Back on the September 2, 2012 post, I raised the image of a leopard whose spots were changed. Reference was made to a man named Philemon, who received a letter from the apostle Paul. I pointed out that Philemon experienced a fundamental change in his life, a change that could parallel that of a leopard who changed his spots!! But, Philemon was not the only leopard in the letter. Two other men also had spots that needed to be addressed. In this post I want us to think of one of them. In a later post, I will address the third “leopard.” Today, let’s think about the apostle Paul, the author of the letter sent to Philemon.
[Note — As in the earlier post, the letter to Philemon is available at the end of this entry.]
You may be somewhat familiar with the Apostle Paul if you have had exposure to the New Testament. But, for this little article, I have to make an assumption, and I am opting for you having a minimum idea about the fellow.
Paul had not always been what he was when writing his letters and doing his Christian missionary ministry. He had been raised in a very religiously devout home. His father was considered by many people of his time to be super godly and rigorous in his religious practices and beliefs. He was a Jewish Pharisee with high expectations for himself and his family. The son, Paul, drank deeply from the well of his father’s religiosity, becoming as zealous as his father – perhaps, even more so. That was very evident at the time the Christian community was just forming after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
The situation, that a sizeable number of people were becoming followers of Jesus, made Paul into a very unhappy camper. In fact, Paul became a scourge against those known as the followers of The Way.
In Paul’s pre-Christian mind, the Christians were adversaries, turncoats, enemies, and blasphemers. Just as some people had wanted to kill Jesus, Paul had similar feelings toward the Christians. He went on a campaign of rounding up Jesus followers, and actually putting them in prison for their belief in Jesus. There is reason to think that some of the Christians might have been killed in the process.
As far as Paul’s thoughts about the Christians and their sentiments, Paul was cold, hard, calloused, and calculating. He could not have cared less about the needs of the people he was persecuting. The pain he saw in the Christians didn’t bother him one bit. He was happy to see it, thinking they deserved it for having betrayed the faith of their fathers.
That was Paul as the spotted leopard. By the time he writes this brief and personal letter, Paul is concerned, caring, and involved. He has changed radically. The change can be seen in his relationship with the two other principal personages in this letter.
On one hand, Paul is committed to the run-away slave Onesimus. Onesimus was facing some very hard choices. He could remain a run-away, or return to his master, Philemon. If he decided to return to Philemon, Onesimus faced an unknown and perhaps life threatening scenario.
Sensing Onesimus’ fears, Paul writes on his behalf to Philemon. It is that “writing on behalf” of Onesimus that tells us so much about Paul. Paul could have said to Onesimus, “You got yourself into this mess. Now you can get yourself out of it. Don’t expect me to help you.” Rather, Paul was willing to take a risk for Onesimus. Paul knew Onesimus needed help, and Paul delivered.
On the other hand, Paul was also concerned about Philemon, the slave owner. How does he show this concern? We note that Paul would not take a dominant role over Philemon. He recognizes that Philemon was going to have some pretty raw emotions about this case of Onesimus. So, Paul requests; he asks. He does not order Philemon. He takes the position that Philemon is able, in Jesus, to make moral decisions that are God honoring.
Paul is now not the cold and calculating persecutor. That was his life before the spots began to be changed. Now, Paul is caring, concerned, sensitive, and willing to intercede on behalf of someone else. He respects both Onesimus and Philemon. He does not take a “know it all” posture with either Onesimus or Philemon. He makes it clear what he thinks is the best procedure for both of them, while at the same time honoring their individual decision making.
Paul is a changed person. Can a leopard change his spots? Can God change us? Of course, He can and He does.
Paul’s letter to Philemon
1 From Paul, a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy— To our friend and fellow worker Philemon, 2 and the church that meets in your house, and our sister Apphia, and our fellow soldier Archippus: 3 May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.
4 Brother Philemon, every time I pray, I mention you and give thanks to my God. 5 For I hear of your love for all of God’s people and the faith you have in the Lord Jesus. 6 My prayer is that our fellowship with you as believers will bring about a deeper understanding of every blessing which we have in our life in union with Christ. 7 Your love, dear brother, has brought me great joy and much encouragement! You have cheered the hearts of all of God’s people.
8 For this reason I could be bold enough, as your brother in Christ, to order you to do what should be done. 9 But because I love you, I make a request instead. I do this even though I am Paul, the ambassador of Christ Jesus, and at present also a prisoner for his sake. 10 So I make a request to you on behalf of Onesimus, who is my own son in Christ; for while in prison I have become his spiritual father. 11 At one time he was of no use to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him back to you now, and with him goes my heart. 13 I would like to keep him here with me, while I am in prison for the gospel’s sake, so that he could help me in your place. 14 However, I do not want to force you to help me; rather, I would like for you to do it of your own free will. So I will not do anything unless you agree.
15 It may be that Onesimus was away from you for a short time so that you might have him back for all time. 16 And now he is not just a slave, but much more than a slave: he is a dear brother in Christ. How much he means to me! And how much more he will mean to you, both as a slave and as a brother in the Lord! 17 So, if you think of me as your partner, welcome him back just as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to my account. 19 Here, I will write this with my own hand: I, Paul, will pay you back (I should not have to remind you, of course, that you owe your very self to me.) 20 So, my brother, please do me this favor for the Lord’s sake; as a brother in Christ, cheer me up!
21 I am sure, as I write this, that you will do what I ask—in fact I know that you will do even more. 22 At the same time, get a room ready for me, because I hope that God will answer the prayers of all of you and give me back to you.
23 Epaphras, who is in prison with me for the sake of Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings, 24 and so do my co-workers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. 25 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.