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Category Archives: Philemon

It is true that we are all, in some sense, unique. Not only do we have different physical features, different life stories, but we also are gifted uniquely, differently. The Spirit does not distribute to each the same gift. The Lord does not anticipate that we will all serve in the same way. (For examples, see Romans 12:4–5; 1 Peter 4:10.)

This is a good thing. It is what makes the body work as a body. The differences, the uniqueness, should be celebrated. But, there is a potential downside to this diversity.

We might come to think of ourselves as so “one of a kind” that we don’t see how we really are like others in the body. We might overlook that there is a sense that we are like others in the body.

That over-priviledged sense of self-uniqueness can result in us creating distance between ourselves and others. It can result in our thinking of ourselves as breathing a rarer air than others. We might think “too much” of ourselves.

It is fascinating that the apostle Paul (who most would argue was marvelously uniquely gifted and called!) did not see himself that way. He  saw himself much like others–as is evident in what he writes at the close of his letter to his friend Philemon.

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers. (Philemon 23–24)

Although Epaphras was not sharing in Paul’s imprisonment in an identical way, nevertheless Paul identifies him as a “fellow prisoner.” Paul sees himself as a “worker” for the Gospel (1 Corinthians 3:9), and he is not hesitant to identify others like Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke as “fellow workers.” Two of these–Mark and Luke–are better known, although though they didn’t have ministries that paralleled Paul’s; two of these–Aristarchus and Demas–are seemingly “minor characters” in the New Testament story. But Paul identifies all four as fellow workers.

The unique and marvelously gifted apostle Paul was not reluctant to see others in the same light as he saw himself.

There is something healthy about thinking of one’s uniqueness as not requiring the conclusion that there aren’t others who really are like us.

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Even among good friends, it sometimes happens. Rather than simply living in the reality of the relationship, one or the other of those in the relationship presume upon the other. It’s the “Well, of course she will . . .” or the “I have no doubts that he would . . . .” It isn’t that we don’t, at times, have healthy expectations about the relationship we enjoy with others–but there are times we move past reasonable expectations and stray into an unhealthy presumptuousness. Rather then thinking what “might be nice,” we drift toward “what must be.”

I felt just a twinge of this in reading Paul’s letter to Philemon. At first read, it seems that Paul borders on presumption. But only on first read.

At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you. (Philemon 22)

What does Paul have in mind?

He has been writing to a good friend–Philemon. He has been writing about Philemon’s run-away slave–Onesimus. Paul has asked to receive Philemon back as a brother in the Lord and anticipates that Philemon will do “even more” than what Paul asks with regard to Onesimus.

In one sense, this all makes sense. Paul is sending Onesimus back to his former master, Philemon. Paul writes to Philemon to clarify what has happened to the run-away slave who has come to faith in Christ. And Paul invites Philemon to treat Onesimus consistent with Onesimus’ new-found faith. That doesn’t feel too presumptuous, given how well Paul knows Philemon.

But then Paul writes: “Prepare for me a lodging.” It sounds like he is inviting himself over for stay! “Get ready to put me up for a while!” That borders on presumptuous  . . . at least at first read. But, when I look at it closer, I don’t think Paul’s is presumptuous . . . it’s a matter of perspective.

Paul knows Philemon–really knows this man well. He anticipates how Philemon’s love will overflow into his relationship with Onesimus. Paul affirms how Philemon’s life in Christ influences his relationships with others. And Paul knows that Philemon not only is praying for Paul’s release from prison but is hoping for Paul’s return to Colossae where Philemon lives.

So knowing what he does about Philemon, the call to “prepare for me a lodging” is only Paul affirming what he knows about Philemon. Seeing Philemon for the man that he is, Paul can rightly assume (not presume!) that Philemon will be delighted to have a place for Paul when he arrives.

And all this lead me to one simple thought: Have I lived so consistently and lovingly and graciously with others that they could rightly assume (with the right perspective) how Christ-like I would be in extending grace to them if I were given the chance?

I’ve noticed the tendency in myself–sadly.

I reflect on my interaction with other friends and followers of Jesus and I realize that I have a tendency to think the worst of them. Well, that may be a bit of an overstatement. But I do tend to think that others will often not make good choices, will often not follow through on commitments, will not give themselves fully to what Jesus wants for us, will settle for something a bit less . . . less than what I think I would do in the same situation. I have this tendency to think poorly of others. As if Murphy’s famous “law” (“If anything can go wrong, it will.”) has a corollary that plays out in the lives of Jesus’ followers (“If they can respond in a less-than-Christ-like way, they will!”).

I don’t think I typically come out and say that I think others will disappoint me, fall short of my expectations, and generally not live up to what I think they should in Jesus (as if I had been appointed the arbitrator of what should be done!), but I do find myself thinking that way. And I am sure that such an attitude impacts the way I relate to others . . . whether I want it to or not.

That is what struck me as so refreshing and healthy in reading Paul’s words to his friend, Philemon.

Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. (Philemon 21)

Paul seems to have the very opposite tendency. He has the expectation that Philemon will “go above and beyond” what Paul might expect. Paul’s view is that Philemon is even a better man than he, Paul, imagines him to be. Paul seems convinced that the reality of Jesus’ work in his friend, Philemon, will result in Philemon living in ways that exceed what Paul might want for him.

This thinking is reflected in Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he writes:

I do not speak to condemn you, for I have said before that you are in our hearts to die together and to live together. Great is my confidence in you; great is my boasting on your behalf. (2 Corinthians 7:3-4)

Paul is so confident in the Corinthians willingness and ability to live well in Christ that he doesn’t write to condemn them but goes so far as to insist that he boasts about them to others.

I do not think that Paul is just “rosy-eyed” when he thinks of Philemon or the Corinthians. I do not think he is subtly manipulating them telling them of his confidence as a backwards way of applying subtle pressure to get them to live well. I think that Paul appropriately expects even more from them than he can think.

And I believe that this confidence is not anchored in Philemon, himself, or in the Corinthians and their ability. I get a hint of the grounds of such confidence in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13).

Paul is confident in how the Philippians will live–and how Philemon will live and how the Corinthians will live–because he is certain of God’s faithful work in the lives of others (to both enable the growth and provide the “willing” for the work) and he is certain that what God has begun in the lives of others He will bring to a full and complete end.

He is appropriately expecting even more because he is so sure of the work God is doing in the lives of others. And that kind of confident expectation is appropriate . . . and healthy in our relationships with others who know Jesus.

Paul is writing to his friend Philemon. He is exploring, with Philemon, what to do about a run-away slave, Onesimus. Onesimus had fled from Philemon, ended up in Rome where he encountered Paul in prison, and after being led to Jesus by Paul, Onesimus is being sent back to Philemon by the apostle.

Paul’s basic desire is for Philemon to welcome back his run-away slave not as a slave but as a brother in the Lord. He has invited Philemon to see things differently–to see the relationship he has with Onesimus as having been altered because of what Jesus has done.

And in writing about this, Paul mentions the benefit that he will receive through what he hopes Philemon will do.

Let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ (Philemon 20).

What is so intriguing about this is that Paul is not the direct beneficiary of what he is asking of Philemon. He is asking Philemon to treat Onesimus differently. And yet he says that if Philemon ends up doing that, he (Paul) will be refreshed in Christ. Paul insists that he would be “benefitted” in the Lord and he would be “refreshed” in Christ by Philemon treating Onesimus as a brother in Christ.

Sadly, I tend to live as if my soul refreshment comes only if and when someone treats me better. Typically, I am so caught up with others’ treatment of me, that I give almost no thought to how they are treating someone else. And even if I noticed that some friend of mine was treating another friend of mine in gracious, good, and Christ-honoring ways,  I don’t typically think of that as personally “refreshing.”

I wonder if this is because, for Paul, being “part of the body” is not just a “kind of nice idea”–he really does live there. So, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” 1 Corinthians 12:26).  And in that way, the good done to Onesimus does bring refreshment to Paul’s soul.

We know we should “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). As followers of Jesus–similar to how Jesus got under our load to help us when we were so desperately in need–we are invited to get under the load of others. Our love for others can be seen when we get “under it” with them, for their good, for their spiritual health.

But I do wonder. What does that look like? Practically, how are we to live that out?

Over Thanksgiving, my son and I helped serve a meal to those in need. Part of the provision was to also make available sacks of groceries to those who needed additional food. My son bore “another’s burden” when, seeing someone struggling with a grocery sack full of food, he offered to carry the sack out to the waiting car. That’s a practical way to “bear one another’s burdens.” But most of the burdens that we carry are not so physically tangible.

So again I wonder. Practically, how are we to live this call out? And I think I catch a glimpse of one way this happens in Paul’s letter to Philemon. In sending Philemon’s run-away slave (and now fellow Christian) back to him, Paul explains what he wants:

If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account. (Philemon 17–18)

This is huge . . . and practical. There is nothing superficial or hard to understand about what Paul is asking. In sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul invites two things from Philemon:

Treat Onesimus the way you would treat me because of the relationship that you and I have with one another.

Whatever debt or obligation you feel Onesimus owes you let me make that up to you.

Paul is getting under a load–a load that belongs to another. Onesimus has wronged Philemon. Onesimus has broken laws, violated trust. No matter how we resolve the slavery issue, at this point in time Onesimus has robbed Philemon. There is wrong done, debt owed, relationship disturbed.

And Paul says, let me handle that. Let that burden rest on me. Philemon, let me get under the load that Onesimus is carrying and I will carry it for him . . . so that your relationship with him might be restored.

That is a practical, helpful example . . . and a tremendously convicting one.

Can you think of two people in your world, your sphere of influence, who are at odds? Is there some way that you can step into that relationship, in grace, and seek to bring resolution and restoration by “getting under the load” and paying the cost, covering the loss, making good on the debt of another?

How very much like Paul! And, beyond that, how very much like Jesus!

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