The last time we were together, we started Paul’s letter to Philemon. Here’s what we discovered:
- All those people who are in Christ are coworkers and siblings
- There is only one Christian body and our local churches are a part of that body.
- Because of this, we resolve not to condemn one another but, instead, to build one another up in Christ.
- Being a part of God’s family, what we referred to as the Christian fellowship, is about perpetual revival, not condemnation.
- Finally, the Christian fellowship is about refreshment, not fatigue.
- We are here to refresh one another, not burden one another with what is unnecessary.
Paul is writing to Philemon, who has a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had run away for whatever reason and came across Paul. Since Onisemus is a believer in Christ, Paul urges Philemon to set Onesimus free. In verse 6, Paul makes this statement: “I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ.”
This means that for those who are in Christ, there are two ways to live. One way is effective. The other is ineffective.
My question becomes: How do we participate effectively in the faith? What is it that we can do to be good Christians?
Philemon 8-17 (HCSB)
For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you as a part of myself. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will. For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave — as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me.
Outward appearance and worldly status
Let’s imagine for a moment that we are driving down the street, and we see a person who appears to be homeless holding a cardboard sign. It doesn’t matter what the cardboard sign has written on it, we have formed an opinion of the person holding the sign based on his or her appearance. We do the same with individuals who are mentally ill, with pregnant teenagers, with people who abuse substances, with criminals or people who have formerly been criminals, with people who don’t dress like the rest (whether they dress better or worse), with people who do not have as much money as we do, and with people who look different.
In this fallen world, it has become true that we make judgment calls about people based on their outward appearance and on their status. These judgment calls may be correct, but lead to our treating others badly.
Here we will consider Onesimus. Onesimus was a slave. He probably looked like a slave and acted like a slave. Paul even identifies him as a slave. To look at Onesimus and think, “He looks like a slave,” was not wrong. In fact, it would be quite accurate. Without making this distinction, Paul would not have been able to address Philemon as needed. Throughout our lives we will see the homeless person, the mentally ill, people who have gotten pregnant outside the bonds of marriage, people who abuse substances, criminals or people who were formerly criminals, people who don’t dress like the rest, people who do not have as much money, and people who just look different. It is important for us to make those distinctions; for in making these distinctions we learn how to better love, care for, and serve the people around us and who come to us.
We cannot condemn anyone based on his or her outward appearance or status in this world. Why would we want to? Our outward Appearance in this world and status in this world has no bearing on eternity. If we are citizens in God’s eternal kingdom, why would we condemn anyone based on these trivial things?
Inward identity and eternal status
It may be the case that outward appearance is evidence of some condition of the heart or mind. For instance, a person who is immodest in what he or she wears may be an immodest person. We can recognize that to know how to better love someone, but we don’t have the right to condemn them because of their outward appearances. This is important for us to realize even though it is not what we see when we read this passage of Scripture. We might imagine being in a horrific car accident. On impact, the seatbelt snaps and we crash through the windshield. As we are thrusted forward the sharp class tears through our skin and our clothes. Upon arriving at the hospital, the doctors and nurses look at us. Our outward appearance leads them to the conclusion that we need medical help, but they refuse service because we are bleeding, our clothes are torn and we are missing one shoe. If Christ came to heal people, how can we turn people away because they look sinful?
Onisemus was not this way, though. He was a man who had the freedom of Christ, but had the status and appearance of a slave in this world. Some people don’t dress immodestly because they are in open rebellion against God. It may be that they can’t afford to dress well or that they were raised in a culture that demanded them to dress immodestly. Sadly, this is the case for many young women in our society today. The man who appears to be homeless may not be lazy. The mentally ill may not be in that state because of their own wrong choices. Pregnant teenagers may not have chosen to give themselves away before marriage. We simply do not know the circumstances of others’ lives. We cannot condemn based on outward appearance or status in this world.
If we are still not convinced, we might remember that Paul is writing to Philemon, who is in sin because he is treating Onesimus the way he has, and realize that Paul did not even condemn him. He wrote to Philemon as a brother and a coworker.
In all of this, I find that the Christian fellowship (living in the community of Christ-followers) is about matters of the heart, not matters of outward appearance. We look passed outward appearances to the hearts of others. When we know someone’s heart, we can begin loving them in a way that is beneficial to them. We can begin loving one another is a way that is actually beneficial.
Not coincidently, this means that we must care enough about someone’s heart to get to know them. Then, if there is anything in the heart that needs to be addressed, we can do so in love and not in condemnation. See, the world tells us to condemn first without trying to understand others. It teaches us that we must always look like we are the ones who are correct. Sadly, I think many people who call themselves Christians have bought into the world’s way. The way of Christ is much different: love and care for people, then we will be equipped to address real needs without condemning. This also means that the Christian fellowship is about relationship, not outward ritual.
What I know is that if God is gracious enough to offer me forgiveness even when I have lived an imperfect life, how can I not offer the same opportunity to others: regardless of their appearances, status, or even their sins.
Seeing others as God sees them
Finally, we arrive at an answer to our question. How do we participate effectively in the faith? Paul claims in verse 6 that it is by knowing every good thing that is “us” (referring to himself, Timothy and Onesimus). So, first we choose to look passed outward appearance and to the heart of others. Second, we care enough about people to actually get to know them. We build relationships with others despite age, gender, ethnicity, appearance, religion, status or political affiliation. Third, we intentionally look for the good in their hearts just as Paul did with Philemon.
At the end of this passage, Paul pleads with Philemon to consider Onesimus as Philemon would consider Paul. Paul took a slave and raised him up to the status of brother because that is who Onisemus was as a true believer in Christ. In our lives, then, we resolve to see others as God sees them. People are either brothers or not. There are people who have believed in Christ and people who have not. Those who have believed in Christ are to be treated as brothers and sisters regardless of their outward appearance or status in this world. If we are coworkers, then we work together to bring those who do not know Christ to Christ as lord and savior so that they might be a part of this great Christian fellowship; so that they might be a member of our eternal family and gain the eternal status as a child of God. Life in Christ is about the state of the heart and about relationship, not about outward appearance or empty ritual.
Just as Onesimus received eternal freedom, so can anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. There is no other way by which anyone can receive this freedom.