20Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
In polite society, direct expressions of expectations are awkward. Most people do not particularly enjoy the clear communication of expectations because it demands a response. When someone declares that they expect something specific, the person addressed must then determine if they are going to say yes or no to the request. Propriety demands that one provide a passive method of rejection. For example, it is impolite to ask someone to sacrifice something they own for your interest. Rather, you’re supposed to make your need known and see if they decide to meet that need. One does not request direct action without sufficient passive aggressive escape.
Christianity is not polite society. In the Christian community, direct statements are made in love to one another (c.f. Ephesians 4:15). Paul has gently urged Philemon to release Onesimus throughout the letter. He has appealed to Philemon’s conscience and his Christianity in gentle terms that could be overlooked. In gentle and polite terms he has offered to pay any debt that is owed to Philemon. Keep with societal norms, Paul has not condemned nor directly attacked Philemon’s inaction with regard to slavery. Yet, Christianity is not polite nor constrained by society’s opinions. So, in verse 20, Paul expresses definitively, “I want some benefit from you in the Lord.”
The benefit Paul speaks of is the gospel exemplified in the lives of Philemon and Onesimus. Paul seeks the tangible benefit of knowing that His ministry has not been in vain. He longs for the gospel to transform the soul, that it would be proved in this world. He desires that those he has taught would manifest the truth of what he has taught in a real and obvious way.
Indeed, every teacher that professes the truth of Jesus longs for the truth of Jesus to transform passive aggressive polite society into truth saturated messy conglomerations of souls that have been redeemed. Those who teach of Jesus long for a redeemed society that embraces freedom. To that end, Paul aggressively assures Philemon that he is indeed asking for something. There can be no ambiguity on this subject. While Paul has been respectful and gentle in his tone throughout this letter, he does not want to be misunderstood – Philemon is to release Onesimus as a favor to Paul.
Paul is not simply rejecting acceptable lifestyles of society. Much more than a simple rejection of what is wrong, Paul wants Philemon to do what is right “in the Lord.” He is not asking Philemon to do something that is normative practice in the world. Rather, his request is that Philemon would behave as one who is “in the Lord.” A person who is entrenched in the world will not recognize the holiness that is necessary for joy. Yet, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, Christians are able to live in righteousness. In the Lord, Philemon is empowered to contradict society and do what is right.
The greatest refreshment we can receive from each other is the manifestation of the gospel in our world. So Paul requests that Philemon live out the gospel on this earth for the sake of refreshment.
As a pastor, I can affirm that the greatest refreshment I receive from my congregation is in the transparent faithfulness of the brothers and sisters in Christ. When Christians live holy and separate from the world and do what is right when they don’t have to, then I am reminded that the gospel is real and changes things. So, if you want to refresh your pastor: give him the benefit of your faithful gospel-saturated life that pursues holiness!