19-3 Paul And Philemon
Paul’s masterful letter to Philemon brings out the consequences of all this. He parallels loving the Lord Jesus with loving “all saints” (Philemon 5). To receive Onesimus was to receive Paul (Philemon 12); and “if thou count me therefore a partner [Gk. Koinonos- ‘one in fellowship’], receive him as myself” (Philemon 17). Paul is saying that if we receive any brother, then, we receive him. He clearly has in mind the Lord’s teaching, that if we receive Him, then we are to receive His brethren. So if we receive any brother, we not only receive the Lord Jesus, but we receive all other brethren in Christ; for each brother represents the entire body of Christ. This shows the utter fallacy of division within the one body. It is an utter nonsense to accept one brother, but not the other brethren, e.g., of his ecclesia. According to the logic of Philemon 17, if we don’t accept a true brother, then we are not treating our other brethren as being in fellowship. For Paul says that if Philemon considered him to be in fellowship, then Philemon ought to accept Onesimus. Likewise, he reasons that he saw in Onesimus the face of Philemon; for Onesimus ministered unto Paul “in thy [Philemon’s] stead” (Philemon 13). The implications of this are far reaching. For by refusing fellowship with our brethren, we are effectively declaring ourselves outside of the body of Christ. And hence Paul’s sober warnings in 1 Cor. 11, to discern / recognize the Lord’s body; for if we refuse to break bread with our brethren, then, he says, we are eating and drinking damnation to ourselves, because we refuse to accept our part in the Lord’s body.
My observation is that personal experience of bad behaviour by brethren is the number one reason why individuals quit the community. However, those brethren who acted badly nearly always are held by others to be upright and good living brethren. And so division develops. Some see their bad behaviour and say ‘Well, that shows for sure he’s a bad guy’. To which another group respond: ‘But whatever you say, I know him well, and from personal experience, I know he’s a good guy’. And the argument goes on: ‘Ha? You call him, who did such bad things to me, a good guy? What Gospel do you believe? Certainly not the one I do…’. This is no caricature. This scenario plays itself out, in essence, time and again. What can be done about this? For one, we should recognize that we all go through the struggle of Paul in Romans 7. We have the new man in Christ within us, who does the good works; yet our old man of the flesh is not as dead as he ought to be, and surfaces at times, in actions and attitudes. If we’re honest, we see this in our own lives, if only we would stand back and see ourselves from outside of ourselves. So it should be no surprise that other brethren act in the same almost schizophrenic manner. Indeed, it is often claimed that brethren who do both good and bad things to other brethren are not mentally OK. This is merely an observation on human nature; we all have this schizophrenic ability, as Paul did, to do both good and evil. But it doesn’t mean we’re any more of a head case than the man or woman next to us. Paul gives an excellent pattern to us in how he dealt with Philemon, whom, it would appear, had not treated neither Paul nor Onesimus in a Christ-like way. Paul genuinely rejoices in the good deeds of Philemon in other contexts: “We have great joy…in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother”. But he goes on to ask Philemon to do this to him: “Brother, let me have joy of thee…refresh my bowels” (Philemon 7,20). The two verses are clearly linked to each other- the words “joy”, “brother”, “refresh”, “bowels” etc recur. Paul appears to be saying: ‘I fully recognize, brother, that you’ve done many good things, given other brethren joy, refreshed their hearts. But, you’ve not done that to your slave, brother Onesimus, neither to me. But I acknowledge the good, Christ-like things in you that I see, in other contexts (v. 6). But please, expand that love to include me; please, treat me in the same good way you’ve treated other brethren; treat me too as a brother in Christ’. Now this sets a wonderful example to us. To acknowledge even in our bitterest enemy in the ecclesia, some good things. Because they are in Christ. To realize that how they are treating us is not actually how they treat all brethren. And to plead with them as does Paul, “for love’s sake”, to treat us in the graceful way they treat their other brethren.
We can avoid being caused to stumble by living a life that is focused upon the person of Jesus. We must know our own utter desperation. The grace we have received must be allowed to transform our lives radically, so that we forgive. We need to so relate to our brethren that we let ourselves gain sustenance from them, so that we know we can never leave the body of Jesus come what may. And on the other hand, we must recognize that we are the face of Jesus to our brethren. We represent Him to them, and His deepest passion is for their salvation. This must be ours too. We will articulate this through a respect of others persons, and a deep seated hopefulness for their salvation. It will take effort, the plucking out of eyes and severing of limbs. I believe we can collectively improve in these matters, and I dare to think we are slowly doing so. This is how the true church can grow. With less offence, both given and taken, our community will grow bigger numerically, for fewer will leave. And there will be fewer disillusioned sideliners. But most importantly, we will all work together in a greater harmony, and thus the body will build itself up in love, compacted by that which every part supplies, and thus hasten the day of the Lord’s return. Amen.