Philemon - Christ our Example
J. B. Hewitt, Chesterfield
One of the first impressions we obtain on reading this Epistle is that of the recurring references to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is directly mentioned eleven times in these twenty-five verses. Surely the apostle has a definite design and purpose in the use of this lovely name which Philemon had learned to revere and love.
This letter of Christian courtesy shows us Christian fellowship in action: love in social relationships; the Lord working through the saints; His love wooing, working and winning.
Let us look at the Person and character of our Lord, praying for divine illumination and refreshment, as we ponder over the references to Himself in this brief letter.
The Possessor of Saints, vv. 1,
9, 23: "prisoner of Jesus Christ". There is none better fitted or more eminently suited to this high office of Possessor than our glorious Lord.
This humble prisoner whose name means "little" is full of self-depreciation, as he is deeply conscious that there is divine purpose and design in his imprisonment. Here we find Paul fully consecrated to the service of his Lord. Whether extended spheres of service or protracted suffering, Paul was at his Master's call, happy to follow the divine voice. "Outwardly he is Nero's prisoner, inwardly Jesus Christ's", (H. C. G. Moule).
Never ashamed of his bonds, behind Rome Paul saw the Lord ; he was there by divine permission, and his allegiance to Christ was unqualified. The Lord was his Keeper as well as his Saviour, and the loving eye of his Master was ever upon him. It all turned out to make the gospel known and Paul was thrilled, Phil. 1. 12, 13, 18.
Paul was controlled by the Spirit of Christ. Like his Lord, he was never marked by resentment or bitterness in trial. He was completely surrendered to the blessed Spirit, and prison life enlarged his capacity for sympathy and deepened his love to the Lord, the Keeper of saints, Psa. 121. 4, 5.
He was conscious of the presence of the Lord, sustaining, providing, refreshing, protecting and entering into his trial and confinement. The Lord had passed this way; "He was taken from prison and from judgment", Isa. 53. 8. Paul was content throughout his confinement in prison, Phil. 4.11. He knew that the disposing of all things was in the powerful hands of his Lord and he could wait His pleasure. Confidence also marked him in verse 22, and he had companions in trial, trusted fellow-prisoners sharing his joy in God. Are you shut in, confined to a sick-room, cut off from friends ? Your Lord is your Keeper and your Friend. Lean hard upon Him for He does not fail.
The Channel of Grace and Peace,
vv. 3, 25. Into what a large place grace brings us, and what rich provision it affords for our earthly pilgrimage ! The divine blessings of grace and peace are the portion of every believer in the Lord Jesus. Paul knew Philemon would need grace upon grace and tranquility of soul. Whatever our station in life and regardless of circumstances or time, our needs are met by the God of all grace through our Lord Jesus Christ. With this dual provision we have enough to satisfy every longing desire., to strengthen the life for service and equip us for the tasks that lie to our hand—or for suffering, should we be called to pass that way. In Paul we see the sobriety that grace brings into the life. Onesimus portrays the transformation that grace has wrought. Philemon exemplifies the influence of grace in the home, in the church and in business. His deportment was comely because grace was reigning through righteousness.
The Object of Faith and Love,
v. 5. Our Lord desires our confidence, and is worthy of our love, John 14. 1 ; 21. 16; Ho is the File-leader of the heroes of faith, Heb. 12. 2.
Faith in God, and in the revelation given to us in our Lord Jesus, introduces us into the realm of spiritual realities. What precious unveilings of the purpose of God belong to the child of faith. Faith is placed over against worry, Matt. 6. 30; fear, 8. 26; doubt, 14. 31. These are the things that try us in the daily round of life, and by these apparent hardships we learn to trust the unseen hand of our Lord who is ever near to help us. Faith is the root, and love the fruit of Christian life. Faith appropriates all that the Lord has provided, and love appreciates the gift and thanks the Giver. Faith is a bountiful grace, and is communicative in its very nature. Love proceeds from faith., even love to the saints, 1 Thess 1. 3. The Lord Jesus is to be loved in the saints, who are to be loved next to Him no matter what the character or disposition of each may be.
The Source of all Good, v. 6
Philemon's faith was neither theoretical nor merely quiescent. It was energetic, for the Lord was in perfect control of his life. He was deeply conscious that any good work wrought by him among the saints had its origin in the heart of the Eternal One. Goodness was the essence of our Lord's nature, John 10. 11 ; it was the expression of His character, Acts 10. 38. This was evident in all His work, and it was enjoyed by His saints as seen in this Epistle.
Philemon manifested his Christian love by distributing to the necessity of the saints; Paul expected this to result in their greater appreciation of all their blessings in Christ; Philemon's love brought blessing to others rather than to himself. Paul desired that Philemon's sphere of usefulness should be on the increase, for this was glorifying to God and brought enrichment to others. Whatever the cause of joy and consolation it is always just cause for thanksgiving, vv. 4, 7. What Philemon had done for the saints was reckoned as having been done unto Christ, Matt. 25. 40.
