Leave the Light On for Me
For more than 30 years, a motel chain in the United States has offered a warm welcome to its customers by telling them, “We’ll leave the light on for you.” It’s a clever advertising slogan because leaving the light on for someone is an American idiom for offering hospitality. It’s a sincere way of telling someone, “I’ll wait for you, and I’m here for you” and offers hope in dark or weary times by proclaiming, “You’re always welcome. This is a place of safety and rest, grace and refreshment.”
In the letter Paul wrote to his friend Philemon, we’ve seen the apostle deal with the complex issue of broken relationships, personal wrongs, forgiveness, and the challenging process of restoration. In his familiar but direct way of confronting such matters, he lovingly and boldly guided Philemon along the path of reconciliation, praising him and speaking of Philemon’s love and refreshing ministry to others; his willingness to obey; and his heart to forgive, which Paul anticipated he would extend to Onesimus. Paul also lifted up Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, relating the details of Onesimus’ wonderful, life-changing encounter with the Lord.
Then, as if a switch were flipped, Paul abruptly shifted the conversation to himself: “Prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you” (Phile. 22). The tone of the letter changes direction, and we are treated to a quick glimpse of Paul the man. In this warm, personal, and handwritten parting thought, it seems he paused; stopped giving instruction; removed his apostle’s hat; and said, “Oh, and one more thing: Leave the light on for me.”
Hospitality and Prayer
Incarcerated for his faith, Paul was under house arrest in Rome when he wrote the epistle to Philemon. From a human point of view, his fate was unknown, and his future lay solely in the hands of the brutal potentates of the Roman Empire. He was separated from those who had heard and responded in faith to his message of salvation in Jesus Christ when he was planting churches throughout Asia Minor and Eastern Europe, people he had come to love and who also had come to love him. Knowing there was a symbolic light shining brightly to welcome him was like having a lighthouse in the dark, pointing the way to a haven of hospitality, safety, and rest.
Several commentators view Paul’s request for a room as a veiled threat to show up to see if Philemon obeyed his instructions. However, that idea seems foreign to the general character of the letter and content of the verse. In light of Philemon’s well-known reputation as someone who refreshed the saints, Paul probably desired to visit to obtain spiritual and physical rest and refreshment. The fellowship, ministry, and encouragement would benefit them both; and the close relationship that had developed between Paul and Onesimus would provide the additional joy of a personal reunion.
Knowing others would welcome and appreciate him was a blessing that gave him hope and encouragement that shouted, “You are not alone!”
Even more important than hospitality, however, was Paul’s need for prayer, which he openly shared. He depended on the prayers of others. A prayer warrior himself, the apostle spoke at the beginning of the letter of his thankful and joyful prayers for Philemon. Now, at the end, he brought up the matter of their prayers for him: “I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you” (v. 22).
The word trust is better understood as “hope.” Paul had hope—not a “hope so” fatalistic view of the future but, rather, an assured, realistic expectation. Paul was not putting his confidence in lawyers, Roman officials, or the wisdom of men. Rather, he was expecting to receive God’s goodness and grace through the prayers of Philemon and the Colossian church. Their prayers were the agency through which Paul believed God would act on his behalf.
In speaking to the Corinthians of the life-threatening challenges of his missionary journeys in Asia, he had credited God with delivering him through their prayerful help: “You also helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the gift granted to us through many” (2 Cor. 1:11). On another occasion, Paul expressed his expectation and hope, which were strengthened through the prayers of the Philippian church (Phil. 1:19).
Paul hoped that his case before the Romans would soon be adjudicated, and he would be free to visit the Colossians. Though in jail, he was looking to the future with hope and placed his confidence in the truth that God hears and answers the effectual prayers of His children: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (Jas. 5:16).
Paul understood he was not in this battle alone. He not only desired the help and partnership of his brothers and sisters in Christ but considered those elements indispensable. He was counting on their prayers. Their heartfelt petitions on his behalf to the God of all power and grace strengthened his hope—and he was not shy about telling them so.
The matter of prayer was not added to the letter simply as a spiritually appealing closing. It came from the heart. Paul hoped to be freed from prosecution and wanted them to pray he would be “granted” to them (Phile. 22).
Serving One Another
Every answered prayer is a gift from God. The word granted comes from charis, the same word used for “grace.” The deepest and truest blessing is found in something greater than what we actually receive through prayer. Both the one who prays and the one for whom we pray are “graced” by God. What could be more filled with grace than the knowledge the Almighty listened, responded, and moved heaven and earth to answer the plea of His children?
The letter to Philemon was sent at the same time as his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. Throughout those two epistles, Paul taught the respective churches regarding the absolute necessity to minister and serve one another. The health and growth of individual believers and the church as a whole depended on their commitment. In this one verse (v. 22) at the end of Philemon, Paul openly confirmed he needed and wanted others to minister to him, as well.
Paul’s hope, like that of the prophet Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace, stood on the solid foundation of faith in God’s power to accomplish the impossible. It expressed itself by expecting opportunities to minister and serve freely, and it manifested itself in Paul’s life as he waited patiently for God to move. Finally, his hope found energy in the faithful prayers of others.
God used ordinary people like Philemon, his family, and Onesimus to provide hope and comfort to others, even to an apostle. At times, every Christian needs a faithful family of ordinary Christian brothers and sisters who leave a welcoming light on for them, whatever their circumstances.
Throughout our lives, we’re either searching for a light of hope in the darkness or standing with open arms in a well-lit doorway.
It’s not difficult to find heart-wrenching stories of loved ones who have left home or disappeared. A light is often left on as an unspoken expression of the hope of their return. For many, hope fades as the months and years pass. For others, the light continues to burn even in the midst of irrefutable evidence that person is gone forever, because living without hope—even a false hope—would be unbearable.
God’s Word reveals that the world we live in has no genuine hope (Eph. 2:12). Yet it also tells us those who have placed their faith and trust in Jesus Christ have a real and wonderful hope to share (1 Pet. 3:15). We have a light that shines as a hospitable invitation to a place of forgiveness, safety, and rest in the arms of the One who came to seek and save those who are lost in the darkness of life.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him.