In connection with Philemon’s reputation of labor, he had a reputation of edifying. He had a motivation to labor for the Lord, which was to edify those with whom he shared his faith – namely, the saints gathering in his home.
It was Paul’s prayer that Philemon’s labor would be effective and accomplish what it was intended to accomplish. He, like Philemon, hoped that the sharing of his faith would edify and build up others in their understanding and experiencing the grace of God. He desired that they would know God more fully.
Paul prayed this way knowing it to be the desire of Philemon, as well. It was the godly way. Throughout history men tend to do things that are considered good and even well- intentioned, but that do not edify others beyond themselves. This was what Paul accused the Corinthian church of doing. He rebuked them for their self-centeredness by teaching not to seek “his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:24).
Seeking the edification of those around us is the righteous thing to do because it is loving (1 Cor. 13). Such was the characteristic of Philemon. He labored for the sake of others. He shared his faith so that others would grow in Christ.
He was unlike some people, believing their motivations to be pure, edifying others in the wrong way or for the wrong purpose. If we mean, as the ancient text literally means, when we employ the word edify, “to build a house,” then we can argue that edification can be good or bad. Just as workers build a home and intentionally or unintentionally set one screw wrong, the entire house can be affected. So building others up is one thing, but building others up in the Lord is another. Our purpose, motivation, and method must be righteous.
My wife makes these delicious little cubes – she calls Peanut-butter Fudge. They are the rave of the church – especially around Christmas time. Every now and then she will come home from the grocery store with tubs of peanut-butter and things I can’t identify, and pour her heart into making batches of them. I know why she’s making them, but if I ask her, it is for her mother, or a friend, or the pastor’s wife. I know she is cloaking her real reason, which is to have some of her own. But I never infer as much because I love them too!
We are not doing good if we build others up for our own good or with false pretense or unto a wicked end. (Yes, Peanut-butter Fudge is terribly wicked!) Godly edification is done in and with love for the ultimate purpose of the glorification of the Lord only. Philemon loved the saints (Phile. 1:5). He had faith in the Lord (Phile. 1:5). And so he labored unto a holy end. He desired that they understand and experience “every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (Phile. 1:6).
Now, when we read the phrase, “for the sake of Christ,” I admittedly think of the less appropriate phrase, “for Christ’s sake.” In this sense, the phrase bears little good, whether it’s the writer’s intent to slander the Lord or presume Christ has need of anything. There is nothing we can do to lend support to God. He is self-sufficient. When fathers go to work, they often have in mind their family – especially their children. They work hard for the sake of their children. That is to say that they labor to meet their needs. But God has no needs.
Rather, Paul uses a preposition that means “unto, towards.” It denotes the object of the good things by which and for which they exist. In other words, every good thing exists for the glory of Christ. They are unto the Lord. They are for His glory. Their purpose is found in Him since He is the one who gives them (Jas. 1:17). So, the ultimate beginning and the end is for the sake of Christ. It is for His benefit that we should edify. When we understand and experience every good thing that He has so graciously given us, we are led to glorify Him all the more.
So Paul continues to motivate Philemon to forgive by reminding him of his reputation of edifying. This is what the labor is for – to help the saints identify the Lord’s goodness and thus praise Him for it.