“If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.” Philemon 1:17-20
Early in ministry, I shared a laugh with a seminary buddy of mine, when we were both serving as student ministers. I asked him how it was going, and he responded, “I have discovered that I love the ministry, but it is people that I can’t stand.” We laughed at the clever contradiction in terms. Forty years later, it isn’t so funny. Too many contemporary pastors of the church pattern themselves as ranchers, rather than shepherds. They may be faithful to push the herd towards living water, but don’t know their sheep by name. Some are better at name-dropping than remembering the names of those under their care.
As brief as it is, this prison epistle to Philemon reveals a great deal about the heart of Paul, and the body life of the early church. With all the uncertainties he faced in his own imprisoned condition, and with his concern for all the new churches struggling to survive, Paul found time to focus on the life of one escaped slave, Onesimus. He took off his church planter hat and turned into a Christian counselor seeking to reconcile the breech between two brothers, Philemon and Onesimus. He prayed for them, and called them by name before he took them to task. Intercession must precede intervention.
Comments on Paul’s writings usually emphasize his passion for God, but short change his compassion for people. Paul’s concern for Onesimus reveals that the early church was not the birth of a new religious order, but a creation of The Father.
Paul described the members of the early church as partners and brothers. The church was not an organization, but a living organism. The Body was made of many parts, and not one of them was insignificant. Anyone who has ever hit a little toe on the corner of the bed has been reminded of this simple truth.
The early church leaders performed as partners, not as greedy competitors. The church meeting in the home of Philemon was under the authority of The Apostle Paul, but the leader and the people were also held closely to Paul’s heart. When he referred to Philemon as his partner, Paul didn’t put the emphasis on his authority over Philemon, but on his relationship with him.
"Rules without relationship always breed rebellion."
The source of the quote is not clear, but that doesn’t cloud the truth of it. Some say it comes from Jay Strack. Others attribute it to Josh McDowell. Regardless of the source, the truth remains. Parents, pastors and partners who disregard the importance of investing in relationships are in for a rodeo of rebellion when they try to enforce their rules.
The leaders of the early church recognized each other as partner, but received their fellow members as brothers. These two aspects of relationship may be the most important legacies left by the ancient church to the contemporary church. As the Christians of the Middle East are being exterminated or exiled from lands that were the birthplace of Christianity, only the hardest of hearts cannot find enough compassion to lift up a prayer for their partners in ministry and brothers in Christ.
Paul appealed to Philemon as his partner, and encouraged him to receive Onesimus as his brother. As partners, Paul was willing to assume the cost of reconciliation. The healing of a breech always comes with a price. It takes the sting out of the cost when a partner shares the hit.
In any relationship, someone has to be willing to pay what it takes to make things right. Under Roman law, Philemon had been wronged, and he deserved to be made whole. Under God’s grace, Philemon was being challenged by Paul to give up his legal rights and receive Onesimus as a product of God’s grace.
Talk is cheap, and advice is worth what is paid for it. Advice is much more valuable if the one who is dispensing it is willing to foot the bill for it. Paul stepped up.
“I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well).”
In my last church building project, I vouched for the services of a contractor who had been recommended by the contractor’s pastor. The contractor cheated our church, by taking payment without finishing the job, and lied about making it right. I ended up paying out of my own pocket to make the church whole. The contractor’s pastor advised me to just let it go. His advice was accurate, but it would have been easier to swallow if he had offered to split the cost with me. Can I get an Amen?
Paul was not just willing to pray, but was offering to pay to prime the pump for the grace of God to flow through Philemon’s heart to his brother Onesimus. Paul was willing to pray as long as it took, and to pay whatever it cost to bring Philemon and Onesimus together, by God’s grace.
“Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.”
Paul had called on Onesimus to return to Philemon and make restitution. He prayed for Philemon to offer Onesimus restoration. Being reimbursed financially was not all Philemon needed. To be made whole he needed to embrace his former slave as his new brother in Christ. Paul could require Philemon to do it, but he interceded for him to hear from God and follow The Father’s heart, not his own. To take the sting out of the process of the birth of grace in Philemon’s heart, Paul offered to pay for the cost of the delivery.
The Benefit that came to Paul for his praying and paying, would be the privilege seeing the grace of The Lord in the heart of Philemon. A movement of God in one person’s life is often a prelude to a movement of God on a grand scale. Imprisoned as he was, Paul envisioned and anticipated the answer to his prayer. He said The Benefit would “Refresh my heart in Christ.”
“Refresh” is used interchangeably in the Bible with the concept of rest. The Blue Letter Bible Commentary defines it as…
“to cause or permit one to cease from any movement or labour in order to recover and collect his strengthto give rest, refresh, to give one's self rest, take rest, to keep quiet, of calm and patient expectation.”
Jesus described refresh as the relief that can be found in The Yoke with Him. “I will give you rest.” - Jesus Matthew 11:28
Intercession softens the hardest of hearts in believers, and prepares them to make restitution and to offer restoration. Prayer reaches to Heaven, and calls on The Father to heal the breeches between His children on earth. TALK LESS! PRAY MORE!