Charles Simeon's Devotional Commentaries
Philemon 7. We have great joy and consolation in your love, because the affections of the saints are refreshed by you, brother.
IN no epistle that was ever written was contained, I apprehend, a greater measure of address and skill than in this. The Apostle had a deep knowledge of the human heart, and an exquisite sensibility within his own bosom; so that, while speaking with the utmost simplicity of mind, he touched the feelings of his friend with a delicacy that no rules of are could ever have supplied. It is thought by many, that to express approbation of a person when soliciting a favor, is to flatter, to cajole, to bribe him; and that to praise him to his face, under any circumstances, is unworthy adulation. That the offering of praise in an extravagant way is inexpedient and disgusting, I readily acknowledge: but to applaud what is good in a man, in order to encourage him in the prosecution of his way, is nothing more than what equity demands, and what a knowledge of the human heart will fully approve. Accordingly, we find that the Apostle Paul was ever ready, in all his epistles, to commend the virtues of his converts, as far as the occasion called for such acknowledgments, and truth would sanction them. To the Christians at Rome he says, "I am persuaded of you, my brethren, that you are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another." To those at Corinth he writes, "I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; that in everything you are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that you come behind in no gift, waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." In like manner, to the Thessalonians he says, "We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." It is in the same strain that he addresses "his beloved fellow-laborer," Philemon, in the words before us; which will naturally lead me to show you,
I. The proper office of love.
Love ought to be exercised towards every child of man; yes, even to our enemies: but it is due in a more especial manner to "the saints;" as Paul has said: "As we have opportunity, let us do good unto all men; especially unto them that are of the household of faith." Nor is this preference to be shown upon any party-principle: it is founded upon strong, substantial grounds: it is actually due to them;
1. Because they are more dear to God than others.
From all eternity were they "chosen of God," and "predestined to the adoption of children by Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace." In due season he calls them by his grace, and, "by the incorruptible seed of his word," "begets them again unto a lively hope," so that they are sons, and consequently "heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ." Shall not this, then, give them a priority in our esteem? When brought into such a state as this, shall they be regarded by us at no higher rate than the enemies of God, and the children of the wicked one? Assuredly not: "if we love Him that begat, we ought, in a pre-eminent degree, to love those who are begotten of him."
2. Because the Lord Jesus Christ is more deeply interested in them.
They have sought through him the remission of their sins: to him alone they look, as their only hope. On his word they rely: in the fountain of his blood they have washed: in his righteousness they are clothed: they habitually live by faith upon him, and receive their all out of his fullness. They are, in fact, the members of his body: yes, surprising as it must appear, "they are one spirit with him." And does the Lord Jesus Christ so identify himself with them? does he even say, that "what we do to the least of his brethren, we do it unto him?" and shall we place them on a level with others who have no relation to him? It were quite absurd to imagine, that others, who stand in no such relation to him, should be placed on a level with them: it cannot, it must not be.
3. Because they are more nearly related to ourselves.
In a natural sense, we are all children of one common parent; but in a spiritual sense, there is a very wide difference between us and others: others are still "strangers and foreigners; but we (supposing, I mean, that we have been truly converted to Christ) are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God." Yes, being all "one body in Christ, we all are members one of another." Let any one then judge: has the eye or ear no claim upon the hand or foot? Does not Nature herself teach us, that "the members of the same body should all have the same care one for another?" and that, whatever attention we show to others, our highest regards are due to these?
4. Because they are themselves of superior worth.
God himself has said, and therefore we may say it without vanity, "The righteous is more excellent than his neighbor." He is "a partaker of the Divine nature." The Holy Spirit himself dwells in him: yes, "the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ come to him, and make their abode with him." They are altogether the Lord's—his property, his people. Their faculties and powers, whether of mind or body, are devoted to his service. They live but to advance his glory in the world: and with a view to their welfare does God himself govern and direct the world. So highly are they esteemed in Heaven, that the very angels account it an honor to be their servants? Is there not then a preeminent regard due to them from us? There is: and we should show it in all our conduct towards them. We should be particularly careful to supply their wants; to supply them, too, in such a way, as not only to relieve their bodies, but to "refresh their souls." Our tender feelings towards them, our affectionate expressions, our sympathizing tears, should show them that we feel an identity of interest with them; and that we are God's messengers, sent expressly for the relief and comfort of their souls.
