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.”
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.
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?
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?
You are Refreshed to Refresh Others
“and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Philemon 6-7
In return for being refreshed by Christ and Philemon, Paul asks God to refresh Philemon. Specifically, that God would refresh Philemon by making his knowledge of all the good things he has in Christ, full. Paul is asking God to give Philemon more of Christ. What a prayer! It is a powerful prayer for Philemon who will be asked to show partnership not just with his friend Paul, but with his runaway slave who betrayed him.
You will only refresh others with the capacity you’ve been refreshed by Christ yourself. Christ refreshes you so that you can refresh others and so that others when refreshed will want more of Christ. Only Christ can bring this level of fullness to your relationships, especially hard, fractured, and strenuous relationships, even in the church, especially in the church. Here there are two implications for you—the church:
First, you cannot truly love Christ if you do not love His church. Christ and his church are two separate things and they are the same thing. They are separate things in that love for Christ and love for his church are different loves. They are the same thing in that love for Christ leads to a deeper love for his church. The more you seek to love Christ the more you’ll find your heart growing to love the very things that Christ loves.
What does Christ love the most? His glory! What is the way Christ displays his glory among the nations? His church. Therefore the more you grow a love for Christ, the more you will naturally grow a love for his church.
More so, Christ and his church are intimately connected so that if you turn away from one you inevitably turn away from the other. God placed this twofold love in the heart of Philemon and Paul loved it, and thanked God for it.
What do you love about the church? Do you feel a love, respect, yearning to be in it and used by God so it grows? Do you want to see its influence spread?
Second, love for the church equates to a love for those in the church. Philemon was not a spectator or attender of the church, rather he was an active and effective member of it. He touched lives. He inspired faith. He refreshed others. He comforted people with his love. Where does that love come from? It comes from Christ. Paul saw the gospel of Christ pouring into him and flowing from him to others. As wise king Solomon said, “Those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.” (Proverbs 11:25)
What if I am not feeling refreshed? What if I feel discouraged, bruised, hurt, drained? First, acknowledge the source of refreshment—Christ himself. He is a river that never stops flowing, a powerful waterfall of refreshment that is never ending, always giving. Refreshment begins with Christ. Sit at his feet. Listen to his words. Let them wash over you.
Second, allow gratitude to remove the plug in the dam of agony (fear, anger, etc.). Paul purposefully began this letter by giving thanks. Gratitude opens the floodgates of refreshment (Colossians 3:12-17; 4:2). Likely, the Spirit of God has brought someone to your mind—a relationship that needs building up. Maybe you should write a letter to them this week. Tell them how you have been refreshed by God through them. Then send mail it (or deliver it).
Third, be an active member of the church family. When it comes to the church we are all bricks. The Bible says we are from dirt or clay. We are messy. No brick exalts itself above another because each brick knows it came from the pit and it’s only by God’s grace he builds those bricks into a something wonderful—the church. Relationships are a messy, but they are a mess worth making. Let’s look at the church as Jesus does—a beautiful bride!
This love that Paul is celebrating in the life of Philemon isn’t an abstract love. It’s not vanishing and changing with our culture. No, quite opposite. Love in the church stands out in contrast. It’s a love that’s demonstrated and lived out by people like you. People who do what Christ commands them to do—to love others the way that Christ has loved you. The greatest sign of this love is the fact that Jesus gave up his life on behalf of others. This is love. It is a messy sacrificial love. It is love that caused Jesus to take on flesh and die in our place. Love was bleeding, broken, rejected, and crucified.
The gospel gets real in relationships. Paul knows the gospel of Christ will impact the world, the church at Colossae, and his little brother Onesimus. Paul says, “Philemon, you’ve got all these great characteristics that remind me of Jesus. Now, act on the gospel with your new brother, Onesimus.” More on this next week!
Questions for Reflection:
Who is able to speak into your life in various areas, both small and great? Who points out things? Who challenges you? And these people are present in your life, are you offended when they do or do you listen, and consider what they say?
