Philemon

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There are two ways in which truth is presented to us, didactically and in the living exhibition of it. There may indeed be a certain admiration of the character in which truth is embodied, without perceiving that it is the truth which molds the character. But for the most part we are much readier at learning truth didactically, than as presented to us livingly. In the one case it is often the mere exercise of the mind, in the other the affections are almost necessarily engaged. It is not however my intention to institute any comparison between the relative value of these two ways. God has been pleased to use them both, and it is generally found that where there has been the setting aside of doctrinal truth, because it has been systematically held by some, and severed from the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the great doctrine of God, there has been instability. But it is exceedingly delightful to witness the progress of one, who having received the truth doctrinally, is led to connect it with Jesus in his own soul. The purpose of God and all that flows from it, still have their proper place in his soul. He does not deny, but most fully avows all the truth contained in the most rigid doctrinal statement. The electing love of God, His effectual calling, His predestination to Sonship, the indefectibility of grace and perseverance of the saints, are no longer to him so many abstract truths, but become embodied in his own soul, by the known character of God in redemption. It is thus the soul is delivered from questioning and debating about such points, it assumes them because it knows God; and it is this acquaintance with God which gives real peace. I believe that even the recognition of one's own personal election, fails in giving peace apart from the character of God, revealed as love. There are jealousies and suspicions in the soul, as to God, even where the truth is most distinctly apprehended doctrinally, until God's perfect love as revealed in Jesus, casts out all fear. There is no real boldness (doctrines never give it) until we know that God's love has made us, even in this world, as Jesus is before Him in heaven. This is the result of the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, to every one that believeth. And as such a knowledge of God as this, is eternal life, we find the soul unconsciously acting on and out, those very doctrines which it had previously acknowledged as truth. But now they have become as it were its life and existence, and therefore without being mentioned are continually being confessed. It is surprising how much is necessarily assumed, when once God is known by the soul in the relationship of Father, -many a babe who has been brought to know Him as such through faith in Jesus, although he might be for a moment stumbled at a' systematic presentation of the doctrines of grace, will be found to have the elements of them all in his own soul. As born of God, he really lives and moves and has his being in Him, and instead of questioning about God is happily living in Him. When this is the case, there is a beautiful ease in Christianity,-it is not effort, it is life. And the true grace of God is as much traced in a precept as in a promise, because the precept assumes redemption and a new relation to God. The precept could only suit one placed in a particular relation. For example, "Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," assumes the knowledge of complete redemption: the soul is set completely at rest about itself, before it can possibly seek to carry out the precept; and in carrying it out is only learning more of the length and breadth and depth and height of the love of God. And thus we become practically acquainted with the grace of God, every step we are seeking to take in obedience to His will.
Now I believe that many parts of scripture are neglected or slighted, because they do not appear to bear on doctrinal truth, while they are the exhibition of that very truth in living power. One such part of scripture is the Epistle to Philemon. It does not contain a single doctrinal statement, and yet could only have been written by one whose very soul had embraced the whole doctrine of Christ, so that his life and thoughts were all expressive of it. It ought to be matter of great thankfulness on our part to our gracious God, that He has chosen such engaging ways to bring His blessed truth to bear on our souls. And I would earnestly desire, while seeking to trace the mind of Christ in the Apostle Paul writing to Philemon, that we might have fellowship with Him in it.
In the Lord Jesus personally, we see the whole truth embodied and livingly presented, -He is the truth. In the Apostle we see the blessed result of communion with the truth, and the presentation of the mind of Christ. This is our portion. "We have the mind of Christ." It is this which makes us know how we ought to walk, so as to please God. The rule of Christian conduct is not "I say unto my servant, Go, and he goeth," without knowing the reason of the command, but it is the ability to recognize the propriety of the command itself as suitable to the condition in which we are placed, and therefore the obedience of the Christian is intelligent obedience. He is led of the Spirit, and this too in those very things which are most opposed to all that is natural. God, with all the power to command, treats us as friends; He in-forms us and shows us what would be well-pleasing unto Him, and thus we have fellowship with Him in carrying out his will into obedience, which we could not have had if He dealt with us as servants. But I would now turn for illustration of these things to Paul's Epistle to Philemon.
