“Through I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus…” (Philemon 8-10).
Paul is gearing up to make a big request of Philemon. He had sent the runaway slave Onesimus back to the estate he ran away from with a request that the master Philemon accept him back, not as a slave, but as the brother in Christ he is (v16). It’s a big request that holds in the balance Onesimus’ future (and perhaps life) as well as Paul’s well being (v12). It is also a test case for the efficacy of the gospel—is it really true that there is no “slave or free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11)?
With such an important request, we can imagine Paul mustering all of his apostolic authority and spending a few thousand words reminding Philemon of the wrath God has promised to bring on the unforgiving. Paul admits, “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required.” It would not be an abuse of his authority for Paul to issue a direct command with an accompanying hellfire alternative. “Yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.” Paul does not command like a haughty ruler, but humbly makes an appeal like “an old man and now a prisoner.”
Paul desperately wants Philemon to listen to him and accept his request. But he doesn’t want it done out of grudging obligation, a guilt trip, or out of fear of what might happen if he doesn’t. Paul wants Philemon to obey willingly and joyfully from the heart. Paul’s request is for genuine reconciliation, forgiveness, and love between these estranged brothers. How well do we do those with a gun to our head? Which is better: when a parent has to threaten siblings to get along or else get the switch, or for the siblings feel empathy for each other and choose reconciliation for themselves? The ideas Paul is getting at are by their nature choices we must make from our heart willingly, not by compulsion.
This touches our spiritual life too. God ultimately does not want people who obey him simply because they were threatened with hell. He wants people who come to him out of love and gratitude. God wants to lay hold of our will, love, heart, and joy—not our reluctant acceptance or grudging obedience. Instead of commanding a resentful audience that will only obey kicking and screaming every step, God would much rather appeal to an eager church that loves him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.