He was known for his love and faith . . . love and faith shown toward his Savior as He sought to live in response to the gospel . . . love and faith shown to his brothers and sisters in Christ as He sought to live out the implications of the gospel. Because he was grasping more and more “the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” the living of his faith became more and more authentic and effective. And he gained somewhat of a reputation . . . Philemon was a refresher of hearts.
For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. . . . Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
(Philemon 7, 20 ESV)
It really was kind of a complicated situation. In addition to being a believer, as well as a being perhaps an elder in the church that met in his home, Philemon was also a slave owner. Master and slaves were kind of a common part of the economy of the time . . . and he was in the master category. And a guy by the name of Onesimus . . . was in the slave category . . . he was Philemon’s slave . . . and he had gone AWOL . . . and there were certain rules and consequences when it came to slaves going AWOL. But this slave who had been lost to Philemon ended up being found by Christ through the apostle Paul. Paul “fathered” this fugitive slave into the kingdom of light . . . and now Paul, “the dad”, was appealing to Philemon, the transgressed against slave owner, on behalf of Paul’s child in the faith, Onesimus, “Receive him as you would receive me.” Like I said, a bit complicated.
And risky too. It’s not like Paul negotiates the terms of return in advance. It’s not like Paul goes one-on-one with Philemon, ensuring that Philemon will be cool with the whole “forgive the slave who betrayed you” thing before he sends Onesimus back to him. No, instead, because it’s the right thing for Onesimus to do, Paul sends him back with the letter making the request of Philemon to not only forgive this traitor slave but to receive him as he would any brother in Christ. Kind of high expectations on Paul’s part . . . but reputation sets expectation . . . and Philemon had a reputation and was known to be a refresher of hearts.
I love that term. At it’s simplest “refresh” means “to give rest” . . . but I like this little more wordy definition . . . “to cause or permit one to cease from any movement or labor in order to recover and collect his strength”.
Philemon had a reputation for easing the burdens of others that they might be able to catch their breath and rejuvenate. The saints had known respite and renewal through Philemon’s practical expressions of love towards the family of God. And Paul was confident that Onesimus would know it too . . . and Paul anticipated the personal encouragement and refreshing of seeing Philemon step out of his master role and submit instead to the Master as he welcomed into fellowship this former slave as now a sibling in Christ.
The pictures of Christ in this little letter are pretty clear. Paul clearly plays the intercessor role pleading on behalf of this once wayward but now redeemed slave. Paul offers to recompense Philemon for any loss suffered as a result of Onesimus’ defection just a Jesus paid the price for my transgression. And Philemon is a reflector of Christ as well. He models the One who says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” . . . I will refresh your hearts . . . same word.
Oh, that I might too be a refresher of hearts . . . an encourager of the saints . . . a refuge and oasis by which others are able to catch their breath . . . and in so doing, be a reflection, if but a dim reflection, of the Savior . . .
. . . by His grace . . . for His glory.