But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is the shortest of his epistles, and unlike his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians, it is not a grand defense of the faith nor even much of a source of our Christian doctrine. Nonetheless, for all its brevity, the letter to Philemon does tell us much about how we are to live a saved life in the Lord. The twenty-five verses deal mainly with Paul wanting to send back a slave named Onesimus who had been serving Paul, and whom the apostle now wants Philemon to receive as a brother in Christ. It appears that there may be some rancor between Philemon and Onesimus, and Paul wants Philemon to voluntarily receive the slave with forgiveness – or, at the very least, Paul would like Philemon to put Onesimus’ “debt” on Paul’s “account.” Of course, Paul gently reminds Philemon that he owes Paul his new life, and so the debt has, in essence, been paid. (v.19)
Near the end of this short note, Paul expresses a desire that he would be able to return to Philemon’s home and hospitality himself. Assured that Philemon will do “even more than I say” (v.21), Paul then writes today’s verse, asking his friend and brother in Christ to prepare a room for him, confident that through the grace of God he will be with them soon. It seems a simple statement, an uncommonly short sentence from the usually wordy Paul, but it is packed with meaning and hope. There are four things we can easily grasp from this sentence.
• “But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me”: Just as Paul expects that Philemon will receive the slave Onesimus with forgiveness, so Paul wishes that he himself would be able to visit Philemon soon. On one level, Paul is simply saying he wants Philemon to get ready for his arrival. But Paul is also subtly implying that he is sure of Philemon’s grace toward Onesimus. Paul is sure that if he were to show up tomorrow, he would see that Philemon has given Onesimus the reward due a faithful brother and servant of Christ. So Paul exhorts Philemon to prepare a room for Paul at the same time he is preparing to receive the wayward Onesimus.
• “I trust”: Even while in chains, Paul holds out hope of his eventual freedom. More than that, Paul also trusts that Philemon and others have that same hope. Paul has an expectation that he shall be delivered from his chains in the same way he has been delivered from the slavery of sin, just as his life has been redeemed through Christ Jesus.
• “Through your prayers”: Paul knows that others are praying for him – for his freedom as well as for his ministry while in chains. Would Paul have been as effective an ambassador for Christ if he had been free to plant churches all over southern Europe? Would we have bothered to read his hope-filled letters if he were not most of the time imprisoned? I personally believe that the Lord allowed Paul’s suffering and trials to build the apostle’s character and to make his witness all the more effective and poignant in light of his afflictions. But at the same time, I can see that the Lord also intended that Paul would be sustained by the “effective, fervent prayer” of righteous men and women (James 5:16) – the very people whom Paul had discipled.
• “I shall be granted to you”: Paul’s freedom could only occur through one means: the grace of God. Even as he trusted in the Lord, Paul was a realist, and he knew that it was unlikely he would see freedom if the rulers of Rome simply pursued their own sense of justice. So Paul put his trust in God, relying on God’s gift of grace to His faithful. The very word translated here as “granted” has its root in the same Greek word “charis,” which we often translate as “grace” or “charity” or “mercy.” Paul understands that his freedom relies upon God’s loving grace, that his freedom will be a reprieve rather than an acquittal, and so rather than trusting in the ways of human courts, Paul trusts that the prayers of his fellow Christians will prompt God to soon grant him his freedom.
I have a question at this point: What if Jesus had said those same words to you? Imagine what those same words would mean if Jesus said them like this:
“But, meanwhile, prepare a guest room for Me, for I trust that through your prayers the Son of Man shall be granted to you.”
That certainly puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it? Paul’s hope for freedom becomes our hope for Jesus’ return. Paul’s trust in the fervent, persistent prayer of his friends becomes our Lord’s faith in our appeals to the Father through the Son. Paul’s confidence in the grace of God becomes the assurance that our Lord and Savior will return in glory.
While we prepare a table for the sick and needy, are we preparing a place for Christ? When we forgive our enemies, are we also keeping our hearts open for the working of God’s grace? While we pray for our pastors and ministers, are we praying for the imminent return of our Savior? Is the fruit of our faith so perpetually evident that Jesus could return today and find our “house” swept clean and ready for Him? Our bodies are the temple of the living Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 6:19) Is the temple of our hearts ready to receive the ultimate Guest?
You see, Paul wasn’t just asking Philemon to prepare a guest room for the apostle who currently was in chains. Paul was asking his disciple to live his faith so fully that, whether Paul were freed or not, Philemon would always have room in his home for Christ Himself.
Dear brothers and sisters, we have all of us been enslaved by this world in one way or another, but through Christ we have been freed. Jesus, the Son of God, redeemed our lives from bondage to sin and death, and He restored us to life and peace with the Father. We received this faith through the Word of God preached to us by His faithful ministers – a pastor, a missionary, a parent, a co-worker or whomever He has chosen. (Romans 10:14-17) We should always be in prayer for God’s chosen ministers, confident that God will keep them free enough to do His work – to teach and preach and heal and encourage – even if He does not free them from the trials of this mortal life. And in the freedom Christ alone has bought for us, we ought always to have our homes and our hearts ready to receive either God’s servants or the Lord Jesus Himself.
Gracious Father God, help me to keep my heart always ready for You. Teach me and guide me so that my home always has room for my favorite Guest, Christ Jesus, Your Son. Lord God, protect and encourage my pastor and my fellow servants of Christ, keeping them free to do your work, not burdened by mortal worries but always focused on immortal concerns. Thank You, too, for Your Holy Word that lives within my heart. Amen.