Big Lessons from Small Books #1: Philemon
Series: Big Lessons from Small Books
One of the overarching themes one can trace through the scriptures is the appearances of “one-hit-wonders”, or individuals in scripture who are mentioned only once or twice, and disappear just as quickly. Examples of “one-hit-wonders” might include Jabez (1 Chronicles 4.9-10) who is only known for his famous prayer, or perhaps Tertius (Romans 16.22), who served as an amanuensis for Paul. One lesson that can be learned from these types of inclusions in the scripture is that there is something (or many things) to be learned, information that God found valuable enough to mankind to include it in His inspired word. Therefore, we need to pay as close attention to these short references as we do to those given more space in the Book.
Our tendency in approaching the Bible, however, is to do the opposite. We like to spend our time on the larger books or the larger figures, which is sometimes done to the neglect of smaller books and more obscure characters. Certainly there is nothing wrong with spending time on the larger books/figures, but are we leaving behind important truths while we do so?
This series of articles is designed to reveal the beauty found within some of the smaller texts within our Bibles, and to whet our appetites for closer, more devoted study of every corner of our scriptures. One advantage to studying shorter books is that the structure and main message is easier to see and follow. This can sometimes escape us in larger texts such as Romans or Genesis. Being able to read an entire book of the Bible in just a few minutes can do much for our understanding of that book as a whole. When we see the beauty and message of a shorter book, we are encouraged by the nuggets of truth we’re able to mine for ourselves, which can give us the confidence and motivation to mine larger and larger portions of God’s word.
Philemon is one such book that often escapes our close examination, and hopefully after a consideration of some themes from that text, we will be able to see the great tragedy inherent in a Christian’s decision to ignore this beautiful letter between the apostle Paul and his beloved friend Philemon.
Obedience through Love Trumps Compulsion by Command
One key theme that is repeated three times in Paul’s letter to Philemon is the idea that obedience by compulsion and command is inferior to obedience by choice due to love. “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you- “(v.8-9). Paul had the authority to have simply commanded Philemon to receive Onesimus back, but rather than that Paul invokes love here??? This can fall strangely on ears accustomed to hearing only “here’s the command, now obey it or else.”
This is not to say that one shouldn’t obey commands given by authority, whether it be parental, governmental, or divine in nature. The scriptures clearly and repeatedly indicate that obedience to God’s commands is an absolute necessity (Cf. Deut. 26.16-17; John 3.36), and this would also include those to whom God’s authority has been given, such as elders (Hebrews 13.17), parents (Colossians 3.20) and the government (Romans 13.1-7).
However, merely complying to commands is not the form of obedience that God’s people have been called to. Paul alludes to that here in Philemon v.8-9, and again in v.14: “but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.” Again Paul expresses an aversion to forcing Philemon to receive Onesimus! This can cause us to scratch our heads in confusion, until we see what has been there on the page the entire time: LOVE.
Remember: the greatest commandment in the Old Law was not “You shall OBEY the LORD your God with all your heart….”, but rather “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6.5)!!! Does this imply that we can love God without following His commandments? Of course not. What it does imply is that if our obedience to God’s commands is not done out of love for Him and His people, then it is displeasing to Him in every way! Consider Jesus’ message to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2.1-7. In this passage Jesus does not fault the Ephesians in their works, nor their “toil and patient endurance”, nor their testing and rejection of false apostles. However, Jesus calls them to repent for what can be a confusing reason: they have “abandoned the love” they had at first! If this church would not return to their “first love” their lampstand would be removed!!!
When we LOVE God, our obedience to Him goes far and above where obedience by compulsion alone will go. In Philemon, note just how many times Paul references the love between himself and Philemon before getting to the reason for the letter!!! “To Philemon our beloved fellow worker (v.1) …because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints (v.5) …I have derived much joy and comfort from your love (v.7) …yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you (v.9)”.
Furthermore, note how Paul describes what he feels certain Philemon will do once Onesimus arrives back to him: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (v.21). This begs an important question: How could Paul be confident that Philemon would do “even more” that he asked him to do? If Philemon was simply to be concerned as to whether or not he sufficiently “checked the box” of having received Onesimus back, why would Paul be confident Philemon would go above and beyond? Simple: Philemon would not be obeying out of compulsion, but out of love.
There are more important lessons like this one included in the tiny book of Philemon, as well as in other smaller books such as 2 John, Obadiah, and others. In the time you took to read this very article, you could have read through Philemon nearly three times (in the ESV, Philemon is only 460 words)! What golden nuggets of scriptural truth are you leaving unmined in smaller books such as these??? Find your Bible, get out your pencils and notebooks, and start digging!