Today’s passages: Isaiah, chapters 6-7; 2 Chronicles, chapters 26-27; Philemon
Scripture: Philemon 8-21 (NRSV) – For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love – and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might 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. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Observations: In today’s passages, we see a contrast between human pride and being “bold in Christ.” In 2 Chronicles 26, we read how God blessed King Uzziah of Judah, and helped him to win great battles and strengthen the country. But verse 16 says, “But when he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction.” He became so sure of himself that he thought to go into the Temple and offer incense to the Lord – and that was a task that God had reserved to the priests. When the priests confronted him, Uzziah grew angry – and anger is a symptom of human pride. Verse 19 says that when Uzziah became angry, he immediately developed leprosy on his forehead – which made him ceremonially unclean. He hurried out of the Temple, because he recognized that “the Lord had struck him” (verse 20). The consequences of his pride stayed with him for the rest of his life; he remained a leper, and had to live in a separate house from his family until he died. He had been a good king, but human pride had sprung up in his heart – and he lived with the result of his sin the rest of his life.
In contrast, Paul’s letter to Philemon demonstrates what Paul calls being “bold in Christ.” He is writing to Philemon about Onesimus, who was a slave belonging to Philemon. Basically, Paul is asking Philemon to send Onesimus back to Paul so he could serve Paul while Paul was imprisoned. Paul says: “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…”(vv 8-9). It takes a lot of boldness to ask someone to give you something; it takes quite a bit more to say that you could command them to do it as a duty! Yet Paul says that he has the right to command Philemon to do it.
We live in a time when many Christians fail to honor the clear commandments of God relating to giving to God and his work. Surveys reveal that in the United States, only 3-5% of people who identify themselves as Christians tithe. (“Tithing” is the Biblical practice of giving 10% of your income to the church.) Although God’s Word makes it clear that this is his command to his people (Malachi 3:8-10), the vast majority of people who consider themselves Christian obey this command.
I mention that only to point out how stunning Paul’s comment to Philemon is. Paul believed that he had the authority to command Philemon to give Onesimus to him – and he expected Philemon to understand and agree with that! The fact that Paul says that he doesn’t want to command Philemon to do it, and that he hopes that Philemon would do it willingly, does not change the fact that Paul believed that he had the authority to command Philemon to do it, and that it was Philemon’s duty to do so.
Applications: I’m frankly uncomfortable with the kind of boldness that Paul displays in this letter to Philemon – but God is reminding me that obedience is a critical part of our relationship with him. If I’m not willing to follow his leadership, I’m not going to be willing to follow those whom he has put in leadership. If I’m not willing to obey them, I’ve set myself up as the final authority of what is right and wrong – and that will lead me to the same error as Uzziah committed. If I’m following God’s authority, I have to be willing to follow those whom he has established as leaders in the church – and I have to be willing to lead the people that he has called me to lead. Leading is certainly not about just giving orders to people – but there are times when leaders do have to do that. If we’re not willing to lead the way that God directs, we’re not leading people toward God at all.
Prayer: Father, I struggle with telling people “this is what God says” – yet there are times when you clearly tell me to do that. If I’m willing to proclaim “this is what God says” from the pulpit on Sunday, I also have to be willing to say it in my office on Thursday, or in a small group on Monday – or when I’m writing and posting things online. Help me to never substitute my thoughts for your direction; help me to never shrink away from saying what you tell me to say. Help me to live in such a way that your direction is well-received by those with whom I share it, so that it is clear that you, not me, are the source of that direction. Help me to obey you, so others will be drawn to obedience as well. Amen.