The salutation or address, brief as it is, contains in it, the sub-stance of the Epistle. It is all so pertinent to the subject on the mind of the Apostle, that one might be led to think there was studied art in it. But I believe that no artificial arrangement can ever come up to the simple expression of the mind of Christ. And all the beauties of the sacred writers have not arisen from any studied composition, but are the necessary result of inspiration -the Spirit expressing by them that subject which he fully knew, and was therefore fully competent to teach. But to return to the address of the Epistle. We have Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ; Timothy, a brother; Philemon, one dearly beloved, and a fellow-laborer with the Apostle; Apphia, the beloved; and Archippus, Paul's fellow-soldier. Now the mention of all these names is expressive of fellowship, -those who had no natural fellowship one with the other, nothing in common one with the other, strangers in country, in habit, in language, had now by union with Jesus, common relationship, common affections, common service, common warfare. Here is the wondrous power of the cross, it not only brings the soul into peace with God, as seeing His love to a sinner therein expressed, even in the judgment of that sin which would hinder fellowship with Him, but it brings men of the most opposite character, and most different condition in this life, into oneness also. How fully must the soul of the Apostle in writing this address, have known nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. He saw an end of all those distinctions which separate man from man in the cross; and a new union with a new head in a new creation in the resurrection. This true doctrine of the cross we need to know, -this Paul would have Philemon to know. That the very same power which had slain the enmity between Paul, a Jew, and Philemon, a Gentile, "making them one new man making peace," the very same power by which they were engaged in the same work, would be sufficient to make peace between Philemon and his slave Onesimus, to give them a oneness of interest, affection, and service, which they had never had before. I need hardly state that this is the true doctrine of Christ as expressed Eph. 2:13-2213But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; 15Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; 16And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: 17And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. 18For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. 19Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; 20And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; 21In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: 22In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:13‑22). There indeed it is stated in its largest principle, that God had introduced a power by which even the partition wall, which He Himself had placed between Jew and Gentile, was broken down, and they, so contrary the one to the other, brought into amity -not by the Jew becoming a Gentile, nor the Gentile a.Jew, but the twain becoming a new man in Christ Jesus.
I would not omit here to notice the mention of "the Church in thy house," as in strict keeping with the whole subject. The Church is the household of God; and how very blessed to have a small household here conformed to God's great household. Now Philemon and Archippus, who once had been far off from God, had now by the blood of Christ been brought nigh, and standing before God in Him, had become of the household of God. There was no difference before God on account of their relative conditions here, in Christ Jesus there is neither bond nor free. With what propriety therefore is the Church in the house mentioned here, as that which would lead Philemon immediately to see the blessedness of receiving Onesimus in brotherly love, and regarding him of the household of God, and therefore of the Church in his house. But if we enter a little more into detail, I think we shall be able to trace more of the living grace which is in Christ Jesus, for us, as well as the Apostle Paul. "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus" -"a prisoner!" why not an Apostle? surely he was one, and could not give up that title and office, however grace might lead him to do that which his Master had done, that he might bring sinners to God, and lead on saints into obedience by love. His authority he most clearly asserts, -"Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, yet for love's sake I rather beseech, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ." Paul dared not give up his authority as an Apostle, -he was responsible for its exercise to Him whose servant he was. When the occasion came, he could use sharpness. But though the relation in which Paul stood in the Church to Philemon was most distinct, yet his soul was resting much more on that which he had in common with Philemon than on that which distinguished him from him. It was thus too he would teach Philemon by his own example, how he should act towards Onesimus: their relation was that of master and slave, and the gospel did not the least alter it. Philemon was responsible as a master to his Master in heaven; but yet there was open to Philemon the showing forth of the grace