“BELOVED let us love one another; for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love“ (1 John 4:7, 8). We know this love, not by seeing it in ourselves, nor by being occupied with its limited effect in us, but we know it as we learn its perfection in God Himself. “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him“ (verse 9). “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins“ (verse 10). Having the divine nature as born of God, we can enjoy this love, but we know it by the measure of the gift -- even the gift of God's own beloved Son.
If God so loved us we ought to love one another, and love finds its happiest opportunities in the most adverse circumstances. It proves its divine source, and displays its most excellent power when it goes out in perfect goodness to the least deserving. Love to sinners, the joy of communion with God, and the blessed consciousness of His favour, speak to us of the love of God. In love He delights to bring us into the fullest communion with Himself, and to share with us all that fills His own heart with delight. He brings us into this communion as perfect in His sight, and makes us enjoy the everlasting pleasures where divine power has brought us. So that we should not deceive ourselves when we say that we love God, it is necessary that we give some proof of our love. If we say that we love God we ought to love those whom God loves. Divine love in us has this characteristic, it is an obedient love. We love God because He first loved us. If we profess to love God, we ought to love one another. If we love the Father our desire should be to manifest that love to those who are known as His children, and in this way our love takes the character of obedience.
Love is the very nature of God and the living expression of what He is. Those who are born of Him partake of His nature, and when walking in the truth with their hearts filled with the love of God, their life is characterized by love. When the children of God walk in communion with God according to the true character of His nature, in the light as God is in the light, and in love because God has so loved us, the difficulties of our circumstances become the occasions for love to manifest itself. The love of God reached us while we were yet sinners and enemies in our hearts. The depths of His love were revealed to us when we were far from Him. This is the love we know, and in Christ we see its perfect expression. He spared not himself, but gave Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour. “Hereby we have known love, because he has laid down his life for us; and we ought for the brethren to lay down (our) lives“ (1 John 3:16 JND).
We have received spiritually life from Christ, He is our life, and we are partakers of the divine nature. The more evil the day, the greater is the necessity for the divine nature to manifest itself. If we do not overcome evil with good, in the power of divine love, which, through grace, has found a place in our hearts, coming from the very source of love, God Himself, for God is love, we shall be overcome by evil. Only by walking obediently in the truth can we put a guard around true charity which is coupled with the truth. In a day of great evil, it is not only necessary to be sound in doc trine, but it is most important that unmistakable proof be given of the divine source both of the doctrine, and of the energy with which the truth is held. Only the true display of the divine nature will furnish the proof. The truth working by love in the power of the Spirit proves the work to be of God. Where can it be seen but amongst the children of God? Love, expressing itself obediently in the truth, is active in keeping and guarding the children of God from the evil of the day. When the evil is great our love must be great. Not that love condones evil; love cannot endure evil in those whom she loves. The cross of Christ is the full proof of this. There we see the deepest expression of God's hatred of sin, but blessed be His name, it is the fullest expression of His love to the sinner, for it is there His own beloved Son suffered for the guilty.
Divine love in us is proved by our obedience when we walk in obedience to the word of God. It finds in those who are loved of God, the most blessed opportunities for obeying the will of God. “He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.“ If a child of God be found following a path of disobedience to the word of God, obedient love would not keep him company in such a pathway. To walk with him in a way contrary to the will of the Father would not be showing either love for him or for the Father. It would not be a proof of brotherly love to encourage a brother to walk in a path of disobedience by keeping him company there; it would not be love in the truth. But love rejoices when it hears that the children of God are walking in truth, for there they are perfectly free to enjoy the richest communion. “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth“ (3 John 4).
