Forgiven (Part 2)

This is a continuation of a study on Philemon 8-16.  You can review Part 1 here.

Forgiveness doesn’t end with the words, “Forgive me.” Paul knew this. Philemon could say, “I forgive you, Philemon, but the Roman law says I can still have you killed or at least beaten.” There were a number of things that Philemon could do if he wanted.

You know this feeling, right? A person comes to you, admits they are wrong. You know you have to forgive them, but what about after that? Now they’re on your turf! They’ve admitted they’re wrong! They’ve opened themselves up to anything! The temptation is to strike, right? Hurt them as much as they hurt you. Make them pay. See how sorry they really are. Maybe keep the offense in your back pocket and slap them with it later. After all, it’s your right!

The world would say to Philemon, “Onesimus owes you. Make him pay. Make him feel what you felt. Pour on the pain. Crush him. Unleash the punishment. Tighten his chains.”

You may have a right to punish your offender, but you don’t have to punish them before you forgive. All over scripture you are told to treat your enemies well—how much more when a brother or sister in Christ comes to you repentant and in need of forgiveness! If they are a follower of Jesus, then Jesus was punished for their sin. You need not add to it. Don’t answer forgiveness with more pain and punishment.

“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.” – Philemon 10-12

Paul doesn’t shy away from Onesimus’ offense, but notice how he comes to his defense. It’s as if Paul says, “Onesimus is a new man. He has truly repented. He has made things right with God and he wants to be right with you, Philemon. Yes, he became a “useless” person, no good to anyone, but now he is living up to his name and is “useful” again—to God, to me and to you! Now honor him and what God is doing in him by NOT acting on your right to punish him or take what you are due. Rather give him what he doesn’t deserve—mercy and grace.”

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Forgiveness gives mercy and grace

Do you notice that within the word “forgiveness” is the word “give”? Forgiveness comes with a gift. Forgiveness gives up resentment or payback and gives grace and mercy in its place.

Forgiveness is costly. It gives up what you think you deserve for what the other person deserves. Yes, it’s awkward, often risky, usually emotional, and definitely challenging. Onesimus traveled over 1,000 miles from Rome to Colossae to seek it. And Jesus left heaven to come to earth and died to give it. We ought to follow this example and go the distance to forgive too. Forgiveness may be costly, but not forgiving is more costly costing you intimacy with God and people. But with the great cost comes great reward—a relationship deeper, richer and stronger than it ever was before.

Jesus didn’t withhold words about the swiftness and seriousness of seeking forgiveness,

“…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser…” (Matthew 5:23-25)

This is your one pink slip from Jesus to get out of church or to be late for church. I had to use this slip recently with my wife. On the way to church, I said something stupid pretending to be smart. It offended her. In the church parking lot Sarah said,”I’m not going in there like this.” She was the smart one. I was ready to go in there pretending everything was alright. But you know the misery of worshiping God when you are in the wrong with someone. I sought her forgiveness and we ended up being awkwardly late to church.

In Ephesians 4:26 Paul said, “…do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” The implication here are that you need to take the time and make the effort to seek forgiveness or you put out a welcome mat for Satan and give him a key to enter in to cause more pain and harm. You know what it’s like to go through a night of uncertainty and misery after a fight with someone. You ask yourself, “Do they still love me? Are we still friends? What happens now? Why did I say that? What can I do? Maybe it’s too late.”

Martin Luther rightly said that we are all Onesimus. Outside of Christ we too were runaway slaves, created to serve God, but guilty of sin we ran as far away from him as we could get. Yet God in his mercy took us who were once useless and made us useful in his kingdom. Forgiveness is about God and his glory, not ours. This is about God’s mercy, God’s kindness, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness. God is the hero of this story, Paul’s story, Philemon’s story, Onesimus’ story, your story, and everyone’s story. Forgiveness is a story bigger than us.