of the Apostle, or rather of the Lord Himself, who never could alter by any humiliation that which He essentially was; but was enabled by it to bring to bear on the soul, that which otherwise He never could have done -His own gracious example. "Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you." It is the joy of the heart of the Lord Jesus Himself, to place Himself in that posture in which He can bring us in to share His own blessings with Himself. As Lord of all, He stands alone, and above us all; and this He cannot give up, for it would be the denial of Himself. But when He has all authority to command as Lord (and this is speedily to be revealed), He has as humbled, been pleased to give us an example that we should follow His steps. He delights to come down to our level, in order to exalt us to His own glory. This is the way of grace: it would have been no grace in the Lord Jesus, had He not been an equal with God, to have made Himself of no reputation, and taken on Him the form of a servant, because the highest created intelligence is but a servant. But grace is God's ability of preserving His own character, when He is not demanding of us His own rights; although He can never waive those rights. And the wonder of redemption is, that without any demand on the part of God on us, it shows us all His claims most amply satisfied -"a just God and a Savior. " Paul therefore could not waive his apostleship, but it was open to him to act in grace, and to take his stand on that which he had in common with Philemon and the whole Church-brotherhood in Christ Jesus. And here instead of authoritative command, he could "beseech." And then with the full recognition of the relation in which Philemon stood to Onesimus, which Paul had no power to dissolve, although he might have enjoined what was "convenient," he leaves Philemon in the place of exercising grace, and taking his stand with Onesimus in the common brotherhood, and valuing this new relationship above the old one, although that still continued. It is deeply important to remark how our gracious Lord constantly affords us opportunities of showing grace. It is rarely that He addresses us in the tone of authoritative command, saying, "Go," "Do this"; but it is, "here is my mind," go and carry it out as far as you can -and every one that is perfect shall be as His Master. Nothing can be more destructive of the gospel, than to assert a common brotherhood, apart from that grace of God which has given it, and that living grace in which it is to be carried out. It has not pleased God in giving to us a new and eternal relationship, to alter our relative conditions while we are in the world. He allows the world to go on as it is, and does not interfere with its regulations now for the sake even of His own dear children. Paul continues high in the Church as an Apostle, Philemon continues a master, and Onesimus a slave, though God had made them one in Christ Jesus, and He by His blood had washed them from their sins and made Onesimus as well as Paul, a king and a priest unto God and his Father. It would not have been grace in Onesimus, because he was a brother and an heir of God and joint-heir of Christ, to say he was no longer a slave. Neither would it have been grace in Philemon because he was his master, to refuse to acknowledge Onesimus as a brother. It was the Lord who had made him such, and it should have been the joy of the heart of Philemon to receive him as such. But it was left to Philemon to show how far his soul estimated his standing in Christ above any circumstantial difference of condition here. And therefore says the Apostle, "that you might receive him forever, 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. " Now I fully believe that any attempt to exhibit Christian brotherhood apart from individual and personal grace, as that which alone can sustain it, must be most mischievous, and in the end lead to confusion and disorder -if not practical atheism. Men see by their natural understandings that there is a common brotherhood recognized in the New Testament, they assert it as if it were of nature, not of grace, and use it to the subversion even of the authority of God Himself. It is the very essence of lawlessness, to make that which is the blessed result of the riches of God's grace to be the natural right of man. It is this use of the blessed gospel itself which produces the worst form of evil -such as we see characterized by the Apostles Jude and Peter.
God has not placed his children here to assert their rights. He has saved them according to His own mercy and grace, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost; and He leaves them here to learn obedience to Him in all things. It is in our several relations one to the other, that obedience to God is manifested, and the grace of which we have been partakers shown forth. If Onesimus had demanded as a matter of right, to he received as a brother, there would not have been given to Philemon an opportunity of showing grace to him, and loving obedience to God. How beautifully does grace keep everything in its right place, -surely it must do so, for it maintains the character of God. It is in us alway self-denial, never self-exaltation; and it is equally shown in Onesimus, yielding all willing service, as in Philemon, not exacting it.
