Thanksgiving and intercession. 1-7

Onesimus was a runaway slave who had somehow made his way to Paul, was converted and is now being encouraged by Paul to return to Philemon his master. Paul knows Philemon well; he is a believer and friend. Paul therefore writes to Philemon to encourage him to welcome Onesimus back, no longer as a slave and a runaway, but rather a brother and fellow worker of the Lord. The letter begins with the usual greeting and then moves to a thanksgiving and prayer.

The passage

v1. In the opening greeting Paul declares that he is a prisoner, and by this he means he is actually in prison. Paul is a prisoner "of Christ", which probably means "because of his service to Christ." The letter is addressed to Philemon who is described as: i] "a dear friend", beloved, ie. he belongs to a community of mutual love - right from the beginning Paul establishes the basis upon which his request will be made; ii] and a fellow-worker - Philemon has laboured in the gospel with Paul.

v2. The letter is also addressed to other "fellow-campaigners." So, the members of Philemon's house-church are also greeted. It is most likely that churches in the first century tended to be extensions of a believing family, cf. Col.4:15. The house-church model is a very interesting one and could again become dominant in Western society if (when?) the secular State moves against the church.

v3. Paul gives the standard greeting, or blessing, as it is often known. May his readers know and experience the grace of God and through this grace find peace with God.

v4-5. Then follows a thanksgiving-prayer for Philemon's Christian life. Paul thanks God because of Philemon's faith in Christ, and its inevitable consequence, namely his love of the brotherhood. Paul often used the word "saints" to mean his fellow Jewish believers, but here Gentile believers are probably included.

v6. In this verse, one that has prompted numerous translations, Paul explains the focus of his prayers for Philemon. Paul desires that Philemon's fellowshiping with other believers, a sharing which is the product of his faith in Christ, might nourish knowledge and lead to a closer union with Christ, and this particularly for those who gather with him in his house-church.

v7. Paul has derived much joy and encouragement from Philemon's love of the brotherhood. Philemon has constantly refreshed the hearts of those who have dedicated themselves to God's service, and this, for Paul, is a great joy.

The Way of Love

In exercising leadership, we usually rely on people-management skills and charisma. Very rarely do we rely on the type of management criteria applied by Paul in his letter to Philemon. Of course, Paul could have relied on his trump card and made his request to Philemon an apostolic command. Yet note, in the opening verse of the letter Paul has left out his usual title, "apostle". Paul does not make his appeal on the basis of his authority. So, on what basis does Paul make his appeal? He makes it on the basis of love. Love allows a request to be made and accepted. So, Paul makes note of Philemon's love and it is on this basis that he makes his appeal, "I appeal to you on the basis of love", v9. The love upon which Paul makes his appeal is Christian love - brotherly love, the love of the brotherhood.

Such love is a bonding union between the individual believer and Christ, and the individual believer and other believers. It is a care, a compassion for the needs of other brothers and sisters within a fellowship of believers. Such compassion finds its dynamic in God's compassion toward us in Christ.

This quality of love, this divine characteristic, this ultimate compassion, is a special kind of loving. Such love images the nature of God, for "God is love."

We can describe this love in the following ways:

Christian love is not a sensual love, it is not sexual, yet it is like passion, but without the need for sexual union.

Christian love is not the love of a friend, yet it is like friendship, but without the need for compatibility.

Christian love is not the love of family, yet it is like family bonding (blood is thicker than water), but without the need for common genes.

Love should be the prime motivator for leadership and service. Hormones wane, interest declines, obligations are soon forgotten, but love endures forever, growing stronger and stronger.

Christian love motivates us for Christian service, but is not a tool for manipulation. When we encourage others to serve Jesus, let it be for the kingdom of God, and not our own little kingdom. So, our appeal to one another is best done on the basis of divine love, of God's love for us enlivening us to love.


Define Christian love?