The old hymn says Rescue the perishing and care for the fallen ... not excluding the wounded saint and even leadership in the body of Christ. It appears that there are more than a few in a misguided zeal who continue to remain aloof at best; that is when they are not hurting those in need of the balm that only the gospel can offer. Often the height of maturity is demonstrated in the uncelebrated ministry of restoring the fallen – and encouraging the depressed.
It does not help to spear down the dying and wounded with scriptures which remind only of the context of self-afflicted errors that caused so much pain, nor is appointing a period of painful quarantine …hoping the virus of depression will self-heal after isolation in “Timbuktu.” Instead there are indications in scripture of restorations which can guide all situations. The book of Philemon is short, precise and straight to the point.
Philemon 1:9 Yet for love's sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. 10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: 11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: 12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: 13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: 14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. 15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; 16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? 17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. 18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; 19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. 20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.
The Paul who wrote this letter is not a super-star evangelist. Rather he is aged, imprisoned and broken. But still writes with the rare mature love that only a true father demonstrates. Paul expresses the desire to experience only the joy of seeing his son Onesimus fully restored – which will not happen until he is accepted by his former supervisor - Philemon. Are we in anyway afflicted when others fall or do we feel relieved that another false brother or sister has been exposed? Onesimus was politely described in the past as unprofitable - which is likely to be an understatement. But this reflects the Christian charity that has no interest in amplifying the failings of another brother. We learn so much from the book of Philemon, an entire book in God’s manual to us dedicated to restoring an apparent “nobody”.
The forgiveness of Philemon was premised not on an apology but the matured self-sacrificing intermediation of the elder Paul. Philemon would be both bewildered and ashamed that Paul is remotely interested in the restoration of the “ill-behaved” Onesimus … it is not prayer that is emphasised - though Paul must have labored in prayer … but the maturity and plain fatherly appeal for mercy from Paul that breaks the devil’s chain - releasing joy and liberty. Paul directly approaches Philemon in the letter on an issue and practically pleaded as though he were the one who had offended.
Restoration takes time and some time has passed since the misdeed of Onesimus and now Paul perhaps optimistically claims Onesimus is a profitable asset. This casts a positive confession that discards marring clouds. We should confess positively on the fallen … say good things about them…or be silent.
The focus of the book is somewhat unclear …it is neither a book about Onesimus or Philemon. Indeed, it seems this short letter appears initially not to fit as it seems to contain little doctrinal illumination. The letter focuses less on the grievance or the aggrieved but more on the rare attributes of brokenness, love and self sacrificial intervention of an imprisoned man who does not write for legal assistance or for urgent supplies but is continually saddened that a fallen brother is estranged from the rest of the body. Why does Paul care so much as to dedicate an entire book to this subject? I suspect that this book reveals the love of Christ as none other.
How can Paul say receive Onesimus as myself? Has Onesimus changed that much? Perhaps Paul has been deceived by the clever Onesimus? Are these not the questions of the accuser in our hearts. The way the letter is written, Philemon is literally blackmailed to forgive Onesimus … yet Paul is deliberate in the choice of words that must achieve the intended objectives.
Elders and the more matured (perhaps all) have an important role to ensure chasms caused by offenses and misdemeanor are bridged. Too many in the body of Christ are not talking to each other and many others do not seem to care. Too many are in the role of the exalted and careful perfect priest and the Levite passing by the wounded who must wait for the Samaritan to show up. Indeed the love of many waxes cold in the last days but that should not include yours.
Matthew 18:21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
We do not know the full details of the restoration of Onesimus but patience must have played a part nor do we even know if Philemon shunned such an endearing letter … but we know of the love of Christ that shone through Paul and encourages us that we are being transformed and will one day be like Him … even as His day of return draws nigh. The example of Christ in Paul shines best in this short book - better than many lengthy doctrinal teachings and deep explanations. Perhaps our most notable act will one day be in the unrecognised role played in restoration of another.
Gal_6:1 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
Do pray against scandals and offenses in the body. And If you are wounded or hurt - know that Jesus loves you and says arise and be healed. Forgive yourself and others and be forgiven, but be careful to learn from the experience. Amen