Who Are We? – Philemon

Who Are We? – Philemon

Paul is making a request in the midst of relationship, in the midst of a context – past, present and future. He’s already written about this, but now he goes into it deeper, and I feel it deeper…

I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus –

Paul identifies himself as “old.” Depending which imprisonment theory you go with (Rome or Ephesus), Paul is either old in age or older in seniority. But I don’t think that was what Paul meant…

He felt old. He felt limited. He felt vulnerable, and needy.

I’m getting older, and I identify with him.  As you age, you are so much more aware of your limitations – the limitations of your knowledge, skill, physical strength, what your body can and can’t do.

He was feeling his age as well as his limitations, as a prisoner. I have to confess, in this world of Covid, at times I’ve felt as a “prisoner” even though I believe in the cause!

We’re all getting older. For some, that’s exciting. But for many of us, we know our days of greatest impact may be behind us. We tend to look forward through the eyes of our children, physically and spiritually.

What can they achieve? We find purpose and meaning through them, carrying on the message of Jesus through their lives.

And we find joy.

Love’s Sake – Philemon

Requests carry risk.

though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to what is required,
yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you…

Requests get our desires out into the open, maybe even exposing a need.

Paul had the “authority” over Philemon. He was the leader of the church, the father of the community of faith. He had paid the price for them to hear the gospel. So in this community of faith where he could have made demands based on his position of authority, he chose to go a different direction – the direction of love.

Paul never lacked boldness, but in this situation, he chose love.


Could it be because he is making a request for Philemon to not use his authority, but to choose love?

Philemon has the authority legally, as Onesimus’ owner, to press charges on his run-away slave. He has all legal rights, while his slave has none. 

Paul is appealing to him not about power, but about love, compassion, mercy.

All of us have a certain amount of power in our relationships. If nothing else, we have the power to leave the relationship. We also have power to hurt the other person, or the power to encourage the other person.

Paul is making the point clear – Philemon can use his boldness, his power, his position to hurt Onemimus. Or…he can use it for “love’s sake” and express not just love for his brother in faith, but his love for a man who has been a father in faith.

Paul modeled the choice before he made the request, not using his authority but deferring to love.

How can I use my boldness, power, position in relationships to encourage others, to show love, mercy and forgiveness…

For “love’s sake?”


The Request – Philemon

Now we get to the meat of the letter, the real reason Paul is writing Philemon. 

Evidently, Philemon owned a slave, Onesimus, who went missing probably with some of Philemon’s money or property. He ended up with Paul who told him about Jesus and led him into faith. He’s now appealing to Philemon to restore the relationship.

I give the summary not as a “spoiler alert” but it’s hard to look at the request in the midst of the whole. Requests God makes of us are in the midst of a whole. First, there is what comes before the request, the request, and what comes after the request.

Paul, throughout his intro, has laid a foundation of two important principles, setting the stage for the request – Philemon’s relationship with Paul, Philemon’s relationship with God, and Philemon’s relationship to others.

Love and respect define Paul’s relationship with Philemon. Remember all the endearing words Paul used? Beloved, my fellow-worker, my brother, love, joy, comfort – each identifying the connection they have. Paul let Philemon know he remembers him in prayer and heard of his good works. He wanted God’s best for him.  He also made the contrast that while Philemon is experiencing freedom, enjoying success in ministry, Paul is a prisoner. 

And then there is Philemon’s relationship with God, the grace and peace he has received in his life. Like Paul, he had received forgiveness of sin and the power of the Holy Spirit in his life. Paul talked of Philemon’s love and faith in his Lord and master, Jesus. His life had been dramatically changed since he heard the gospel message.

Philemon lived his relationship for all to see – those in the community as well as those in the church. Paul addressed the church in his house and talked of Philemon’s “love and faith” towards the “saints.” But even more so, Paul prayed for Philemon’s “effective” witness to others. Philemon had put a stake in the ground as a Christ-follower.

Requests are not made in a vacuum.

A request comes from someone. The relationship with that person is critical to how I receive the request. If it’s from someone I love and respect, I lean into it, want to hear it, desire to respond.

My response is connected to my relationship with God. If that is good and we’re in fellowship, it goes one way. If I am not and am rebelling, wanting my own way, it will probably go the other.

And if there is any doubt, I also need to take into account how others will see my response. I have an opportunity to show to others love and faith and be a witness of the grace and mercy God has given me.

What request is God currently making of me? How is it grounded in others, my relationship with Him? Will it build faith in others, or tear down?

Great questions to ask myself. Decisions are not just mine. They don’t occur in a vacuum. They occur in relationships.

Philemon – Philemon

Philemon – Philemon

To Philemon our beloved fellow worker, 

So who is the book written to? 