But still to return to the salutation, -"Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ. " In this he showed Philemon two things: first, that he was a sufferer, and not. one who had maintained his place in the world by his confession of Christ; secondly, that all the irksomeness of his prison was removed, by his ability to see that men were only the hand of the Lord, so that he was content to be there, for he was the Lord's prisoner. And when he comes to the special point of his writing to Philemon, he then presents himself "such a one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. "
And what had Paul the aged been learning in his long course? -the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ; and his claim on Philemon is not the authority he might have used, but his experience of the blessedness of the ways of grace in his own soul, and his present suffering for preaching the gospel of that grace to Philemon and other Gentiles (Compare Eph. 3:11For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, (Ephesians 3:1)). But just as he was content to be in bonds, because he was the Lord's prisoner, so was he delighted to recognize those bonds in which Philemon was eternally one with him. Speaking of Onesimus, he says, "whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel. " Here is the very mind of Christ, He (Jesus) was content to suffer alone, and for us. -He called none in to share all that He had to do in atonement -none could have stood with Him in that. But what was the end of it, but that we might be united to Him in eternal bonds. And the present end of this union is ministry to Him, in the person of His saints, and confession of Him in the world which has shut Him out. Paul stood forth as the elect vessel to bear the name of Jesus. He speaks it to the credit of one, "he was not ashamed of my chain" (2 Tim. 1:1616The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: (2 Timothy 1:16)). Here then was the opportunity for Philemon to show that notwithstanding the degradation of Paul in the eyes of men -a prisoner -yet that he reckoned him as the choicest servant of the Lord, and his present condition would only render his obedience more prompt. But how deeply must his soul have tasted of the spirit of Christ, whose obedience was always both willing and intelligent, when he says "but without thy mind would I do nothing, that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity but willingly " "The Lord loveth a cheerful giver." He delights that our obedience should be intelligent and willing. How gracious is this, -how unlike the hard master and austere man that our foolish and wicked hearts are ever disposed to believe Him to be. He shows us His own gracious ways, -He informs our under-standings and makes us to see the fitness of that which He desires, so that walking in the Spirit is going along with the Lord in the path which He points out. And although it must really be constant death to the flesh, and therefore constant suffering, yet in the intelligence of the new man, we can say "His ways are ways of pleasantness, and all His paths are peace." "Not of necessity," -how often do our poor hearts ask, is it necessary? must it be done? He does not address us in that way, though He cannot deny His Lordship, but He shows us what is convenient and we have the renewed mind to discern it; and Ile tells us what is pleasing to Him, that He may engage our affections, and then, "If ye love me, keep my commandments. " How deeply must that soul have known of fellowship with Christ, which could thus say, "not of necessity"; and how little do our souls know of His grace when we are putting our obedience on the principle of duty, instead of seeing it as the development of the life within us. It was the life in union with Christ, which Paul knew to be in Philemon, which he sought to actuate, and then obedience would be willing, natural, and easy. There is always, if I may use the expression, an awkwardness in Christian conduct when it proceeds from necessity, -it is like being turned out of one's way, instead of walking in the Spirit. How needful then for deep personal intercourse with the Lord Himself, that we may know His thoughts and learn His ways; and then obedience, though learned in suffering, will be willing obedience. But there is a little point to notice, and it is just where discipleship turns: there may be things, and there are many, which Jesus as Lord does not command, but yet which as Master He teaches. I believe the greater part of inconsistencies are justified on the principle that they are not forbidden, or that a particular line of conduct is not systematically laid down in the word. The Apostle says "that thy benefit (thy good thing, v. 6) might not be of necessity." Now I believe that a great many of the good works by which the gospel is adorned, are not pressed on us by positive commandment, but are learned in the school of Christ, for He is our one Master, and we are His disciples. The Lord and servant are correlatives, and so are Master and disciple: every one that is perfect, shall be as his Master.
There is one thing more to notice in "Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ," and that is, how his soul was led out into practical fellow-ship with others in like circumstances.
There is nothing more blessed than the thought that Jesus is able to throw Himself into our individual circumstances, -He was in prison with Paul. He could as easily have delivered him out of prison as He had Peter. But He had rather have fellowship with him in prison, and there make him the depository of His deepest thoughts. It was the prison, not the active journeying, to which (instrumentally) we are indebted for the deep revelations of the mind of God in the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. And so it was in a lower degree with Paul and Epaphras, -the prison deepened their fellowship one with the other. "There salute thee Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus." And may we not justly conclude that it was such fellowship, both with the Lord Himself and His devoted servant, that led Epaphras into that blessed service for the Church of Colosse, which is mentioned in that Epistle. "Epaphras who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God." If there were deeper fellowship with the Father and the Son, and more real fellowship of the saints, surely there would be more of the effectual labor of Epaphras; and when did the Church ever stand more in need of such laborers?