I well know that this kind of love will, to many, appear partial and confined: but it is such as God approves: and in proof that it is so, I will point out,
II. Its excellence, when so employed.
To prevent misapprehension, let me again say, that the exercise of love is not to be confined to the saints, but only to be maintained towards them in a superior degree. A love of benevolence and beneficence is due to all: a love of delight is due to the saints alone: and towards them it should be exercised to such an extent, that we should be willing even to "lay down our lives for them." How estimable this divine principle was in the judgment of Paul, may be seen from the manner in which he speaks of it: "I have great joy and consolation in your love; because the affections of the saints are refreshed by you, brother." He evidently had a high idea of its excellency. And on what grounds? Because he felt,
1. How pre-eminently God was honored by it.
It was so exercised in obedience to an express command of God: so that God's care for the saints was displayed in it. Besides, it bore upon it the very stamp and character of God, who "manifests himself to his saints as he does not unto the world." Hence it necessarily led the saints to behold God's hand, and to taste his love, in every mercy they received; and, consequently, it stirred them up to glorify him, as the true source of all their blessings. This is spoken of by the Apostle as a very distinguished excellence of this love, that "it not only supplies the want of the saints (which is, in comparison, a very trifling consideration), but that it causes thanksgiving to God; while by the experience of it many are made to glorify God for the grace so exercised, and "for the subjection which persons under its influence manifest to the Gospel of Christ."
2. How greatly the Gospel also was recommended and adorned.
This love is the fruit of the Gospel, and of the Gospel alone. Not an atom of it is found in the whole world, except as it is produced by the Gospel of Christ. There may be generosity and humanity exercised on natural and carnal principles: but love to the saints as saints, for Christ's sake, and a special endeavor to relieve Christ himself in them, are feelings to which an unconverted man is an utter stranger. In truth, it is from the Gospel that all the great works of benevolence chiefly flow. Look at Bible-societies, Mission-societies, Benevolent-societies, and all which have religion for their end, and you will find them all set on foot by persons professing the Gospel of Christ. I say not but that other persons may be brought in to contribute to their support: but I do say, that they almost universally originate with the followers of Christ: and it is a fact, that in one single church where the Gospel is preached in simplicity, more societies of this kind are established and upheld, than in a dozen, I had almost said an hundred, other parishes of equal population, and equal wealth?" In fact, what is the Gospel, but "faith working by love?" When, therefore, its real tendency is thus strongly marked, it cannot but rejoice every soul, that either tastes the sweetness of the Gospel, or desires its advancement in the world.
3. What extensive benefits accrued to it from the Church.
Though, as we have said, the benefit of individual saints is a small matter in comparison of the honor that accrues to God; yet, if viewed in its full extent, it is of no light moment. We have spoken of love as being exercised in a way to refresh the souls of the saints. And let me ask, whether, if at any time we have visited a person in deep affliction, and mingled our tears with his, and labored with tender and self-denying services for his good, we have not seen, as it were, a load taken off his mind, and his sorrow turned into joy? Have not persons so comforted looked up to God with grateful adoration for the blessings bestowed? Have not their friends and attendants, too, been often filled with admiration of the persons manifesting these dispositions; and been constrained to cry out, "Behold, how these Christians love one another!" There is no knowing where the benefit arising from these efforts stops, or to how many one single exercise of love may reach. In this view, then, this blessed principle commends itself to us, and should fill with joy and comfort every one who beholds it in active operation.
4. What an evidence it gave of substantial piety in him who possessed it.
Almsgiving affords no criterion for piety; nor do the common offices of love. But love to the saints for Christ's sake, is both to the person himself, and to all who behold him, a decided evidence that he is born of God. To himself, I say, it is an evidence: for it is said, "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren." And again, "Let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth: and hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him." Nor is it a less clear evidence to others: for our Lord has said, "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another." Say then, was there not occasion for joy in the Apostle's mind, when the piety of his friend stood so confessed, that it was impossible for any one to entertain a doubt of it? Yes: and wherever we behold similar fruits of faith, we do, and will, rejoice.