How does Paul’s letter to Philemon display the gospel in relationships? Why is this helpful and powerful for your church?
How is church about “we” more than “me”?
Have you ever considered how a short note, a little letter, a text message or an email could have lasting impact on those that receive it? Write a letter of thanks to the Philemon in your life. You may consider mailing it to them this week or holding onto it until next week if you have something difficult to say.
Where is the most refreshing place you’ve been? You know, a place where you see full, free and fully alive.
From the opening part of the Paul’s letter to Philemon we learn a lot about Paul, Philemon and the church. The opening is really a prayer. In the prayer we learn of God’s concern for healthy relationships within the church family and how the church is called to do life together as we take the gospel into the world we live in. For Paul the gospel is not just something to think about, it is to be acted upon. For us—the church—there is a lot of great application here.
Refreshed People are Refreshed by Christ
“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” Philemon 4-5
Paul is refreshed by Philemon. Why? From what Paul knows about Philemon, from the first time they met until now, from what he hears (present tense) others say about him, Paul sees the visible characteristics of Christ are literally “spilling over” from Philemon, like a waterfall into a deep pond. He sees Philemon’s faith in Jesus and his love for others. Isn’t that a great compliment? Think of the alternative.
Some might argue that Paul is just buttering up Philemon in preparation for the hard thing he’s about to ask him. No. He’s not buttering up, he’s building him up. There’s a difference. Buttering up manipulates, but building up matures. Paul gives genuine reasons for building up his brother: he gives thanks to God and he prays over his brother. The word that Paul uses later in verse 7 is exactly the right word—“refreshed.”
Do you know anyone like this? I hope you do! Are you someone like this? I know that some of you are. You are a Philemon, one who brings joy, comfort, love and refreshment to others around you because of your willingness to encourage people and be there to ease their burdens. It brings you joy, and brings joy to the ones you help. You show us the heart of Christ, often when we need to see it the most. You point us to Jesus not problems. You renew our faith in God and revive our weary souls. And we smile when we think about you. Through you we are “refreshed.”
Do you know anyone like this? I do.
The past three Springs, our family has traveled from the desert of North Africa to green England. Each time we have visited our friends the Franklin family. They have refreshed us from a tall glass of milk to ordering our favorite Indian takeout to walks in London’s green space. Their church has refreshed us through prayer, encouragement, and warm clothes for our children who literally got off the plane in flip flops. Just after Christmas Megan got sick with a debilitating brain disease. She was eight months pregnant with their seventh baby. The baby was taken by C-section and a healthy boy was born. Within days Megan passed into glory. Our hearts grieve for Brad and the Franklin family, but we were refreshed even through Megan’s death and the way she committed to give generously so that the nations may know Jesus Christ.
What would a person close to you say are the visible characteristics of Christ pouring out of you? Can you imagine the encouragement it would be to have them tell you that? That would be a wonderful application of today’s text.
There are two types of people in the church that Paul most often addresses in his letters. The first type are people who build up. This is Philemon. They are the kind of person who encourage, see the good, speak truth in love, and have a knack of pointing you back to Christ. Paul’s letter to Philemon helps us to see what building up one another looks like. Building up in the church never stops because until Christ returns the church is a relational construction zone.
The second type are people who tear down. They are the kind of people who look for ways to cut others down. They are quick to complain. They find faults and failures in others. They are the kind of person you will avoid if you need encouragement, but you will seek out if you need empathy for your own critical spirit. Tearing others down is not a strength or a spiritual gift. It is hurtful, divisive, and from Satan. You can’t punch a hole in the bricks of God’s house without hurting yourself too. How many people have been hurt trying to damage the building they are part of themselves?
