Unexpected Grace

Harry was one of those unforgettable characters. We were climbing a mountain during a thunderstorm when he said he needed to tell me something. No sooner had he spoken than a loud clap of thunder pierced the air, accompanied by the blinding flash of a nearby lightning strike.

We immediately hit the ground. But some of our neophyte adventurers unwisely headed for cover under the trees. Harry’s booming voice instantaneously directed them away from danger.

That was Harry. He knew the hazards of the trail, but he was even more adept at recognizing the hazards of this sin-saturated world and was passionate about guiding people away from the Devil, who “walks about like a roaring lion” ready to devour us (1 Pet. 5:8).

After we resumed our climb and got above the clouds, Harry quietly told me where he carried his medication and emergency contact information. It turned out Harry had heart problems. Shocked, I asked the obvious. “Why did you come?”

He looked at the rain-soaked young men dragging up the trail behind us, nodded his head toward them, and replied, “For them.”

A Man Like That
The apostle Paul knew a man like that. His name was Philemon. Over and over in his prayers, he thanked God for Philemon’s faith in the Lord and his love of fellow Christians. His positive influence on others was widely known.

Although Philemon’s reputation and legacy endure forever in the short book of the Bible bearing his name, we know relatively little about him. But the 25 verses disclose a few facts.

First, Philemon and Paul had a personal relationship. Paul called him a “beloved friend,” “fellow laborer,” “brother,” and “partner” (vv. 1, 7, 17). Second, although we don’t know how or where this friendship began, we know it changed Philemon’s life forever. Perhaps the men met when Philemon visited Ephesus, the business capital of Asia Minor, while Paul was ministering there.

The opening verses imply Apphia was Philemon’s wife. Archippus, a church leader, may have been his son. Philemon probably was wealthy because the church at Colossae met in his home, which had guest rooms; and at least one indentured slave served the family.

When Paul told Philemon he “refreshed” the hearts of his brothers and sisters in Christ, he implied his friend dispensed more than kindness and hospitality (v. 7). Philemon’s deep love for the Lord and other Christians motivated him, and his life and practical actions touched others deeply. He provided “great joy and consolation” to both the apostle and the saints (v. 7).

Refreshers of the Heart
Paul often used the word refresh to speak of personal interactions that nurtured the inner spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 16:18; 2 Cor. 7:13; 2 Tim. 1:16; Phile. 7, 20). The Greek word for “refresh,” anapauo, is translated various ways in the New Testament. In Mark 6:31 it refers to bodily rest. But it most commonly defines the concept of personal refreshing, as used by Paul in his letters.

Practically speaking, the word refresh points to the role Christians play in strengthening and energizing one another:

1. Refreshing may involve encouraging someone. A heart refresher like Philemon encourages others to seek, follow, and rest in the Lord in the midst of troubles and the sometimes-weary journey of life. Encouragement revitalizes people and lets them know they are not alone in the storm on the mountain they are climbing.

2. Refreshing may involve helping someone increase in skill or knowledge. There is always something fresh to learn in the Bible (Col. 1:9–12), and heart refreshers take every opportunity to point people to God’s Word, teaching them how to grow and increase in their knowledge of Him whose mercies are new every morning. Refreshers nudge God’s children to walk closer to the Savior to keep their relationship with Him from growing lukewarm.

3. Refreshing may involve jogging someone’s memory with a simple reminder. Sometimes we need to be reminded of who we are in Christ and what we possess in Him. When we forget these things, we can lose our hope. Refreshers come alongside us with the promises of God that provide the map for our journey on Earth.

4. Refreshing can fill up a half-empty cup. King David said, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). David’s heart was full and his cup running over. Some believers are skilled at refreshing half-empty hearts. The touch of a hand, a simple prayer, or even a well-timed smile can supply consolation for past heartaches or fortification for future obstacles.

Paul’s Perspective
Paul understood what it meant to be refreshed in spirit by his fellow Christians. They had strengthened him with their care, affection, obedience, spiritual growth, and personal commitment. It was deeply personal and impactful.

Even though the Corinthian church was plagued with controversy, the delegation it sent to Paul refreshed his spirit (1 Cor. 16:18). The visit showed the church’s concern and love and invigorated Paul’s heart, refreshing his spiritual strength to continue the ministry despite great difficulties.

Rest is a refreshing gift of grace, and grace is the key that unlocks our ability to refresh someone’s heart.

On another occasion, fellow believer Onesiphorus went out of his way to find the apostle when he was imprisoned in Rome. Though helping Paul may have jeopardized Onesiphorus’s freedom and possibly his life, he unashamedly pursued his association with the apostle, whose heart he touched and whose spirit he refreshed. Onesiphorus takes his place alongside Philemon on Paul’s eternal list of Christian heart-refreshers (2 Tim. 1:16).

Refreshing Relationships
Jesus used the word refresh when He called the weary and heavy laden to Himself (Mt. 11:28–29). He invited them to a “rest” that would touch their souls and unite them to the Son of God.

Even today, the yoke He offers promises an end to our labor to attain personal righteousness. Free from fear or care, we can enter the blessed rest and peace of salvation. Our sin-debt has been paid. Our souls can be refreshed and free from the burden of working to earn God’s favor.

Rest is a refreshing gift of grace, and grace is the key that unlocks our ability to refresh someone’s heart. Ephesians 4 outlines the divine pathway for Christian maturity through relationships that build up others in truth, love, and grace (vv. 15–16, 29).

Unhealthy relationships suffer from a lack of grace that makes people earn the privilege of being loved based on unspoken criteria. True refreshers love others as Christ first loved them, with no conditions—a rarity in today’s world. Such unconditional love is unexpected, encouraging, motivating, and restful. It is refreshing on a profoundly deep level.

We all need to be refreshed with grace wrapped in love. Even the apostle Paul welcomed both named and unnamed refreshers who ministered to him in good times and bad—refreshers like Harry.

A few years after our mountain adventure, Harry’s journey on this earth ended. He was relatively young when, without warning, his heart stopped while he was working at a children’s camp. At his memorial service, a long line of men waited to share how Harry had energized and encouraged their walks with the Lord as fathers, sons, and even grandfathers. Men laughed, wept, and praised God for Harry’s life, his love for Christ, and his love for them. Harry left a lasting legacy.

Philemon’s legacy is recorded for us in the Bible. He loved God, he loved the saints, and he refreshed their hearts. We all need to ask ourselves if we will leave a legacy of refreshing others and if our words give grace to those who hear.

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