4 I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, 5 because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. 6 And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. 7 Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people. – Philemon 1:4-7 ESV
It’s not hard to recognize Paul’s intense and sincere love for Philemon. These are not the pious-sounding platitudes of a pastor, but they are legitimate expressions of love from a close friend. And Paul tells his friend that news of his faith and love causes him to offer up prayers of thanksgiving to God. Paul is grateful for the tangible expressions of life change that have become evident in Philemon’s life. His faith in Jesus Christ’s love for him has resulted in visible displays of selfless love for the people of God.
The apostle John used this same combination of faith in Jesus and love for others in his first letter.
And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. – 1 John 3:23 NLT
And John went on to call for a consistent and persistent kind of love that would reflect the believer’s new relationship with their gracious and loving Father, who is the source of all love.
Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT
John emphasized that the believer’s capacity to love others was evidence of their newfound relationship with God and was made possible because God had loved them enough to send His Son to die in their place as the payment for their sins.
We love each other because he loved us first. – 1 John 4:19 NLT
Paul complimented Philemon for his love of others. But you can sense that Paul is setting Philemon up. He is lovingly preparing his friend to hear some news that will likely prove difficult to receive. It will involve Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus.
Paul begins by explaining to Philemon the content of his ongoing prayers for him: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (Philemon 1:6 NLT). Paul has already complimented Philemon for his love for others. But he wanted Philemon to know and experience the full impact of the Gospel in his life. Paul deeply desired that his friend’s faith would grow in depth and intensity so that he might know and experience all the fulness of joy promised to him in Christ. Jesus had told His disciples:
“Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:9-13 ESV
Paul wanted more for Philemon. He was not content to allow his friend to rest on his laurels or to become complacent in his faith. While there was obvious evidence of fruit in Philemon’s life, there would always be room for further growth. And Paul wanted Philemon to understand that God’s transformative work in his life would never be complete in this life. It would be ongoing and never-ending. And Paul made it a habit to pray for the continual spiritual enlightenment of all those he loved and to whom he ministered.
I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance.
I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 1:18-20 NLT
Paul wanted Philemon to know that his love for others was contagious, having spread far beyond the confines of their local faith community. News of Philemon’s love had reached the ears of Paul, as he sat under house arrest in Rome. And Paul told him, “I have derived much joy and comfort from your love” (Philemon 1:7 ESV). But why? What was it about Philemon’s actions that caused Paul to rejoice and be encouraged? Paul provides the answer: “because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Philemon 1:7 ESV).
As an apostle, teacher, and fellow Christ-follower, Paul found great joy in watching believers live out their faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. When he was able to witness the body of Christ functioning as intended, he couldn’t help but be encouraged. Unity and true community within Christ’s church was important to Paul. That’s why he told the church in Philippi:
…complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:2-4 ESV
Philemon had no idea what was coming. As he, Apphia, and Archippus read this letter together, he must have been deeply encouraged. But the other shoe was about to drop. Paul was preparing to test Philemon’s faith in a profound way. His concept of what it means to love others was going to be stretched. His ideas regarding justice and mercy were going to be challenged as never before. His secular and sacred worlds were about to collide, causing him to reconsider his faith in a whole new light.
Philemon had a blind spot. But he was not alone, and this is probably the reason Paul had included Apphia and Archippus as recipients of his letter. The topic Paul was about to bring up was going to be controversial for each and every member of the local congregation who met in Philemon’s home. They would have known about Philemon’s runaway slave. And most, if not all of them, would have been familiar with and agreeable to Philemon’s legal rights as a master. But Paul was about to rock their collective world.
While the early church seemed to have no problem with slaves coming to faith in Christ and even attending their local fellowships, a social stigma remained. There was a lingering sense of separation and segregation. And Paul addressed this issue repeatedly in his letters to the churches. He was out to tear down the societal standards of his day that were creating division within the body of Christ. In their place, he called for a sense of oneness in Christ.
The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 NLT
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:26-28 NLT
In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 NLT
While the world outside the doors of the church was practicing segregation, enslavement, and every conceivable form of social prejudice, Paul was calling the body of Christ to practice “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 3:3 ESV). There was no place for division and disunity in God’s family. Everyone stands as equals at the foot of the cross. And as Paul reminded the believers in Rome: “For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11 NLT).
No, in God’s Kingdom, all share the unique and undeserved privilege of adoption as His sons and daughters, regardless of race, creed, color, or social standing.
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 3:4-6 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.