Let me now improve the subject,
1. In a way of thankful acknowledgment.
I bless God that the commendation given to Philemon is justly applicable to many of you: to you especially, who are engaged in visiting the sick, instructing the ignorant, comforting the afflicted, and relieving the necessitous. I can bear witness that your efforts have been crowned with success, not only in refreshing the affections of the saints, but in awakening also and saving the souls of sinners. Yes, 'brother; yes, sister; I have much joy and consolation in the grace exercised by you, and in the good effected by you. May God recompense it into your bosom an hundred-fold! To you, also, who have contributed to aid the society with your funds, an acknowledgment is justly due: and I trust that your liberality on the present occasion will afford me fresh ground for joy and gratitude. Yet, I must not let my gratitude terminate altogether on you; but must rather view God himself in you; and give glory to Him, "from whom alone comes every good and perfect gift.' "
2. In a way of affectionate exhortation.
Let none of you rest in any attainment. The Apostle commended his Thessalonian converts, because "their faith and love grew exceedingly." Let me have similar ground of joy in you. You have received of us how you ought to walk and to please God, and have "made your profiting to appear," but "we beseech you, brethren, to abound more and more." Endeavor to honor God more; to adorn the Gospel more; to diffuse richer benefits among the saints; and to give more abundant evidence of your piety to all around you. So shall you be approved of your God, both now and in the eternal world: for "he is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which you have showed towards his name, in that you have ministered unto the saints, and do minister. And we desire that every one of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end."
The Efficacy of the Gospel
Philemon 10, 11. I beseech you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: which in time past was to you unprofitable, but now profitable to you and to me.
THE inspired volume certainly differs in many respects from what we might have expected. We should have supposed, that it would contain only such things as could not be known except by revelation. But, behold, here is a letter, written to a single individual, on a subject which might occur at any time or place; a letter, containing no particular point of doctrine, but simply requesting a master to receive with kindness an offending, but repentant, slave. It should seem strange, I say, that such an epistle should be dictated by inspiration, and be preserved for the edification of the Church to the end of time. But so it is: and an attentive consideration of its contents will soon convince us, that it is worthy of its Divine Author. We must never forget, that the Word of God is intended to regulate our spirit and conduct in every situation and relation of life: and, in this view, the epistle before us possesses a transcendent excellency: for, though it does not state particularly any of the doctrines of the Gospel, it does show us in a very impressive manner,
I. The spirit which it breathes, where its influence is complete.
"I beseech you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds." Let us here mark,
1. The interest which the Apostle took in the welfare of Onesimus.
Onesimus was a slave belonging to Philemon, who was a person of eminence, perhaps a minister in the Church at Colosse. He had fled from his master, having, it should seem, first robbed him; and had come, many hundred miles off, to Rome; where he conceived he should be perfectly out of the reach of his master's inquiries. It happened that at that time Paul was a prisoner at Rome; yet, though a prisoner, was permitted to see, and to instruct, all who came to him. Onesimus, probably from curiosity, went to see and hear this famous servant of Christ; and, through the special grace of God, was converted under his ministry. He soon made himself known to Paul; and, approving himself a sincere convert to the faith of Christ, ingratiated himself into the favor of the Apostle, who received and loved him as a son. In truth, he was now, in a spiritual sense, his son; since, by the ministry of the Word, the Apostle, as it is expressed, had "begotten him in his bonds." The Apostle now desired to restore him to the favor and protection of that master whom he had so greatly injured: and for that end he wrote this epistle to Philemon, and sent it by the hands of Onesimus himself: for he judged, that no man can be a true penitent without making restitution to all whom he has wronged, and asking pardon of all whom in any great degree he has offended. He judged this to be necessary, as well for the peace and comfort of Onesimus, as for the honor of God and his Gospel: and therefore, notwithstanding the loss of his kind attentions would be severely felt by the Apostle, he would on no account retain him at Rome, but sent him back to his master, Philemon, at Colosse.
2. The exquisite delicacy with which he pleaded his cause.
In point of delicacy of feeling and sentiment, this epistle has not perhaps its equal in the world. Some of its leading features we will proceed to notice.
The Apostle's object was, so to break the matter to Philemon, as not to shock his feelings; and so plead the cause of Onesimus, as to procure for him a favorable reception. Hence arose a necessity for touching every point with tenderness and delicacy; which the Apostle proceeded to do, not by rules of are, (though the most consummate wisdom could not have devised any plan more appropriate than that which is here pursued,) but by the simple dictates of love.
He begins with acknowledging Philemon's eminence both in faith and love; and with declaring, what exquisite joy he felt, both in the accounts which he had heard of him, and in remembering him before God in his daily supplications. This had a tendency to disarm Philemon, if he felt any bitter resentment against Onesimus: for he could not well indulge hatred, when he himself experienced so much love.