The first person mentioned is Philemon. He is the main person, the person the letter was delivered to, but just like Paul, there is a context of people who were around him, to whom the letter was also meant to be shared. 

Philemon is first described as “beloved.” How sweet! I’m sad that in our culture we don’t greet each other as “beloved.” In fact, some children can’t remember their parents telling them they love them. We have drained out affectionate words and replaced them with kidding, teasing, “you know what I mean” sarcasm. No, we don’t always know what you mean.

Paul had true, spoken, affection for Philemon. At this point, we’re not sure why, but we know it is there. It’s deeply personal and intimate. Paul is not preaching to a crowd; he is whispering to a friend, a beloved friend.

Philemon is also a “fellow worker.” He’s someone who has stood shoulder to shoulder with Paul, doing the ministry. He’s been bowed under problems with Paul as well as danced with him with joy. They have prayed, wept and worked together.

There are relationships I’ve fostered over lunch or coffee appointments. I love them deeply for what they have shared with me, how transparent they have been about their lives and how they have let me enter their lives.

There are also relationships where we have worked side by side. It usually took longer to develop relationship, because we were focused on the work. But in doing the work, we learned trust. We began to anticipate the other person’s thoughts, desires, weaknesses. The small talk between tasks became bigger talk as we sought solutions together. We owned the work together.

I’m not saying one kind of relationship is better than the other. They are just different. But I have found that when we changed locations, the first kind fell away as we no longer could have our lunch dates. The second group fell away if we were no longer working together. But the memories of the second group seem to stay with me longer, and when there is opportunity, the work, and the relationship, has been easy to pick up.

Example in case: I have a high school friend I’ve hardly seen in the last 40 years. Back in the day, desirous to reach our campus for Christ, we started a prayer group during lunch. Years passed, and we went our own ways. Recently, with careers over and children gone, we have reconnected. Once again, we’re shoulder to shoulder, doing volunteer audio editing on line with her.BIBLE. It’s been as smooth as spreading butter.

Relationships come to us from all different directions, and they are all precious and unique. But there is something about a common cause that brings us together.

Philemon was one of those who shared the cause with Paul, a beloved fellow worker.

Passing it on: Relationships

2011-5-22 Great WallI read a good article in May 2014 Real Simple: Mother-in-Law & Order and realized it explained some things in my own life about relationships in general (even though the focus is on mother-in-laws). Some observations and thoughts from the article:

1 – When did it get started?  “Mother-in-law issues go back to Year One (or a few decades later), when the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote, ‘Give up all hope of peace so long as your mothering-in-law is alive.'” I wonder if some feelings are affected by the assumption we will not get along?

2 – Why Mother-in-law? Why does it not cross gender lines? “Women spend more time than men analyzing and worrying about relationships.” Good point. “In contrast, men don’t often ruminate, and when conflict arises, they tend to shrug it off rather than address it.” I think I need to learn from the men in my life.

3 – Differing expectations? Expectations of female bonding can create conflict. My mother-in-law called frequently when I first got married and had no idea I hated talking on the phone. We finally figured it out. We also have “superwoman” expectations we put on ourselves and others. When you get married, there is the clash of two cultures (unconscious ways of doing life).

4 – Different dynamics? Mother-in-law relationships catch husbands in the middle. Or, could it be that husbands help create issues by encouraging wives or mothers to meet expectations? I’ve seen situations where the husband hides behind a skirt (“My wife doesn’t want to…”) instead of manning-up to his own feelings.

5 – Humor or Hate? Culture has a huge effect on how we view relationships. I HATE mother-in-law jokes! They are not funny and are discrimination. If you think your mother-in-law will be a problem, she probably will. But if you are determined to believe the best and accept unconditionally, it works much better.

6 – Borders? Comments can feel intrusive and critical (Why do you brown your meat first?). If we’re defensive, we’ll accept comments from that angle. On the other hand, I know I’ve asked my daughter questions about how she does things because I sincerely want to learn from her. Ask a question back to explore your differences. If a question feels prying, a response like, “It’s a personal choice” usually gives a signal to back off.

7 – Tattling? Tattling to someone (usually a husband or family member) so that they will take your side is not good. Talking to others to get insight and perspective can be good. There is a fine line between the two, so check motives and be sensitive about how it will affect the person caught in the middle.

8 – Commitments? I remember when my mother asked me to call her every Sunday night and I just bristled. It felt as if personal freedom was being taken away rather than given, and if I failed, I would be judged (my over-active sense of responsibility). Commitments, just like expectations, need to be negotiated so that they understood and work for everyone.

I’ve been fortunate in my mother-in-law relationships, and the article helped me normalize and understand where some of my feelings (even prejudice) comes from. I’d love to learn from you if you want to leave a comment.