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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a fruitful look at forgiveness

We have defined forgiveness as a decision to treat an offender as if the offense never happened at all. Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness is an event, not a process [i.e. Jesus on the cross]. Forgiveness is not forgetting, rather it is not dwelling. Forgiveness is like taking a trash bag full of pain and hurt and throwing it away. However, many people like to go to the dump and dig through their old dirt, but that gets you more messy and stinky.

The Bible paints a picture of forgiveness as a tree with deep roots and healthy fruits. The Bible uses this illustration to say that what comes out of a man’s mouth shows you what is in his heart [cf. Luke 6:43-46]. The root of the matter is the heart. The fruit is our behavior. Ephesians 4 gives a practical principle of how to test the quality of fruit by getting at the root issue. God has not called us to be fruit inspectors; rather we are to be root investors.

When I hold onto unforgiveness I will produce destructive fruit [Eph 4:31].

We often ignore or fail to realize the cost of unforgiveness. The cost of unforgiveness is loss of intimacy with God, loss of relationship with others, and stunted spiritual growth [i.e. put off—bitterness, rage, anger, etc.]. If I do not deal with my ungodly anger quickly it will soon be snowball that ends in a deadly avalanche.

I want you to get a real look at forgiveness [Is.55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”]. This is not just a passage about the bigness or smartness of God, in the context it is about His forgiveness. You see we measure our forgiveness with a yardstick: Are they worthy of my forgiveness? And how much am I suppose to forgiven them? God’s forgiveness cannot be measured or compared to our view of forgiveness. Our forgiveness is so little compared to God’s. We cannot conceive the boundaries on God’s forgiveness.

When I unleash forgiveness I produce delightful fruits [4:32a]

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” When I put off the fruits of the old man and begin to live as the new man Christ created me to be I begin to bear fruit that is in His likeness [cf. Gal.5:16ff]. His image has rub off on me. You cannot fake this kind of fruit for long. It is the result of an intimate relationship with the maker and sustainer of the universe.

Growing up my grandpa Dale had a few apple trees. The apple tree didn’t produce much. It just produced dry, wrinkled, brown and mushy apples. Let’s say gramps decided to fix the tree one year. He went out to the tree with trimmers, a staple gun, stepladder and a box of apples he bought from the store. He cuts off the bad apples and puts on the new store bought ones. Did he fix the tree? Stapling apples will not help because they will just rot too. Forgiveness that doesn’t reach the heart [roots] does not last. Cosmetic changes never satisfy. Are you stapling fruit? You can know if you are forgiving person if you have the freedom to give your best, most, and greatest to God and others without reservation.

Why do I need to be forgiving? What is my motivation? [4:32b-5:2]

“As God in Christ forgave you…” When I forgive I am most like God [cf. Matthew 6:12]. I want to be forgiving because I realize how much I have been forgiven. Stop for a moment. Think about all God has forgiven you. Are you amazed? How can you not be impacted by that truth? Think about those you are having a difficult time forgiving. How can God’s forgiveness motivate you to forgive today?

I am certainly no trekkie, but in conclusion we are going to take forgiveness through to the fourth dimension. Here is how we must deal with unforgiveness: First, defer to God. All forgiveness is from God—He is the final frontier [John 20:22-23]. Second, decide to take the initiative. God gives the grace, and you must you decide to enter the race [cf. Lk.15:20; Rom.12:18]. Third, disengage from your emotions. Even if you don’t feel like forgiving that is not an option [Gal.5 “fruit of the Spirit”; Is.43:25]. Fourth, the final dimension is to deliver your enemies to God through much prayer [cf. Luke 6:27-28].

unleashing forgiveness

I had just turned 16. My parents were away for 4th of July weekend and I had my step-dads truck all to myself. He had the coolest looking Mitsubishi Montero. Looking back, the man who gave oversaw my drivers test earlier that March was more into the 4×4 gadgets inside than how I was driving outside. I passed. I do not recall having permission to take out Mike’s truck that weekend, but it was the 4th of July, and my friends were banking on me taking them to the fireworks on the Rib Mountain in the Montero. So with the moon-roof down, music cranked and the 4-wheel on we head up the mountain in the Montero.  All was good and we had a great night.