Paul spent a lot of breath in his letters airing out about bad theology in the church, conflict among members, and wolves among the sheep. Paul’s letter to Philemon is not about being aware of wolves, but encouraging the sheep. Martin Luther, a man acquainted with both wolves and sheep said, “Fight vigorously against the wolves, but on behalf of the sheep, not against the sheep.” In other words, don’t be a flock of sheep fighting sheep. Sheep don’t fight. Sheep are gregarious, which means sheep band together and protect one another.
Oh, how the church needs Philemon’s—people who are known for their love and faith towards Jesus and others. And the church also needs Paul’s who see the way people reflect Jesus.
You may recognize the name William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a Christian politician who made it his lifework to abolish slavery in Great Britain. It was an impossible task. He was young and at the beginning of his career. On the other side of the pond in America, John Wesley, was nearing the end of his career. Wesley heard of Wilberforce’s story and wrote him a letter (6-days before his death),
“Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it… That He who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things is the prayer of, dear sir, Your affectionate servant, John Wesley”
Wesley had the right words at the right time to help his brother continue on the right path.
Paul also had the right words at the right time to help Philemon on the right path. He focused on Christ’s refreshing work in Philemon, which will be the very character needed as he reunites with Onesimus.
Questions for Reflection:
How have you been refreshed by a Philemon in your life?
When you look at your life, do you see the same qualities alive in your heart like they were in Philemon’s?
Are there areas in your life where Christ’s love hasn’t taken on action towards Him and others? If so, what are they?
Why is thankfulness so powerful, especially when you have to say something difficult to someone you love?
Have you ever considered how a short note, a little letter, an email, or a text message could have lasting impact on those that receive it? That’s Philemon. It’s like a text message from Paul.
Of Paul’s letters, Philemon was the shortest he wrote (only 25 verses; 335 words). Philemon sits at the end of Paul’s 13 letters that are organized from longest to shortest. The longer letters were written to churches (Rome, Corinth, etc.) and the shorter ones were more pastoral and personal and written to specific people (e.g. Timothy, Titus, & Philemon).
I think it’s fair to say that in Paul’s greeting to Philemon we see things we are used to seeing in Paul’s greetings (vs.1-3). We are used to seeing Paul’s name at the beginning of his letters. We usually sign our letters at the end, but this is how one wrote letters in the first century. We are used to seeing Paul include Timothy. Paul & Timothy were BFF’s. They likely met Philemon in Ephesus 10-years earlier when he came to faith under Paul’s ministry. We are used to seeing Paul write from prison. Likely he is in Rome (or Ephesus). It’s where he also wrote the letters to the churches in Ephesus, Philippi and Colossae. We are used to seeing a network of names to whom the letter is addressed. And we’re used to seeing Paul’s trademark greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.
Paul addressed the letter to Philemon who lived in Colossae (modern-day Turkey). We don’t know a lot about him, but with a little detective work it is likely that he had sizable wealth (from a black wool business?). His wealth was seen in his home—it was big enough to host a small church and he had at least one house servant. Philemon likely funded part of Paul’s missionary journeys. And Paul refers to his generosity, hospitality, and good reputation. Philemon is just a good guy who shares his wealth and shares his faith. But their relationship went deeper than money as Paul considers Philemon a good friend, “a beloved fellow worker,” and a spiritual son (v.19). Paul gushes over Philemon like a sappy daddy (spiritual daddy).
Paul also mentions “Apphia our sister” (Philemon’s wife?) and “Archippus our fellow soldier” (Philemon’s son? and teacher). Paul seemed to know all of them both well (cf. Colossians 4:17). Philemon has a ‘family church’ thing going, but Paul doesn’t seem to have any concerns about that. He’s all smiles. What’s not to like when a family is following Jesus?
