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.