When the apostle Paul describes love in his epistle to the Corinthians he speaks of it subjectively. Love has long patience and is kind; it does not impute evil, it rejoices with the truth, and endures every provocation. But love is not only passive and enduring, it is often very active, and the Spirit of God, in the first epistle of Peter, couples it with holiness. “Seeing ye have purified your souls…“ is the pure ground from which springs a fervent love for those who are the objects of God's love and are our brethren in the Lord. The same Redeemer who has redeemed us has redeemed them; the same love that fills our hearts flows out to them, and should flow through our hearts to them. Human affection is mixed with many imperfections in us. Sin has spoilt all our human relationships, and self looks for the regard of others; but love un-feigned, belongs to the life born of God by the incorruptible seed-the Word of God. The life we have from God is a holy life and in it we enjoy God Himself; and He makes us share in the activity of His love. Though this love we are purified from the selfishness of the natural heart. Out of the purified heart flows the fervent love that works the righteous ways of God in holiness. Sanctified by the truth in obeying the word, through the Spirit, the heart is opened and out from it flows a love that considers others better than self. Only by keeping near God, the source of all love and grace, will love abound towards one another and towards all men. \Ire are set apart to God by the Spirit for obedience to the truth, and we are kept by the word of God as the moral power which sanctifies us practically, “For thy- word is truth.“ Pure brotherly love delights in showing its consideration for others, and it rejoices in their welfare.
The epistle of Paul to Philemon shows us the heart of the apostle occupying itself with the details of life as they are to be found especially in the assembly. We see a heart in which God was free to act in expressing the love and care that have for their field of activity the assembly of God. We have in the letter, not only an authoritative word of instruction for a difficult case of violated human relationship, but an unparalleled example of true Christian conduct. For 1500 years Christians owned slaves, and Christian masters needed such an inspired example of Christian principles at work in the assembly, to instruct and encourage them in the way of grace. The instruction comes from one well taught of God who lived in subjection to the love of Christ, and was moved by that love to act in the same character towards others.
The apostle, a prisoner of the Lord for the sake of the gospel, weighted with many trials, and burdened with the care of the assemblies which rested upon his heart daily, was still able to show the deepest interest in every need of those who belonged to Christ. He loved those who were His, and though occupied with the weightiest truths of Christianity, he could include in his concern for the assembly, the rights and feelings of a defrauded Christian master, and the Christian duty of a converted fugitive slave. The epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians were written during the apostle's imprisonment, and these letters were filling the mind of the apostle with the profoundest truths of Christianity. He was in great conflict in spirit as he thought on the spiritual needs of those to whom he wrote. But amidst these deep and absorbing thoughts that held his mind, he knew and felt the necessity to prove the divine source and character of the truth. The proof was to be found in the true display of the nature in which these wonderful truths mere brought forth.
The Spirit of God gives us by this blessed illustration of Christian love and care, a perfect expression, in detail, of love at work towards the saints of God, and of the care that should be active between the members of Christ.
Not only does the Spirit of God occupy the mind of the servant of the Lord with weighty questions of doctrine that souls may be guarded and built up in the truth, but He is equally concerned in developing the true sentiments of the heart that are bound up in the relationship He forms by His presence down here, and He turns the thoughts of the servant into these channels at the right moment. As the Divine Comforter come down from on high, He concerns Himself with all our circumstances, and with every feeling awakened in our hearts through those circumstances. Here we see so blessedly in the apostle, the devoted service of a Spirit-filled and willing servant, who bore a yet more blessed title, he was a beloved brother in the Lord; and we have the play of divinely awakened sentiments that reveal the presence and work of the Spirit of God. Bound by man but not bound in spirit, the apostle was free to occupy himself with all that affected the interests of saints in every way. He was as much at home in dealing with the domestic affairs of believers, as with the greatest doctrines that put to rout the falsehoods of the enemy. The occasions in which to resist with powerful doctrine the attacks of the adversary may for the moment pass, but love must show itself at all times.
“Who sees with equal eye as God of all, A hero perish, or a sparrow fall.“
Onesimus, a fugitive slave, who had run away from his master, Philemon, was led by the marvellous wisdom of God, to hear the gospel preached by the captive apostle at Rome, and he had been converted to Christianity. The work that had been done in the heart of Onesimus was a true work of God. The Spirit of God does not slacken His energies once He begins to operate in a soul, but continues the work that the soul may be brought into all the thoughts of God for the fullest blessing. Though He brings the soul into peace through faith in Christ, and the work He has done on the cross for the glory of God, He does not forget the place the soul is in and the present obligations of human and natural relationships. While He brings the believer into the consciousness of divine acceptance and favour before God, the Holy Spirit is not unmindful of the requirements of the government of God, and the practical path of life of which that government takes account.