The next part of the salutation is "Timothy our brother." Philemon had not fellowship with Paul as a prisoner; but here comes in the link, "our brother" connects him both with Paul and Timothy; and if the Lord of all is not ashamed to call us brethren, how will it delight the soul of His servant to put Himself on this standing, wherein He was one with every saint. That word "fellowship" -what a blessed word it is -all that is common to us with the Lord, and common to us one with the other, as one with Him. God delights to communicate, and to share with us that which He communicates; and grace would do the same, but man would al-ways stand on that which is peculiar. It seems to me that the way in which the Apostle brings as it were the soul of Philemon into the realizing this fellowship with himself, is exquisitely beautiful, -"For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother." And again, "Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: re-fresh my bowels in the Lord. " The soul of the Apostle delighted in this relationship,-it knit him to Timothy, and Timothy and himself to Philemon. It stood upon far higher ground than any natural relationship, for they were only brethren one to the other, because each of them was the brother of Jesus. And Jesus had received Onesimus also; and He desired. Philemon to own the relationship, even as the Apostle so gladly owned it with him, -that he would receive him, "not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved." It seems to me that the soul of the Apostle ever sought its repose in this fellowship of brethren, and not in that which distinguished him from them. And is not this the mind of Christ. He is not ashamed to call us brethren. Lord He is, and Master He is; but in those His titles, there is no fellowship. But it was the first expression of joy that came from Him after the travail of His soul, when He said, "Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God." Here was fellowship, -the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, was the God and Father of others. But the soul of the Apostle, so deeply taught in fellowship with the Father and the Son, delighted in all he had in common with others, and desired its communication onward through Philemon. Is Philemon his beloved? he would have him receive Onesimus as a brother beloved. The soul of the Apostle expanded at the thought of fellowship. Philemon was his fellow-laborer, so were Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas (verse 24). How blessedly does grace make us bound over the littleness of our own minds. It owns everything in others that it possibly can. Paul stood in the place of conscious authority, and therefore he does not desire to assert it. But what enlargement of soul is there, in his thus noticing his fellow-prisoner, fellow-laborers, fellow-soldier. After this how fitly is he able to press on Philemon that practical fellowship, which he was thus manifesting,-that communicativeness of blessing to others, because God Himself was known as communicating all blessing.
Verses 4, 5, 6. -The love and faith of a single saint called forth thanksgiving from the Apostle to God. His soul had often other exercises-deep humiliation before God on account of the walk of some -but here it was that which glorified God. That love, and that faith, the Apostle ardently desired to see enlarged, but he had spread this desire before God, before he made mention of it to Philemon, and he so makes mention of it as to bring the soul of Philemon immediately before God. He would have Philemon know the joy that his own soul knew in communicating. "That the communication of thy faith." It was the faith of Philemon which was to be carried out into exercise; every natural feeling and habit would be opposed to that which would be convenient in the present case. It must be faith working by love, which alone could cause Philemon to receive Onesimus cordially as a brother. And where would faith put Philemon? surely before God as a lost and ruined sinner, saved solely by His sovereign grace; and if he put Onesimus beside him there, where was the difference? he could only see one equally ruined in himself, and him saved by the same grace. But what depth of truth is conveyed in what follows. "That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus." The faith of Paul reckoned largely on the good thing which was in Philemon in Christ Jesus, because he knew that all the fullness of Christ was the property, so to speak, of the weakest saint. And he would stir up the faith of Philemon to the acknowledging of the good thing (the same word in the Greek as that translated benefit, v. 14). Surely Philemon would have acknowledged that in him, that is in his flesh, no good thing dwelt; but Paul addressed him as one in union with Jesus (Christ Jesus}, in whom every good thing dwelt, and thus called on him to exhibit "the good thing which was in him in Christ Jesus." This is our Christian responsibility. We are responsible for exercising the grace which is in Christ Jesus, because we are in union with Him, not for security only, but for fruit-bearing also. The great blessedness of that union will only be fully known in glory; but now our Father is looking for a result from it, -"herein is my Father glorified that ye bear much fruit." Paul would have Philemon thus practically live the life of faith on the Son of God; and when he felt all natural repugnance to receiving Onesimus back, he would look to Jesus and his oneness with Him, to see what the grace of Christ would do in such circumstances, and then draw out of His fullness grace answering to grace. How wisely does the Apostle put Philemon upon the sure basis of security, while he is thus leading him on into that act which would require a great exercise of faith.
