Free Consent

I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (Phile. 14).

- Philemon 14

Paul’s letter to Philemon is remarkable for a variety of reasons, one of which is the apostle’s reticence to come right out and command Philemon to do that which Paul wanted him to do. We know, for example, that Paul desired to see Onesimus and Philemon reconciled, with Philemon forgiving his runaway slave for past wrongs (vv. 15–16). Yet the apostle does not directly lay out all that this reconciliation would mean. Nevertheless, we are able to discern from the apostle’s words the direction that he hoped Philemon would take. In this case, it seems almost certain that Paul finally wanted to see Philemon release from bondage his new Christian brother.

Today’s passage points us to this conclusion. Paul refers to the “goodness” that he hoped to see from Philemon, a word that is perhaps better translated “good deed,” as in other English versions of the Bible. Several Jewish writers in Paul’s day, when they were talking about slavery, spoke of the manumission of slaves as a good deed that pious Jews could perform. Philo, the eminent first-century Jewish philosopher, for instance, wrote about this in The Contemplative Life. It is hard to know how acquainted Paul was with Philo’s thinking, but it is plain that he was well-versed in the Mosaic law, which provides for the manumission of a Jewish slave who has served for six years unless the slave desires to continue working for his master (Ex. 21:1–6). It is reasonable to assume Paul would have applied this principle to his own setting, believing that Christian slavemasters should eventually free their Christian slaves if the slaves wanted to go and if they could make it on their own.

Even if Paul never says it directly, the epistle before us makes it fairly clear that he wanted Philemon to release Onesimus. There appears to be several reasons why the apostle never makes his desire explicit, but one may be that he wanted Philemon to display Christian maturity and make the right decision without having to be told what was right, guided by the Spirit and motivated by love for God and neighbor. In his desire to do nothing without Philemon’s consent and without compelling him (v. 14), Paul uses language that alludes to making a choice after thoroughly considering the matter and settling upon a course of action in one’s heart. The apostle wants the right decision truly to be Philemon’s own, reflecting the formation of a true Christian character.

Coram Deo

Today’s passage reminds us, as John Calvin says, that “no sacrifices are acceptable to God but those which are freely offered.” Because we still struggle with the presence of sin in our hearts and minds, we must daily be working to nurture godly motivations for our good works. Daily we should be praying that the Lord would fill us with a love for Him and our neighbors that would move us to do what is right without compulsion.

Passages for Further Study

1 Chronicles 22:19a
Proverbs 11:23
2 Corinthians 9:7
1 Peter 5:1–3

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