Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you — being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ — I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. (Philemon 8-18)
Over ten years ago, a very well-intentioned and elderly sister posed a question to me: “Dennis, you have preached many sermons on love. Is your life an interpretation of love? An illustration of love? Or is your life merely an instruction of love?” What a sharp and relevant question!
I have thought a lot about that question ever since. It is so easy to talk about love and sing about love. But are you an interpretation or illustration of love? When people see you, would they say, “Look, there is real love not only instructed, but illustrated; not only taught, but caught”? Do they see a love so crystal-clear that people applaud it and are drawn to it? Love is better felt than told; caught than taught; illustrated than instructed; interpreted than speculated. Without suspicion and speculation, people know who we really are.
Saint Paul is a giant of the faith, almighty thinker that he was. But Paul was also an example of love. He illustrated love vividly in the way that he treated both his co-workers and those who made mistakes.
What was the historical context of the book of Philemon? The book has three main characters: Philemon, the master; Onesimus, the runaway slave; and Saint Paul. Onesimus was guilty of stealing from his master, Philemon. Through the ministry of Saint Paul, Onesimus had become a Christian and his life had been deeply transformed. Paul now was sending him back to his master, and so he wrote this brief letter, full of affection.
Love is not illustrated and interpreted in commanding, but in respecting others.
Saint Paul had the authority to command Philemon to welcome back Onesimus, his runaway slave. Instead he wrote a letter to Philemon, not commanding him to do anything, not threatening or warning or imposing or insisting on what Philemon ought to do with the runaway slave. Rather, he wrote a letter appealing, on the basis of love (9-10), for Philemon to forgive Onesimus and receive him back into his house.
In verse 9, Paul wrote: “I appeal to you on the basis of love,” not on the basis of his authority. Again in verse 10, Paul stressed: “I appeal for my spiritual son Onesimus.” Do you see how sensitive Paul was towards his co-worker? He merely made a humble request on behalf of the runaway slave, and left the final decision to Philemon. That is true love manifested and interpreted – Paul did not command, but sought to respect the other.
There are people who feel they have to command because they think that through this they command trust or respect out of people, but yet the result is just the opposite. Some made unreasonable demands because they think that they are indispensable or irreplaceable, and so they feel able to do or say anything without considering the feelings of others. Still others enjoy being in command because they are afraid of losing power or control.
After one week of marriage, a highly-chauvinistic husband came to the pastor who had officiated at his wedding and complained: “Pastor, you said when two of us got married, the two became one. But pastor, you never told me which one? Is her body joined with mine so that she can keep on nagging me till death do us part? Is it my body joined with hers so that I can command her till death do us part?”
Dear brothers and sisters, the issue is not about controlling or nagging. The key issue is mutual respect. Where there is mutual respect, relationships tend to decrease in conflict and increase in understanding.
Some of you men, try and command your wives and see what will happen. Likewise, some of you women, try and order your husbands around and see what might happen. I can assure you that your better halves will become the bitter halves.
A president of a company bragged about his relationships: “For 15 years I have never had a stomach-ache working together with my staff.” Then one of the staff shouted: “But you gave us stomachaches; not only that, but many heartaches as well through your unreasonable commands and irrational demands.”
Many friendships and marriages break down. Why? Because there is too much commanding and too little respecting! Paul handled this relationship with great care. He was very tactful, very considerate of the feelings of Philemon. He loves Philemon, and he shows this by respecting his leadership. Look at verse 14 where Paul respectfully wrote: “I did not want to do anything without your consent so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.”
In other words, Paul was saying: “I want your understanding; I don’t want to impose; I don’t want to give you a stomachache. So I am only making a humble request on behalf of my spiritual son, Onesimus.”
Dear brothers and sisters, how is your relationship with others? Let us learn to let go of our self-centeredness and seek to respect others more. Respect cannot be demanded, but must be earned. May I stress this point: respect must be “learned” and “earned.” No one should say: “Oh, I am a leader in this church; I am somebody. Or I am greater than somebody else here, so everybody should respect me.” We must learn to respect others first, and through that we will gradually earn the respect of others.
Love is not illustrated but interpreted in depreciating others, but in making others useful by seeking to encourage them in order to build them up.
I like what verse 11 says: “Formerly he [Onesimus] was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you [his master Philemon] and me [his spiritual father].”
Do you see the contrast? Formerly, but now. He was useless, but he has become useful. What a transformation – from being useless to being useful!
Although we do not know exactly how Paul made him useful, tradition says that Onesimus later became an influential bishop. In the second century, Ignatius of Antioch argued that Onesimus later became Bishop of Ephesus. Though scholars differ on this, the key thing to remember is Onesimus was made an effective substitute for Philemon in taking care of Paul in prison. The slave was made useful, as useful as his master. To that end, Paul was an important contributor to his growth.
