By Praveen Jayamohan
There is a reason why God has kept the letter to Philemon in the Bible. Philemon was probably one of the elders in his local church. He was also a rich man by the fact that he owned slaves, and also had a house big enough to host church meetings. Even though the primary purpose of the letter was for Paul to ask Philemon to receive back Onesimus (runaway slave) as a brother, there are a few things that are mentioned about Philemon that we can learn.
First, Philemon loved God’s people. Paul in his letter starts off with appreciation of certain qualities in Philemon. Paul had much joy and comfort in the love that Philemon had toward God’s holy people. Philemon loved the brothers and sisters in his church and refreshed their hearts (Philemon 5 and 7). The scripture encourages God’s children to encourage one another daily (Hebrews 3:13). We are also encouraged to be filled with the Spirit and speak to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-19).
We don’t need to have a public or a visible ministry in order to encourage one another. We can encourage one another by simply starting with telling others what God has worked in our life. This can happen when we meet one another in our church meetings, or through a phone call, or maybe through a text message during the week. The key to encouraging one another is to love and carry our brothers and sisters in our local fellowship in our hearts and pray for them. The scripture also encourages us to earnestly desire the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:39) so that we can say the apt word that the Lord wants to communicate through us to encourage others.
Second, Philemon was a man of faith. Paul did not flatter people for personal gain, but expressed honest appreciation whenever it is due. Paul had heard about Philemon’s faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 5). The brothers who reported about Philemon’s faith must have seen the evidence of fruit that came out of his life. I am sure that Paul was not referring to a faith as it is proclaimed by preachers who spread the health and wealth gospel. Rather it is a faith that will inherit the high standard of life that the Lord Jesus paved for us. The Lord Jesus inaugurated the new and living way that leads us to a higher standard of life that the old covenant saints could only dream off (Hebrews 11:39-40). We must grow in faith believing what the Lord has promised for us and be overcomers (Acts 16:31).
Our faith must grow from a cup, to a well and to become rivers. It is a blessed truth to know that the Lord is not a respecter of persons and that He will reward those who diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6). We should take it seriously to grow in our faith, which evidence is primarily seen in our homes, in the way we live with our spouses and interact with our children.
Third, Philemon was a teachable man who submitted to the authority of Paul. From Philemon verse 8, I believe Philemon was a humble brother who created space for Paul, that Paul felt comfortable that Philemon would do anything even if he had ordered him. This quality is also evident from the tone of the entirety of the letter to Philemon. As children of God we must learn to be teachable and stop being offended (quickly). The apostle Peter is also a good example to us in this area. Peter received one of the strongest rebuke a Christian could receive (Matthew 16:23), but he stuck with Jesus because Jesus had the words to eternal life.
Imagine saying something to Jesus with all good intention, and receiving a really strong rebuke like, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” What would be your response? Would you say, “Give me a break! I am packing my bags and I am out of here!”, or would you have responded like Peter did saying, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) We must realize that the words of Jesus are eternal life even when it comes in the form of a strong rebuke. God has appointed apostles and elders to lead us to godliness. And the Lord wants us to listen to His rebuke or exhortation that comes through them. The Lord rebukes and disciplines us because we are his sons, and He wants to make us more godly toward Christ’s likeness. Let us learn to be humble and teachable.
Last, Philemon washed the feet of the saints. If we were around Philemon, I am sure we would leave refreshed and encouraged. Philemon was also a man who went the extra mile and did more than what was asked of him (verse 21). I also believe that it must have been Philemon’s habit to accommodate God’s servants who were travelling through his city. Philemon and his family must have been hospitable to the Lord’s servants. Paul did not have any hesitation to ask Philemon to prepare a lodging place for his visit (verse 22).
Today some churches follow the tradition called “the washing of the feet” without understanding the heart behind it. “Washing of the feet” simply means doing lowly and menial jobs that most people would not like to do. There is usually no visibility and no honor associated with such jobs. Such jobs also incur inconveniences and involve hard work. Let us humble ourselves and learn to serve the Lord (and not men). Let us learn to truly care for the Lord’s interests and wash the feet of our brothers and sisters. After finishing such tasks, let us learn to say “we have only done our duty”, and not expect someone to appreciate us. In this present age when a “serve me” mentality is rampant and super-emphasized, let us remember the words of the Lord Jesus who said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Let us pray to the Lord that He will enable us to grow in these qualities in an increasing measure.