Teaching Others About Jesus Refreshes People’s Hearts
(the book of Philemon)
For this week’s in-depth study of the writings of the apostle Paul, we will take a good look at the book of Philemon (which is between Titus and the book of Hebrews). Philemon was the head of a small home-based church. This was common back in the days of the early Church. There were no mega-churches with congregations numbering in the thousands back then like we see today on TV and the Internet. At that time the Roman Empire ruled over what we call the Holy Land today, and they governed with utter ruthlessness, as you know. So church services were held in secret behind locked doors because the death penalty was being imposed on all true believers who found themselves caught up in the Roman Empire’s dragnet. So it is in this context that we begin today’s study in the first and only chapter of Philemon.
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I have heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in the sharing of your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing that we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” (Philemon verses 1-7)
Notice, as before in other studies, that Paul’s message starts out nearly the same way, which is “grace and peace to you”. Grace in this context means unmerited and undeserved favor from God. Grace is something that is bestowed upon us by God free of charge. The same goes for peace. Not in the worldly sense such as the anti-war protests from the 1960’s up until recently, but in a Spiritual sense like what is described in the book of Philippians – a “peace that is beyond all human understanding” (see chapter 4). There is no doubt that Paul was plugged into this incomprehensible peace. It is evident in his writings throughout the New Testament (after all, Paul wrote one third of the New Testament himself). There is an additional ingredient I will add to this Spiritual mix, and that is thankfulness. “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I have heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” This still applies the same way today. “Pray without ceasing”, Paul wrote elsewhere. “Pray with a thankful heart”, he said.
“I pray that you may be active in the sharing of your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing that we have in Christ.” How are we doing in this regard? Do we show up at church on Sunday morning for an hour or two each week while doing nothing more? Or are we sharers of our faith out in the community while being unconcerned about what others might think about us as we do so? Do we have a love, or even a passion, that is reserved not only for the saints who are God’s people, but for all mankind? If we’re not doing all this, then our faith needs strengthening so that our names may be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life as described in the book of Revelation. Are we ready for “the wedding feast” (see Matt. 22: 1-14) with Jesus and all the saints of today as well as years (and centuries) gone by? In so doing, we will be doing just what Paul said as we continually “[refresh] the hearts of the saints.” Now let’s go to the next part of our study beginning at verse eight.
“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul – an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – 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. I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the Gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” (Philemon, verses 8-16, NIV)
What would Jesus do, as the time-honored question asks? What if it were us instead of Onesimus? Have we made the final decision in the affirmative regarding being one of the sons and daughters of God? Where do we stand in our Spiritual commitment to Jesus Christ? Have we made ourselves useful tools of the Kingdom for Him to use? Have we become the very heart of Christ? All I’m saying here is that if Onesimus, who was a barely educated slave by modern standards, can be this indispensable to the Lord, then it is up to us to become the same way. But Paul didn’t accomplish this by issuing orders in a hierarchical, authoritarian management style like what is prevalent in the military, for example (corporate America is another). Paul wrote, “… I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love.” Further down Paul wrote, “I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.” Government and leadership in a Christian mind-set is accomplished by a lateral or horizontal management structure consisting of groups of peers, as you can see. In this instance the modern Church seems to have lost its way. As Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, he wrote that his reason “was that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” Here again in the apostle Paul’s writings, we have the Christian concept of Christ-centered unconditional equality, just as he wrote about in 2nd Corinthians chapter eight, among other places. Onesimus, who was evidently a slave since Paul mentioned it in verses 15 and 16, became a citizen of God’s kingdom and was no longer considered a slave, but an equal. In God’s kingdom – which is soon to be established here on Earth, whether anyone believes it or not – there is no longer anyone who is either slave or free, or of any race or nationality, or male and female, or employer and employee. All of the above will fall by the wayside as the entire body of believers gets ready for the arrival of Jesus our Lord, at which time we will all be reunited with Jesus the Christ as equals and peers! And now let’s conclude today’s study starting at verse 17.
“So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your own obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. And one more thing: prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (Philemon, verses 17-25)
Welcome anyone, even strangers, as if they were Christ himself, because in a way, they are. We are all made “in the image and likeness” of God as written in the book of Genesis. All our blood is the same shade of red. Because, if we do this consistently, other people will see Jesus in each of us, meaning that we will all equally benefit from Jesus’ unconditional love. If any one of us has been wronged by another, we would do well to forgive that person as Jesus has commanded. “Forgive us our sins”, says the Lord’s prayer, “as we forgive those who sin against us”. Forgive them even if they’re not sorry. To the same degree that we forgive others, by that same measurement our own sins will be forgiven, just as the apostle James wrote (see James 4: 11-12).
“Confident of your own obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” Do we stand this same way before Christ every day? Do we give Jesus confidence in our own obedience? Let’s all make sure that we get ourselves there so that we may make ourselves “without spot or blemish” before the Lord. In this way we will finish preparing ourselves for the Great Wedding Feast in Jerusalem as guests of honor of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that’s what it’s all about.