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Forgiveness is used by God for good

This is probably my favorite part of the letter. If Philemon were a made for TV movie this one-liner would be a tearjerker. Paul says,

“For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” – Philemon 15-16

It is almost as if Paul says, “Philemon, I know it’s hard to hear right now. And I know that it doesn’t make sense, and that there’s real pain in your life. Perhaps this was God’s plan all along. Perhaps this is the only way you would be able to see Onesimus as more than just your slave, but now be able to see him as a human, a brother in Christ. Perhaps this is part of God’s plan to finally break down the walls between masters and slaves, between classes, and bring unity to your home, your church, and your nation. Perhaps God is setting you up as an example to follow so that more people will throw away prejudice and embrace their brothers and sisters in Christ. This could be the beginning of something beautiful and redemptive—and you’re on the forefront of it! Don’t get in the way of what God is using for good!”

Paul willing risked his friendship with Philemon because he knew that God was doing something much bigger. Paul invited Philemon (and you and me) to see past arguments, hurts, and relationship pain to the bigger, gospel picture. The one that displays to the whole world that we are people of love, mercy and grace; and nothing does that better than when people see forgiveness your relationships.

When you hold onto unforgiveness, you are no different than the world. Eventually, as someone said, “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die.” Or unforgiveness is like a cancerous tumor. The longer it remains the harder, messier and more complicated it is to remove. Unforgiveness makes you like a dog on a leash and your master is the one who has offended you.

When you hold onto unforgiveness you think you own your offender, but really it is the hurt, rejection, anger, and shame of the offense that owns you. You become a slave to it. When you realize that you can’t own no one, forgiveness breaks the chains of both the offense and the offender. This doesn’t mean the hurt completely goes away or that it will be erased from your memory, but forgiveness takes the power out of the poison. It hands the reigns over to God who handles vengeance better than you can.

It’s important that we address the issue of slavery within this letter. When we think of slavery today, we tend to think of it through the lens of colonial America. Images emerge of race and color, masters beating their slaves, and ships sailing from Africa to America. It was horrific. However, this image doesn’t line up with the Roman Empire in the first-century. In the Roman Empire some slaves became property through battles or by being the children of slaves, but people also became a slave to repay debts. This is similar to our credit system today, except that the debtor worked directly for their creditor.

Let’s be clear, nowhere does the New Testament provide theological support or justification for slavery. The way of the Empire was not the way of Christ. Although Paul didn’t speak directly against slavery, letters like Philemon provided the seedbed that eventually led to the abolition. Paul’s concern for slavery wasn’t primarily about brotherly love and equality, though those are good things, but about people being “in Christ”.

If you are in Christ, it removes labels such as “Jew or Greek, free or slave, male and female,” and replaces it with brother or sister (cf. Col. 3:11).

You are no longer a slave. You are a child of God—a new creature in Christ.

Physical slavery is a picture of our spiritual slavery. Paul reminds us that we were all once slaves, ultimately betrayers against God, chained to our sin, holding a debt we can’t pay. While there are many stories about forgiveness in the Bible, Philemon is a living example of the Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21ff). In the story, a servant was forgiven $10 million dollars by his master. Never in a lifetime could he repay it. But when that servant’s friend owed him $10 dollars he nearly killed him. The master made his servant come back, called him wicked, and now asked him payback his debt. Forgiveness cancels the debt. Jesus was the master. He forgave the greater debt.

Paul knew that the #1 thing that destroys the church, its mission, and the reputation of Christ is when two believers live in unforgiveness. On the flip side, two believers who forgive show the world the power of the gospel.

“When you were dead in your sins…God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled our debt, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” –  Colossians 2:9-14

You may find yourself in the position of Philemon—someone who has been wronged by someone else and struggle to forgive. Or you might find yourself in the position of Onesimus—someone who has wronged someone else and is in need of repentance. Throughout our lives we find ourselves in both places, people needing to forgive and people needing to be forgiven. The hardest word God asks you to say is “Forgive me,” or “I forgive you.”

Where are you at today in the relationships around you? Do you need to receive God’s forgiveness?  Is there someone that you need to ask forgiveness from, or is there someone you need to talk to and let them know that what they did hurt you?

