Paul offers a unique perspective on obedience in Philemon.
Philemon 1:21-23: Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. (ESV)
About 20 years ago, I founded a non-profit organization called Resources and Aid Mobilization to aid the persecuted church and to rescue and empower women at risk in Pakistan. Much of RAM’s work is fighting against modern-day slavery at brick kiln factories. Impoverished families in desperate need of money take out loans from brick kiln owners for amounts as low as a couple hundred dollars. In return, the entire family must work at the kiln to pay it back.
Because the owner charges a heavy interest rate, as high as 40-50%, or takes advantage of the family by arbitrarily increasing the loan amount, families become effectively enslaved for generations trying to pay back the money.
Our team in Pakistan uses legal processes, public pressure, and formal negotiations to buy back the freedom of those enslaved. When their freedom is purchased, they are free to do whatever they want, and we also provide training for them to start a new job.
But the painful truth is that not all the people who are set free go and live a new life. Many decide to continue to work at the kilns as employed workers with better rates. Some even borrow more money and go right back into generational slavery.
Slavery in Philemon
In Philemon, Paul is telling a runaway slave to return to his master. But we must remember that the context of slavery at the time of Philemon is very similar to modern-day slavery, not chattel slavery such as existed within the more recent slave trade.
There are some who argue that Christianity supported slavery in the United States, and they use Philemon as evidence. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Not only was Roman slavery or modern slavery extremely different from chattel slavery, in Philemon Paul is not reinforcing slavery. Instead, Paul is writing to ask Philemon to accept back and forgive his runaway slave Onesimus, who is now a Christian, as a brother in Christ.
I want to be clear that Scripture does not support slavery in any form. But in modern slavery such as exists in Pakistan, RAM cannot just pay families’ debts and hope things will work out. We have to negotiate with the factory owners to treat their workers with justice and settle their accounts fairly. This is similar to how Paul is writing to Philemon to request Onesimus’ pardon.
Paul’s confidence in Philemon’s obedience, an obedience that will go above and beyond, is the direct result of Philemon’s faith in Christ and love for fellow Christians.
Why is he so assured of Philemon’s obedience?
Paul Knows Philemon
Paul’s rock-solid confidence in Philemon is first shown by Paul’s actions. He sends Onesimus back at the same time as the letter because Paul knows that Philemon will put obedience to Christ before anything.
In addition, Paul writes that he knows Philemon will go above and beyond Paul’s requests. Paul is so confident of what he knows about Philemon’s obedience to Christ that on top of forgiving Onesimus in v.21 he says, “you will do even more than I say.” That is a tall order to measure up to.
The Greek word for “knowing” in our text is -(eídō), which is to examine or discern something. This is not something that happens at once. It requires time and relational investment.
Church, when you really know someone truly, you know what they are capable of. You know they will go above and beyond. Paul’s appeal might be a big deal for someone else, but for what Paul knows about Philemon’s obedience to Christ, it’s nothing.
Do you know brothers and sisters in Christ like that? Can others say about us that obeying Christ and doing the right thing is all that we are known for, even when it’s unpopular?
Knowing Builds Trust
Because Paul knows Philemon, he trusts him. Now that I have known my wife for so long, I can trust her with my life and all life’s decisions. When I ask her or she asks me to do something, we have complete confidence that it will be done.
In v. 17, Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul. Paul says Onesimus is a changed man, so receive him as you will receive me, in other words trust him as you trust me. Even though Onesimus has not given any reason to Philemon to trust him, because Philemon trusts Paul, he should also trust Onesimus.
Paul knows Philemon, and he trusts Philemon because he has witnessed Gospel transformation in his words and deeds, which is essentially evidence of his maturity of faith.
In our cultural context, the word obedient carries this uncomfortable condescending tone. I do not even use that with my children. I should, but I do not. However, in Eastern culture, obedience is expected by teacher from student, by parents from children, and by master from servants. Obedience is a sign of respect and loyalty.
The Bible talks about obedience repeatedly and connects it to eternal consequences and rewards. Romans 5:19 says, “For as by the one man’s [that is Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s [that is Christ’s] obedience the many will be made righteous.”
Obeying has always been hard for humans because it challenges our pride. Even my little girls, who are not even two, have difficulty obeying. Nobody must teach us disobedience; it is innate in us.
The Bible teaches a few main things on obedience:
The Bible teaches obedience is more valuable than sacrifice. Samuel, 15:22, says, “And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” In the Gospel of Mathews, twice correcting false interpretations, Jesus told religious leaders, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”
The Bible teaches obedience never by compulsion but always in love. People, out of fear, offered sacrifices, but what God wanted all along for them was to be sacrificial out of love. God wanted obedience infused by a genuine love for Him. Philemon’s obedience to Paul is not out of fear, guilt, or some obligation in an attempt to be a good Christian, but rather out of genuine love.
The Bible teaches that our obedience to God is evidence of our love for Him and His people. In 1 John 5:2–3 we find: “By this, we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” Jesus, in John 14:15, said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
The Bible teaches that obedience to God’s word leads to a prosperous life, but disobedience leads to destruction. So, if Philemon remains obedient to God’s word, then he will never lack anything because Christ is with Him, but disobedience will guarantee dissatisfaction and emptiness. If he is disobedient, he may gain his slave back, but he will lose his peace.
This applies to us too. We can be satisfied in everything and every way if we obey God, but we will always remain unsatisfied if we disobey him. God wants complete obedience out of love and not out of compulsion.
The question for us is this, in what area are we lacking in obedience to God? Is it submission to God and each other, sexual purity, serving God sacrificially, giving God generously, or something else?