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I can remember watching a Christian leader at a little road side eatery in the Bahamas. I was on the island on a teaching trip. And he was there because he was an “apostle,” there to check on one of the works he was overseeing.

He had a small entourage with him. As they approached the owner of the outdoor restaurant, he told one of the men with him, “Get me some of that.” He went to sit down. He then instructed another of the men to get him a certain drink. It wasn’t entirely “bossy,” but it was very clear that he was giving commands and those in his entourage were taking orders. I can remember thinking: “That doesn’t look much like Jesus.”

Reflecting on Paul’s little letter to Philemon, I came to a verse that reminded me of that incident–and reminded me of what it looks like to live like Jesus. Paul was writing to a friend, but a friend who knew that Paul was a spiritually mature, mightily used “man of God.” But notice how Paul writes:

Therefore, although I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you . . . (Philemon 8-9)

Paul could command or order Philemon to “do what is proper.” The word Paul uses is commonly used in the Gospels to speak of Jesus’ control over demonic spirits. With authority, Jesus insists that they should obey Him . . . and they do. And Paul is comfortable enough in his grace-given role to say he could command Philemon. But he decides against that approach.

Instead, “for love’s sake” he takes a different tack. Literally, Paul says “because of the love.” That is, because of the love he shares with Philemon share, because of the love of God, because of Christ’s love, he will reach out to Philemon differently. He wants to encourage Philemon to do the right thing . . . but he wants to encourage Philemon to do the right thing by encouraging him in the right way.

This reminds me of Paul’s words to the Galatians where he writes that the freedom that has become ours in Christ is not a freedom to get our own way, but a freedom to “in love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

That seems to me what is evident in these sentences in the letter to Philemon. Paul is not explaining to us how to live–but he is living the way we should live. He could exercise his right as an apostle to order Philemon to do the right thing–he could tell him, “I want this . . . get me that . . . do this thing.” And, given his God-given call, there would be a rightful sense that Philemon should respond. But Paul is not that kind of man–he is more like Jesus than that (and not like the “apostle” I met in the Bahamas).

And that nudges me . Do I seek to influence the lives of those in my world because I can . . . or because of love? Do I try to make them do what they should do or does love really constrain me?

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