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Various considerations call on me to be comparatively brief on the epistle to PHILEMON. This has altogether a different character from the epistles that have lately been occupying us. Here the Holy Ghost by the same apostle takes up a domestic matter, and makes it the occasion of the sweetest application of the grace of God.
From his prison he writes to one that evidently was his friend, one at a former day, yea, for ever, deeply indebted to him, inasmuch as he was brought to a knowledge of Christ through him. Now Paul informs him of another no less indebted to him in the grace of Christ, and this none other than Onesimus, the slave of Philemon. Wonderful ways of God! He had deserted, and probably otherwise defrauded (verse 18), his excellent master — an act which even the most worthless lord could not but punish with the utmost severity. Onesimus had left Philemon, we may be sure, for nothing justifiable, and thus proved himself a vile person, who could not appreciate goodness. But what is too hard for the Lord, who led him into Paul’s path, converted him, and turned his heart and steps back to his master?
This circumstance becomes the occasion of an inspired epistle. The church throughout all ages profited, and the grace of Christ unfolded therein by Paul the apostle! Oh, what a God is ours! And what a word is His, delivering from the world, and from the thoughts and feelings of nature! How far have we derived blessing by it? Is this what would commend itself to our souls? Does aught else draw out the admiration and the thankfulness of our hearts?
“Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ:” thus he opens the letter. He would not put his request on the ground of his apostleship, lest he might bring in the force of authority, where all that would meet and reflect Christ in the matter must turn on the state and the willing answer of his heart to whom be was appealing in grace. “]Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother,” for the desire was not confined even to Paul, but Timothy gladly joined himself with this most touching communication of Paul — “unto Philemon our dearly beloved.” There was no doubt as to right and wrong: Onesimus was inexcusable; but love abides, and can never fail. To love and count on love is of faith, and prevails. But Philemon was not only an object of tender affection, but a “fellow-labourer,” and the nature of the case made it expedient, unlike the usual character of apostolic addresses, to add the household.
Again, observe, his wife is remembered. She would thus feel that she was not left out in the delicate ways of grace, but is included, as in the injury, so now in the good the apostle wished them to manifest. “And to our beloved Apphia.” A mistress might have particular reason to feel the misconduct of a slave. Whatever the special motive, she, at any rate, is addressed, and coupled with her husband in it. She is thus given a direct interest in its new phase, but it was the interest of grace.
The apostle brings in Archippus also, honoured with the title of “our fellow-soldier.” It is the same individual whom he exhorted at the close of Colossians to take heed to the ministry he had received in the Lord. Let him not forget to cast in whatever help he could render in this charge of grace. Small or great, let all be done to the Lord. Finally, Paul includes the church in Philemon’s house. There were others in the Lord, either of the household or in the habit of meeting there.
How blessed is grace, and how large! And all this movement of heart about a runagate slave! Yet is it defined within the right bounds. The assembly, and only the assembly, in Philemon’s house are comprehended in the appeal. The saints at Colosse are not included; — why, we can all appreciate. Further, mark the wisdom of it. In any other case the assembly had been the first; but here mark the lovely ways of God, who now pursues a different course. After all, the slave is Philemon’s, who therefore is put first. There never is a change, not even of order, in the word of God, but what has some adequate divine motive, and the beauty of grace and truth in it. Never is an insertion or omission of a casual sort: all flows from a, wise purpose, which would be impaired, though we may not all be spiritual enough to say how, were a single feature of it either left out or superadded. It is all a vital organism; every part of the living body of truth is needed for His own glory.
The formula usually introducing the longest epistle to the greatest assembly follows. “Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then Paul addresses Philemon personally: “I thank my God, making mention of thee always at my prayers, hearing of the love and faith which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints,” (he was about to be tried whether his love would stand true toward all the saints,) “so that the communication of thy faith may become effectual in the acknowledging of every good thing which is [not “in you,” which really gives no sense in the passage, but “which is] in us” (according to the best and most ancient authorities) unto Christ Jesus.”
Thus Paul thoroughly acknowledges the grace and faith that was in him generally; but the question remained, whether Philemon would answer to that which was in Paul’s heart in writing about Onesimus. His participation in the faith was owned; but was it now to operate in practical communion between them? Paul would do nothing as from authority in such a case: this would be to become a director, not an apostle of Christ. Everything here must be of grace. Hence he adds, “For we [or I] had [the best reading] great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.” Philemon seems to have been a man habitually given to acts of love, and thus a continual channel of refreshment by grace among God’s children. But the most excellent of men have broken down occasionally by the pettiest things that entice or provoke self.