The Enabler of his Servants, v. 8.
He gives boldness and abundant freedom to His sent servants. Paul could have exercised his authority in the following verses 9-11, but he preferred to plead on the grounds of love. The book of Acts gives to us vivid pen pictures of men who were made bold by their God. They had boldness to stand true to their Lord, Acts 4. 13, to speak His word, 4. 29, 31, and fervent prayer ascended to God for this divine enablement to be their portion. Stephen with holy boldness faced his accusers, and died rather than deny his Lord or shrink from the path of duty.
As an apostle. Paul had the authority to command, but he preferred to beseech. Love as a principle motivated his life and he desired Philemon to reciprocate that love by acting in the manner here stated. Here is love that "seeketh not her own", as Paul suppressed his authority, and provoked love in his friend Philemon. Love won the day and Onesimus was received back as a brother beloved.
The Transformer of Lives, vv.
11-16. As we ponder over the names of those mentioned in this letter, we thank God for the transformation wrought in each life. Our Lord is the greatest transformer of human lives, and He begins in the heart. Onesimus, the fugitive debtor, crooked in his ways, is made straight, just as the raging persecutor, the injurious person, Saul, becomes gentle as a nursing mother, Paul. The gentleman master is now a beloved brother, Philemon. The good doctor is not ashamed to labour for the Lord, Luke. The home of Philemon becomes a place of meeting of a church; a sanctuary for God and His people.
Onesimus is the outstanding example here of what grace can do for any son of Adam's race. His name means "profitable" and there is a play on the meaning of the word in verse 11. Grace had wrought a mighty change in his life, and it was evident for all to see. The transformation was permanent, so Paul heartily commended him to his old master. The apostle discerned the overruling hand of God in the escapade, Rom. 8. 28. Maybe Onesimus was separated from Philemon for a while, so that his master might have his complete and permanent service, Philem. 1 5.
How courteous Paul was in his appeal, "But without thy mind would I do nothing", and he desired a willing-hearted and warm-hearted response from Philemon, v. 16. A. MacLaren sweetly puts it: "In the flesh, Philemon was to have a brother for a slave, and in the Lord he was to have a slave for a brother". How encouraging to all who labour for the Lord. The recovery of the lost is a work of grace, and we need never despair of any when we have all the resources of the mighty God of Jacob at our disposal.
The Bond of Union, vv. 16, 20.
We are brought into a new relationship at conversion; it is spiritual, divine, eternal. Our conduct should be governed by our relation "in the Lord". Paul learned this lesson the day he was converted, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?". Acts 9. 6.
(a) Here is the union of life, vv. 1 5, 16—"for ever". How precious we are in His sight; how blessed this new life is to us now. Spiritual relationships do not annul legal responsibilities, but a new spirit is brought in—the love of Christ.
(b) The union of love is also here, vv. 7-8. Love expressed in hospitality, sympathy and care for others. What wonderful fellowship grace brings us into with the banner of love overhead, Song of Songs 2. 4. The love of Christ is the inspiring motive of all our service – free, willing service prompted by the love of our Lord who died for us at Calvary, 2 Cor. 5. 14.
(c) Union of loyalty and labour, vv. 21-23. The teaching of the Prison Epistles on fellowship is beautiful, as exemplified in this letter. There is family fellowship in verse 1, all happy to serve the Lord and the saints, leading to the development of Christian character. Assembly fellowship is in verse 2, the delight of Christian fellowship with its privileges, joys and responsibilities. Fellowship in warfare, v. 2, means sharing in the defence and declaration of the gospel. The fellowship of substance, v. 6, refers to practical faith in helping others. The fellowship of sympathetic consideration for each other appears in verse 14. The fellowship of suffering, v. 23, shares in the reproach of Christ and the gospel. Fellowship in service, v. 24, is a happy partnership in the work of the Lord.
Paul and Philemon had a common bond, and spiritual values were uppermost in their estimation. Paul had been instrumental in reaching Philemon as well as Onesimus, v. 19. Love in return could be shown in the warm reception granted to the servant now before his master, vv. 17-20. As Paul prayed, doors were opened unto him, and he believed that the prayers of Philemon would be answered, v. 22; Col. 4. 3. He expected God to deliver him, and looked forward with joyful anticipation to seeing his friend again face to face.
The Enricher of Saints, v. 25. In
the closing salutations we have expressions of Christian sympathy and kindness. How helpful all these staunch labourers had been. What suffering was entailed in serving Paul and their Lord! How were they strengthened for their tasks? What sustained them in the conflict? There was the abundant, assuring grace of our Lord Jesus Christ daily.
May Paul's simple but beautiful desire be granted in all our lives, and may we daily respond in devotion by crowning Him "Lord of all", that He in fuller measure may come into our meditations, our homes and our assemblies.