Although the letter was addressed to Philemon the bulk of the letter is about Onesimus. We do not know much about Onesimus either. We do know that he was Philemon’s slave, he committed some kind of crime, and ran away. Either he miraculous ended up in the same prison as Paul or it is more likely he found where Paul was being held (for preaching about Jesus) to ask for help. Paul not stifled by his circumstances continued preaching to his ‘captive audience’. Onesimus came to faith and Paul discipled him. As Paul learned Onesimus’ story he encouraged him go back and reconcile with his master, Philemon. So Paul sent him to Colossae with at least two letters in hand—a letter to the church in Colossae, in Philemon’s house, and another letter to Philemon himself. It was risky. Paul knew he may have sent Onesimus to his death sentence, but he also knew the kind of man Philemon was.
Can you imagine being Onesimus on that long trip from prison to Colossae? (The fear, guilt, and shame?) Could you imagine being Philemon as he answers the door and sees Onesimus standing there with two letters in hand? (The anger, betrayal, and confusion?)
This is not just a letter or story. It’s a visual of how the gospel affects relationships. The beauty is that this letter is true. It wasn’t burned or shred, but framed for all the church to read for all time. It was preserved for you read. It may be the shortest of Paul’s letters but it is one of the most personal, gentle, simple, purposeful, and powerful you’ll ever read. As one commentator said, “It is infinitely precious.”
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You will notice that building projects are going up all over your neighborhood, so it is in your church. Building up never stops, but this is how it starts…
Could you imagine getting a personal letter from the apostle Paul? That’s what we peer into when we read the letter to Philemon. By the time Philemon got this letter (58-60 AD) Paul would have had a reputation. I am sure when Philemon got this letter his adrenaline was pumping and heart fluttering.
Paul wrote the letter while in prison at Rome. It is also where he wrote Philippians, Colossians and Ephesians. In fact, Philemon, lived in Colossi, which is modern-day Turkey. We do not learn much about him. What we know is from this letter. There was a church that met in his home. His son was a minister. And he must have had some wealth as he had a slave and likely he had others.
The bulk of the letter is about Onesimus—a runaway slave. We do not know a lot about Onesimus either, but what is known is that he ran away from Philemon and went to Rome. For whatever reason he was not able to hide or blend into the crowd and was caught and thrown into prison. In prison, he connects with Paul who is in prison too. Paul is there for preaching about Jesus. Paul’s ministry isn’t stifled by his circumstances, rather Paul continues to proclaim the good news to a captive audience. Onesimus hears and comes to faith. As Paul learns Onesimus’ story he encourages him to reconcile with his master.
Thus the thrust of the letter is Paul pleading to Philemon to receive back Onesimus, not as his slave but as a brother in Christ. Paul is an inbetweener. He is in-between both Philemon and Onesimus. Have you ever had to be an inbetweener? Can you think of two people not in a right relationship with each other, but you are in a right relationship with both of them? May this letter encourage you as an inbetweener.
The beauty of this story is that it is true story. While there are many stories about forgiveness in the Bible this letter is a living example of the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:11) or Unforgiving Servant (Mt. 18:21ff). It is an incredibly personal letter. Yet it is a fitting letter in a series of letters that Paul writes to churches, in which he mainly addresses divisions and relationships within the church. Paul is aware that the number one thing that destroys the church, its mission, and the reputation of Christ is two believers living in unforgiveness. On the flip, two believers walking in forgiveness magnifies Jesus.
There are two types of people in the church that Paul often addresses. The first type of person TEARS DOWN. These people look for ways to cutdown others. They speak words that are discouraging, critical, and are quick to point out faults and failures. They are the kind of people you love to avoid if you are needing encouragement, but love if you are needing someone to empathize with your own critical spirit. The second type of person BUILDS UP. They are the kind of person who encourages, sees the good, speaks truth in love, and has the knack of pointing you back to Christ.
Can you think of someone close to you who tears down or builds up? How would others describe you? Paul is known for building up people. He is a disciple of Christ who makes disciples of Christ, which necessitates one who will build up the church and those within the church. Paul’s letter to Philemon helps us to see what building up one another that looks like.
