For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.Philemon 1:7(NASB)
Philemon was a wealthy man from Colossae who came to faith in Christ through Paul's ministry and became a beloved friend of the apostle. Local believers met in his home and like many prosperous people in the Roman empire, Philemon had a number of slaves. One of his servants was called Onesimus, who stole money from his owner and fled to Rome to escape the consequences of his crime.
Paul was already in Rome awaiting his own trial, and having run out of his ill-gotten gains, Onesimus sought help from the apostle. Under Paul's ministry, the runaway slave trusted Christ for salvation and became a valuable helper in spreading the gospel.
Despite his usefulness, Paul knew Onesimus must return to his master and wrote a short letter to his friend interceding on behalf of the slave. He knew the penalty for theft was severe, and so Paul constructed a brief but beautiful letter appealing to Philemon to forgive Onesimus who was now a Christian, which made them brothers-in-Christ and fellow members of His Body.
Paul wanted Philemon to respond to his request to reinstate Onesimus willingly and out of genuine goodwill. He wanted his friend to apply grace and forgiveness eagerly, not reluctantly or begrudgingly. His letter was not only written on behalf of Onesimus, but has become a lesson for us all in Christian living, love, and grace. It is a teaching on how a spiritual believer should behave when they have been wronged, and a reminder that godly behaviour honours the Lord.
Before beginning his appeal for mercy which restated several Christian doctrines on grace, forgiveness, servanthood, and our imputed righteousness by faith in Christ, Paul reminded Philemon of their own, close Christian intimacy and the mutual love and respect they had for one another: "For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother."
Paul did not include the commendations in this letter to 'butter-him-up' so that Philemon would feel obliged to carry our Paul's request. The apostle had heard news of his generosity and self-sacrificial love during his imprisonment which caused him great joy, for Philemon was also a son in the faith and Paul rejoiced in his spiritual growth and the fruit he was producing.
Paul's own spiritual maturity is demonstrated here. He showed no sign of jealousy because Philemon was a wealthy man and he was in incarcerated in a Roman prison. Paul was not envious of Philemon's position in society, but filled with joy and comfort that this beloved son-in-the-faith was showing such godly growth and spiritual grace. Paul was also Philemon's father-in-the-faith, but to cement his petition on behalf of Onesimus, Paul referred to him as 'brother' for by faith we are all one in Christ.
This verse is also a lovely testimony of Philemon's developing Christian character, for news had reached the apostle's ears that other believers were being refreshed through Philemon's ministry. What a joy for Paul, who not only led this man to Christ but received news of his ongoing spiritual progress in his Christian life.
Paul did not want the return of his slave to ignite any unspiritual resentment or wrath in Philemon, which was probably why he composed the letter requesting the reinstatement of Onesimus in a way that honoured the Lord and would develop Philemon's spiritual growth further.
May we also seek to act in a similar godly manner and obey the instructions we receive from Scripture in thought, word, deed, and motive, so that the testing of our faith does not cause any ungodly reaction, but demonstrates a maturing faith, a growth in grace, and a response that honours the Lord.
Heavenly Father, thank You for my brothers and sisters in Christ. I pray that together we may grow in grace and mature in the faith as we 'gossip the gospel' together and rejoice that our names are written in heaven. Thank You that we are one in Christ and members of His Body. Thank You for the lessons we can learn from the little book of Philemon and the pointers it contains in spiritual growth, Christian love, and forgiveness. I pray that my words and actions would be pleasing in Your sight and that I may be one that refreshes the hearts of the saints, for Your praise and glory. This I ask in Jesus' name, AMEN.