surrenderHaving completed our meditations on Obadiah we move the series along by turning our attention to the next book the Bible containing one chapter, the book of Philemon. In this book we encounter Paul as a master communicator and influencer.  He presents us with a sort of template for dealing with conflicts and we are brought face to face with our individual struggle with Jesus’ hard saying to turn the other cheek, our grappling with the virtue of forgiving others and allowing relationships to trump rights.  Persons sensitive to the interest of Caribbean Theology will have a keen interest in the book given the central place of the matter of slavery in its content. We will therefore detain ourselves accordingly in due course.

This brief letter was written by Paul during his Roman imprisonment described in Acts 28:30-31.   John Trapp is quoted as saying “This is a notable Epistle, and full of worth; each word having its weight, each syllable its substance. From an abject subject, the receiving of a runaway servant, St. Paul soars like a heavenly eagle, and flies a high pitch of heavenly discourse.”

By way of summary of the book as per the Amplified Bible, evidently Onesimus had escaped from Philemon in Colosse to Rome where he became a believer and associated with Paul.  As a slave he was the legal property of Philemon.  In addition Onesimus had stolen some of Philemon’s goods.  With this letter Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, emphasizing that Christian conduct should permeate their relationship.  Paul especially pleads for forgiveness for Onesimus asking that he be accepted as a Christian brother.  The appeal is written very tactfully and is organized in such a way as to build rapport, persuade the mind and move the emotions.

The opening verses read: 1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: 3Grace and peace to youa from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

These verses present us with a celebration of love and Christian relationship that is the standard to which the people of God have been called.  This is the very fulcrum on which the power of forgiveness highlighted in the book swings.  Let us consider Paul’s self understanding and Philemon’s reputation of love.

Paul stands out among the New Testament writers for many things.  The phrase , A prisoner of Christ Jesus is one of them: “As always, Paul did not consider himself a prisoner of Rome, of circumstances, or of the religious leaders who started his legal troubles in Acts 23-24. Paul was a prisoner of Jesus Christ”.[1]  This particular self concept is absolutely profound and governed his entire approach to ministry and his life.  It is this view of himself which allowed him to live an integrated life.  In Paul we do not find the cognitive dissonance that characterizes so much of today’s church goers.  There was no discontinuity between Paul the minister, missionary, preacher, teacher and Paul the human being.

The fact that the call to discipleship is a call to surrender as Jesus made very clear, even to the detriment of popularity, is a fact that seems to have escaped the minds of many within the Christian community.  Behavior and conduct unbecoming of saints abound.  Attitudes that do not indicate a surrendered life are so prevalent that the authentic witness of the transformed life is scarcely visible to those who we love to classify as ‘worldians’.  Garments and speech and noise and frenzied activities have been made to be the new indicators rightness with Jesus instead of actions and attitudes that speak loudly of a surrendered life. Given the overall strategy of Paul to influence the healing of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus I suspect that his repeat of his self understanding, a prisoner for the sake of Christ forms part of his appeal to Philemon.  That is to say, Philemon do this unlikely feat for the sake of Christ.  Take the road less travelled for the sake of Christ. Go against the norms and cut against the grain because we are prisoners for Christ. I put it to you that if you take such a view that person that you have stubbornly refused to forgive for so long becomes forgivable. The vengeance that you believe is yours and that you are planning to execute at the right time becomes expendable if you take the view that you are a prisoner of Christ.

The opening of the letter with this kind of self concept of Paul flows into Paul’s highly effective use of compliments as an approach to conflict resolution.  Whereas in 69% of his letters he mentions his Apostolic designation here is one of the few times that he doesn’t.  His refers to Philemon as a beloved friend.  He intentionally makes his appeal on the basis of relationship instead of authority.  We will return to this later in the series.  His description of his friend portrays a man whose reputation of love and loyal faith was well established.  It formed the basis of Paul’s frequent prayers of thanksgiving to God for him.  What an honour to be so remembered… as a person marked by love and loyalty!  Philemon had gotten the dimensions correct.  Paul commends him highly for the well known display of his love and loyal faith towards God and towards people.  As obvious and basic as it is there are many who miss it totally.  They work hard on establishing a reputation of love and faith towards God yet trample humanity.  Paul’s prayer for his friend demonstrates the inevitable  impact of such an integrated life, on the person, the recipients and the Kingdom of God.  The surrendered life will be evident by such a noble reputation of love and loyalty.

 

[1] Guzik Commentary


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