An Appeal for Spontaneity
In the short, handwritten note from the apostle Paul to his friend Philemon, we step into a captivating story of grace and divine providence. Onesimus, a bondservant in Philemon’s home, apparently had absconded with his master’s property. His long flight from justice eventually led him to Paul in Rome. The result: The gospel of Jesus Christ marvelously transformed Onesimus.
The time eventually came for the broken relationship between master and slave to be reconciled and for the once useless, now redeemed, slave to go home. Philemon was about to come face-to-face with Onesimus. How would he react to his wayward servant’s return when he learned they were now brothers in Christ?
Onesimus carried Paul’s letter on his journey home. It dealt with decisions Philemon would face regarding consequences for Onesimus and restitution.
Understanding the gravity of the situation, Paul’s epistle offered encouragement and provided vital information and instruction to help Philemon decide what to do. Paul testified of Philemon’s widely known reputation as a man of faith who sincerely loved the Lord and his fellow Christians. He also endorsed the genuineness of Onesimus’ newfound faith and advised obedience concerning how to receive Onesimus.
It may seem odd that Paul directed a lesson on obedience to the godly master, rather than to the wayward slave. Yet Paul’s instructions to Philemon did not come as an authoritative, apostolic command but, rather, as an appeal to Philemon’s heart:
Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of
Jesus Christ—I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart (Phile. 1:8–12).
Based on Philemon’s exemplary character and Christlike display of love, Paul appealed to him to forgive and receive Onesimus. His words were bold and frank, yet tempered in the appropriateness of dealing with a brother in Christ. Paul told Philemon he could order him to do the right thing as a superior commands a soldier, but instead he appealed to him in love.
By doing so, he called Philemon to a more mature level of spiritual obedience, appealing to him on the basis of their mutual love for the Lord, one another, and their Christian brothers and sisters. Instead of issuing a command, Paul urged his dear brother to respond from the depths of his relationship with the Savior (v. 9), and he knew Philemon would accept such a directive and fulfill it wholeheartedly.
Paul told Philemon of the dramatic change in the runaway’s life since Onesimus came to Christ. Onesimus had become so valuable to the ministry that Paul even wanted to keep him in Rome, which may have been permissible. But Paul felt it was more appropriate to send Onesimus back to his master.
Paul wrote, “Without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary” (v. 14). Paul gave Philemon the opportunity to obey, choosing not to impose on him a required response and unwanted burden. Paul wanted Philemon’s consent before he took action. If Paul had forced Philemon to accept Onesimus, it would have robbed Philemon of his blessing.
Choosing Spontaneous Obedience
Paul encouraged Philemon to live spontaneously. Today the word spontaneous often describes someone who acts or speaks impulsively; makes decisions without thinking; or embarks on carefree, fun-loving escapades without plan or reason. But the word actually comes from the Latin word sponte, which means “voluntarily,” or “of one’s free will.”
Though Paul was raised and trained in the rigid, legalistic Pharisaic system, he encouraged spontaneity in the lives of those he taught and influenced. On the one hand, his writings emphasized unquestioning obedience to God’s Word. But on the other hand, they encouraged spontaneity of obedience that emanates from grace.
Though it would have been easier to tell Philemon what to do, Paul—a skilled and insightful maker of disciples—wanted to lead Philemon into a deeper level of Christlikeness. If Philemon had merely executed Paul’s command, he would have missed the opportunity to take responsibility for the blessing or pain of his personal choice.
Paul distinguished between imposed obedience and spontaneous obedience in three main ways:
→ Imposed obedience begins with an authoritative command, while spontaneous obedience emanates from an appeal to love.
→ Imposed obedience responds to an obligatory action, whereas spontaneous obedience appeals to a choice for the good.
→ Imposed obedience is compulsory and forced, but spontaneous obedience is a voluntary choice of one’s free will.
Scripture doesn’t reveal the outcome of Paul’s appeal for Onesimus. We don’t know how Philemon responded. But we do know Paul was convinced Philemon would react positively: “Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v. 21).
Years ago, I heard someone say, “You never call a man to greatness by making him feel small.” Paul’s statement of absolute confidence in Philemon’s character and obedience probably plumbed the depths of Philemon’s heart, infusing him with a desire to love and serve more richly. Paul called Philemon to put the following verses into practice: “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God” (Phil. 2:4–6).
Paul commonly called others to greatness, not by making them feel small, but by expressing his confidence in the largesse of their hearts. Paul expressed his confidence in the godly character of the church at Rome (Rom. 15:14), the Corinthians’ ability to do the right thing when challenged (2 Cor. 7:16; 8:22), the Galatians’ obedience to the truth (Gal. 5:10), and the Thessalonians’ ability to follow the Lord’s commands (2 Th. 3:4).
Knowing when to offer the choice to obey requires insight and discernment. Not everyone is mature enough to handle such liberty (Heb. 5:14). Paul’s well-informed confidence in Philemon moved Philemon from simply doing what was commanded or imposed on him into a freedom that allowed him to go beyond what was asked of him (Phile. 1:21).
Obedience is a prominent theme in Scripture. Paul’s words to Philemon do nothing to negate the importance of obedience. In fact, they elevate it to a higher level of spiritual maturity. Forty-six of the more than 200 uses of both the positive and negative aspects of the English word occur in the Pauline Epistles.
The value of our obedience is determined not by what we do but, rather, by why we do it. Obedience out of compulsion has little value compared to voluntary and spontaneous obedience. The depth of our love for the Lord and others will determine the burdensome weight we choose to bear when called to obey (1 Jn. 5:3).
Obedience to the Lord is paramount. It is easier to sing wholeheartedly, “There is joy in serving Jesus,” when we obey spontaneously out of love, rather than when we obey out of compulsion.
Just as Paul confidently called Philemon to Christlike greatness, the Lord is likewise calling us to Christlike greatness through joyful, spontaneous obedience. Nothing is impossible with the Lord. Blessing and joy can overflow from even the simplest act of voluntary obedience to Him.