is so beautiful and tender. This is the character, the essence, of grace relationships. Love must always and forever be the greatest motivation to the noblest of actions.
Literally the Greek reads “for the sake of the love”. What love? The love of all loves – God’s love. When God’s unconditional love is truly experienced, we want others to experience it also. The reason for appealing and not commanding Philemon is to put God’s unconditional love on display.
We must understand that our relationship to one another in Christ creates expectations and obligations which we cannot ignore, responses that often go far beyond what any “law” might impose on us. In Romans 13 Paul reminds believers to “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET’, and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom.13:8–10). In Galatians we are reminded that “the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’” (Gal. 5:14). Belonging to Christ is to belong to the circle of the beloved who are called to show the same love to others that they have been shown by Christ.
The point I want you to see is a personal appeal based on love is far more powerful than an authoritative command. I believe we can learn from this that love is by far the best motivator to grow grace relationships.
Commentator Alexander Maclaren says, “Authority is the weapon of a weak man who is doubtful of his own power to get himself obeyed, or a selfish one who seeks mechanical submission, rather than the [loyalty] of willing hearts. Love is the weapon of the strong man who can cast aside the trappings of superiority, and is never loftier than when he descends, not more absolute than when he [avoids] authority and appeals with love to love. Loyalty to duty may make us look good in the eyes of the world, but only whole-hearted love for Christ will make the Christian life attractive to men.”
Let us learn from this new motivation of love that what we can do is not always what we should do.
Application Questions: What is love able to produce that authoritative command never can? Why is this so? And how might you apply this to your current ministry as a husband, father, mother, teacher, church leader?
An Appeal Offering New Insights vs.10-11
“I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.”
Paul adds emphasis by repeating his appeal. This reveals that he sees life through the lens of God’s grace rather than law. In doing so he exposes two things:
Firstly, due to the grace of God, he doesn’t see a disobedient runaway slave but a spiritual child born to himself. I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment. This is deeply personal and endearing, and points to Paul having personally led Onesimus to the Lord, thus forming a deep spiritual bond between them. Paul loved this man as if he were his own child. The underlying appeal then to Philemon is, “How you treat him is how you treat me”.
Secondly, he sees how God’s gracious, redemptive, and regenerating work in Onesimus’ life changes a man from being useless to useful. In verse 11 there is a play on words. The name Onesimus means “useful,” but Paul says that he was formerly “useless” to Philemon. In saving us God doesn’t simply hand out names, He radically transforms who we are. By God’s grace Onesimus has a new family and is no longer the same man who ran away. He is a new creation in Christ. He is transformed through faith and repentance. He now has a new heart and mind, the mind of Christ. He has experienced the gift of repentance leading to reconciliation with God. Practically this required a reconciliation and restoration relationally with those whom he had sinned against.
While the words forgiveness and restoration are absent, their requirement is obvious. By way of application to us, we too are to be forgiving and restore those who have sinned against us. Paul directs believers that, “even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1–2).
Forgiveness does not mean that there are no consequences you need to address. While forgiveness is concerned with the relational aspect of fellowship, unity and peace between brothers and sisters, there may well be consequences to our sin that we need to address. They could be financial, relational, or personal consequences. Whatever the consequences are, the repentant one is willing to own them.
Christianity is not out to help a man escape his past and run away from it; it is out to enable him to face his past and rise above it. Christianity is never an escape; it is always conquest.
Application Questions: How have you gone from being useless to God to being useful? How does your life demonstrate this relationally?
An Appeal Showing New Respect vs.12-14
“I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.”
Paul appeals with respect of Onesimus and Philemon. He shows respect in two distinct ways.
Firstly, he embraces his own personal pain in the matter (vv.12-13). He sends him as though he is sending his very heart. The Greek word for heart is “splanknon” and refers to the bowels or the emotions. Paul has been greatly ministered to by Onesimus. The phrase, “whom I wished to keep with me”, indicates that Paul had deliberated over this decision, and points to the personal pain of deciding to send him back.
Secondly, he empowers personal choice (v.14). Paul would not do anything without Philemon’s consent. Why? This is so insightful. Philemon is the one offended; Philemon needs to be the one who rises above the offense and shows that he also has been transformed, just as Onesimus has. Philemon needs to make this choice out of the God-given goodness of his own heart, by his own free will, not because he was being forced into a corner. Just as Paul had weighed his options, now he wanted Philemon to do the same.
The point of Paul doing this is that while actions can be forced, goodness cannot. Forced goodness is not goodness at all but mere moral conformity. Moral conformity may indeed be enforced, but moral goodness requires a change of heart. Paul is stepping back here and empowering Philemon to do as his Christ-centered heart would direct him.
Application Questions: Do you carefully consider the outcome of your decisions before moving ahead? Do you seek to empower the personal choices of others, or are you prone to try and direct them yourself?
I hope these few thoughts will strengthen your relationships with others as you learn to appeal with a motivation of love, apply new insights of God’s grace to transform hearts, and have a genuine respect for others that is willing to take on board personal hurts while at the same time empowering personal choices in others that honor the Lord.