Goodness Not By Compulsion but of Free Will.
“...and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds…”

By Jon W. Quinn

 “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philemon 1-3).

This letter is addressed to Philemon, a Christian, in whose house the church of Christ at Colossae may have met. It is a letter of commendation of a servant of Philemon, who had left his master. The servant turns out to be Onesimus (vss. 10-22). In the Roman Empire, a run-away servant could be dealt with very harshly. Paul encourages Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother.

Some Facts About Onesimus
In his letter addressed to the church at Colossae, Paul referred to Onesimus as a "faithful and beloved brother" Colossians 4:9). But it had not been so when Onesimus had run away from Colossae. Onesimus was converted while a fugitive in Rome by an imprisoned Paul (Philemon 10).

Paul suggests that as a Christian, Onesimus would be more profitable to his master (Philemon 1:11). In fact, Paul may be using a play on words by taking the name of the servant, “Onesimus”, which is derived from the word “onemi” which means “joyful benefit” or “profit”. Toward the end of the letter Paul writes to Philemon, “Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.” (Philemon 1:20). The word translated “benefit” here is the Greek word “onemi” and is used by Paul to encourage Philemon's positive response to Paul's request.

Paul requests that Philemon receive Onesimus even as he would Paul himself (vs. 17). It also appears that Onesimus may have wronged Philemon when he left, and Paul offered to repay the damages (vss. 18, 19). Philemon's kind acceptance of Onesimus would make Paul happy (vs. 20-21).

In life we may occupy different stations. Economic levels. Different jobs. But in Christ we are brethren. Philemon had temporarily lost a servant, but gained a brother for eternity. Only the most carnal, selfish person would not understand this to be a wonderful blessing. Philemon was getting back much more than what he had missed due to Onesimus' flight.

The Lord means for our brotherhood in Christ to transcend every barrier; social, economic, racial or ethnic. He wrote to the churches of the Galatian region:

26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise.

(Galatians 3:26-29; see also Ephesians 6:9).

In fact, as far as the Lord was concerned, both Philemon and Onesimus were precious, neither more so or less so than the other. And the great equalizer is eternity.

9 But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position;
10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away.
11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.

(James 1:9-11)

Provoking, in a Good Way
“...and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds…” (Hebrews 10:24).
Paul's letter to Philemon is not heavy-handed. He seeks to win Philemon's heart. That should always be our aim. Paul affirms, “...but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.” (Philemon 14). We need to do the right things because we love that which is right. Our hearts are in it all the way.

This principle is often stated in so many different ways. For example, does the Lord want us to be generous and giving? Of course He does! But He does not want us to give “just because we have to”. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

So, do the right thing because you want to do it. Do it for the Lord.

Why Are You Where You Are?
Paul suggests something about the providence of God. He writes, “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philemon 15,16).

Providence is not something that is readily discernible. It is God working behind the scenes to answer prayers and to do his work. Paul suggests that perhaps it was part of God's plan to bring Paul and Onesimus together in Rome. Paul reasons that this looks like much more than just an accidental meeting… from Colossae to Rome; a runaway slave in hiding and just happen to run into a prisoner named Paul who knows his master Philemon! Maybe God had a hand in all that.

We don't know for sure… Paul doesn't either and so uses the word “perhaps” to suggest the possibility. How many times have these situation risen in your own life? Was some wonderful fortunate, and spiritually beneficial coincidence merely coincidence at all?

Paul does not know, but he does know this: he knows that the results of the series of events was a new brother in Christ now ready to face life and eternity in Jesus Christ. Through a series of events, something that had started out as a very negative thing had turned into a very good thing, and however directly God's hand was involved, He should get the praise, glory and thanksgiving.

From The Bradley Banner 4/19/2009
Published by the Bradley Church of Christ
1505 E. Broadway
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