The Apostle then proceeds, in the language of meek entreaty, to request Philemon's pardon in behalf of this returning slave. He reminds Philemon, that, as he himself, no less than Onesimus, had received the truth by means of his ministry, he might well assume the authority of a father, and require, rather than request, the performance of so plain a duty: but he chose rather to entreat as a favor, as a favor to him who was now "grown old" in the service of his Lord, and was "a prisoner too for the truth's sake," that he would be reconciled to Onesimus, whom the Apostle himself regarded as a son. How could such a request as this, a request from such a person, under such circumstances, be refused? Methinks, it was not possible for Philemon, however indignant against Onesimus, to reject a petition offered by his own spiritual father, in such terms as these.
He goes on to remind Philemon, that Onesimus, who had hitherto but ill deserved that name, since he had been so unprofitable, would henceforth act a more worthy part, and be indeed profitable, in whatever capacity he should be employed. This consideration would not be without its influence; more especially as the Apostle speaks of himself as having been materially benefitted by the services of Onesimus, as Philemon himself would in all probability be in future.
He then suggests a thought, which must of necessity produce a great effect upon Philemon's mind. Philemon, being himself an eminent servant of Christ, could not but know that God has formed his purposes from all eternity; and that, if any be converted to the faith of Christ, it is in consequence of God's electing love, who has ordained the time, the means, the manner, and everything respecting his conversion, from all eternity. Now, says Paul, who can tell? Perhaps all that Onesimus did, and whereby he so justly provoked your displeasure, was, in the counsel of God, ordained to be the means whereby he should be converted to the faith of Christ; and, though not in his own intention, yet in the intention of an unerring God, "he therefore departed for a season, that you might receive him forever, not now a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved?" This would in no respect excuse the wickedness of Onesimus, any more than God's intention to redeem the world would excuse the murderers of the Lord Jesus. Onesimus was a free agent in all that he did: but perhaps God had seen fit to leave him to the wickedness of his own heart, in order that he might thus be brought under the ministry of Paul, and have the grace of God the more abundantly magnified in his conversion, and in the whole of his future life. How effectually would such a thought as this engage a pious mind, like that of Philemon's, to co-operate with God, and to advance to the uttermost the purposes of his grace!
Lest the recollection of the losses sustained by means of Onesimus should rankle in Philemon's mind, the Apostle further adds, that whatever Onesimus might owe him, he (Paul) would most gladly undertake to pay; though he did not much expect that such a demand of financial compensation would be made upon him, by one who owed to him what was of more value than the whole world, even his own soul.
Finally, as though he were pleading for his own life, and all his happiness were bound up in the obtaining of this request, he entreats: "If you count me a partner, (a partaker of the same salvation with yourself,) receive him as myself." "Yes, brother, let me have joy of you in the Lord: refresh my affections in the Lord;" for they are all in commotion while his acceptance with you is in suspense; and nothing but your compliance with my request can give them rest.
Now the point which I wish to be noticed here, is, not the line of argument merely, but the delicacy of the sentiment, and the exquisite address with which the Apostle seeks to attain his end. This, if it had been the effect of are, would have gained our admiration: but, as the effect of Christian principle, and Christian love, it is edifying in the highest degree, inasmuch as it shows what a spirit the Gospel breathes, and what genuine Christianity will universally inspire.
From the account which the Apostle gives of Onesimus, we are led to notice,
II. The change which it operates where its influence is begun.
"Onesimus," says the Apostle, "was in time past unprofitable, but now will be profitable both to you and me." The state of every man previous to his conversion may be said to be unprofitable, because he does not answer the true ends of his creation: he does nothing for God, nothing for the Church, nothing for his own soul. But no sooner will divine grace reach his heart, than he will endeavor to be serviceable,
1. To the Church of God generally.
Onesimus, having received the truth in the love of it, instantly set himself to work, if by any means he might render service to the Apostle in his confinement. Doubtless such a servant, at such a juncture, was an unspeakable comfort to the Apostle, and would greatly alleviate the pains and sorrows of his imprisonment. And, no doubt, whatever Onesimus was able to do, he did with great delight, not shrinking back from the horrors of a prison, nor intimidated by the sufferings inflicted on Paul, but rejoiced to have an opportunity of testifying his love to one, who had been such an instrument of good to his own soul.
Now here we see, what every true convert will do. He will begin to inquire, 'How can I co-operate with my minister in his labors of love? How can I strengthen his hands? How can I encourage his heart? What can I do, either to show my love to him, or to impart to others the benefits which I myself have received? Can I assist in any way in visiting the sick, in instructing the ignorant, in relieving the needy, in teaching the rising generation? Whether my talents be more or less, I am determined that they shall not be wrapped in a napkin, but be diligently improved for my God. Freely I have received; and I will freely give.' Yes, beloved brethren, how unprofitable soever a man may have been in times past, he will not willingly be so any longer, but will be profitable to his minister, and to the Church of Christ, as far as his ability will admit.