1. Give thanks to God for people and circumstances (v.4)
To give thanks is ironic considering Paul’s circumstances. Where is Paul again? He is in prison. What would that be like? Notice Paul doesn’t mope. He doesn’t curse God. He knew this would be a result of his calling and following Christ (Acts 9). Instead, Paul is engaged in writing letters of encouragement to others from prison. Also he is taking the opportunity to share the gospel and is leading people to Christ in prison. In fact, the gospel is reaching the ears of those in Caesars household (Phil.4:22).
Thankfulness is a choice. Gratitude is the attitude that gives fortitude to your faith. Would others around you consider you a thankful person? Are you thankful for the cards you were dealt? You might not have had a choice in the kind of family you your born into. You have learned that you cannot control the actions or words of your parents, spouse, children or friend. Maybe you’ve experienced someone walking out on you or you have felt the wounds of neglect or abuse. It is most difficult to chose to be thankful when you don’t feel it, but rather feel pain, abandonment or bitterness.
I am the son of two unmarried teenage parents. They married to appease their parents but the marriage only lasted a few years. I lived with my mother and observed a revolving door of relationships. I felt I had to be the responsible one. I would stay up late waiting for her to come home from her outings. My mother failed lived up to my high expectations. I thought if she’d just change to what I wanted things would be better. I had much self-pity. Even when my mom and I came to Christ I was still unthankful. I thought if only the church could fix my family. When I went to college I chose a college far away from home. However, my sour feelings still followed me. After I finished college, I couldn’t find any other job alternatives, but moving back home with my mom and working with her. It was a summer of irony. God in His providence was giving me an opportunity to forgive as if to say, ‘Justin, If I you do not reconcile with your own mother. you will not be an effective agent of reconciliation to the world.’ It was true. I was about to go to South Africa on mission that fall. Living in unforgiveness could have derailed the mission and my faith. As hard as it was I sat down with my mom and thanked for working three jobs to support me while I was young. I thanked her knowing it was not easy to raise a young boy being only a teenager herself. I thanked her for loving me.
Beware of self-pity and pitying others. Can you hear those close to Paul saying? “Poor Paul. Why would God let such a person be thrown into prison?” Others might have mailed him letters saying, “Dear Paul, you know you could have avoided imprisonment if you just kept your mouth shut,” “You can’t save the world,” “Maybe prison is just God’s way of saying, ‘Take a break.’” It is clear from Paul’s writings that certain people were aiming to tear down his apostleship and most of them came from within the church. Isn’t that a shame? It’s a shame it also happens today. It might even be happening in your church.
It takes a mature Christian to look at difficult people and circumstances and say, “God is using this. God is eternal and sovereign. Everything he does or allows is good.” Do you believe God is using every person or circumstance to make you more like Jesus? What about those harsh or hurtful words? What about that hard thing that occupies your thoughts? God comes to you through difficult circumstance or difficult people. God is at work in the things we see as bad, ugly, painful or hurtful. Remember, God is for you!
If you need proof just survey the Bible. You will see dozens of examples of men and women gripped with gratitude despite unideal circumstances. Joseph was abused by brothers and falsely accused by Potifar’s wife, but in the end sees how God used bad for good (Gen. 50:20). Jeremiah preaches for 50 years and sees no one turn back to God, rather they drag him through the ditches. This weeping prophet hopes in God (Lam. 3). Then there is Job. Everything is taken from him. To make matters worse he has friends who give him bad advice and his wife encourages him to curse God or die, but in the midst of it he sees how God was making him like gold (23:10). Jesus himself was rejected, abused, abandoned, betrayed, and disrespected, yet forgave those who did not understand what they we doing to him. Each bore sacred sorrow, yet praised God.
Joseph Scriven grew up in Ireland. He faced many difficult circumstances in his life namely losing two fiancés before he was to be marry. In the midst of the hardship he went to the One who was most faithful. He put pen to paper and wrote ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’.
Like these examples you and I are in God’s university. The problem is it’s not a 4-year degree and then you pass. For some of us it is lifelong. Each person and situation is a unique subject to learn how God uses all people and circumstance for his glory and purposes in you. Chose to be thankful.
