Refreshed In Chains
The Bible is far from barren prose on ancient parchment. Instead it ripples with life, it rises and falls with the breath of God, it ebbs and flows as the Spirit wields it with surgical precision.
Consider the short book of Philemon nestled toward the back of your Bible. Not even a book really, more accurately, an intimate insight into the gospel, seen through the lens of friendship and exposed by the expert penmanship of Paul as he pleadingly writes to a dear brother.
Receiving a hand-written letter by post is fast becoming a novelty these days, but imagine for a moment Philemon’s surprise to have this letter couriered to his own hand by none other than Onesimus, the very slave who ran from him some time earlier. Or imagine, if you can, the moment Onesimus crested the hill overlooking his one-time master’s estate—clenching the scroll he carried as though it was his greatest treasure, heart beating with unusual haste, hopeful for Philemon’s blessing, fearful of the consequences of his escape. If you can imagine neither of these, I wonder if you can picture Paul as he etched these 25 verses from his own prison, glancing up at his new friend and child in the faith, Onesimus. Casting his mind back to his precious friendship with Philemon, Paul allows his heart to flow onto the scroll rolled out before him.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon 17-20 ESV)
The entire letter is rich with implications that blossom from the stump of the gospel, but even in these few verses lay a bouquet that should awaken our senses to the aroma of grace that is found in Jesus.
The gospel creates one new man from two
”…receive him as you would receive me.”
When Paul sent off Onesimus with this commendation and request, the gospel ensured that though Paul was left behind in chains, in a far more profound way, Paul himself was hand-delivering his own letter. This truth, that Paul’s identity was enveloped in and expressed through Onesimus’, is a profound fruit of the gospel truth best explained in one of Paul’s other letters.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:13-16 ESV)
When Onesimus walked through those gates, in Christ, Paul walked with him. Our liberty as children of God is secured not by our circumstances but by our standing in Christ.
The gospel creates a deep accountability for each other
”If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”
As an earthly echo that resounds from the Cross, fellow believers carry one another’s burdens. The gospel informs our personal rights in such a way that we are generous with other’s consequences. There is no more place for Paul to claim his own rights and declare that Onesimus “made his own bed so now must lay in it”. For, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:7 ESV)”
The gospel refreshes us even through the actions of others
Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
Long after Onesimus took the letter, Paul sat in chains knowing that Philemon’s response could refresh his weary spirit. Yes, I know that we look to Christ for comfort and strength—Paul was no stranger to knowing the Lord’s presence to embolden him for the hard road ahead. But isn’t this wonderful? When Paul saw the gospel budding in another’s life, that too was a source of refreshment for him.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:1-3 ESV)
So let your own heart be refreshed today, not only in knowing that in Christ your hope and righteousness is found, but that even gospel rich relationships can reach beyond your chains and refresh your heart.