Paying the Cost

I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it — to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ” (Phile. 19-20).

- Philemon 19-20

Philemon faced social ostracization if he were to receive back his runaway slave as a brother, and Paul was willing to help Philemon avoid or make up for this loss of status (v. 18), but ultimately Philemon still had to do what love demanded, even if it meant losing face before the watching world. Christians indeed are to be as “wise as serpents” (Matt. 10:16) and endeavor not to offend unnecessarily those who do not understand the ethics of Scripture. Sometimes, however, following Jesus means doing things unregenerate people cannot or will not understand, and their lack of understanding does not finally allow us to avoid the Lord’s demands (Mark 8:34–38).

The Christian ethic of love is a communal ethic. Christ came to purchase a community of people out of this world, and the members of this community must take into account the other believers who will be affected by their decisions and work to serve them well (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 10:32; Phil. 2:4). Societal transformation is inevitable when large numbers of people in a culture become Christians and begin to understand all the implications of the gospel. Yet such transformation is always secondary; our primary focus is on creating, sustaining, and furthering the fellowship of the church. Therefore, the ethical teaching of the apostles emphasizes behavior within the covenant community, not the way in which the application of the gospel changes the world’s socioeconomic and moral order. It explains, partly, why Paul never exhorted the entire church to work directly for the abolition of slavery. He would leave that up to the individual consciences of Christians who began to understand the implications of the gospel for their whole lives. Foundationally, this meant making sure that men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free were all treated as equally valuable within the church (Gal. 3:27–29). Any collective effort to apply Jesus’ teaching to the unjust structures of society would have to flow naturally out of this principle.

Paul’s demand for Philemon to refresh his heart reflects this idea of a Christian communal ethic (Philem. 20). Basically, the call was for Philemon to consider how his decision would affect his relationship with the apostle and act accordingly. Of course, Paul’s apostolic authority allowed him to make such a bold demand; nevertheless, all Christians may rightly expect believers to serve one another.

Coram Deo

In Philippians 2, Paul calls us to follow the example of Christ and put others ahead of ourselves. We seldom consider how our decisions and behavior will be regarded in the community of believers, but this should not be. Instead, we must always factor into our decisions how what we do or say may or may not impact those around us. Do you consider how what you do and say will be seen by other believers that you know?

Passages for Further Study

Proverbs 6:16–19
John 13:34–35

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