Here a rebellious will in a servant, who had fled from the bondage of human restraint, is subdued by the power of grace in the gospel. A conscience that had become clouded through sin and self-will, and had been silenced by the hope of freedom from slavery, is now reached by the word of truth in abounding grace. All the false hopes vanish; and the deception of sin by which it beguiles the will is broken down in the man. In fact, everything that drives a man along the path of self-will gave way before the grace of God revealed in Christ. He who was man's slave is now the Lord's freeman. He had been more than a mere slave to man, he had been bound by every impulse of his own will. He could not free himself so that he might do that which was pleasing to God or man. When divine light shone into his dark soul and dispelled the darkness of his own thoughts, he was set free. He knew himself in the presence of God as free, according to the terms of the glad tidings of God who breaks the bonds of the captives to sin and death. He had heard the gospel of God concerning His Son, who, although He was Son, made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Himself the form of a servant, and being found in fashion as a man, humbled himself and became obedient even unto death. He had seen the answer that God had given to such blessed obedience; God had raised the obedient One from among the dead, and set Him down in the glory at His own right hand giving Him a name above every name; and at His name every knee shall bow. Onesimus had already bowed his knee before the Lord of glory.
The soul of Onesimus was set free by the revelation of Christ. His obedience and His glory were now the motives that governed the heart of the bondman. He was free to serve God in whatever capacity the hand of God directed him. Now he could exhibit the nature of God as one born of God. With a heart at liberty in Christ, and having power by the Spirit to follow in the steps of His Lord, he was free to make His character known in the place where his former desire and whole effort had been merely to free himself from the domination of a master's will. No doubt to be free from bondage was a desirable state: but earthly freedom does not of itself make men desire to serve the Lord. Now he was free to serve the Lord, even if he had to remain in the service of an earthly master. But the Lord had the care of His newly-won soul upon His own heart and He laid it upon the heart of the apostle.
God disposes of all hearts, and He makes even a man's enemies deal kindly with him. But we see far more than this in the motives that were at work in the heart of the apostle, the ambassador and messenger of Christ. The effects of the love of God were working in his heart, making it sensitive to all that might have wounded and gone a long way to extinguish any love that might have been in the heart of the master, Philemon. Paul, acutely aware of the new sentiments awakened in the breast of Onesimus, was yet more anxious, because of the blessedness of the work of grace in the heart of Onesimus, that the master should respond to such grace by displaying the freedom of love which his own heart had been brought to know in Christ. He knew it was more important that Philemon should walk in love than that he should assert his rights. All this the apostle felt, and though his mind was also engaged with the wider thoughts of the welfare of the whole assembly, yet the flow of his thoughts, touching in detail every phase of the question between master and slave, are even and clear.
Behind all in the mind of the apostle, lay the desire to maintain true Christian sentiments in the assembly, for he wished the whole assembly who met in the house of Philemon to interest themselves in the reception of the returning slave, and to support Philemon with full Christian fellowship. The Spirit of God upholds the fundamental principles of man's relationship with God and man's relationship with man, and these are to be maintained in their integrity. In the past God found means in the simplest way to give expression in the lives of His people to His deepest thoughts, and He does so today. Though our walk may be in simple paths, yet the deepest principles may find their expression in some detail of our circumstances. What reveals the presence and work of God is not a paltry consideration. God is present, the hand of God is at work, and the glory of His ways bright with the light of His nature light up the way for us. If there is obscurity it is in us. The Spirit of God often brings the highest truth to bear upon the simplest detail of life. Such sublime exhortations become those who are called by a high and heavenly calling.
The apostle, with all the subtlety of a mind well experienced in divine wisdom, and with a delicate regard for the feelings that stirred the hearts of others, yet faithful to the true spirit of Christian conduct, uses the appeal of love and grace in the strongest ways. It appeared as though the apostle were appealing to the natural rights of the case, as indeed he was, forgetting nothing that the master could claim, covering nothing that was due from the servant, but he brings all skilfully and faithfully into subjection to love in the Spirit. Keenly though the feelings of Philemon had been tried, there were higher considerations which were to govern his heart. But these claims on a Christian heart are not set forth as compulsory obligations. They were to work in the heart of Philemon as the demands of love, and as the free activity of a nature that delighted in doing good for the Lord's sake, so that in nothing the gospel might be hindered, or the work of the ministry amongst the saints be checked by thoughts not born of love.