Paul could have no confidence in Philemon as a man, -he might sullenly have done the thing requested out of deference to his authority, or Paul might have asked it as a debt of gratitude to himself (see v. 19). But he knew how to touch a string which would draw forth willing acquiescence (v. 14); and in doing this puts Philemon in remembrance of all his own blessedness as one with Christ. How little do we poor degraded saints reckon on anything more by our being in Christ, than mere sufficiency for salvation: we are afraid to look for any good thing, and what is worse, often use the knowledge we have of the evil that dwells in us, as a reason for not looking for any good thing, as though it contradicted the other truth. But in union with Christ, we are called upon to acknowledge every good thing in us unto Him, and faith would call it out on the fitting occasion. Such an occasion was now offered to Philemon; and when acted out, the Apostle would have praised God, not Philemon, for its exercise. Lord increase our faith, increase our faith.
What unselfish joy did the soul of the Apostle possess,—"We have great joy and consolation in thy love because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother." Surely this is the joy of the Lord, -it was His joy personally to minister to the saints while here, it is the same joy now to Him to minister to them in heaven, and to supply those gifts by which His nourishing and cherishing love to the Church shall be continued. It was the refreshment "of the bowels of the saints" -their inmost affections were engaged to Philemon by witnessing the faith, love and grace in him, and Paul too was seeking the same refreshment from Philemon for himself, he would draw it forth on the occasion of sending back Onesimus, and, while drawing it forth, would at the same time impart all his own heart's affection to Philemon, -"thou therefore receive him, that is mine own bowels." And is not this the exhibition of the way of our gracious God? Is there nothing now that refreshes Him in this world which has rejected Him, by casting out His Son, His well-beloved -His bowels. Surely it is the bowels of His mercy (Lukei. 78. Marg.) which has refreshed us; and it is the answer to this from us, which refreshes Him. -"Put on therefore as the elect of God, bowels of mercies." It is receiving a little one in the name of Christ, which is the receiving of Himself; and when one such little one is received by us in the nourishing and cherishing love of Christ, then we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ. How constantly do our hearts disallow that God has any fellowship with His saints in their joy. If an Apostle could say, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth," he says it, as an expression of the mind of Christ. Oh that the joy of the Lord might ever be the joy of our hearts.
What has God wrought? well may we say this, when we see the Lord God Almighty, the High and Holy One, so presenting Himself to us as to beseech. -"Now then we are ambassadors for God, as though God did beseech by us. " This is the grace of God exhibited in the ministry of His own Son first, and now in the ministry of reconciliation on the sure foundation of complete atonement. And this is the grace Paul would witness unto: he could have commanded, and yet for love's sake he rather besought -he besought for his son Onesimus whom he had begotten in his bonds. Had Philemon listened to the ministry of reconciliation, and received the Son of God into his soul? now let him as one reconciled to God himself, exercise it towards Onesimus. Paul, as the instrument, would say, whom I have begotten in my bonds; but there was something much deeper than that, for every one born of God had been begotten out of the grave of Jesus, the first-begotten from the dead. How must every plea for Onesimus have led the soul of Philemon before God, and made it go over afresh all the detail of God's grace to himself. What a blessed way to teach obedience by bringing all God's love to ourselves before the soul. "Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me"; and what had Philemon been in time past to God, foolish, disobedient, serving divers lusts and pleasures, but the knowledge of the love of God in his own soul had now made him a useful servant of the Lord and His saints. Surely the leadings of his own soul must have directed Philemon to see what was convenient, and his benefit would be willingly conferred, not of necessity. How blessed is the intelligent and willing obedience of the saint, since it springs from the recognition of all the fullness of God's love. God exacts of us nothing, but sets before us His own ways; and those who are led of the Spirit follow them. There must be a much deeper knowledge of the grace of God, in order to more fruit-bearing unto God. The Apostle speaks of the gospel to the Colossians thus: "and bringeth forth fruit, as it cloth also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth." This is what is needed by the saints now, the knowledge of the grace of God in truth.
