Lest I Seem To Terrify You By Letters

Among the many ways that I can empathize with the Apostle Paul is the sometimes drastic difference in reputation between his physical presence and his weighty and learned prose. In 2 Corinthians 10:7-11, in dealing with a congregation that gave him a lot of trouble, Paul wrote the following: Do you look at things according to the outward appearance? If anyone is convinced in himself that he is Christ’s, let him again consider this in himself, that just as he is Christ’s, even so we are Christ’s. For even if I should boast somewhat more about our authority, which the Lord gave us for edification and not for your destruction, I shall not be ashamed–lest I seem to terrify you by letters. “For his letters,” they say, “are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contempible.” Let such a person consider this, that what we are in word by letters when we are absent, such we will be also in deed when we are present.”

Given that Paul is the author of about half the books of the New Testament, it is fitting that what we know about him is mostly from two sources, from his weighty and powerful letters as well as from the account of a friend an associate of his ministry in Acts, two sources that largely supplement each other, given that they seem to focus on different matters. The Acts of the Apostles focuses on Paul’s missionary work, including plenty of details about various imprisonments and his skill at dealing with Roman provincial authorities, while his letters show him dealing largely with congregational matters. Both sources show Paul’s zeal for God’s ways as well as Paul’s interest in reaching an audience where it stood and guiding them towards Christ. Even though he appears to have been a prickly person who struggled occasionally with a temper, he appears not to have been a particularly tyrannical person in his approach to others.

The graciousness of Paul’s approach is particularly evident in the book of Philemon. As I have commented elsewhere [1], the Book of Philemon is one I often return to in my own studies of the Bible, for though it is an exceedingly short letter that does not tend to attract a great deal of commentary from many writers, it is one I can greatly identify with myself and one that exhibits the sort of approach I wish to convey in my own epistlatory efforts. So, today, I would like to talk about the graciousness of Paul’s writing, and how his essential approach was not to coerce others into following his wishes, but rather to attempt to persuade them gently and kindly, to show them by reasoning and by skillful emotional appeal how to behave in a Christ-like manner through the gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit. Let us therefore look at the short book of Philemon strictly from the perspective of Paul’s gracious rhetorical technique, in the knowledge that there are other aspects of this work that are worthy of discussion and that I have discussed elsewhere in my works.

The theme of Paul’s graciousness is introduced from the start of the book of Philemon, in one of Paul’s greetings that shares common elements with many of his letters but with a particular focus as is appropriate [2]: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved friend fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here we see that Paul introduces his letter with an emotional appeal as a prisoner of Christ Jesus (making his request seem all that more important to grant, given the suffering he endured for the sake of the Gospel), with a greeting to Philemon and to his family, as well as to the congregation that met in his household. Since Philemon was a wealthy and influential church member, what might seem to be a personal matter within his household became a matter of congregational importance in Colosse. By opening his message with a sincere and fervent wish for grace, Paul makes his audacious request less harsh and more gentle, setting an example of gentleness for the congregation as a whole, while also subtly putting pressure on Philemon to behave in a Christian manner and avoid avenging himself by bringing the matter before the congregation as a whole and relying on positive peer pressure to help encourage Philemon to behave in a gracious manner as well.

Paul continues with his introduction by showing his concern for Philemon’s well being even as he himself was in chains: “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgement of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.” Here Paul, in what is a short letter, has already spent almost a third of a short letter in introduction, not mentioning the reason for his letter (for everyone who writes a letter or an essay or anything else does so for a reason and a purpose, however subtle and indirect). In continuing his appeal to Philemon, Paul notes that he mentions Philemon often in his prayers and that he is encouraged and refreshed by the generosity and hospitality of Philemon to fellow believers. He also points out subtly that Philemon’s sharing of faith will become (more?) effective if his decent and upstanding character is recognized. Since Paul was making a difficult request of Philemon, one that required a great deal of graciousness on the part of Philemon, it is important that Paul notes that Philemon’s reputation for graciousness and generosity will become increased as his good character is demonstrated in difficult matters.

This is a matter worthy of some discussion. When dealing with difficult and uncomfortable matters, it is far too easy for us to become self-absorbed, without understanding the full context and importance of our matters for other people as well as ourselves. If we are of a pessimistic or somewhat fearful mindset, it is easy for us to believe that doing what is gracious and full of agape love, which often does not feel particularly pleasant to do, will sink our reputation and honor in the eyes of others by showing us as somehow weak. However, oftentimes a commitment to doing the right thing in difficult and unpleasant circumstances, when we could easily excuse ourselves for acting in a harsh and ungodly manner, ends up increasing our reputation as our devotion to godly character and virtuous conduct becomes known and witnessed by fellow believers. The workings of divine providence are deeply mysterious, and good deeds done can be long remembered and serve as a context for one’s behavior and intents in the future, to help clear up misunderstandings and to help provide others with the grounds to show appreciation for the workings of God’s spirit in the lives of believers. By witnessing others dealing with life’s trials and drama with graciousness and godliness, we are inspired to show thanks to God for His own grace to us through Christ Jesus, and are hopefully inspired ourselves to give grace to others as we have the opportunity to do so.

