Where is the most refreshing place you’ve been? You know, a place where you see full, free and fully alive.
From the opening part of the Paul’s letter to Philemon we learn a lot about Paul, Philemon and the church. The opening is really a prayer. In the prayer we learn of God’s concern for healthy relationships within the church family and how the church is called to do life together as we take the gospel into the world we live in. For Paul the gospel is not just something to think about, it is to be acted upon. For us—the church—there is a lot of great application here.
Refreshed People are Refreshed by Christ
“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” Philemon 4-5
Paul is refreshed by Philemon. Why? From what Paul knows about Philemon, from the first time they met until now, from what he hears (present tense) others say about him, Paul sees the visible characteristics of Christ are literally “spilling over” from Philemon, like a waterfall into a deep pond. He sees Philemon’s faith in Jesus and his love for others. Isn’t that a great compliment? Think of the alternative.
Some might argue that Paul is just buttering up Philemon in preparation for the hard thing he’s about to ask him. No. He’s not buttering up, he’s building him up. There’s a difference. Buttering up manipulates, but building up matures. Paul gives genuine reasons for building up his brother: he gives thanks to God and he prays over his brother. The word that Paul uses later in verse 7 is exactly the right word—“refreshed.”
Do you know anyone like this? I hope you do! Are you someone like this? I know that some of you are. You are a Philemon, one who brings joy, comfort, love and refreshment to others around you because of your willingness to encourage people and be there to ease their burdens. It brings you joy, and brings joy to the ones you help. You show us the heart of Christ, often when we need to see it the most. You point us to Jesus not problems. You renew our faith in God and revive our weary souls. And we smile when we think about you. Through you we are “refreshed.”
Do you know anyone like this? I do.
The past three Springs, our family has traveled from the desert of North Africa to green England. Each time we have visited our friends the Franklin family. They have refreshed us from a tall glass of milk to ordering our favorite Indian takeout to walks in London’s green space. Their church has refreshed us through prayer, encouragement, and warm clothes for our children who literally got off the plane in flip flops. Just after Christmas Megan got sick with a debilitating brain disease. She was eight months pregnant with their seventh baby. The baby was taken by C-section and a healthy boy was born. Within days Megan passed into glory. Our hearts grieve for Brad and the Franklin family, but we were refreshed even through Megan’s death and the way she committed to give generously so that the nations may know Jesus Christ.
What would a person close to you say are the visible characteristics of Christ pouring out of you? Can you imagine the encouragement it would be to have them tell you that? That would be a wonderful application of today’s text.
There are two types of people in the church that Paul most often addresses in his letters. The first type are people who build up. This is Philemon. They are the kind of person who encourage, see the good, speak truth in love, and have a knack of pointing you back to Christ. Paul’s letter to Philemon helps us to see what building up one another looks like. Building up in the church never stops because until Christ returns the church is a relational construction zone.
The second type are people who tear down. They are the kind of people who look for ways to cut others down. They are quick to complain. They find faults and failures in others. They are the kind of person you will avoid if you need encouragement, but you will seek out if you need empathy for your own critical spirit. Tearing others down is not a strength or a spiritual gift. It is hurtful, divisive, and from Satan. You can’t punch a hole in the bricks of God’s house without hurting yourself too. How many people have been hurt trying to damage the building they are part of themselves?
Paul spent a lot of breath in his letters airing out about bad theology in the church, conflict among members, and wolves among the sheep. Paul’s letter to Philemon is not about being aware of wolves, but encouraging the sheep. Martin Luther, a man acquainted with both wolves and sheep said, “Fight vigorously against the wolves, but on behalf of the sheep, not against the sheep.” In other words, don’t be a flock of sheep fighting sheep. Sheep don’t fight. Sheep are gregarious, which means sheep band together and protect one another.
Oh, how the church needs Philemon’s—people who are known for their love and faith towards Jesus and others. And the church also needs Paul’s who see the way people reflect Jesus.
You may recognize the name William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a Christian politician who made it his lifework to abolish slavery in Great Britain. It was an impossible task. He was young and at the beginning of his career. On the other side of the pond in America, John Wesley, was nearing the end of his career. Wesley heard of Wilberforce’s story and wrote him a letter (6-days before his death),
“Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it… That He who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things is the prayer of, dear sir, Your affectionate servant, John Wesley”
Wesley had the right words at the right time to help his brother continue on the right path.
Paul also had the right words at the right time to help Philemon on the right path. He focused on Christ’s refreshing work in Philemon, which will be the very character needed as he reunites with Onesimus.
Questions for Reflection:
How have you been refreshed by a Philemon in your life?
When you look at your life, do you see the same qualities alive in your heart like they were in Philemon’s?
Are there areas in your life where Christ’s love hasn’t taken on action towards Him and others? If so, what are they?
Why is thankfulness so powerful, especially when you have to say something difficult to someone you love?