The old commandment required man to love his neighbour as himself. The Christian is a witness to the fact that Christ gave His life for His enemies. Love in Christ triumphed over sin and death. This, the apostles taught, was the character of love that was now to be manifested in the members of Christ to the glory of their Head on high. (See 1 John 3: 16.) Satan had conquered man in the world, Christ had overcome the adversary, and now those who were Christ's walked in the power of His victory, revealing the spirit and power of His triumph, which He had gained by the sacrifice of Himself in love to those who once were His enemies. A wronged Christian master, himself a servant of the Lord, was placed in the position where in love he could manifest its most gracious character. A beloved child of God was encouraged to imitate God according to the grace known to his own heart. But his heart needed the touch of a master-hand, that true sentiments might flow out and produce the harmony amongst saints that would be a testimony to their unity, and be in keeping with their heavenly calling. In a day yet to come, the remnant of Israel that will be saved, will have true sentiments that suit their day and their circumstances, created in their hearts by the words of the prophets which they will hear and believe. A Christian now partakes of the nature of God. The Holy Spirit is given to the believer for power in the new life he has as born of God, and it only needs the skilful hand of the Lord Himself, it may be by using a faithful servant and beloved brother as the instrument, to set free the right feelings in the heart which will move the will to right action. The Spirit dwells in the assembly as well as in the body of the individual believer, and everything that is for blessing to a soul commands the interest of the assembly which stands behind, as it were, the conduct of the members. Where the Holy Spirit is given His true place and hearts are subject to Him, He leads the saints to act in unison with one heart and one object.
The perfect work of grace had subdued the spirit of Onesimus. The heart of a rebellious man had been reached and he was ready to submit to the will of the Lord. Already serving the Lord as a freeman in Christ, in attending to the needs of the apostle (verse 13), he was made willing to return and make amends as far as he could for the loss and trouble he had brought upon his master, Philemon, by a far better service in the Lord. With such repentance, and by such service, he would be more profitable than he could ever have been in his unregenerate state, when his spirit was unwilling to serve any other than himself. But there was yet more to take into consideration. The Holy Spirit had formed other relationships between men on earth than those known naturally in the present system formed by man. Christians were members of Christ, members of His body on earth, the Holy Spirit who dwelt in them united them to Christ their Head on high, and to one another here on earth. It is in this relationship that the care one for another develops itself. The bond between the members of Christ also bears another character. Christ loves the Church as Himself, and marriage union alone expresses the kind of love that surmounts all obstacles in the assembly, for the bond is, by the Spirit who forms it, already known to the assembly, though the marriage day is yet future. In its expression between men, this kind of affection takes the form of human regard. Selfishness desires to be served, but love searches out ways to serve. Perfect love has no thought of self, its whole thought is that others may receive the benefit of its activities. It brings good to others, not merely with the object of pressing the good upon them because it is good, but it knows what will be for the good of others and will fill them with true and lasting joy. This is true love in the Spirit.
Everything seemed to depend upon the attitude of Philemon, and so that Christ should be seen and not merely the feelings of a wronged man, the apostle desired him to show much grace. Redress might easily be made for any material loss, but the opportunity was open for the spiritual and eternal gain of all who were concerned. Though Philemon is personally addressed, others are also named. Apphia, probably the wife of Philemon, is specially mentioned. No doubt she took an active part in ministering to the saints who gathered in their house. Archippus, a fellow-soldier, was evidently well known. All were considered vitally and morally concerned, both in the return of Onesimus and in the conduct of Philemon.
Surely the tenderest affections should find their true ground for development in the assembly of God. There the sentiments that become the members of Christ should grow naturally. Sympathy, courtesy, restraint, gentleness and consideration for every relationship recognised by God should all find in the assembly their proper ground for cultivation. If they are not fostered and developed, bitterness and hardness soon enter and because the relationship is so close and intimate, suspicion drives out respect, and the flesh rules where the Spirit should govern through grace. When mere human means are used to right a wrong in the assembly, no one is satisfied and the heart is left dry and barren; no good springs from such efforts.
