In 1967, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote a song entitled, “All You Need is Love.” It became one of the biggest hits that The Beatles ever recorded – in fact, the song debuted on July 7, 1967 and went straight to #1 on the British charts in the very first week. There are several reasons for the immediate popularity of the song, one being that it was performed the week before by the group on a live television broadcast called “Our World” that was seen in 25 countries by millions of people. However, the tremendous popularity of the song was also due to the subject matter: Everyone wants to give and receive love! In fact, many people would still wholeheartedly agree with the title of the song – all you really need in life is love.
Jesus wouldn’t argue that! In fact, He told His disciples in John 13:34,35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” One could certainly make that case that love is the center of the Christian religion: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16, NKJV).
But the kind of love that Jesus spoke of in the gospel of John is vastly different than the love that Lennon and McCartney sang about. In the Greek language in which the New Testament was written in, Jesus spoke about “Agape”, which is perfect and mature love. This kind of love isn’t necessarily a feeling, but instead is a choice. To “agape” someone is to love them unconditionally and sacrificially. It is to make the choice that we will love someone no matter what they say or what they do, or even if they love us in return. We have chosen, we have decided, we have purposed that we will love and nothing can change that. And, of course, referring back to John 13, that is exactly the love that Jesus expressed that He had for us. Jesus decided that He loved us enough to go to the cross and free us from sin and death despite the fact that He knew that we wouldn’t always show the same kind of love to Him in return.
Paul wrote a very short letter to a man named Philemon that speaks a great deal about agape love. Philemon was a man known for his capacity to love. In fact, Paul began that letter by stating that he had heard of Philemon’s “love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints,” (Philemon 5). Yet, in this letter, Paul is going to ask Philemon to show his great love by receiving back a man named Onesimus, who was a slave that Philemon owned, but who had run away and very likely stolen from Philemon before he fled. But a lot had changed since Philemon had last seen Onesimus: Onesimus had met Paul and had been baptized into Christ. He was now not only Philemon’s slave, he was also his Christian brother!
The question that is the underlying tension of this letter is this: How would Philemon receive Onesimus back? Legally, of course, he had every right to do with Onesimus as he chose for slavery was the law of the land and runaway slaves were often tortured or killed. Would Philemon forgive his new brother or would exercise his legal rights? Paul attempts in the letter to persuade Philemon to do the right thing.
There are powerful lessons that Christians today can learn from Paul’s letter to Philemon. When a Christian hurts or harms a brother, like Onesimus, that Christian needs to make things right and there may be a significant cost to that. At the same time, a Christian needs to receive and forgive a brother who has hurt them even if there is also a significant cost to them. In addition, other brothers need to be willing to broker peace even if, as Paul did, it requires a little psychological arm twisting or even a gentle kick in the spiritual pants. Ultimately, Christians should be more concerned with unity and love than their own pride or their own rights.
Doing the right thing sometimes comes with a price. But, doing the right thing is how Christian love behaves.