Philemon was a well-off businessman in Colosse. One day he real-ized that one of his slaves had stolen something from him and had run away. No one could trace where he had gone. That would be to-day like an employee stealing something from his employer and crossing the state line with it! You can imagine how disappointed and angry Philemon must have been. Far away from Colosse, that slave, named Onesimus, somehow met Paul and became a Christian through Paul’s ministry while Paul was in chains. After his conversion, Onesimus was a great help to Paul in his ministry. When Paul learned that Onesimus had once been a slave of Philemon, he convinced Onesimus that going back to his master was the right thing to do.
But Paul also realized the giftedness of Onesimus and his potential as a free man and co-worker in the Kingdom. If possible, it would be great for Philemon to forgive Onesimus and release him for whatever work God had for him. But for this to happen, Paul knew that God would have to do a unique work in Philemon’s heart. Roman law and custom said that any slave that ran away, especially after stealing from his master, should be sentenced to death.
Paul must have thought a lot about this situation. If Philemon had been an unbeliever, Paul could never have asked Philemon to forgive Onesimus. But Philemon was a Christian, someone who wanted to please God. Paul’s co-workers had spoken well of him. After his conversion, Philemon had opened up his home for the church in Colosse for holding their meetings. Philemon was very generous, and had re-freshed the hearts of many believers. Paul, therefore, had hopes that the Holy Spirit would help Philemon to do the unthinkable – to forgive and bless a slave who had stolen from him.
But Paul also knew that Philemon needed help. This kind of forgiveness with a difference was not nor-mal in Roman culture any more than it is in our culture today. So Paul wrote Philemon a letter, a letter that became part of the Bible. First, Paul greeted Philemon as a dear friend and coworker. Then Paul wrote out a prayer of blessing: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul knew that God would have to give Philemon grace and peace to receive what he was going to say later in this letter. Paul next thanked God and commended Philemon for his generous hospitality that had encouraged so many believers. Again he wrote out for Philemon what he was praying for him: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” (Philemon 6) What an interesting prayer! What good things in Christ do we come to understand through sharing our faith? We will come back to how appropriate this prayer was later.
After commending Philemon, Paul appeals to him on behalf of his son, someone who had become his spiritual son-in-the-Lord through Paul’s ministry in chains. We can only wonder what Philemon must have thought when he read the name of that son – Onesimus, his slave, a son to Paul? Maybe Paul did not know what Onesimus had done. But in the very next sentence Paul showed that he knew how useless Onesimus had been, how much he had offended Philemon and hurt him. But Paul quickly went on to say that Onesimus had changed to become a useful person. He was ministering to Paul in his imprisonment.
Paul went even further to write that he would have liked to have kept Onesimus near him to help him while he was in chains. In fact, he wrote that Onesimus and he had become one in heart, so much so that it was difficult for Paul to let him go.
But Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon because he did not want to force Philemon to do him a favor. He even wrote that perhaps the reason that Philemon and Onesimus had been separated for a while was so that Onesimus could come back to Philemon not as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.
What in the world gave Paul the hope that Philemon would even consider such a thing – accepting a run-away slave back as a brother? Remember Paul’s prayer earlier in this letter? “I pray that you, Philemon, may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” (Philemon 6) One of the good things that happens when we share our faith is that we give the person a seed that the Holy Spirit can cause to grow until the person is completely transformed. This can happen even with people who have deeply offended us. Paul wanted to help Philemon to con-sider what a great change the Holy Spirit had made in the life of Onesimus. He appealed to Philemon to consider Onesimus even dearer to himself than Paul did, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord!
Knowing how shocking this would sound to Philemon, Paul wrote that if Philemon still considered him-self Paul’s partner, he would welcome Onesimus just as he would welcome Paul himself. We can almost see Philemon sputtering when he read that letter. “But, but…didn’t Paul know what Onesimus had done to him? How could Paul see such a man as ‘beloved’ and, of all things, his brother? Paul had really put Philemon in a fix. But what about justice? Onesimus had stolen from him.