2. Build up others by focusing on the work the Spirit of God (v.5)
Why is Paul so thankful for Philemon? He sees God’s work in Philemon. He has visible characteristics of God that are manifesting themselves. If you are a follower of Christ you too are showing the world the powerful work of what the Holy Spirit can do with someone. For Philemon, the visible characteristics were his love for people and his faith in Jesus.
What would the person sitting next to you say are the visible characteristics you are displaying right now? Can you imagine what an encouragement that would be to have someone point those things out to you? This is what the apostle Paul is doing with Philemon. He is building him up in Christ by sharing with him the ways he is seeing Jesus in him.
Are you this kind of person? Or are you critical of others, especially of people in your church? There are many excuses one can create for being critical of others. Criticism is almost thought of as a spiritual gift or strength. One can spend more time finding faults in others or shooting holes in the pastors message than looking for ways to build up the Body.
Do you recognize the name William Wilberforce? William Wilberforce made it his lifework to abolishment of slavery in Great Britain. It was a seemingly impossible work that brought him much discouragement. Wilberforce was at the beginning of his career, but John Wesley (who was nearing the end of his career) caught wind of Wilberforce’s discouragement and jotted him a note just 6-days before his death. He wrote, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it… That He who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things is the prayer of, dear sir, Your affectionate servant, John Wesley” Wesley had the right words at the right time to help his brother continue on the right path.
Paul focuses on the good he sees in Philemon. Paul has the right words at the right time to help his brothers continue on the right path. He focuses on the character of Christ in Philemon, namely his “love for the saints,” which will be the very character needed when he reunites with Onesimus.
3. Affirm others through prayer and fellowship (vs.6-7)
Philemon’s faith had already been active; but now wants it to be ‘effective’ in relation to Onesimus. It’s as if Paul says, “I have seen how effective your faith is within your house church. Now extend that same faith to your brother Onesimus.”
The world would say to Philemon, “Onesimus owes you. Make him pay. Mark him as a runaway the rest of his life. Make him feel the weight of what he did to you. Pour on the punishment. Tighten his chains. Don’t forgive him.” Doesn’t that sound miserable? Yet that is where we often gravitate, but there is no personal or corporate benefit to unforgiveness. Unforgiveness imprisons you to the past. It clings onto the pain. It feeds the open wound with anger, bitterness, retribution and other ungodly characteristics. Unforgiveness gives Satan an open door. It is a welcome mat to the devil. Unforgiveness hinders your fellowship with God. It simply paralyzes your walk with God. In fact, unforgiveness angers Him because it is opposite his redemptive heart.
Yet on the flip-side, forgiveness makes you most like God. It frees you from the past and produces other godly characteristics. It removes the ugly graffiti from your spirit and lets God shine. Forgiveness is a most visible expression of the gospel. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32) “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.” (Col. 3:13)
Philemon is a treatise on Romans 12:17-21 “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Paul has been a recipient of Philemon’s faith and love, moreover, he has been a recipient of the love and forgiveness of Jesus. And he sees the image this would be to the world, the church in Colossi, and his brother Onesimus. Paul says, “Philemon, you’ve got all these great characteristics that God is working in you, continue in them bless ‘our brother’ Onesimus. Jesus has forgiven him and so must you. Whatever difficult emotions this fuels with you, remember that love and faith you have in Christ. Embrace Onesimus. He is coming your way soon.”
Paul’s letter to Philemon shares the basics or ABC’s of building one another up:
- Affirm others through prayer and fellowship.
- Build up others by focusing on the Holy Spirits work.
- Chose to be thankful for people and circumstances.
The Spirit of God has likely brought to your mind a relationship that needs building up. Maybe, like Paul, you are an inbetweener. How do the examples of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus bring healing on your own journey with Christ? Which of the three characteristic of one who is forgiven do you need to work on today?