The next day I had to work. Since we got in late the night before and I had to work so early I decided I would take the Montero [I usually took the bus or road my bike]. No harm, right? As I was pulling into the mall-parking ramp my foot got stuck on the accelerator and the car rammed into the concrete ramp. Cars were lining up and honking behind me. I put a $5000.00 dent into the truck. My sin had just found me out. My parents called that night and ask how I was doing? I did not mention a thing. When my parents got home a few days later my step-dad opened the garage viewed him damaged Montero and was furious. That 4th of July I had to learn a valuable lesson about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is unnatural. We want to hold onto the hurt and anger, payback, seek revenge and retribution. Have you ever been there? Have you been on the offended end of hurt, blame, finger pointing, or collateral damage? Do you really want to live like this? Who are you having a difficult time forgiving?

what is forgiveness?

It is a decision to treat an offender as if the offense never happened at all.

why should I forgive?

Peter asks this very question to Jesus and you sense he is struggling with unforgiveness [Matthew 18:21], since earlier Jesus had taught about what to do if a person offends you [18:15-20]. In Jesus’ day Jewish rabbi’s taught that if you forgave someone three times you were really forgiven, but super spiritual Peter trumps that number to seven. Jesus is going to answer the haughty question using a simple story [18:22-35].

Unforgiveness is foolish [Matthew 18:22-27]. God is like the king who forgives the servants $10 million dollars debt. In those days filing bankruptcy was not an option. If you could not pay, off to the slave market you went. What a forgiving king. God says there are endless reasons to forgive. However, we have endless excuses for not forgiving someone who has offended us. Sin is always irrational, full of excuses and deceitful. I have heard people say, “The hurt is too big.” We believe that there is no possible way to forgive ____ for doing ____ because the wound is deep, fresh and still bleeding. I have heard others say, “Time will heal it,“ “They are bound to do it again.” “I cannot forgive until I forget.” We humans have a hard time forgetting. The problem is forgiveness is the process God uses to help us forget.

Unforgiveness is like a cancerous tumor. The longer it is left unchecked the harder it is to remove, and the messier and more complicated it becomes. Unforgiveness is controlling. It is like a dog leash and its master is the one who has offended you. Unforgiveness will continue to become a weight that becomes heavier and heavier until you deal with it. When we harbor unforgiveness we are saying, “Okay, you control my life. I’m the puppet. You have the strings.” I have lived that way before, for years I was leashed to unforgiveness to my divorced parents who I blamed for my anger and sin issues.

Unforgiveness is dangerous [vs.28-30]. If we decide not to forgive it can destroy people. Think about it: the forgiving servant was forgiven $10 million dollars, but he was bent out of shape over someone who owed him $11 dollars. Ridiculous!? The same is true for one who is a child of God. If Christ has forgiven you of all your sins and you cannot forgive another for one sin, ridiculous. Unforgiveness will destroy you and others.

Unforgiveness is Godless [v.31-33]. Question: How much has God forgiven you? What does it say about God’s forgiveness if we cannot forgive an offender? It slaps God in the face. It says His forgiveness does not cut it. Unforgiveness is anti-God.

Unforgiveness is torturous [v.34-35]. If we do not deal with forgiveness it will deal with me. Ultimately it will destroy me and separate me from the Forgiver.

how do I know if I am forgiving?

Going back to Peters original question do you notice Jesus’ response? [v.22] “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus is not saying you should forgive 77 times, but forgiveness is over and over again. Forgiveness is to be a habit. Now I am not going to minimize how bad someone has hurt you, but do you realize what forgiveness God has given you? Forgiveness starts and ends with God. I learn forgiveness from Him, and I give forgiveness in Him. How do I know if I am a forgiving person?

First, I am not deceived by my pride. You are quick to admit what you did was wrong and seek forgiveness, or you are quick to offer forgiveness by not harboring unforgiveness. Unforgiveness is not your mother’s fault, your friend’s fault, rather own up to it yourself. Second, I am not defensive or protective. You do not have to pay back, pick that fight, or rebel to prove you are right. Instead you leave that up to God [Romans 12:19]. Third, I am motivated by Christ’s forgiveness, so I forgive. It is freeing to allow God to fight the battles for you and to rely upon His forgiveness to forgive others.

Forgiveness is unnatural, but necessary. As followers of Christ forgiveness should come more naturally. Unleash unforgiveness before you are lynched by it.