Paul finally makes his appeal in the middle section of his letter to Philemon: “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 chians, who was once 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, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while from you for this purpose, that you might receive him 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.”

This was not an easy request for Paul to make, nor was it an easy request for Philemon to grant. Let us note how Paul phrases his request with an abundance of grace, though. While some ministers are bold in commanding others to do what is right and proper (and it should be noted that Paul himself did at times command others to behave in a godly manner, as he did in 1 Corinthians 5 in commanding the congregation at Corinth to disfellowship the member there who was living with his father’s wife, which was considered an incestuous relationship by both biblical and Roman law), here Paul seeks rather to appeal and persuade, so that Philemon’s action might be done voluntarily and not by compulsion. This does not mean that Paul does not make the strongest possible appeal to Philemon, but rather that Paul refuses to order Philemon to do what he wants, and refuses to take advantage of the runaway slave Onesimus’ presence in Rome to present Philemon with a fait accompli that he may end up feeling resentful about, jeopardizing his eternal life through bitterness that Paul was served by his runaway slave without his consent. By graciously sending Onesimus back (which required a great deal of faith on the part of Onesimus, it should be noted, to return humbly to his former master in search of forgiveness and grace for his own wrongdoing and offenses), Paul made sure that Philemon’s generosity would be by choice, rather than forced upon him. This allowed him the opportunity to avoid bitterness and to have his generosity and gracious character known by the congregation as a whole, who would be much quicker to repent of their own offenses to him when they recognized his own godly and merciful character.

It is also worth pointing out that the working of God’s Holy Spirit is particularly evident in this passage and in the details it relates. The workings of divine providence led Onesimus, a runaway slave who had left his master’s service, presumably stolen money, and then traveled to Rome, a place that served as a magnet for runaway slaves. While in Rome, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, whose preaching had apparently brought on the earlier conversion of Philemon and whose preaching in chains appears to have moved the repentant slave Onesimus, who must have told his story rather sincerely and movingly to Paul to have prompted this tender and affectionate letter. The conversion of Onesimus changed the relationship between the slave and the master, since both of them were now adopted brothers of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and children of our Heavenly Father. This brotherhood increased the importance of gracious and godly behavior on all parties, given the fact that their actions were witnessed by the congregation at large and reflected for better or worse on the honor and reputation of the Church of God as a whole in Colosse. Let us also briefly note that Paul’s gracious suggestion of the reason for Onesimus’ temporary estrangement from Philemon is one that I have long found personally moving. He suggests that the temporary departure of Onesimus from Philemon was done for the purpose of bringing them together in a different way and with an eternity of friendship in the family of God. We are often quick to think that our temporary ruptures and difficulties with others are permanent, but in reality temporary difficulties can present us with the growth in wisdom and character that allow us to show our godly character and that allow us to form more lasting and more equitable relationships founded on respect and graciousness.

Continuing on, Paul increases the graciousness shown to Philemon as well as to Onesimus, in furthering his appeal with a generous offer of his own and a request on Philemon’s hospitality: “If then you count me a a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay-not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refesh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I will be granted to you.” Here Paul makes an offer of stunning generosity. Even though he was a prisoner at the time, Paul makes an offer to repay whatever debts Onesimus had incurred through his running away from Philemon, making his request in his own (probably poor) handwriting so that it was legally binding as an IOU under Roman law. Note as well how Paul tells Philemon to treat Onesimus the way that he would treat Paul. This is notable for at least two reasons. For one, Paul was sending Onesimus as his messenger to Colosse, which was serving as a sort of envoy or ambassador. Also, Paul gives Philemon a fitting example of Jesus Christ’s warning that how we treat the least of these our brethren is how we would treat our Lord and Savior. It is hard to be less than a runaway slave on the scale of respect and honor, and yet Paul, himself an apostle, gave Philemon a chance to treat Onesimus with dignity and respect and so fulfill a basic Christian duty to love our neighbor as ourselves, even if that neighbor has done wrong and is now repentant about it. In addition, Paul increases his appeal to Philemon by asking him for a favor of preparing a guest room. This has the subtle pressure of letting Philemon know that Paul expects to see Philemon’s response, and also has the way of encouraging a willing agreement by Philemon to do as Paul requested. After all, we are much more likely to think fondly of someone when we do nice things for them, just as we are more likely to think poorly of those whom we have treated rudely and inhospitably.

Paul closes Philemon with another appeal to grace: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.” It is fitting that in this gracious book that shows so much evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit that there should be mention of the spirit as well as grace in its closing. Rather than seeing Paul’s letters, or the letters of anyone who writes even close to as graciously as he does, as terrifying, we ought to reflect that the working of God’s Holy Spirit leads us to be more gracious and understanding of others, more merciful in dealing with the offenses of others, and more considerate in respecting the feelings of others while also showing ourselves as being worthy of respect and esteem as well by fellow brethren in Christ. May we all seek to emulate the graciousness as well as the sincerity of Paul’s letter to Philemon in our own writing and conversation, so that we may recognize the godliness of others even as we seek to demonstrate our own virtuous conduct.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/the-implications-of-philemon-on-the-process-of-cultural-change/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/whats-in-a-greeting-the-epistles-of-paul/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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