How can we make people useful? My mother told me two things: (a) develop an eye that penetrates into the inner being, an eye to see the inner hurts or pain; and (b) develop a heart that feels their hurts in order to stand by and encourage them.
My mother used to caution me: “Your eyes are big, but not good enough. Pray that God will give you a penetrating eye, and a compassionate heart. Only then will you have many students or followers.”
Saint Paul had a penetrating eye and compassionate heart – the two things that are needed to be an encourager. Paul saw the inner struggles of the young Timothy and felt his inner struggles. So he wrote two letters to Timothy in order to encourage him.
Likewise, Paul might have felt the burden that Onesimus carried – the burden of guilt, for he had stolen from his master. Paul might have seen his pain and his regrets for this past evil deed. Certainly he stood by him, to encourage him and to make him useful. In the hands of an encourager like Paul, the insignificant Onesimus has become significant; the weak has been made strong; the useless has become useful, as useful as Philemon. This is made clear in verse 13, where Paul said: “I would have liked to keep him so that he could take your place in helping me.” Paul would prefer to keep Onesimus with him as his servant, but Roman law requires that he be returned to Philemon, his owner.
Brothers and sisters, we can be very busy in church ministries, and this can make us blind and numb to the struggles, disappointments, burdens, or hurt that people carry. Let this be our prayer: “Oh God, restore my sight, so that I can see what others do not see, and feel what others feel.” The one possessed of a penetrating eye, coupled with a compassionate heart could interpret, and thus be an effective agency of love.
Love is not illustrated in being calculative, but in being generous or magnanimous.
There are two sorts of people: big people and little people. Little people have little hearts, so little that they cannot contain anyone else. These people have very little influence on others. But big people have big hearts. A magnanimous person has a big heart, a heart big enough to take in the mistakes of others, the differences in others, the struggles of others.
Saint Paul could have thought: “How can I associate with someone with a criminal record? That would be a threat to my reputation; a hindrance to my image as a leader.” Instead Paul had a big heart – a heart big enough to contain all sorts of people. In Romans 16, there is a long catalogue of names of people Paul is concerned for, over 30 names in that one chapter – including the rich and the poor, the old and the young, Jews and Gentiles, educated and uneducated, male and female, masters and slaves; even Onesimus the criminal was in his heart.
Look at verse 12 of Philemon: Paul called Onesimus “my very heart.” In verse 16, Paul regarded him as better than a slave, as a “dear brother,” “a partner.” (v. 17) Verse 18 reads, “if Onesimus owes you anything, charge it to my account.” In other words, he is generous enough to pay for anything so that Onesimus can be accepted by his master. What a big heart he has!
The word “charge” has to do with the doctrine of justification by faith, according to which Christ’s righteousness is charged unto us sinners, and our sins are charged unto Christ. This is a joyous exchange, said Luther, because Christ’s righteousness is given to us in exchange for our sin. It is not by our righteousness, that by which we are liberated. He paid the debt of sin in order that we might be forgiven. Having been struck by this gospel of joyous exchange, Paul now applies this to his relationship with Onesimus. He said: “Charge his debt into my account.” Just as Christ paid the debt to liberate us, so also Paul paid the debt to purchase Onesimus. This is magnanimity made manifest in Paul’s dealing with a repentant slave.
Are you generous towards others who wrong you? A generous person accepts people who do not measure up or who have deficiencies. Have you ever been treated with generosity? If so, let us be generous towards those who are forgiving and generous towards us.
A replay of the 1965 Wimbledon tennis final was on TV. In it, there was a little incident that was very interesting. On a player’s second service, the linesman called, “fault.” The player disagreed, thinking that his service hit right on the line, and was thus not a fault. The player protested, but the umpire supported the linesman’s decision, and so the player lost the point.
However, the opponent also felt that the player’s service was good, and not a fault. Therefore, the next time the ball came over the net, he simply walked away and lost a point. He allowed the player to gain a point that he felt he should have gained in the first place. That is bigness of heart, a generosity of spirit that was so vividly and powerfully portrayed on TV that the entire outlook of that game of tennis was changed; the relationship between the two players had been enhanced.
Do you know what small people would say? A small person would say: “Winning is not everything; it is the Only thing.” A generous person with a big heart would say: “Winning is not the main thing; allow others to win.”
Avoid being calculative, selfish, and self-centered; rather, seek to be forgiving, accepting, and encouraging, making others stronger than before, more useful than last year. If you think that you are right, then it is time to manifest a big heart. Avoid being self-righteous, even when you are proven right. If you remain engrossed in who is right or wrong, who is more right or more wrong, then perhaps you are a small person with a small heart. We have been forgiven, and thus we ought to be forgiving; we have been graced, and so we ought to be gracious towards others; we are God’s beloved people, and therefore we ought to be the most loving of people.