Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, “Oh, thank you, God!” I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other believers. And I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it. [Philemon 1:4-6 (MSG)]
Paul’s letter to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus is a lesson in the subtle art of persuasion. It’s said that we catch more flies with honey than vinegar and Paul illustrates that beautifully. A lot was on the line for the runaway slave Onesimus—if Paul didn’t convince Philemon to forgive him, the man could have been killed or sold to work in the lead mines. And, if Paul’s letter offended Philemon, the new church at Colossae could have suffered. As short as his letter is, I imagine Paul prayed and labored over it a long time.
Paul’s strategy is evident from the first line when he addresses not just Philemon but also Apphia, Archippus, and the entire church. That the letter was to be shared meant that all in the church would know of Paul’s request and Philemon’s response. Philemon is being held accountable for his decision from the first line of the letter.
Wisely, Paul begins with honey and sincerely praises Philemon and thanks him for his love, faith, hospitality and loyalty both to the church and Paul. The great thing about praise is that, while it encourages us, it also challenges us to live up to its words. Paul then tells Philemon that he prays for him so that the generosity that comes from Philemon’s faith will be put into action. Note that Paul’s prayer isn’t that Philemon will do what the apostle asks but that he’ll put his faith into action by doing the right thing.
There’s no doubt that Paul is the one with authority in this relationship and could easily pull rank on Philemon. Remarking favorably on Philemon’s character again, Paul says he knows an order isn’t necessary because his friend knows the right thing to do and so, rather than make a demand, he makes a personal request. As Paul pleads Onesimus’ case, he calls the slave both his child and a beloved brother, calls Philemon his brother and partner, and finishes by calling Onesimus and Philemon brothers. Rather than emphasizing differences in position and sending back a slave, Paul emphasizes their oneness in Christ and sends back a brother. After offering to make restitution by paying Onesimus’ debt, Paul applies gentle pressure by reminding Philemon that he has a debt to Paul (it was the Apostle who brought Philemon to Christ). By mentioning Philemon’s salvation, Paul subtly reminds him of the forgiveness we have in Christ and that Jesus saved our lives by paying a debt that wasn’t His.
Hidden in Paul’s request to prepare a room because he hopes to visit Philemon soon is the notice that Paul will soon have firsthand knowledge of Onesimus’ fate. Paul closes the letter with greetings to Philemon from others in Rome, making it clear that Paul’s request is public knowledge (and yet another reminder that Philemon will be held responsible for his actions).
Although Paul presents his request as a favor, one commentary describes it as the Apostle promising he wouldn’t twist Philemon’s arm but then our hearing the bone crack! While that’s a rather brutal description, it’s probably accurate. Nevertheless, I think of it as an example of how to use tender nudges rather than strong arm tactics. Admittedly, Paul’s letter backed Philemon into a corner, but I don’t think Philemon even knew it. The letter is written so sincerely, humbly, lovingly and gently that it wouldn’t surprise me if Philemon thought forgiving Onesimus was his idea!
The mere existence of this epistle lends credence to the belief that Onesimus was forgiven. Had Philemon not forgiven him, the letter wouldn’t have been copied and circulated throughout the early church. Philemon is thought to have become the bishop of Colossae and to have died a martyr under Nero. There also are records of a bishop in Ephesus named Onesimus that many scholars believe to have been Philemon’s repentant slave. Paul’s faith in both men seems to have been well founded.
With only 25 verses, the letter to Philemon is far shorter than the devotion I’ve written about it. I urge you to read it in both a traditional translation and a contemporary one like The Message. It is a beautiful example of how we, as Christians, should approach resolving differences. It reminds us that the power of gentle persuasion often is greater than the strong-armed power of authority; a humble request is always sweeter than a dictatorial command. Remember, we’ll always catch more flies with honey than vinegar!
Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good. I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. [Philemon 1:20-21 (MSG)]
Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.