Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
Paul begins the main body of his letter of request to Philemon by linking it to the previous paragraph with the word “therefore”. So, he’s saying because of all of the things I’ve just mentioned in the prayer paragraph, I am appealing to you as an old man in prison for Christ, and not as an apostle who can issue commends (which he still is).
Paul was asking in humility, not demanding or commanding.
Notice he says that the appeal he makes is on the “basis of love”. It is important for us to have a good understanding of love, for all too often, we associate “love” with all of the wrong things, and often enough our use of the term is, well let’s just say a tad bit disingenuous. Paul is not using the word “love” to justify some kind of wrongdoing, as we so often see in our time. One time 20 years ago or so, I was in a church leadership meeting when a very hot topic was being discussed. A bit of a debate took place, and one or two tempers began to rub thin, and finally one of the men, a bit gruff usually, but a great guy, suddenly blurted out in sheer frustration “F*** you! And I mean that in love brother.”
You just can’t invoke love like that.
Another thing that happens periodically in Christian circles is the use of love to shame someone into going along with others in something they don’t agree with. “Don’t you love the Lord? Don’t you love your neighbor?”
Can’t you build a persuasive case with solid reasoning and facts?
Paul is not doing any of that in this letter. Instead he is humbling himself to appeal to his dear friend for the sake of a vulnerable servant for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. Notice the last part: Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (v. 11) With these words, Paul is appealing to a cause higher than the immediate problem of economics, the cause of Christ. Before Onesimus accepted Christ, he was of no use to the cause of Christ, even though he was useful for slave labor to Philemon. Yet now, as a brother in Christ, trained by the apostle Paul, he too, has a higher calling to serve the Lord they all loved.
This dear reader is what it means to appeal on the basis of love, for Philemon is being asked to make a financial sacrifice, Paul has sacrificed his freedom, being in chains for the cause of the Gospel, and Onesimus is leaving his post to become the servant of God.