Remember who you are “in Christ”: One who is forgiven much who can forgive much too.

 

Questions for Reflection:

What is the meaning of Onesimus’ name? How does Paul play on his name? How was Onesimus useful to both Paul and Philemon?

How does our modern history of slavery shade slavery in Onesimus’ day? In most of the world there are groups of people severely restricted by economic and social barriers in ways that strongly resemble slavery. There are also people actually enslaved. How can you help them find freedom?

Why is the reality and analogy of ‘slavery’ so important to understanding our salvation and who you are?

forgiveness and ministry

pointing fingers

A relationship that his been vital to me has been to long-time missionary Marc Blackwell. I first met Marc during my year long church planting apprenticeship in South Africa. By the time I met him he had already been serving overseas for three decades and had been used by God to plant churches from Sarasota, Florida to Harare, Zimbabwe to Cape Town, South Africa. In the short time that I was with him he demonstrated how to plant churches, showed the innards of being a godly husband and father, and helped me “act like a man”. It was a high privilege.

Today we have the high privilege of hearing from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. By the time Paul wrote this letter he had just wrapped up his third missionary journey and for two decades he had planted churches around the northern Mediterranean coastline.

If you could describe Paul in one word, what word would you use? There are certainly many words one could choose, but I would choose the word “defender.” Paul was a defender of the faith, a defender of Christ, a defender of the resurrection, a defender of his own ministry, and today we will see him as a defender of the unforgiven. Today’s message is on forgiveness and ministry,

2 Corinthians has a different flavor than 1 Corinthians. Paul’s first letter has a zesty flavor as he addresses questions and concerns in the church, but his second letter has a sweet n’ salty flavor as he shares his heart as a pastor and defends his calling from Jesus.

We don’t know much about the explosive situation that happened at Corinth between letters, only that there was a man who opposed Paul and shredded his character and ministry. A mutiny arose and some in the church sided with the man. It was sticky enough to cause Paul to leave Corinth. It also caused him and the church much pain. Paul wrote another letter known as the “severe letter,” which is not included in the NT. It was clearly a difficult letter for him to write (v.5; cf. 2 Cor. 7:8-13a).

By the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians the majority of people in the church agreed with the apostle Paul, not the false teacher. The church grasped onto Paul’s guidance and disciplined the man from the church. The discipline proved to be effective for the man grew sorrowful and it led to his repentance. Isn’t it wonderful to see church discipline work? Yet there was still one problem at Corinth: some in the church had not forgiven the man nor did they restore him to the church. For whatever reason, whether some members of the Apostle Paul posse were offended more than Paul and wanted to inflict more punishment or some were skeptical if the man really had repented or if there was fear he would be a repeat offender, we are not sure. But what is sure, this type of situation can shipwreck a church and the reputation of Christ. This is why Paul takes time to address the situation.

When Paul used the title the Body of Christ to describe the church he wasn’t using it as a churchy slogan (cf. Rom. 7:4; 1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 4:12). It was a God-ordained image for a community of brothers and sisters with radically interconnected relationships. That’s why Paul said, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). The pain that Paul felt by this man’s personal attack was also felt by the church, but the joy Paul had for his repentance was not shared.

You are most like God when you forgive (vs.6-9)

One of the hardest thing to do in life is to forgive an offense, maybe it’s because of the pain and shame and embarrassment. Maybe it’s because our world elevates revenge and retribution, when forgiveness is viewed as weakness. I love superhero movies like Spiderman, Batman, and Captain America, but within each you will see a theme being “Revenge is mine. I will defend my pride.” Today, revenge is in and forgiveness is out.

Paul is a hero of a different kind. He felt the pain from being shamed. And most in his shoes would find a way to round house kick this man Chuck Norris style. Yet Paul walks a different road and he submits to another power. And he asks the church to forgive the man and restore him to fellowship (vs.6-8). What we see is Paul’s heart, a heart that Christ had freed and restored on the Damascus Road, where he—the chief of sinners—had come face-to-face with the grace of God. He was a man given much grace and becomes an agent of grace to others. Like Joseph, Paul understood the plan of God is to forgive and restore his brothers.

