Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.
The book of Philemon is the shortest Pauline epistle in the Bible, and for quite a while I’ve been puzzled at the inherent difference between the epistles of Romans or Corinthians to this short, little letter. Even the Pauline letters addressed to Titus and Timothy (persons as compared to Churches) made a lot more sense than the book of Philemon to me. I’ve never really gotten anything out of the book of Philemon because it seemed to be nothing more than a regular letter, from Paul to his friend Philemon about a mutual friend. I’ve never really wondered what this book was about, I’ve never really wondered who Philemon was, and most importantly, I’ve never really wondered who Onesimus was.When I finally began to ponder about these three questions, suddenly, the book of Philemon became a rich and doctrine-filled book. However, in this study, we will put aside the theme of slavery and just focus on Paul’s letter-writing abilities. His numerous letters have been a great blessing to many for generations, and even in a short letter like the book of Philemon, we can clearly see how his encouragement to Philemon was direct and affirming. In today’s study, we will put aside the short but intriguing plot of Philemon and Onesimus, and instead draw some attention to how Paul’s encouragement to Philemon took the form of a few words in a letter.
There are 3 subjects in this verse alone, and it is based on these three subjects that I will analyse this verse today. Firstly, Philemon as the recipient, secondly, Paul as the author, and lastly, the saints, or the rest of their brothers and sisters in Christ.
you, brother – it is not rare for Paul to call someone intimately – brother – though the phrase used here can be seen as a higher level of intimacy than the usual ‘brothers’ that refers to Christians in general. Out of all his letters, only his letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon were written to individuals – the rest were written to churches. He was perhaps a lot closer to Timothy and Titus than he was to Philemon – calling them his dear sons – [1 Tim 1:2, Titus 1:4], as he did regarding Onesimus – that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains [Philemon 1:10]. Note the difference in intimacy – Philemon was a brother, Onesimus, Timothy and Titus were ‘son’s. For good reason of course, the three of them clearly had followed Paul for a significant amount of time and assisted in his mission trips. Philemon, on the other hand, while a fellow worker in Christ, was never directly mentored by Paul – or at least we have no inclination to believe that he ever was. The letter to Philemon is notably short, and it was arguably for Onesimus’ sake [the son] and not Philemon [the brother] that Paul wrote this letter.
Your love has given me great joy and encouragement – And Paul proceeds to talk about Philemon’s role in his life – we may not always play a major part in the lives of others, but when we show our concern to others, or when our good deeds spread to the ears of others, we are able to be an uplifting testimony and a source of encouragement to others. An example of this was given in Paul’s second letter to the Church of Corinth – He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever [2 Cor 7:7] – the he in this verse refers to Titus, who reported to Paul about the situation of the Church in Corinth. We see here a clear example of how the love and concern of the church of Corinth was a source joy to Paul – my joy was greater than ever. Indeed, when we feel the love and the concern of others, we will feel joy and we will be encouraged. Sometimes a little expression of concern from somebody is all it takes to give us the strength to live another day through our afflictions. Sometimes a little bit of love from somebody is all it takes for us to smile like a fool for the rest of the day.
have refreshed the hearts of the saints – Saints in general have referred to those who believe in Christ, and hence, Christians, or other brothers-and-sisters-in-Christ. The Church is a body of Christ, and members of the Church are akin to the parts of body – we are a collective, we are One. When a member of the Church encompasses the love of God and acts in love, there is a fresh breath of air in the entire collective. It empowers the entire community. Using the previous example in 2 Corinthians 7 – By all this we are encouraged. In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you [2 Cor 7:13]. Titus was the one who delivered Paul’s letters to the church of Corinth, and the one who reported on the situation of the Church after receiving Paul’s first letter. By the good works and deeds of the Corinthians, Titus was influenced, his spiritual well refreshed, his faith strengthened.
I happen to enjoy writing letters and sending them out via, what we crudely and rudely term as ‘snail mail’ today. It’s sad, but in general, the term ‘mail’ today refers to email. You can’t even call them posts, for people will immediately think of blog posts or tweets or facebook posts. Often it is hard to write letters – especially now that letters become even more personal because of their rarity (that’s how I feel at least) – you don’t know if what you write will affect the recipient positively or negatively. Yet, letters are useless if they are not sent. The New Testament authors wrote letters and sent letters, and through their letters, impacted and encouraged generations of people. Our letters won’t be comparable, of course. But still, using Paul’s letter to Philemon as an example, we can learn how to honour our brothers-and-sisters in Christ and encourage them through words.