Paul wrote about that too. Paul acknowledged that he knew how Onesimus had cheated Philemon. But then he wrote something surprising. “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back.”
And then Paul added, “Not to mention that you owe me your very self.” What did Paul mean by “not to mention”? Paul might have led Philemon to salvation in Christ, or perhaps one of Paul’s co-workers had. Or perhaps Philemon had been healed through Paul’s ministry from a life-threatening illness.
We don’t know the details. But whatever Paul had done had saved Philemon’s life. What was Philemon’s life com-pared to whatever Onesimus had stolen from him? So Paul asked Philemon to do him a favor and cheer his heart – in Christ.
Paul went on to write that he was confident of Philemon’s “obedience.” Obedience to whom? Certainly Philemon knew by now that Paul was speaking on behalf of Christ. It was the Lord Jesus himself who had said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…. if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back….Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, be-cause he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27, 30, 35-36)
Paul dared to ask Philemon to do this forgiveness in Christ because he knew it was the will of God. He knew that what he was asking of Philemon was what the Holy Spirit within him could empower him to do. In fact, he wrote that he had the confidence that the Holy Spirit would help Philemon to do even more than he was asking. He did not specify what that might be. He left that to the Holy Spirit to suggest to Philemon’s heart. Many times what the Holy Spirit does in the lives of those we forgive is much more than we could ever imagine! As he was about to round up his letter, Paul asked Philemon for one more thing: “Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.” Paul knew that this request would be an extra motivation for Philemon to do what he had asked. Philemon would not want to explain to Paul, to whom he owed his very life, why he could not give life and freedom to someone dear to Paul. And Paul was sure that once Philemon agreed to obey, the Holy Spirit within him would make it possible for him to do that forgiveness with joy. That joy in obedience would be as much a surprise to Philemon as to Onesimus! Such an ability to forgive would show that he was indeed born again, with Christ in him, the hope of glory. (Col 1:27)
To make doubly sure that Philemon would receive that miraculous power to forgive, Paul ended his let-ter with a blessing: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” And it is interesting that the “your” here is plural. Paul expected Philemon to share this letter with the whole church at Colosse. Since the church met in Philemon’s house, they knew about how Onesimus had stolen from Philemon and run away. Onesimus had been hearing the gospel with the rest of them, but he had chosen not to believe. The whole church needed to know that sharing the Word of God with Onesimus had not been in vain. Even later in far distant Rome, God had used Paul to ripen a seed that the church had planted. And now One-simus was coming back not as a criminal, but as a fellow brother in Christ.
This story is a remarkable example of how Paul helped one Christian to be reconciled with another. He did not take sides, one against the other. He rather encouraged both sides in Christ. On the one hand, he encouraged Onesimus that his sins were forgiven and that Paul himself was willing to help him repay what he had stolen, if necessary. On the other hand, he reminded Philemon that the debt that Onesimus owed him was little compared to the debt of being ransomed from hell unto eternal life!
By doing this, Paul also taught a new perspective on justice. As we read in 1 John 1, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) If we confess our sins, God is being just to whom? Certainly he is not being just to us. Justice to us would mean eternal death to a relationship with God, hell itself. So who is God being just to? Who has paid for those sins? Who has made atonement for them on the cross? It is Jesus! When we confess our sins, it is because of Jesus that God forgives us. He is being just to Jesus who died and atoned for those sins.
Sometimes we think we can forgive the sin someone has done against us, but justice still demands that they pay us for it. What if that was the way God forgave us? We have learned that we are to forgive each other as God in Christ has forgiven us.
There is something more important than that we get “justice.” As we have learned, our forgiveness in Christ will give a foothold for the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the one we are forgiving. As in the case of Philemon, his forgiveness would set Onesimus free to become a useful person in the Kingdom of Christ. Definitely, his forgiveness would encourage Onesimus to take the good news of the forgive-ness of Christ coming through Philemon to others. The whole church at Colosse would give glory to God for his work in Onesimus’ life and be encouraged to do more forgiveness in Christ themselves.
