In generations past, letter writing was not only a common and personal way of communicating, but a form of prose; almost poetic at times. For some, the handwritten letter was an art form, not only as to content but even the style in which it was hand written. Today, we send e-mails, text messages and the occasional letter or card via “snail” mail. But regardless of form, the personal letter remains a highly valued way to tell someone something from the heart. Maybe it’s because letter writing allows us to more carefully choose our words and express our feelings, without distraction or interruption.
It should come as no surprise then that, much of the New Testament was written as personal letters, addressed to individuals but intended to be read to the entire church. That said, what constituted a church in the first century was more like gathering of a few friends at a neighbor’s house by today’s standards. It wouldn’t be until the 3rd century that churches were separate buildings built and dedicated to worship. Among the letters included in the New Testament, Philemon is a short, yet very personal communication, from the Apostle Paul to a dear friend and his wife. Unlike the other letters Paul wrote to the house churches of Asia Minor, the letter to Philemon and his wife Apphia is not known as a great theological treatise, but is for us a highly significant and instructive work worthy of a careful reading.
Paul’s letter to Philemon and his wife Apphia is also unique because of its subject matter. It’s a personal appeal on someone else’s behalf, a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus. Paul is appealing to Philemon and Apphia, not on the basis of theology or rationality; rather, it is an argument from the heart. Paul is frequently passionate and personal in his letters; but here his intent is not merely to teach or admonish but is an appeal for intercession on behalf of another through a carefully crafted argument for acceptance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Our take away is as much about method as it is motivation, as we see Paul gently arguing on behalf of his new friend and partner in Christ, Onesimus. We come away with a method for intercession and reconciliation which can be useful within our own marriage and family, something we all need at some time. Paul teaches us how to use the authority we have been granted, not because we have earned it, but because God has assigned it to us. We also learn how to deal with the aftermath of rebellion, once the rebellion has been transformed into obedience; how to forgive those who have little to give as recompense. Paul’s letter is brief but well packed and there is much to be learned by unpacking it. It is an example of Godly persuasion, for the purpose and sake of the gospel, free of self-interest and focused on selfless love.
Take a few minutes and read Paul’s letter to Philemon; then join me as we unpack what God, in Christ, has written through Paul, to and for us.