In looking into Philemon's house (and we may do so without prying, for there is a divine insight given to us) we see an admirable picture of grace amongst men.
When grace becomes a true motive and rule to the conduct in this graceless world, when it is not only a splendid theory - oh, then we may indeed admire its wonderful fruits - there is nothing like it! One of the surest signs that the true grace of God has been understood is that peculiar and delicate care for others (in a world where each one naturally cares for himself) which we see in the case of Philemon.
It may be said that the manner is nothing, and that one must not judge of a Christian by his ways; but to such a sentiment I should oppose the whole spirit of the Epistle to Philemon, and remark also that often small things (expressions, acts, etc.) show the true characters of persons. If one wishes to know from which quarter the wind blows, it is not necessary to set up a large and expensive weathercock; a straw will be sufficient.
The 6th verse should be rendered, "That thy communion in the faith may work powerfully in the full knowledge of all the good which is in us, as to Christ Jesus." The readers will excuse this bald translation, which gives the true sense, and this gives us to understand the real drift of the epistle, that is, grace acting in the midst of the circumstances of everyday life. What I mean is that the sixth verse shows us the divine principle and motive in Philemon, and in all the saints to which Paul could make appeal: he could exhort to a noble line of action, showing himself that delicacy which proceeded from a divine source.
Some will say that the world has changed, and that we have no more runaway slaves to receive back now; the laws of society are different. To which it may be replied that the world's principles are always the same, and, no matter what particular form of manners and customs one may have to do with, there will always be exercise and trial in one's life here, and it is exactly in this that grace is to act.
I should like to notice briefly the character of Paul's action in the affair of the converted fugitive; and then the character of Philemon as painted by the apostle in his beautiful letter. Divinely beautiful, and nonetheless inspired because it treats of the question of the conduct of a Christian master.
The first thing that strikes us in Paul is his unwillingness to use that authority which was rightly his. He had the liberty in Christ to command (see the 8th verse), but preferred to appeal in grace to the one who had suffered wrong. This is very beautiful, for there is none of the presumption of
"Man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,"
in Paul. He is truly humble and unpretentious. And then again, in the 13th verse, there is the very opposite of selfishness. Paul would have liked to have retained Onesimus to have served, in Philemon's stead, with himself in the bonds of the gospel; but he sends back the slave, now become a brother in the Lord, with a message of grace which cannot fail to reach Philemon's heart. There is true Christian affection; and surely never such a recommendation to manumission as this (verse 16).
Then again, in the following verses, whilst the apostle counts fully upon Philemon's receiving Onesimus as himself (Paul), yet he is very careful that all should be rightly and justly settled; surely no one was ever more anxious than Paul "to be true and just in all his dealing." If there were any debt to be met it should certainly be paid, to say nothing of Philemon owing himself to the apostle.
All this is extremely beautiful, and much more might be said; but we may content ourselves, in a short paper, to notice the humility, unselfishness, and justice in the great apostle of the Gentiles, in a question where the grace of God had come in to bless, in an extraordinary way, a fugitive slave. What a wonderful thing is grace!
And now we may look a little at Philemon, whose house is opened to us in this epistle; there is enough in Paul's language to show us the true character of the man.
The 5th verse speaks of his love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; the 7th of his love in activity, for he had been an instrument of refreshing others. The 16th verse, I think, shows the kindness of Philemon's heart, for no doubt the apostle had good reason for saying, "But how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?" It is not going too far, perhaps, in comparing it with verse 11, to suppose that the master had thought much about his (once) useless slave, who now would be welcomed back - doubly welcome. This is what I meant in speaking of Paul's recommendation for Onesimus' liberty; we can well imagine how freely it was given and with what joy!
Then, in verse 21, his obedience was well known to Paul; not only a mechanical obedience, but one which proceeded from a heart ready and anxious to please the Lord, and to do more than what was required. And again, in the 22nd verse, there is a free invitation made by himself, on the apostle's part, and this of itself says much for Philemon; he evidently received the saints as he would have received the Lord. It is more than "lodging," it is rather "hospitality"; and the man in whose house the little assembly met received freely the Lord's servants.
All these things are very beautiful, for if we sum up the short remarks made upon Philemon, we have faith and love, kindness showing itself to a slave become a brother, obedience, and hospitality.
It is a blessed thing that the Holy Ghost has thus given us to see within a Christian house, where the assembly met and where Paul had laboured; and to notice the terms upon which he, the great apostle, lived with the head of a Christian household.
It has often been noticed that Christianity does not pretend to change the state of society in this world (though Christian truths have had an immense influence outwardly upon society); the highest and most blessed truths, the full knowledge of God's grace and of His eternal counsels, instead of making the believer hard, or careless, in the relations of everyday life, make him wonderfully kind and considerate in all his ways.
Paul recognizes the master's right to have the slave back, and at the same time, with a delicacy which only grace can teach, sends him back as a brother - doubly blessed.
How blessed to find, in the midst of a pretentious and selfish world, the humility, self-denial, obedience, generosity, and other virtues which are the true fruits of grace! Surely the Lord would have us to show these things in our lives, and to be actuated by these same principles.
It is significant that the apostle says at the end, by the Holy Spirit, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit!" May that same grace characterize the households of all the saints!
In conclusion I would say, Was ever a more beautiful picture painted of an "interior"? May we admire and copy! E. L. Bevir.