2. To those who have a more immediate claim upon him.
Onesimus would henceforth be "profitable to his master Philemon." O! in what a different spirit would he serve his master now! We apprehend indeed that Philemon instantly gave him his liberty; and that he immediately became an assistant in the Church of Colosse, to whom Paul gave him a most satisfactory testimonial: but, if he had continued in the service of Philemon, we can have no doubt but that he would have justified the character given of him by Paul, and proved truly profitable to his master. And herein divine grace will be sure to show itself: it will lead us to fill up our station in life, whatever that station be, with the utmost care and diligence. Are we servants? we shall regard our master as placed over us by the Lord himself, and shall do him service as unto the Lord. Were we even slaves, we should fulfill our duties as unto God himself, who has appointed us our lot, and who requires that we execute with fidelity the work he has assigned us. It is often made a matter of complaint indeed against religious servants, that they are idle, and impatient of reproof. And glad should I be, if there were not too much reason for this complaint. But let not this evil be imputed to religion: for religion condemns it utterly: the Gospel gives no sanction to such conduct, nor any occasion for it. It requires that servants demean themselves with modesty and humility; and not towards kind masters only, but towards such as are harsh and severe: and it especially enjoins, that they fulfill all their duties, "not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as unto God, doing the will of God from their hearts." Let it be remembered then, that the true and proper tendency of the Gospel is, to improve us in every station and relation of life: and that, if it operate not this change in our hearts and lives, we have never received it as we ought.
Learn then from hence,
1. To abound in all acts and offices of love.
Who does not admire the character given of Philemon, whose love was such as to attract the notice of all, and constrain them to acknowledge the abundance of the grace bestowed upon him, while, by his kindness and liberality, "the affections of the saints were so greatly refreshed?" And who does not admire the interest which the Apostle took in the welfare of a poor slave who had run away from his master? Such, beloved, are the offices in which we should delight. None on earth are so low or abandoned, but they deserve notice from us, and should be objects of our pity and compassion. I call upon you then, if there be any, whom by your instructions you may restore to God, or by your kind offices you may reconcile to man, to engage in the good work with all your heart, and to labor to the uttermost to diffuse the blessings which are the sure result of faith and love.
2. To bring men, if possible, under the sound of the Gospel.
See the effects produced on this worthless character. Worse than unprofitable had Onesimus been: but, by the hearing of the Gospel, he was turned to God. Of whom then will yon despair? Who will not lay down the weapons of his rebellion, when God speaks with power to his soul? It may be that a person is hardened under the Gospel, even as Onesimus was: for we cannot doubt but that the pious Philemon had endeavored to watch over his domestics: but in vain had all his instructions been. Not so the instructions of the Apostle Paul, when accompanied with a divine power to his soul: then he became a new creature; and, though a slave of man, was made a freeman of the Lord: so may it be with those whom you may bring to attend where Christ is preached. God may meet them, as he did Onesimus. Many who, like Zaccheus, have thought of nothing but gratifying a foolish curiosity, have been made to obey the voice of Christ, and have found salvation come unto their souls. If one such instance occur through your instrumentality, you will have "saved a soul from death, and hid a multitude of sins."
3. To bear in mind your own obligations to your great Advocate and Intercessor, Jesus Christ.
Doubtless Onesimus would long remember his obligations to Paul. But what were they in comparison with what you owe to the Lord Jesus Christ? Think how you have cast off the yoke of Almighty God, and robbed him of all the service to which he was entitled, and gone to a distance from him, that you might live as "without God in the world." Think how the Lord Jesus Christ has instructed you, and brought you to the knowledge of salvation, and restored you to the favor of your offended God. Think how he has not merely offered to pay your debt, but has actually discharged it. Yes; "of him it was exacted," says the prophet, "and he was made answerable," and he "laid down his own life a ransom for you." To his continual intercession too are you indebted for all that peace which is maintained between God and your souls. Will you not then be thankful to him? or rather, shall there be any bounds to your gratitude? Bless him then, and adore and magnify him, and call upon all that is within you to bless his holy name. And now endeavor to be "profitable to him." Consecrate to him all your faculties, and all your powers. Live for him: die for him, if need be: and begin now the song, in which you shall, before long, join all the choirs of Heaven: "To him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and has made us kings and priests unto God and our Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen!"