Paul's Epistle to Philemon

Philemon  •  5 min. read  •  grade level: 8
In Paul's epistle to that beloved fellow disciple, we listen to the voice of an apostle, a suitor, and a brother in Christ. Paul had to sustain all these characters; and he does so, not sacrificing one of them to another of them; and this is beautiful—the workmanship of the Spirit in him, as it were, after the model of Jesus at Bethany.
(At Bethany, we see the Lord adopting a family scene. There He admitted such fellowship as would not have been consistent with a disallowance of the scene. He could not have been at Bethany, as we see He was, had He disallowed the affection that suits a family circle. He was a well-known friend there. "Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus." These are words which bespeak this. He was not there merely as an invited guest—no, nor merely as a Savior, nor as one that had won for himself a welcome by his sweet and profitable words. Such was seen in the house of Simon the Pharisee, in the village of the Samaritans, and at the table of Emmaus; but here at Bethany Jesus was as one well known- a loved and honored visitor- whose title to all that was there was understood and felt. But, though it were thus, Jesus did not interfere with the arrangements of the house. As having the title of an intimate friend, He knew His welcome at all times; yet the order of the family was not at His discretion. Martha may still be the busy one—the housekeeper. Jesus leaves things as He finds them. It was not for Him to meddle. As He could not enter the house of another unbidden, so, having entered, He could not interfere with the order He finds there. All this is perfection in its place. But, if one of the family, instead of carrying herself in her family place, will step out and be a teacher in His presence, He will then resume His higher character and set things divinely right, though He would not touch them, as I may speak, domestically.)
In the first ten verses of this lovely epistle, we hear the voice of an apostle. Paul addresses Philemon in conscious authority, as having a higher relationship to him in the faith or in the order of the house of God. He salutes him, thanks God for him, and then prays for him—as he does, ordinarily, in all his epistles for the churches—expressing likewise his joy in the grace that was in him, as he would rejoice in the grace that was in them; as, for instance, in the dear Philippians.
Then, to the 19th verse, we hear the suitor; and in such a character Paul stands in the acknowledgment of Philemon's rights, as a master in his own house and owner of his own possessions, as simply and as fully as if he were not an apostle. His desire as a suitor is not allowed to take advantage of his apostleship, and this is beautiful. He who charges servants not to despise their masters because they are brethren, will not presume on the worldly rights of a brother because he himself is an apostle (see 1 Tim. 6). Paul makes his requests of Philemon touching Philemon's servant Onesimus, under the sense of his title as a master, as much as any stranger, •any citizen of the world, could have done; and again I say, this is beautiful. As Jesus would not interfere with family order, His servant would not trespass on family rights and possessions. He knows when to be an apostle and when to be a suitor, and how to be both in season, in the spirit of his Lord who knew when to be the teacher, the divine authoritative Teacher, and when to be the family friend. The spirit of the Master guided the servants in the steps of the Master, and we may follow Paul as he followed Christ. There is something lovely in this. The character of a suitor is not lost in that of the apostle. Apostleship is not allowed to trespass on civil rights. Paul skillfully uses his materials, and plies his reasons. That is so; but that is just what an interested suitor would do, and every suitor should be interested. This is only the perfection of the new character in which he was now speaking. He also lets Philemon know that his compliance would be obedience. This was but the integrity of a suitor to a Christian like Philemon. Paul's skill or art in plying his reasons would have been but cunning had it not been accompanied by such integrity as this. I may, therefore, say his way as a suitor is beautiful.
And then, to the end, we listen to the words of a brother-the breathings of one who knew the grace that was in a fellow disciple, and with confidence could count upon it and use it. "But withal," says he, "prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you." Here it is Philemon's love in the Spirit that he reckons upon, as before it had been his rights in the world he was acknowledging.
Surely, there is something excellent in all this. And one other thought on the whole epistle 1 would suggest: that Paul, the prisoner, in no measure grudges Philemon, the master, his comforts and possessions and liberty. No. What he had in Christ was too paramount in his heart—to commanding and occupying there—to leave room for such a feeling. But it is blessed to see this. No, he knew the dignity of suffering for Christ. To him it was "given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake" (Phil. 1:2929For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake; (Philippians 1:29)).