BROTHERLY LOVE FOR THE CHURCH LIFE IN PHILEMON
By the Lord’s sovereignty, the short book of Philemon comes at the end of the section on the practice of the church life. The significance of this book is that for the practice of the church life we need to keep brotherly love. Although other portions of the Scriptures teach us about brotherly love and loving one another, Philemon serves as an illustration, an example, of brotherly love. In the practice of the church life, the proper brotherly love is a real test. If we do not have the genuine brotherly love, we are spiritually dead. The proper, real, and true brotherly love is the test of whether we are living or dead. This is a love which surpasses ordinary human love in society.
In this book there are two persons. One is the master, Philemon, who has the full right of ownership of his slave, Onesimus. Unlike today in America, at Paul’s time there was a custom that people could buy a person as a slave. The master who purchased a slave had the right to do anything with him, including to put the slave to death. That was not illegal; the law gave him the right to do so. Onesimus was a slave who was owned by Philemon, a wealthy brother. However, Onesimus had run away from his master, and according to the custom in those times an escaped slave could be put to death. For this reason, Onesimus was put into prison, but while he was in prison, he met Paul, the messenger of the Lord. This means that he met the Lord, because in this book Paul represents the Lord Himself. As a result, Onesimus was saved (v. 10). Following this, Paul sent him back to his master, Philemon, and entreated Philemon to treat Onesimus as a beloved brother (vv. 12-16). From this time forward Philemon would have Onesimus no longer as a slave but as a brother.
This is an illustration of brotherly love which surpasses all the practices in human society. Hence, in the church life we must have such a brotherly love. The principle in Philemon is that in the practice of the church there must be a brotherly love that overcomes all the differences in human society. If brotherly love can overcome the difference in social rank between a slave and a master, then it is able to overcome all the differences in human society. The differences and ranks in human society must not be brought into the practice of the church life. In the church practice all the differences in society are excluded.
It is difficult for brothers or sisters who have a high position in human society to practice brotherly love. If a brother is a president or a king, it may be difficult for him to properly practice being a brother in the church. Therefore, it is better not to be a president or a king. According to the history of the church throughout the centuries, bringing social rank into the practice of the church has been a great problem. When differences of rank in human society are brought into the practice of the church, the nature of the church is changed. This damages and spoils the proper practice of the church life. This is the very reason that the book of Philemon is found at the end of this section of the New Testament. In the proper practice of the church we can never neglect brotherly love.
We must shut the door of the church to all social rank in human society. There is no place in the church for the “uniforms” of social rank. We should not come to the church with the “uniform” of an admiral, a marshal, or a medical doctor. To bring these things into the church will damage the church life. How much we have the reality of the church life is tested by our brotherly love. This is not a small or easy matter. If someone attains to a high office, he will see the difficulty it causes; it will be hard for him to come down from his “throne.”
Even in the United States, the problem of social rank is serious. Formerly I thought that in America all people had the same status. Recently, however, an officer in the armed forces told me that it is not easy for him to contact enlisted men, because they do not have the same rank. It is also difficult for the wife of an officer to come down off her “throne” to talk with the wife of an enlisted man. This also is due to the difference in rank. One Christian brother told me that while he was serving in the air force, he had the burden to open his home to fellow soldiers who were brothers, but his wife would not agree. She said that to do this would lower his status. Wives such as this want to maintain their social rank. In this respect, the United States may be better than other countries, but even in this country there is the problem of social rank.
We must overcome this problem by the inner life. We need to receive the Lord’s demand to receive Onesimus. Even a slave can become a dear brother to us. However, if we feel we are different from such a brother, if it is hard to humble ourselves to sit with him, we must be reminded that we are wrong. We should sit alongside such a brother just as we would sit with the apostle Paul. We need to realize that regardless of his rank, he is our dear brother. In the practice of the church life, we need to learn this basic principle, which will correct, adjust, and balance us. Therefore, Philemon is not a book of teaching; it is a book of instruction, instructing us how to treat our brothers who are of lower social rank in human society.
(General Sketch of the New Testament in the Light of Christ and the Church, A - Part 2: Romans through Philemon, Chapter 15, by Witness Lee)