“I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints” (Philemon 1:4-5 NIV).
These comments may not seem very significant now, but remember what Paul says to Philemon in these verses because they will soon become a lot more important than they may appear.
“Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 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– I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains” (Philemon 1:7-10 NIV).
Paul was the man that God personally selected to be an apostle and write much of the New Testament. Knowing this, we might expect Paul to use this authority that he received from God to command Philemon to do whatever he wanted. But instead of making demands or trying to force Philemon to do what he said, this great leader of God instead chose to act in humility. Paul said in effect, “I could order you to do what I’m about to say, but I really want you to do the right thing for the right reason.”
And what was that reason? Well, you find that answer in verse nine: “I appeal to you on the basis of love.” Remember that love always seeks another person’s highest good and it’s on that basis that Paul is about to make his request…
“Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him– who is my very heart– back to you. 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. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced” (Philemon 1:11-14 NIV).
Now this section may not mean a whole lot to you until you realize that Paul is making a play on words here. You see, the name “Onesimus” means “useful” and Paul is saying, “Look, I know ‘Useful’ has been pretty useless up to this point, but now that he has become a Christian, he can really start living up to his name.” And we see again that Paul wants to encourage Philemon to do the right thing for the right reason. He wants Philemon to do the good, loving, right, and kind thing by choice, not because Paul forced him into doing something he didn’t really want to do.
This is a good example of the way that God interacts with people. You see, God doesn’t force people to become zombified robots who are programmed to do whatever He wants them to do. Instead, God offers people the freedom to make the right choices for the right reasons so they can enter into a genuine, sincere relationship with Him based on mutual love.
Think of it like this: what if God sat up in heaven with a remote control that zapped you every time you did something that He didn’t want you to do? In that case, you’d probably learn to do God’s will really fast, but it would be the right thing for the wrong reason. It would be wrong in the sense that you wouldn’t be motivated by love- you’d be motivated instead by your desire to avoid getting zapped. In the same way, God wants to give you the freedom to make the right choices for the right reasons. He could force you to do what you should, but just like Paul with Philemon, God wants your response to Him to be loving and unforced (see also Romans 2:4).
“Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good– no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (Philemon 1:15-17 NIV).
Now, you might remember something Paul said that The Doctor asked you to remember for later. That “something” was verses four and five that say, “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.”
Now look again at what Paul says in verse sixteen. Speaking of Onesimus, Paul says, “He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” What Paul is saying “between the lines” here is this: “Philemon, I know that you love all the brothers in the Lord. Oh, by the way, remember Onesimus, that runaway slave you once had? Guess what? He is a brother in the Lord now too! You do love all the brothers in the Lord, Philemon- remember?” You see, Paul is quietly reminding Philemon that he now had the same obligation to treat Onesimus just as he would treat any other Christian brother or sister.
This reminds us that there are important things to consider when dealing with a fellow Christian. You see, Philemon would have been perfectly within his legal rights to punish Onesimus in any way he desired. But now things were different- Philemon wasn’t only dealing with a worker, he was now dealing with a fellow brother in Christ. This put Philemon in a position where he really had to think about whether it was right to exercise his rights.