And now there was a matter which might touch Philemon’s sense of injury — he might have and retain a keen sense of the wrong Onesimus had done him as a Christian master. How often persons who were amiability itself in all respects that had come to our view prove quite unprepared for something which grates against their feelings in an unexpected quarter! What the apostle desired was, for others as for himself, that they should live Christ in everything. So he says, “For love’s sake I beseech thee, being such an one. as Paul” — not merely “the prisoner,” which had been already pleaded as to his actual circumstances, and soon to be repeated with emphasis, but now he takes another ground, Paul — “the aged.” Would Paul, “the prisoner” and “the aged.” have a feeble ineffectual claim on the heart of Philemon? Not Paul the apostle in any case; yet was he not a whit behind the chief. And indeed he proves how well he knew — not that he now forgot — the distinctive value of his apostleship, by keeping it hidden wherever the assertion of it might (not to say must) have marred the free exercise of grace. Accordingly being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ, I beseech thee for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten.” and not this merely, but begotten “in my bonds.” This would make him specially an object of interest and affection to one who venerated and delighted in the apostle. If Philemon loved Paul, he would love his child; and Onesimus was his child, as he says. He names him at least as emphatically his child as either Titus or Timothy; but more than this, he was a son born as neither Timothy nor Titus was — begotten in his bonds — bonds destined in the grace of God to be more fruitful for the instruction of saints than his most free service and world-wide labours; for Paul was never so honoured in the service of God for the leading up of the church of God as when he was bound a prisoner in Rome.
It was at this time, and under such circumstances, that Onesimus was born in the faith. It is true that once he “was to thee unprofitable, ‘but now profitable to thee and to me” — an allusion to his name, as is well known, and which becomes yet more evident in verse 20. He had been unserviceable before, but now Paul assures himself that grace will not fail its effectual work — to whom I have sent back: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel; but without thy mind would I do nothing.” The apostle would have Philemon’s good to be not as of necessity but of willingness. The delicacy of feeling, and the sense of propriety that grace forms, are truly exquisite. There is nothing that maintains right so much as grace. At the same time it relinquishes its own dues, it maintains those of others! This is of all importance for our souls to heed. The contrary alas! habitually appears. A person abuses grace in humbling another: the use of grace is to humble one’s self, showing all godly respect to every other in our place. I do not deny that there is that which becomes others in their place: surely no saint is exempt from the exercise of grace. But with this I have nothing to do in the way of dictation, whatever one’s desires. I have to do with the grace that has reached my own soul; and this ever gladly accords to others that which is their due or more. There is nothing that truly delivers from the spirit of self but the mighty grace of God.
The apostle so writes to his friend and brother. “For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; not now as a slave, but above a slave, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” There cannot be a more exquisite apology for one whose return might have recalled painful feelings, and who, in fact, was so guilty in law that his master would have been by it justified in the sternest measures. But the grace in Christ, while it makes evil more heinous, changes all, because it brings in that love which met our own yet greater need and guilt, and the mercy that has left no room for blessing, however feebly we enjoy and appreciate it, Onesimus had failed in the very first duty of a slave; he had denied, in fact, — his relationship to his master. But now the apostle takes simply and solely the ground of grace, and appeals to the heart of Philemon in the presence of all Christ had done for him, and through the same instrument who had been used toward his bondman. This he knew would dissipate the smallest cloud of suspicion that might otherwise have hung over Onesimus on his return to his master. As he says here, “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.”
The great practical lesson, beloved, we ought all to gather from this is that it is not merely a question of doing the right thing, but of the way in which it should be done. It is too often thought by many that if only the object be right, this is enough. But not so: Christ is as much the way as He is the end. If it is not Christ along every step of the road, the best intentions often turn out productive of very grave disorder; and for this simple reason, that we are incompetent for anything of ourselves:. Christ alone can guide us through.
This is just what is taught in the epistle before us. Who but God would have thought of bringing in Christ at every point of that which concerned Onesimus? But now, that He has so spoken, this is precisely the privilege of the Christian. It is the introduction of Christ, not merely for the regulation of elders and young men, widows, households, and the like. It is not merely the regulation of outward order by the application of the same name: Titus does this. But the epistle to Philemon lets us into another atmosphere, for it shows us Christ brought in, yea, the name of Christ and the grace of Christ bound up with all the relations of the family, with matters that might seem to belong solely to the domain of human rights or wrongs, wherein it was for a master in his generosity to forgive. Here, too, we are taught how to live Christ.
I am aware some, enamoured of theories, and savouring the things of men rather than of God, would think it dreadful to discuss or deal with the relations of a master and a slave. Why not condemn the whole principle, root and branch? But this is not Christ. The Spirit of God does not establish a mere code of human rights. Christianity is not a system of earthly righteousness; it is the unfolding of the grace of Christ, and of heavenly hopes. It is the bringing of souls to God, who by that cross delivers them from all wrongs, spite of their guilt and His most deserved judgment. It elevates them above these rights, not in pride of heart, but bowed down by the rich mercy of the Lord. Nothing so maintains the rights of others; but at the same time it is no question of adhering to our own. It is a question of using the grace of Christ, and thus of glorifying God. “Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord. Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt do also more than I say. But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.” Salutations follow in verses 23-25.
Throughout the Spirit speaks to the renewed affections. What the effect of this epistle may have been it is not for us to say, as not knowing. But it appears to me not doubtful. The heart that could stand out against such appeals of grace, from such a quarter, was far from Philemon. But is it not a call to you and to me, as living, fresh, applicable, and imperiously needed, if we value nothing so much as Christ? The literal circumstances are changed, no doubt; but why is it given here? Why is it that such an epistle should have been inspired? Why was it not a private communication? It is as necessary in its own place as any one of the epistles we have had before us: I do not mean to the same degree, but as necessary, if in truth our object is to glorify our Lord Jesus.