The behaviour of Christians should not only be right, it should be comely. The worId has its recognised authorities, and a system of law and order which has been upheld by the providence of God. The Christian respects all government, and even regards the customs of the day. He acts in grace toward them as the light of truth is shed upon them, and shows him his path-way according to the will of God. Even though the world has brought him into relationships trying to his will, he duly regards that which God has sanctioned. The Christian is governed by higher motives than mere obedience to law; he more than fulfils his earthly obligations when walking in the light with God. “For the fruit of light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth“ (Ephesians 5: 9).
The apostle leaves the government of the world as it is. Christianity never came into the world to put the world right; though the Christian will do what he can through love and kindness to restrain evil and alleviate suffering, and this in itself will suppress evil. There would not have been slaves but for the sin of man. Paul leaves the state of things as he finds it, but he expects grace from Philemon and that he will set Onesimus free; in this way love will overcome the evil.
The tender character of the letter, and the tactful manner in which the apostle approaches the matter and places it before Philemon, speak not only of the skill of the writer in pleading the cause of one whom he greatly loved, but it brings into relief the character of Philemon, whose name means friendly, or him who kisses. The grace of the gospel had wrought in the heart of this rich man, and he had shown his zeal for the Lord in opening his house to the assembly of God; and there the Spirit of God was free to move hearts which He had brought into subjection to the will of the Lord and were now at His disposal.
Though God in grace opens the heart to serve Him and the Spirit is the power by which we may do what pleases the Lord, yet God reckons it to our account, it is our own service.
The apostle had heard of the faith and love of the saints at Colosse, an assembly he had not seen, and could remark on their love in the Spirit, here he speaks to Philemon as one who was subject to the blessed effects of the Spirit's presence, and counts on his love in the Spirit. Paul himself exhibits that love going out to those who were Christ's, and he looks for its free activity in Philemon, reaching even to Onesimus who may have very deeply offended him. He expects the assembly that had its existence by the uniting bonds of the Spirit, to show full interest, and extend an embracing love to the repentant returning one, who was now a brother in the Lord. The heart of Onesimus had been captured by the love of God, and he was made willing, not only to serve Philemon as a servant, but as more than a servant, even as a beloved brother. He was ready to give up his once coveted earthly freedom that he might serve even as Christ served.
Love in Philemon would not only cause him to pardon Onesimus, which Paul expected without pressing or even asking it; but love would open the heart of Philemon to receive Onesimus, his one-time slave, now a dear child of God and devoted servant of the Lord, as a brother. The assembly meeting in the house of Philemon was to receive the returning one as one of themselves, and the apostle desired Philemon to be the first to show the grace that would welcome back this hitherto unprofitable servant, but now a brother in the faith. Once Onesimus served by compulsion; since he had known Christ, he served by love in obedience to the truth.
The apostle adds the name of Timothy in his address as a witness to his own service in the Lord, and as one wholly with him in his request. He mentions others who laboured amongst the saints meeting in the house of Philemon, and as the epistle includes the m-hole company, the apostle commends them all to grace and peace, “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.“ He does not add “mercy“ when addressing an assembly, for the assembly is established in grace; the individual needs the mercy. Then in his usual manner the apostle speaks of all the good to be found in the one to whom he wrote. The first chapter of first Corinthians begins in the same way, so that there might be no doubt of his interest and love, and that the failing ones might be able to bear his rebuke and earnest exhortation.
We see the apostle doing more than sending back a repentant slave to his master; he uses the occasion to cultivate love amongst the saints of God. Love wrought a good work in the heart of Philemon (verses 5-7), and his love was free to go out to others (verse 7). No doubt his feelings were wounded by the rebellion of Onesimus, and unless a loving heart keeps itself in the power of its love, a wound is hard to heal. What is to heal it? If love cannot find the balm in its own strength and activity, what can cure its hurt? The apostle skilfully plays upon the affections of Philemon. The love of Philemon must find its springs in itself. The assembly was the natural bed in which the blessed seeds of truth and love grew, and others were to give their support to the gracious conduct of Philemon.
