Philemon brought Paul “great joy” (v. 7) by refreshing the bowels of the saints. The Bible uses “bowels” literally (Job 20:14) and figuratively (Lev. 26:16). New Bible versions translate “bowels” as “heart,” for we would say that our heart yearns for someone, not our bowels. The Bible uses “heart” that way too, but it uses “bowels” to express the strongest innermost feelings (Gen. 43:30; I Ki. 3:26; Phil.1:8)
Paul is using it both ways here. We know Philemon was wealthy, for the word translated “lodging” in v. 22 is translated “hired house” in Acts 28:30. His use of “a” instead of “the” (v. 22) suggests he had more than one guest house, and he had servants. I think Philemon refreshed the bowels of the saints physically be feeding them (cf. Ezek. 3:3) after the earthquake in Colosse which probably left many poor. That “refreshed” their spirits (cf. I Cor. 16:17) which brought Paul great joy as he saw God’s grace work in Philemon’s heart.
It also brought him “consolation,” a word that means comfort in distress (cf. II Cor. 1:6, 7). Paul was suffering to hear of their suffering (cf. I Cor. 12:26), and it consoled him to hear of Philemon’s relief efforts. Paul is telling him how his kindness consoled him because he’s about to ask him to be kind to his runaway slave (Phile. 1:8-10).
He begins by telling him he could have “enjoined” him to be kind. Enjoin means to order or command, but when the new Bible versions translate it that way, they lose something. It means to command with authority, as it does every time it is used in Scripture (cf. Esther 9:29-31; Job 36:22,23; Heb. 9:19-22). Paul was saying he could have ordered Philemon to be merciful to Onesimus with apostolic authority.
But doesn’t Paul say the Word of God should be the authority in our lives, not men (II Cor. 1:24)? That’s true now that the Bible is complete (Tit. 2:15), but before it was complete Paul had apostolic “authority” (II Cor. 18:8,9).
Paul could have enjoined him to do “that which is “convenient,” a word that means fitting or appropriate (Rom. 1:27,28). Homosexuality is never appropriate, but mercy is, and Paul asked Philemon to be merciful to his slave “for love’s sake.” “Sake” means reason or cause. If you can’t think of a reason to be kind to someone, do it “for mercies’ sake” (Ps. 44:26). The psalmist knew they didn’t deserve redemption, so asked for it for mercy’s sake. Paul explains how God could be merciful when he revealed Christ died for us. Then God asks us to be merciful to others (Eph. 4:32). They don’t deserve it, but neither did we!
Paul told Philemon to forgive his servant “for love’s sake,” because he loved Paul. That illustrates how we don’t forgive people because we love them but because we love Him. We give to Him financially to prove our love to Him (II Cor. 8:8, 24), but we can prove it by obeying Him in other ways as well (cf. Eph. 6:24)—like forgiving others.
Paul could have enjoined him, but chose “rather” to “beseech” him. Beseech means beg—the opposite of enjoining. “Rather” is a good grace word. The New Testament is “rather” glorious than the Old (II Cor. 3:6-8) because the Jews obeyed God because they feared Him, we obey because we love Him. It is also rather glorious because under the Law God commanded, under grace He beseeches.
It glorified God when the Lord was here healing people (Mt. 9:8; 15:31; Mark 2:12; Luke 5:25, 26; 7:15; 13:13; 17:15; 18:43 cf. Acts 4:21), but it rather glorifies Him when we’d “rather” be sick than healed if His strength is made perfect in our weakness (II Cor. 12:8,9). That proves your love for God more than receiving healing.
We know there are other ways to prove your love for God, for there are other things God beseeches us to do (Rom. 12:1; Eph. 4:1).
I’ve been saying Philemon should forgive his servant to prove his love for God, but Paul says he should do it because he is “Paul the aged.” That sounds like he should do it because of his love for Paul. But his love for Paul is a picture of his love for God. This epistle doesn’t teach grace doctrines, it illustrates them.