Verse 15. -No one knew better than the Apostle, that where sin had abounded, grace had superabounded. But yet there seems a holy caution in the Spirit, while speaking of these things, lest we should think or speak of sin lightly. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and delighting as He does, to magnify the grace of God in Christ, He always vindicates God's holy detestation of sin. Alas, how often do we find, that familiarity with the doctrines of grace, where there is no deep work in the soul, leads to light thoughts of sin. What holy caution is there in the words, "For perhaps he therefore departed from thee for a season, that thou shouldest receive him forever." Onesimus, it is hinted, had wronged Philemon, had robbed or purloined, and then ran away from his master. Could God justify dishonesty and fraud? no; for no unrighteous person shall inherit the kingdom of God. The dishonesty of Onesimus led him to Rome, led him to Paul, led him to hear the gospel, but that did not alter its character the least. It might have brought Onesimus to self-acquaintance, and doubtless it did, to honest confession of what he had done, and thus to real humility; still it would always have stood by Onesimus, so as to prevent his glorying in anything save in the grace of God abounding over all his sin. And thus while most secure in the knowledge of God's love, he would be most humble in himself. The very freeness of God's grace, and the completeness of the purging of the blood of the Lamb, would give the justified sinner the deepest hatred of sin. But no one whose soul was not habituated to the tracing the ways of God in redemption, would have ventured on such a thought as is here expressed. In the largest view we see man, fallen from God as a creature, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, received back to God forever. We see the prodigal departing from his Father's house for a season, after tasting of the bitterness of his own ways, through the love of the Father, received back forever. Man, as a creature, might depart, and did depart from his standing in blessedness in relation to the Creator. Man, as a servant, was bound by no inseparable tie to God. But he that is born of God is inseparably united to God, -he is received by Him forever. This is the joy of the Father's heart,—"thy brother is come, and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound." What a place of blessing for Philemon to be put in, to share the joy of heaven over a repenting sinner, in receiving back Onesimus as a brother. Their relation one to the other, as master and slave, would speedily be dissolved,-" the servant abideth not in the house forever," but brotherhood in Christ is forever. Had not. the truth been that in which the soul of the Apostle lived, it could never have expressed itself so. His soul dwelt in God, and therefore expressed the ways and the thoughts of God.
But the Apostle would have Philemon share with him in this divine fellowship -"have fellowship with us, for truly our fellowship is with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ," -the Lord had made Paul the partner of His deepest thoughts, Philemon knew that he had much in common with Paul, like precious faith and the common salvation and all the fullness of Christ. "If you count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself." He would have Philemon share with him in his joy over Onesimus, even as he shared with him so much in common besides. It is thus the Lord Jesus has fellowship with us, and we with Him, in the person of every saint, and makes each newly converted sinner to be a link of connection to bind Himself and us. If we receive them in His name we receive Him, and we partake of mutual joy. He would have us count Him a partner, and then share His joy with Him. This is practical fellowship. But surely Philemon in the wisdom of the Spirit would have known, while his heart was bounding with gratitude to Paul, how to transfer the language of the Apostle as to himself, to the Lord Jesus, as true alone in the highest sense of Him. No one not living in the fullest power of communion with God, could so confidently have written as the Apostle here. He knew what that meant -"He laid down His life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren:" He bore all for us; so the servant treading in the steps of his Master, would put himself under any responsibility that he could. -"If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account." Is not this the very language of Christ? Has our brother wronged us, let us look to Christ, -He has borne the wrong; how many a heart-burning, how much strife would thus be avoided. God has received him, by setting down the wrong to Christ's account: what blessing would it be to our own souls, to see the very wrong done to ourselves, borne by Christ. "I Paul have written it with my own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides." O the riches of the grace of our Lord. The servant dare not undertake more than the Lord has done; and surely it was in the knowledge of the ways of his Lord, that he used such language as this. If anything is due to us from a brother, let us not exact it. He has written it with His own hand, He will repay,—"Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather be defrauded?" No one is a loser by foregoing anything for the Lord's sake; although we owe ourselves to Him, and all that we have, yet He is so gracious as to undertake to repay any loss we put up with for His name sake. What