The apostle does not use his authority, but being crafty he allows it to be seen by deliberately putting it out of sight, and he leaves the way open for Philemon to act willingly. He pleads his age, his bonds, and his necessity, knowing that the heart of Philemon would be moved. This excellent man would be fully alive to the value of example in good works, gentleness and obedience, for without doubt he would exhort those who met with him in his house to follow and cultivate these virtues, that they might be living witnesses of Christ. The apostle is always courteous, and never presumes on that which he had every right to expect.
Playing upon the name of Onesimus, which means profitable, Paul says that this one-time unprofitable servant was now profitable both to Philemon and to himself in Rome (verse 11). Using every means possible, the apostle intercedes for Onesimus with all the compelling power of one who has authority in the Lord, yet as recognising all the rights of the case. He undertakes a service for one in the humblest of circumstances, and in doing so, sets Philemon a living example of grace.
With great tact, but without unduly pressing the relationship, he speaks of Onesimus as part of himself; his own offspring (verse 12). Who serves so well as a willing son who responds to the love lavished upon him? This willing son in the faith was ministering to Paul in chains, and the apostle, with the refinement of courtesy born of grace, puts all to the credit of Philemon. He says he would not retain the servant however much he benefited by his service, without the willing consent of the master. The consent of Philemon would give amnesty to Onesimus.
The apostle was in full sympathy with Philemon, and shows it by his restraint in his pleading, and in recognising the rightful claims of the master. But he wants Onesimus to be reinstated with every consideration, both in Christian kindness and brotherly regard keeping in mind that the apostle reckoned Onesimus a very dear brother (verse 16). Paul pleads with tender supplication, but with perfect dignity, considering the position of Philemon, and the claims of the new obligations now resting upon him as a Christian master.
In case there should yet be a hindrance to the free flow of grace, the apostle, with extreme delicacy reminds Philemon of his own debt. Philemon owed his salvation to the untiring and selfless labour of the apostle in the gospel. If he gave his life for the apostle it would not repay such a debt, and the kindness he could show Onesimus would be refreshment to the apostle himself (verses 17-20). It would be most refreshing to the prisoner of the Lord.
Though love finds its energy in itself, we love because we are first loved. When love in the believer takes its character from the divine source, it goes out uncalled to its object, and it delights to receive its answer in the willing response of heart in him who is loved. In us love is obedient to the truth, and produces the true fruit of its labours. The apostle speaks of the love that is in Philemon as obedience in the highest form (verse 21), and in its fruits he finds refreshment for the inmost recesses of his being. Onesimus was truly his son in the faith (verse 20).
As a kind of seal to his expectant pleading and loving request, the apostle adds that he hoped soon to come and stay with Philemon. “Prepare me also a lodging,“ he said, and connects his hoped for visit with their prayers for his release. He closes the whole matter with this subtle command. Did not Philemon prayerfully desire to conduct himself with true Christian regard for the service and honour of the Lord? In receiving the apostle would he not be receiving the Lord? In the same way, if he received this son in the faith, begotten in the apostle's bonds, would it not be equivalent to receiving the apostle himself? If he would welcome the apostle, should he not also be glad to welcome his offspring in the faith?
Adding in his salutation at the end of the epistle the names of other brethren as witnesses to the character of his own manner of life and of the grace of his gospel, the apostle bound, as it were, upon Philemon and all who were addressed, everything for which he pleaded.
Apparently Philemon lived at or near Colosse; some think it may have been at Laodicea. Many of the names mentioned in the epistle to the Colossians are found in this epistle. Onesimus returned in the company of Tychicus, the bearer of the letters written to the Ephesians and to the Colossians. Tychicus was evidently a well-known brother and active servant of the Lord, and every means was used by the apostle to guarantee the whole-hearted and loving reception of Onesimus.
Nothing is forgotten in the epistle. The apostle takes into account the monetary loss that Philemon may have suffered, and desires that it should be laid to his account. It must be taken into the reckoning for God balances all accounts, He will be indebted to no one, and He keeps the accounts of His people. He repays the debts of His children with interest added. But as God repays in love according to His own nature amongst His own people, He works by love in the hearts of the saints. The apostle himself would bring to Philemon far more in spiritual riches than he had lost materially by the short absence of the servant. If he took from other assemblies that which was needed to reimburse Philemon, it would only be love working righteously in perfect order by the Spirit. But would not Philemon from his own heart do all that was desired as a gift of grace?