If we do not forgive sins that fellow Christians do against us, we are being unjust to Jesus. It is as if we are saying, “Jesus, I know you died for all the sins of the world, but not for what they did to me. You hear?” Can you imagine saying that to Jesus face-to-face? But that in effect is what we are saying when we refuse to forgive the sins anyone has done to us. We are being unjust to Jesus. Jesus himself taught us a parable about someone who was forgiven much but refused to forgive his fellow servant. For such in-justice, the judge turned him over to the torturers. Jesus concluded that parable by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:33) Jesus gave us this warning more than once. Right after Jesus taught his disciples what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus warned us, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
This kind of forgiveness is the kind of forgiveness that the father gave the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. The son had wasted the inheritance that his father had given him. But when he came back to his father, the father ran out to meet him, saying to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again: he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:22-24) That was the kind of forgiveness that Paul would rejoice to see Philemon doing! After reading the letter, it would be great for Philemon to say to his household, “Quick! Let’s give Onesimus a new set of clothes. Someone go to the market and get some steaks to grill. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. One-simus was dead and is alive again. He was lost and Paul the Apostle and the Spirit of Jesus found him. He is now not just my slave come back, but also a beloved brother in Christ—to all of us!”
It must have been these teachings of Jesus that Philemon remembered when he read Paul’s letter. But how considerate it was of Paul to write in the beginning of his letter to Philemon, “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” (8-9) Paul, in love, wrote and did all he could to help Philemon to forgive.
It seems Philemon did forgive Onesimus and perhaps even set him free for the work Jesus wanted One-simus to do in his Kingdom. Some scholars believe this Onesimus later became Onesimus the bishop of the church of Ephesus. (from Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)
Helping others forgive is a recurring theme in the Bible. In the Old Testament in 1 Samuel 25 we have the story of how Abigail helped David to forgive. (1 Samuel 25:1-35) There was a time when David was so angry with someone who had insulted him that he took off with 400 armed men to kill that man. He even swore. “May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!” Anger had so blinded David that he went ber-serk with rage! But then God sent a woman named Abigail to cool him down. Wisely, she sent food ahead of her. But she knew that food would not be enough. She went to meet David personally, courageously. She did not give in to the fear of what he was planning to do. He was coming to ruin the ranch that she was mistress of and to kill not only her husband, Nabal, but also all the ranch hands. Abigail knew that in his heart of hearts, David was a man of God. But at this point anger had drowned out the voice of the Holy Spirit in his life.
So the beautiful Abigail came to David humbly and graciously. Just as Paul had acknowledged the theft of Onesimus, Abigail acknowledged that her husband Nabal had done David wrong. She bowed down to David and asked for pardon and permission to speak. (24)
Then she spoke the words God had given her with full confidence in what the Spirit of God could do in David’s heart. Listen to her words: “Please forgive your servant’s presumption. The Lord your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the Lord’s battles, and no wrongdoing will be found in you as long as you live. Even though someone is pursuing you to take your life, the life of my lord will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the Lord your God….When the Lord has fulfilled for my lord every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him ruler over Is-rael, my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself. And when the Lord your God has brought my lord success, remember your servant.” (28-31)
God did do his work in David’s heart. David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. Otherwise, as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left by daybreak.” (32-34)
Then David accepted from her hand the food she had brought him and blessed her, “Go home in peace. I have heard your words and granted your request.” (35)
Thank God for the Abigails and the Pauls who help other believers to forgive. They do what Hebrews 12:15 urges all of us to do: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” We all have the privilege and responsibility to make sure no one misses out on the grace of God to forgive. Pointing out Bible verses that command forgiveness is not enough. Both Paul and Abigail did not come arrogantly, saying, “God commands you to forgive.” Rather, they came gently, winsomely, persuasively, working with the Holy Spirit to encourage them to do the right thing. We, like Paul, need to pray for God to give others the grace to forgive. We need to ap-peal to them and trust the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts - empowering them to forgive in Christ.
Let’s pray. Lord, when we find it difficult to obey your command to forgive, bring to us friends like Abigail and Paul to help us to do so. Help us by your Spirit to listen to them. And help us to graciously, in the Spirit of Jesus, help others to forgive as well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.