Wednesday, December 03, 2003


Philemon's Love for all the Saints

This the third essay in a series covering Paul's letter to Philemon.

I wrote yesterday that Paul's addressed this letter to Philemon, his wife, his son, and the church that met in his home. I mentioned that this was a way of placing pressure on Philemon. His choice would be a public choice. But it must be said that publicity cuts both ways. Everything that Paul writes in the letter is also open to public scrutiny. Of particular importance is that the broader audience can judge Paul's accuracy and wisdom. This lets us know something very important about the next section. The assertion of Philemon's love is not mere flattery:

I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. (Philemon 4-7)

Paul has heard reports of Philemon's love and faith. It was probably these reports that gave Paul confidence that he could send Onesimus home. It is reasonable that this same quality convinced Onesimus to gamble his life. 

So before Paul has even mentioned Onesimus's name, he appeals to Philemon's love for all the saints. It is no accident that Paul uses the word "all" here. Onesimus is now a saint. (The New Testament usage of the word "saint" means a believer--not some person elevated by the church as having special status or access to God.). Onesimus is a believer. Since Philemon is one who loves all the saints, it follows that he will love Onesimus. 

Paul prays that Philemon's fellowship of faith may become effective. Since shared faith is the basis of fellowship, it follows that as faith deepens so can the depth of fellowship among believers. On this basis, Philemon's being able to extend the hand of fellowship to Onesimus would be evidence of every good thing which is in Philemon for Christ's sake.

Paul reminds Philemon of the joy and comfort that he has had from Philemon's loves other people of faith. His generosity has refreshed many a soul, and this has pleased Paul very much. Of course, Paul expects Philemon to now refresh Onesimus with the same show of love.

All of this could be hogwash and mere flattery, if written privately. But as a public announcement, Paul must have a sense that such words would be acknowledged by the broader audience. One can picture the public reading of this letter and the nods and gestures of approval rippling through the church.

Philemon has a heart generous enough to see the situation and respond accordingly. With that established, Paul introduces his request:

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— (Philemon 8-9)

Paul clearly believes that his appeal is for something true and right. So much so that he could command that Philemon do the right thing regardless of how he might feel about it. But because of Philemon's character and love for all the saints, Paul believes that he can appeal to Philemon instead. And, by golly, if Philemon does not have the love for Onesimus to do what is right, perhaps he can do it for his long time and aged friend who is in prison and who would certainly enjoy being refreshed again by Philemon once more expanding the fellowship of faith.

No wasted words. The letter has still not mentioned Onesimus, but by now Philemon has guessed the purpose of the letter. He has a choice to accept Onesimus and refresh Paul "the aged and now also a prisoner." Or reject the appeal and now bring doubt about the sincerity of his love for all the saints.

Note that Paul could have commanded, but has laid aside that path. Philemon, at this point, could almost wish that Paul had commanded. It would have been out of his hands. He could tell his slave owning friends that there was nothing that he could do about the Onesimus situation. Paul has offered the high moral ground for Philemon to take.

No wasted words. Empty flattery would have been a waste of words. It only fools those foolish enough to feed on it. A man or woman who has learned to love because it is the right thing to do is a rare and beautiful thing and should be the goal of all Christians. Many have learned that love is an act of the will. Love rises above emotion and knows and does the loving thing, Sometimes the emotional feelings--usually associated with love--will follow, but they are never necessary. Paul appeals to Philemon's sense of what a Christian is and provides some emotional support.

Do you love all the saints?

Thursday: Useless to Useful

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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