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?

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Forgiven (Part 1)

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:

  • anemone
  • colonel
  • isthmus
  • Massachusetts
  • worcestershire
  • sixth
  • asterisk
  • defibrillator
  • squirrel.

But the hardest thing to say in English is “forgive me.” Undoubtedly it is the hardest thing to say in any language!

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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

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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.

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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?