Sometimes the Bible surprises me, and it surprises me that it surprises me. It usually happens when I’m taking a deep dive into an entire book of the Bible, reading through and studying it rather than quickly looking at a few of its well-known or frequently quoted verses. Do you know what I mean?
A recent example is the week I spent in Philemon — one of the five books in the Bible with only one chapter (anyone able to tell me the other four without Google?). How many times did I write “I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers” (Philippians 1:3-4 CSB) in notes to friends and family who supported me during the writing and release of For All Who Wander? Rarely had I considered the context of Paul’s gratitude in this letter when I penned those words as my own. Reading through Philemon’s twenty-five verses a few times made me wonder how often I’ve cheated myself by focusing on only one or a few verses from a chapter or book rather than absorbing the context that inspired them.
In case you’ve forgotten or aren’t familiar, the book of Philemon was a letter written by Paul (and Timothy) to Philemon, a dearly loved brother and co-laborer for Christ, on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave who was owned by Philemon. Short story shorter, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, appealing for Onesimus to be received back as a beloved brother in the faith. Under Roman law, slaves were considered property, and Philemon had the right to punish him — severely or even fatally. Without Paul’s help, Onesimus’s well-being and life were at stake.
When I took time to look at Philemon in its entirety, I was mostly impressed and a little amused with Paul’s words. Impressed because Paul teaches a masterclass in love and leadership and demonstrates how to use our influence for good, and amused because he sure does blow a lot of air up Philemon’s skirt. His approach also reminded me of the sandwich critique method used in Word Weavers writing critique groups (positive comments flanking either side of constructive criticism/feedback). Although Philemon’s faith was so commendable, Paul wasn’t correcting anything. Rather, he built his case around who he knew Philemon to be.
So, what can we learn from this tiny book? Have you, like me, overlooked its relevancy and instruction, applicable to our real lives on so many levels? A few practices we might want to emulate —
- Thank God for the “iron sharpening iron” people in your life and take time tell them why. As I mentioned, I often include Philemon 1:3-4 in letters, but do I follow the pattern of verses 5 and 7 that tells them why and verse 6 that provides a specific prayer I’m offering on their behalf? What an example to follow.
- Take time to call out the love, truth, and beauty you see in others. Paul refers to Philemon as a dear friend and coworker (verse 1b), and he applauds his deep faith and love for others (verse 5, 7). This letter is personal. Paul’s affection is evident and rings sincere (not just for Philemon and Onesimus but for others in the church as well). Can you imagine how they must have felt when receiving such strong words of encouragement?
- Use your influence to advocate for those in need. An escaped slave, Onesimus had found his way to Paul and had come to receive Jesus as his savior through the Holy Spirit’s work in their relationship. Paul loved him as his son (v. 10), going so far as to describe him as his “very own heart” (v. 12). Still, Onesimus was a slave without rights, and on his own, in danger. Paul understood this, and he used his complete arsenal to champion Onesimus’s cause — his prominence, respect, and regard as a well-educated church leader; his considerable powers of persuasion; his relatable circumstances as an elderly prisoner; the social currency of close friendship with a rich and powerful man. He even put his money where his mouth was, promising to cover any costs lost or incurred because of Onesimus’s escape. He used every talent, resource, bit of influence, and circumstance he had to help out a brother in need.
- Rather than making demands of others, appeal to them in love. Paul was a powerful, important, and well-known leader in the early church, which is why he was able to say, ” . . . although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right . . . ” (v. 8). However, he wasn’t interested in making Philemon do anything. Instead, according to verse 9, Paul appealed to him “on the basis of love.” Paul didn’t take advantage of his position to force Philemon’s hand, but rather established a case for Philemon to arrive at the same conclusion on his own: to receive and see Onesimus as a beloved and esteemed brother in the faith. In love, Paul expressed the truth about God and man, creating a beautiful framework to accomplish the greatest good.
- Set expectations and invite others to accountability. From the outset of this letter, Paul invited others into the story — Apphia, Archippus, and even the entire church that met in Philemon’s home (v. 2). Philemon wouldn’t be able to make a decision without others knowing Paul’s wishes. In a second step of accountability, Paul tells Philemon he’s planing a future visit (v. 21). Whatever Philemon decides, he’ll eventually have a face to face with Paul — no doubt, an added motivating influence. In another stroke of brilliance to me, Paul expresses his confidence in Philemon doing the right thing by telling him so! Verse 21, “Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” How could anyone want to fall short of that expectation?
Paul chose his words carefully to preserve his friendship with Philemon. Overflowing with love and affection, he spoke the powerful truth of who Philemon and Onesimus were. While the end of the story isn’t documented, I sense we know the outcome.
Isn’t (in)courage’s #loveoverall theme for our year beautifully aligned with Philemon? What better way to end my “letter” to you today, by putting what I’ve learned into practice. My prayer for you today mirrors Paul’s prayer for Philemon:
I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective
through knowing every good thing that is in us
for the glory of Christ.
Philemon 1:6 (CSB)
And, if you study this dynamite-in-a-small-package book, I’d love to hear your insights and observations in comments!
Rather than making demands of others, appeal to them in love. #loveoverall #inloveoverall -@robindance: Click To Tweet