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?