Since going to Chad, Africa I have learned three foreign languages—French, Arabic and a tribal language. Each are unique and difficult. I’m not bragging. I’m no linguist genius. Those who know me well know that I often slaughter the English language!
English is a difficult language. Just ask those trying to learn it. Here are the Top-10 hardest words to say in English for a non-English speaker:
But the hardest thing to say in English is “forgive me.” Undoubtedly it is the hardest thing to say in any language!
Today we will continue discovering Paul’s letter to Philemon. As a review, remember Paul began the letter by thanking Philemon for how he has been refreshed in Christ through him because of his love for others, but now Paul will have hard words for Philemon asking him to forgive his runaway slave, Onesimus, who returned home with Paul’s letter in hand.
If all we had to the New Testament was this letter and no other, we would still see Christianity was a radical new way—a counter-cultural, society-altering, demographic-unifying way of life. It still is. And today we will discover how this letter tackles issues like slavery, betrayal, and forgiveness.
It was likely this letter was read publicly by Philemon’s son and all the church in his home listening. Can you imagine the scene? Can you feel the weight of it? What will Philemon say? What will he do? What would I do? This letter isn’t theoretical, it’s true to life because in life we will find ourselves in both Philemon’s shoes and Onesimus’ shoes. This letter is a guide to how the gospel touches relationships. Philemon verses 8-16 are really a practical theology of forgiveness
Forgiveness isn’t Optional
Paul began by saying, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required…” (v.8) Paul could have played the trump card. He had the scriptural authority, pastoral authority, spiritual authority and apostolic authority to command Philemon to make things right with Onesimus, but he didn’t. He didn’t abuse his power for personal gain. He didn’t ignore the issue either. He didn’t push it under the rug. He didn’t say, “Oh, let’s just forget about it.” No. He simply and pastorally put the issue of forgiveness into Philemon’s hand. He honored Philemon and honored the process.
Forgiveness isn’t optional. It isn’t dependent on how you or the other person feels, how long it’s been, or anything else. Forgiveness is a command (an imperative). Jesus teaches this in the Lord’s Prayer. He says when you pray say,
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:9-15)
Jesus commands forgiveness. Without even pausing for a breath, Jesus connects our understanding of forgiveness with God to our willingness to forgive others. The implication is that we cannot say we understand how much we are forgiven if we are unwilling to forgive others.
C.S. Lewis when reflecting on Jesus’ words about forgiveness said this,
“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury. To forgive the incessant provocations of daily life—to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son—how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.” We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what he says.” from Weight of Glory
Why forgive? You’ve been forgiven much! To Colossae, Philemon’s church, Paul said, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you,” (3:13) to the Ephesus he said, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (4:32)
If you have wronged someone and you haven’t made it right, forgiveness isn’t optional. If you were wronged and the other person has asked for your forgiveness, then forgiveness isn’t optional. If you are a Christian, then forgiveness is a command. The alternative is dangerous.
Forgiveness is an expression of God’s love
Forgiveness when expressed is a beautiful thing. There is nothing that makes you more like God than when you forgive. Paul was already confident in Philemon’s love, but that would be tested to forgive Onesimus. Paul is not going to twist Philemon’s arm, rather he says, “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you…” (v.9) Paul adds in verse 14 that he doesn’t want Philemon to forgive out of compulsion, but to love Onesimus with Christ’s love that is so natural to him (cf. vs, 5-7).
C.S. Lewis said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” Lewis hints at the many rationalization or ideas we use to explain away why we shouldn’t forgive. For example, “The hurt is too big to forgive,” Time will heal it,” or “Why forgive if they’ll for it again?”
God doesn’t want you to forgive people because you have to. He wants you to want to because of Christ’s love for you, your love for Christ, and your love for your siblings in Christ.
The idea of loving and serving out of compulsion is an interesting conundrum in Scripture. When Paul told the Corinthians to give to help suffering Christians in Jerusalem he said, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) Giving is better if done with love.
When Peter spoke to the elders of the church he said, “…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you …” (2 Peter 5:2) A leader in the church is not to serve because he feels he has to, but because he wants to. The same goes for preaching, counseling, teaching Sunday School, and helping in the nursery.
Which is better, the gift given out of love or the one out of compulsion? It sort of deflates the gift and the giver when you hear on your birthday, “Here’s your birthday gift. I had to get it because it’s your birthday.” Or on Valentines Day you hear, “Here’s a rose, babe. I’m supposed to get you flowers because I saw it in a commercial.” Everything is better when motivated by love rather than obligation, right?
God’s love is most visible when you forgive. Forgiveness is a visible expression of the gospel in Romans 5:6-11, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul is putting that theology into practice. Forgiveness dies to self for the sake of loving like God loves. Forgiveness removes the ugly graffiti in your soul and lets God’s love shine.
Part two is coming soon…
Questions for Reflection:
What do you learn about forgiveness from Paul, Philemon and Onesimus? What do you learn about the forgiveness you have received from Christ? What is your motivation to forgive (cf Ephesians 4:32-5:2)?
Philemon had a difficult choice to make. He had been wronged by someone who he had power over but apparently had come to believe in Jesus. A spiritual leader in Philemon’s life (Paul) was strongly urging him to forgive the man who had wronged him. Put yourself in Philemon’s shoes. Could you forgive? Would you build a friendship across a cultural divide? Could you trust God to make this right? Would you do the right thing? Could you love the one who had wronged you?
Do you have anyone who has wronged you to whom you can extend forgiveness? What would that look like?