The epistle to Philemon is the more remarkable in that it was written at a time when the apostle, being in prison, free from outward labours, could turn his whole attention onto the truths that would guard the assembly from the assaults of the enemy, and from the corruption of the assembly by the fleshly behaviour of men. His mind was absorbed in contemplating the deepest truths of the revelation of God. He thought deeply of the relationship of man with God and of man's relationship with his fellow-men upon which the light of truth cast its full rays. We can trace no impatience in the letter, though the mind of the apostle is interrupted in its concentration to deal with the details of the domestic relationship between two men. A relationship that was only for time and would be dissolved by death. Another and permanent bond had been formed by their faith in the gospel, and the apostle was particularly anxious that nothing should hinder its development in truth and love. The Spirit of God always keeps in mind the relationship in Christ which He Himself forms. All our ways in life must be brought into subjection to Christ, and be in perfect keeping with the doctrine of Christ, and this would not be so if there were something lacking in the human regard of Christians for one another. Christ would not be truly seen in His members if love were not working in life in harmony with God. Surely the bosom of the assembly is the place where the character of Christ should be seen in full display. Not only is the Spirit the bond that unites members as a fact, but He is an active living bond, and He is in the assembly that the very nature of God may be expressed in those who partake of His nature.
There is nothing so hurtful to love as legality. Truly, we ought to love one another because of our relationship, and love grows by the demands made upon it. Not by the demands of a law outside us, but by those calls upon it which makes love express itself. In us love is prompted by commands that are the expression of the nature and character of God and that tell us what God is and what He wills. Begotten by the word of truth, we have a nature that finds its liberty in doing the will of God. Love delights in imitating God, and the nature we have to imitate is set before us objectively in Christ. The pattern of all God's ways towards us is found in Christ. The believer has his joy and his liberty in manifesting the character of God on earth. The Christian has life in Christ, and He was perfect in obedience, His delight was to do the will of the Father. The principles of Christ's life are the principles by which we live. If they are not, we have not life and are dead towards God. In us there could be no greater proof of love than that we should be found walking in obedience to the will of God. He who loves knows God, and His words are the expression of the life manifested by Christ, and they are the light of life for us. Our perfect path is a path of obedience to those words. The commandments of God, as we learn from John, are the foundation of the life we have been given in Christ. Christ is our object, and as we follow, through grace, in His steps, we walk in His obedience. The will of the Father was the motive for everything the Son did. This is Christianity in its essence. For us it is linked with communion with the Father and the Son.
Though we live in a day characterized by coldness and indifference, the Spirit of God is still with us, and He cannot deny what God is, nor does He develop in us any other life than that which we have in Christ. We may grieve Him and quench Him, and lose the enjoyment of His most blessed ministration of Christ, yet the truth remains unalterable and love is the same. There is no remedy for the ills of the day but love in truth; not merely truly loving, but having truth in the heart and love for the motive of every act. How far we are from it in practice!
It is not now merely a question of restoring in the assembly an order that has been lost, but of manifesting the nature of God in its unchangeable character. He is light and He is love. We love that which He loves, if walking in the truth, and the fruits of light are to be developed in our proving what is acceptable to the Lord.
Where the Spirit is free, through the recognition of His presence and His blessed ministration, He will bring to bear on the heart the principles found in the epistle to Philemon. The thoughts and feelings found there never arose in the hearts of men until the Spirit of God produced them, and though we have greatly grieved Him, He is still present. When He is given His place, and the flesh in us is mortified, He can awaken the same sentiments as He did in the days of the assembly's first love.
Present circumstances may limit the scope of activity, but not silence the principles of the life that we have as born of God by the incorruptible seed of the word. Christian sympathy, courtesy and regard remain the same, and the apostle could write of one who practised the grace of the gospel, “He oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain.“ He felt deeply the comfort of a little human kindness in his trying and distressing circumstances. The apostle, with a full heart, commended the household of such a one to God (2 Timothy 1: 16; 4: 19).