Onesimus, a slave, had run away from Philemon. He had met Paul in Rome, and there become a believer. Paul sent him back to Colossae with a letter, asking the master to forgive the slave, and to receive him back.
What was Paul’s motivation? Clearly, he had come to love Onesimus as a Christian brother. Clearly, too, he believed that all people are equal in the sight of God. (Gal 3:28) ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
What was Paul’s method? Interesting that he didn’t come right out and condemn slavery. However, this is in complete accord with the teaching of Christ, who made it clear that he had no interest in overthrowing the kingdoms of this world, in order to establish an earthly kingdom of his own. But the gospel does change things, only it starts with the heart. Paul sows the seeds of the liberating gospel into the tough soil of slavery. Those seeds bore fruit in the lives of Onesimus, the runaway slave, and Philemon, his master. The slave returns to the master, no longer a slave but “brother in the Lord” (Philem 15-16). The letter to Philemon is moving in the realm of personal relationships where the institution of slavery, together with all other forms of bondage and oppression, could only wilt and die.
But how did Paul sow these seeds in Philemon’s heart? How did he set about persuading Philemon to accept and forgive Onesimus?
One approach to the art of persuasion can be found in ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. Title of famous book by Dale Carnegie.
‘Fundamental techniques in handling people’ – Don’t criticize, condemn or complain. ‘Six ways to make people like you’ – Become genuinely interested in other people; Smile, Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language, ‘Win people to your way of thinking’ – appeal to the nobler motives ‘How to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment’
Verdict – it’s half right.
But if you want to learn how to influence people for good, have a look at how Paul sets about it in this letter to Philemon. See how he builds rapport, engages the mind, appeals to the emotions. It is a masterpiece of tactful persuasion. Paul shows us what it means to be complimentary without being flattering, honest without being rude; to be persuasive without being manipulative. One big difference:- Paul’s motivation is not self-interest, but concern for the other person. His aim is not to get the best for himself, but to get the best for Philemon and Onesimus.
Now, where does that kind of tactfulness come from? It is the offspring of truth and love. Paul himself links these two words in Eph 4:15 when he says that we will really grow as Christians when we learn to ‘speak the truth in love’. How often do we as Christians fail to give proper care and attention to truth and love? How frequently we care for the one and neglect the other? Either in our zeal for the truth we become strident and doctrinaire. Or, in our concern to be loving we become both mentally and morally spineless.
‘Speaking the truth in love’ occasionally means having to say hard things to one another. But to do so truthfully and in love is not only a skill which must be learned, but also a right which must be earned. And it is earned by spending time building up trust with each other. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ demands that wherever possible, we should spend more time commending and encouraging the good we see in one another than in criticising the bad (in a ratio of 14:1).
(2 Sam 12:1-7) The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. (2) The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, (3) but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. (4) “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” (5) David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! (6) He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” (7) Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”
Paul does not only have the good of Onesimus in mind. He is also concerned for Philemon. Where is it all leading to, as far as Philemon is concerned?
In proportion as Philemon learns to forgive, so he is becoming more like God. The more we forgive, the more evidence we show that we are children of our heavenly Father.
Someone has said, ‘We are most like beasts when we kill. We are most like men when we judge. We are most like God when we forgive.’
(Eph 4:32) Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph 5:1) Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.
(Mt 5:44-45) But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (45) that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
In a word, let us see in this letter to Philemon how Christians are meant to love one another, and hear the words of our Saviour, although uttered in a different context, “Go, and do thou likewise.”