Paul praised Corinth for their obedience to discipline the man, but he poo-poo-ed their reluctance to welcome him back into the family. The offense bounced off Paul. The pain of his opposer didn’t rub him wrong. He already forgiven him. He thought their discipline was punishment enough, it worked, and the man didn’t need to suffer anymore. Enough was enough. Paul now saw the man was being swallowed up in his sorrow and if he wasn’t restored soon the man would drown in it. What the repentant disciplined man understood, many in the church do not understand—life apart from the Body of Christ is to be void of its benefits and securities and comforts and joys.

If forgiveness is of paramount importance for this man and the reputation of the church, so it is with us. Forgiveness is not optional, rather it is a matter of obedience (v.9). Our ministry is a ministry of forgiveness. We extend the forgiveness of God with those who hope God will forgive them someday. To forgive an offense is to act most like God, while withholding forgiveness is the most self-righteous act. God is a forgiving God. He forgets our offenses as far as the east is from the west. Jesus is forgiving even on the brink of death on the cross (Lk. 23:34, 43). What would a lack of forgiveness on our part say about our Christ or his church? Let us freely forgive because we have been forgiven much.

You are only able to forgive an offense because you were also forgiven (vs.10-11)

Paul makes his plea to the church to forgive by saying, “I, the offended, did it, and you can do it too.” (v.10a) And he adds that the forgiveness was for you—the Corinthians’ sake—“in the presence of Christ.” (v.10b) The fact was, if the Corinthian church refused to forgive this repentant sinner, a poison would choke the way of grace and their refusal to forgive could kill their church.

Jesus said that unwillingness to forgive is proof of not having experienced His forgiveness. Remember Jesus prayed, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Then He drives the truth home in the next sentence, “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” (6:14, 15). Jesus is serious about forgiveness. This “forgiven people forgive” teaching was so elementary to Jesus’ teaching that he devoted entire parables to it, “‘So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart’” (Matthew 18:35).

Your example to forgive an offense might be just the encouragement that a lost sinner or a young believer or a well-established church needs to see to help them when an opportunity to extend forgiveness comes their way. A few years ago, I met a elderly missionary couple who served on an international team in the jungles of Brazil. A small misunderstanding caused one couple to be offended and it grew to be so painful that the villagers could feel it. The team was on the verge of separation. They tried one last meeting to discuss the situation, but before they did they shared communion. As curious villages looked through windows at the three couples they saw them break bread and drink together. The meeting to follow never happened because in the image of communion the couples remembered who they united around first and foremost. The team wept, prayed and embraced one another. Decades later after a church was established in the village and the church began to have it’s own issues and the elders remembered the example of the missionaries who had broke bread and forgave one another as Christ had forgiven them.

What do you learn about forgiveness and ministry from this text? I have learned two vital truths: First, my ministry of forgiveness comes from Christ. I am challenged by how Paul minimizes the offense and maximizes the presence of Jesus. I see that the motivation to forgive was given to Paul “in the presence of Christ,” as He looks on in approval and empowerment.

Second, unforgiveness is Satan’s strategy. Paul concludes his plea by saying if you don’t forgive the man you have been duped by Satan — “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.” (v. 11) The young church in Corinth could have collapsed if they refusing to obey God by forgiving the repentant sinner, even though he caused such pain. If they had let him stew in his sorrow, they would have cooked him and them. And Satan could then have put a fork in the church of Corinth.

Corrie ten Boom recalled in her book The Hiding Place a postwar meeting with a guard from the Ravensbrück concentration camp where her sister had died and where she herself had been subjected to horrible shame:

“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbrück. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there — the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face. He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness. As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.”

God’s Word says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). And again, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13). It is your ministry to forgive because you have been forgiven.

Is there unforgiveness in your heart today? Is there pain or embarrassment or shame caused by someone that you need to allow God to restore? Will you rejoice, today, in your own forgiveness?