As already mentioned, Philemon had a reputation of laboring for the saints so that they were edified in the Lord. That is to say, that they were built-up in their understanding and experience of the many good gifts that God has so graciously given and so they were built-up in their faith.
The reputation of those saints who gathered in his home for worship was spreading. It went even so far to affect Paul himself. He wrote, “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Phile. 1:7). Philemon’s love was that pervasive. It was that powerful. This was a divine love, a love given him by Christ, through Christ, and for Christ. Therefore, its effect was immense.
The things that Paul was hearing about this man was bringing Paul large amounts of joy and comfort, like waves brought in on the tide as the winds drive them. It was good report after good report. And from a man whose responsibility was to train up leaders in the church to be like Jesus, the Church’s cornerstone. This was encouraging news.
Paul received a lot of reports. There were many churches full of many new converts that looked to him for their spiritual guidance. They read the scriptures, but also needed apostolic wisdom and authority. Among reports that came to Paul, were those from people at Corinth, so unsettling that he sent these words ahead of him: “Shall I come to you with a rod?” (1 Cor. 4:21). Surely, such reports caused him discomfort and sadness. I never consider it a delight to take the “rod” to my children. I would rather not.
Happily this was not the case with reports concerning Philemon. Rather, everything Paul learned was good. And this good news brought him much joy and comfort. It rested his heart as it did John’s to “hear that my children are walking in truth” (3 Jn. 1:4).
What were the reports that Paul was hearing? What was it that brought him so much joy and comfort? It was hearing that the hearts of the saints were being refreshed through him. Those who worshipped the Lord in Philemon’s house were being refreshed by the sharing of his faith. His sharing, when made effective, brought about rest and tranquility.
Some have mistaken this to mean that Philemon took care of the physical needs of those who came to his estate. But this is a misinterpretation of the text, for Paul just indicated that Philemon was laboring for the saints in order to bring about a growing, experiential, knowledge of God’s grace. His work was for the edification of their spirituality. Granted, he likely served them with his many resources and refreshed them physically when possible, but that is not what Paul means.
Rather, Paul means the saints are spiritually refreshed at their innermost being. It is at their heart that they are being refreshed. It is here that matters most. Christians throughout the ancient world would soon find their end as persecution reached an all-time high. They would lose their friends, family, food, and more. But they would be rested in their hearts knowing of God and His goodness. It is here that lasting refreshing is necessary.
Finally, it is worthy to note that such refreshing is not done by Philemon, but through Philemon. He is our brother and he is in Christ just as we are in Christ. He is human and was once lost in his transgressions. He is not the source of grace or spiritual refreshment. He is just like you and me.
God, in order to receive the glory, refreshes the hearts of His people through His people. Philemon was a beneficiary just like they were. But God chose to work through him by the sharing of his faith.
As final evidence of grace expressed by Paul to Philemon, this serves as one of the most effective ways to motivate. Hearing another tell you that God is working through you, to edify and refresh those around you, is certainly a remarkable thing to hear.
Who are we that God is mindful of us (Ps. 8:4)? Surely this was Philemon’s thinking. So Paul’s encouragement goes. I believe Philemon was full of motivation at this point and ready to labor that very moment.