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Dear Philemon

Paul’s epistle on behalf of Onesimus is a model for letter-writers

Dear Philemon

(Imagno/Getty Images)

Letter-writing is a dying art. So said the postal clerk at Christmastime when I came with a fistful of cards to stamp. They will never go out of style for Christians, of course, because we have nearly two dozen of them in the New Testament, and we can study them any time we want, to know how godly people write.

So I did that. I started with Philemon, because it was short. I figured it must be important too, for why else would someone bother to send it 2,060 kilometers overland from Rome to Colossae on Emperor Augustus’ new roads?

Philemon is a masterpiece of tact. Paul is writing to a wealthy recent convert to persuade him to be kind to his runaway slave, whom Paul is sending back to him a newly minted Christian. How does Paul do it? He crafts the man a compliment sandwich: (A) What a great guy you are! (B) Be nice to Onesimus; you owe me. (C) What a great guy you are!

This rough summary might make Paul seem manipulative, but he’s not. If you want manipulative, see Genesis 23 for how Ephron the Hittite does Abraham: It’s this ancient Near Eastern dance in which he makes himself look generous, all the while making sure he extracts full payment from the Canaan newbie for a burial plot.

Paul is the opposite of manipulative, if manipulation is skillful and unscrupulous handling of a person for one’s own advantage.

Paul is the opposite of manipulative, if manipulation is skillful and unscrupulous handling of a person for one’s own advantage. If there is one sure thing about Paul, it’s his habit of seeking the advantage of the other at his own expense. He says things like this and means it: “But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed” (2 Corinthians 13:7).

Who does that?

Another thing: the world’s way is to flatter the one you’re with and rag on the one you’re not with. Paul, by contrast, boasts about the Corinthians to the Macedonians (2 Corinthians 9:2), then turns around and boasts about the Macedonians to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). He wants every Christian to think more highly of every other Christian. He’s angling for Philemon to look at Onesimus differently: Wow, you’re so lucky to have Onesimus back! Just think, you have a new brother!

Granted, there are times when Paul seems to the superficial eye to blow his own horn. But even then it’s only for the reader’s sake, so that he’ll catch on by example that it’s good to praise, and so that he will not get sucked into the fake gospel of the poseurs. So though he is viscerally averse to it, he lists a few things that he suffered for the Lord—some shipwrecks and a stoning or two (2 Corinthians 11 and 12).

See how Paul appeals to Philemon to get him to welcome his slave back—and make it seem like it’s his own idea: “I would have been glad to keep him with me, … but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (verses 13-14). He does the same to coax generosity from the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 8:8-12). He knows that joyful willingness increases reward. And the other’s reward in heaven is what Paul is about: “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit” (Philippians 4:17).

C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Paul looked inward only long enough to make sure he had not slipped from a state of faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). But the man never went overboard (1 Corinthians 4:3-4). He was much too busy seeking other people’s good.

You will do well if you write your next hard letter that way too.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 09/27/2018 01:36 pm

    This wonderful column reminds me not only to study the theology of the Bible, but also the examples of actual humanity in it.

  • Home School Te...
    Posted: Mon, 10/08/2018 08:04 am

    When we stand before our Master, (God the Father) like Onesimus, we can reach into our back pocket and pull out a letter from his son that reads: "Accept this one exactly as you would if it was me."