Philemon 1:8-11 (NIV) 8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul–an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus–
On verses 8-9: Paul had a special role in Philemon’s life. For one, Paul was the one whom God used to lead Philemon to Christ (v19). In this way Paul was like a spiritual father to Philemon. Not only that, Paul’s disciple Epaphras was the one who started the church in Colosse that met in Philemon’s home and so, like a spiritual grandfather to the Colossian Christians, Paul’s words carried special weight. Yet instead of throwing his weight around and using his rights and authority to order Philemon to do what he should do (v8), Paul appeals to Philemon gently and meekly “on the basis of love” (v9) – not as an authoritarian apostle, but as “an old man” and as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (v9). From this I learn an important lesson:
Paul’s gentle approach with Philemon resembles God’s gentle approach with you and me. God could easily throw His weight around and force His will upon us, pushing us to obey Him and punishing us when we don’t. Instead, God through Jesus Christ came humbly, gently like a servant. To borrow imagery from the day Jesus entered Jerusalem, Jesus did not enter our lives like a conquering king on a warhorse; rather he came peacefully, gently, riding on a donkey. Instead of barging into our lives like a home invader, He stands at the door and knocks like a gentleman. Even though He holds all the power to press His foot against us and coerce us to do what He wants, God would rather woo us so that we willingly and happily submit to Him. Likewise, I find that great, loving leaders are secure, in control of their power and only use as much force and pressure as necessary – nothing more – to lead people in the right way.
Philemon 1:10-14 (NIV) 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him–who is my very heart–back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.
On verses 10-14: Earlier in verses 4-7 Paul, through numerous affirmations, made it clear that Paul was on Philemon’s side. Here in verses 10-14, Paul, through encouraging words about Onesimus, makes it clear that he is also on Onesimus’ side. For example:
– Paul calls Onesimus “my son” (v10). When Paul says that Onesimus “became my son while I was in chains”, he means that Onesimus became a Christian through Paul’s ministry while Paul was in prison.
– Paul acknowledges that Onesimus was “useless” to Philemon because of the damage Onesimus had done to Philemon, but tells Philemon that Onesimus is now “useful both to you and me” (v11).
– Paul also calls Onesimus “my very heart” (v12).
– Paul says that he thought about keeping Onesimus with him so that Onesimus could help him in his ministry (v13). But at the same time Paul did not want to make Philemon feel uncomfortable by doing that without Philemon’s consent (v14).
– Paul then suggests that maybe the reason why God allowed Onesimus to leave Philemon for a while is so that Onesimus could come back one day and be not just Philemon’s slave, but also his dear brother in Christ (v15).
What is Paul doing? Paul has spoken about both Philemon and Onesimus in glowing terms. In so doing, Paul makes it clear that he is not favoring one person over another. Paul is also casting a vision of reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. That is what a mediator does. A mediator brings two previously opposing and distant parties together, not standing exclusively on one side or the other, but being there for the both of them in hopes that they can reach an agreement.
Just as Paul acted as a mediator between Philemon and Onesimus, Christ acts as the mediator between God and us. When we had sinned against God and were separated from Him, Jesus stood in the middle and became the bridge that connects God and us back together. As 1 Timothy 2:5-6 says, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men…”
Lord Jesus, thank You that when we had run away from God and were separated from our Heavenly Father, you stepped in and became the gentle mediator between us and the Father. Thank You for speaking on our behalf so that we could be brought back to the Father. And thank You for being so gentle in the way You exercise Your power and discipline. In Jesus’ name, AMEN!