a double obligation of grace was Philemon thus laid under, -a debtor to the grace of the Lord -a debtor to the grace of the servant: surely this must have constrained him to cheerful acquiescence. How assuredly must Paul have reckoned on Philemon having the mind of Christ; and his desire was to call it into practical exercise. We too ought to reckon more on this mind in one another, and thus "to consider one another" to call it out. Onesimus was not his own, he was his master's; Philemon was not his own, he was Paul's, he was Christ's. But the Lord, and his servant who knew His ways, would not exact compliance on that principle: what a lesson was thus taught Philemon. It is the Lord's joy, when He might claim everything, for "we are not our own," so to give us to stand in grace, as to do that which is well-pleasing to Him. Paul had now put Philemon on his standing in grace, and then he adds, "Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh pry bowels in the Lord." How joy in the Lord? unless the Lord was u sharer of the joy: He delights to see the fruit of His own grace, and therefore exacts nothing. Paul too would have his most inward affections refreshed, even as the bowels of the saints had been refreshed by the faith and love of Philemon. Well would it be for us, if we thought more of the inmost affections of Jesus; and then we should easily learn that which would be refreshing unto Him. It is wonderful indeed, that anything here should refresh Him; but even from this polluted world, there is in the love of the saints, an odor of a sweet smell -a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God (Phil. 4:1818But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God. (Philippians 4:18)). God knows what is in man, and He knows what that new nature is which He has imparted, -it is His own nature. God can and does reckon largely on it, although He can put no confidence at all in the flesh: yea, He hath set it aside, He has judged it. God expects obedience in the spirit, it can and will obey God, and so judged the Apostle. "Having confidence in thy obedience, I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say." God of His grace has done more for us than ever we could have asked; and He puts us in the place of showing grace, when He might have required all as Lord. The obedience of the saint cannot be circumscribed by literal enactment as that of a slave, for who would set bounds to love? who would say to a child, this is all my heart expects from you? We are "accepted in the beloved" -"sanctified unto obedience," but grace would lead beyond mere satisfying the actual demand made upon us in any given circumstances. The Apostle told Philemon what was convenient, but then leaves his soul to be exercised before the Lord, so as to carry his obedience beyond that which might satisfy the actual call made on it, into the exhibition of the true grace of the Lord. This is the way of the Lord: He does not deal with us as servants, but leaves room for the exercise of grace. There would be no refreshment to Him, in seeing an unwilling obedience being rendered to a positive command, but He does delight to see the fruit of union with Him-self manifested while we are here. Every day affords the occasion for thus manifesting this grace. And what is the Church, but the school where it is learned. And what our miserable daily failures, but that we instead of seeking to exhibit the mind of Christ, are standing each one upon the ground of some right we have, which we will not allow to be interfered with. There can be no ground more wrongly assumed, than that the Church is a voluntary association, dependent on man's will. Every believer is of and in the Church, and it is disobedience on his part, if' he fails to show this.
But it is a great mistake to suppose that Church fellowship is a relief from individual responsibility, or a substitute for personal fellowship with the Lord Himself, it is the sphere where the grace learned in personal fellowship with the Lord Jesus, is to be brought into exercise. The grace of the Lord Jesus Himself is learned in its manifold exercise in His own wayward family. The grace which Paul learned by the transforming power of fellowship with Christ, was carried out in his care for all the Churches. And when he saw his son in the faith, sinking under the pressure of much evil in the Church, he says to him, "Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." What we need is not so much knowledge, as the transforming power of fellowship with Jesus (2 Cor. 3:1818But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3:18)). Nothing can be put in the place of this. God will allow no flesh to glory in His presence, but he that glorieth, shall glory only in the Lord. And the training and discipline of the soul now, is to know this practically, -learning, painfully learning, the absence of all that is good in ourselves, and happily learning the fullness of Christ, which is needed by every one of us. And God in His wisdom, brings each one of us into those circumstances wherein the fullness which He knows to be in us in Christ, shall be called forth. Surely His ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts than our thoughts. Blessed school indeed, though we are the most inapt of scholars, to be brought as Moses inside the very glory to learn His ways, while those who are out-side can see no farther than His acts. "But we all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."
The Christian Witness 6:320-340 (1839).