This difficult to translate verse is rich in meaning; it’s key not only to this letter from the apostle Paul to Philemon, but also to living and active faith in Christ generally.
The first thing to note is that it’s all about being ‘in Christ Jesus’. That might seem obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of this essential; to lose connection completely will sap us of all useful spiritual strength. As Jesus Himself taught, ‘“I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him… bears much fruit… apart from me you can do nothing”’(John 15:5). So there’s a sense here in which we must be plugged ‘in’ correctly, but some translations bring out the sense in which it’s all for Jesus too, which we mustn’t forget either. These things are true of God generally, that everything is, ‘of him, and through him, and to him’(Romans 11:36).
Note some ‘knowledge’ is involved, regarding ‘good’ things. This is not just understanding some facts, but knowing in an experiential sense. It’s the knowledge described by the apostle Paul elsewhere as more important than anything: ‘the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord… found in him… the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know him’(Philippians 3:8-10), i.e. it’s not just knowing about the grace of God (the ‘good’ news – ‘go..’spel), but experiencing its reality from the giver Himself.
This will inevitably have an effect on us. James puts it starkly in the negative, ‘faith apart from works is dead’(James 2:26). Paul describes the same positively in his letter to the Philippians, ‘If there is… any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion, make my joy full, by being like-minded, having the same love’(Philippians 2:1-2). That’s what ‘the fellowship of your faith’ means here, i.e our Christianity touching the lives of those we interact with, in particular sharing the ‘love’, ‘tender mercies’ and ‘compassion’ we have received, turning and showing the same ‘“‘face’”’(Numbers 6:25; 2 Corinthians 3:18) to others.
However, a fascinating thing about this verse is that it also carries with it a sense in which expressing our faith actually enhances our understanding of it too, which some translations emphasize. Obviously this is true in our felt experience. We can better understand God’s love for us when we start to express the same. It’s like feeling the blood of Christ coursing through our veins. As we become ‘a living sacrifice’(Romans 12:1), the love of God burns in our souls; we feel the power of the cross, ignited by the resurrection power that flows from it – ‘the exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to that working of the strength of his might which he worked in Christ, when he raised him from the dead’(Ephesians 1:19-20). As we experience and express this powerful love (in words and deeds) it really deepens our understanding of it.
This is all very refreshing. Obviously it’s refreshing for those on the receiving end. Onesimus likely experienced refreshment as a result of this letter. He was a runaway slave, who’d fled Philemon’s service, apparently haven taken some money – hence Paul’s offer to ‘repay it’(Philemon 19). Somehow he’d met Paul and become a Christian. Paul was sending him back requesting Philemon show Onesimus grace, as a ‘beloved brother’(Philemon 16), receiving him as if he were the apostle Paul himself – what a cultural spiritual bomb (!), designed to explode with slowly infusive glow. But clearly Paul’s remarks here intend Philemon be refreshed as well. It’s a refreshing experience channelling God’s loving-kindness to another, poured into us then flowing from us; it’s heaven on earth. Even more it refreshes onlookers like Paul, who hoped Philemon’s response would ‘Refresh’(Philemon 20) his heart. Finally, surely this letter and key verse are in Scripture to refresh us Bible readers too.
There are two further things to consider here. It’s a masterclass from the apostle Paul regarding how to ‘provoke one another to love and good works’(Hebrews 10:24), which he bases on opening up channels of grace. Also, this informs Paul’s ‘prayers’(Philemon 4) for Philemon, so it’s no surprise that ‘the hearts of the saints have been refreshed’(Philemon 7) by him before!
So this interesting verse works both ways: in Christ – knowing Christ – expressing Christ – knowing Christ better – for Christ. We should encourage this chain in one another, the engine of living and active faith, oiling it with prayer.
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