AN EXPOSITION OF PHILEMON 1
Many years ago, I mentioned in a sermon, that I have never known what it is to be forgiven by someone I have offended. By that, I meant that I have not been forgiven by anyone outside my family for an offense beyond a slight misunderstanding. I have never wanted to, or tried to hurt anyone in my life, but to help everyone. I have never taken any side in a controversial situation, expect the side of righteous. And there is righteousness in every situation, according to the Word of God, which speaks directly to our hearts.
The reality of living in an unforgiving secular and religious world is manifested very acutely in local professing Christian congregations. The natural hatred and hostilities of unrepentant—and perhaps unregenerate hearts is often manifested. The question arises as how best to respond to an injustice, real, or imagined?
To help guide our thoughts in this discussion, God the Holy Spirit has preserved the story of a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus. His name means “profitable.” It is not hard to surmise that Onesimus was once a trusted household servant who was given access to the wealth of the master’s goods.
Whether or not slavery is right or wrong is a separate subject to be discussed by itself. For now, we are presented with the narrative of a trusted slave who proved to be “unprofitable.” One day Onesimus took many valuable possessions from his master and ran away. From the city of Colosse, Onesimus found his way to Rome where he planned to get lost in the crowded city and spend his new found wealth. There were great dangers for Onesimus.
If discovered to be a slave he could be severely punished. If he was returned home, his master had the power of life or death over him. The slave was absolutely at his master’s disposal: for the smallest offence he might be scourged, mutilated, crucified, or thrown to the wild beasts (Bishop Lightfoot). Conditions were ghastly among slaves in the Roman world, which is why there were great revolts from time to time. Perhaps Onesimus identified himself in his imagination with the great gladiator Spartacus.
Beginning in 73 BC, Spartacus managed to escape and take refuge on the slopes of Vesuvius. He rapidly recruited large numbers of runaway slaves whom he organized and trained to be a remarkable fighting force able to defeat the legions of the Roman army. By the end of the year, his slave-army numbered 70,000. For three years the Roman soldiers pursued Spartacus and his followers. At last, in 71 BC Spartacus had to face on the field of battle the forces of the extraordinary Roman commander Marcus Licinius Crassus. Spartacus fell in battle. Six thousand of his followers were crucified. The slave revolt was over. But the desire for personal freedom lived on in the minds of millions. Perhaps Onesimus dreamed of personal freedom and decided to act upon the natural inclination of the human heart.
It was not right for Onesimus to steal property. It was not right for Onesimus to run away, but he did. Onesimus had planned it all out so that before long, he was in the royal city. “He made his flight right out of Asia, away West, overseas across the Aegean and Adriatic, to Rome, that populous haven of concealment to which many another such fugitive had fled” (J. Sidlow Baxter).
What Onesimus did in Rome is not known. Some think that he wasted his ill-gotten gain. Others believe that Onesimus committed a crime and wound up in a Roman prison where, in the providence of God, he came under the power of the gospel through the testimony of the Apostle Paul. If all of that happened, it was an amazing demonstration of the guiding hand of God especially when it was discovered that Paul knew the master Philemon from the city of Colosse.
As Onesimus received the gospel, he suddenly faced a moral dilemma and an ethical problem. The Christian message calls upon people to make restitution for past sins. When Zacchaeus was converted to Christ, he promised to restore everything he had taken from others with interest (Luke 19:8). But how could Onesimus make restitution? He would be exposed as a runaway slave.
He would have to return to Philemon. He would have to apologize. He would have to go back under the yoke of social bondage. “Paul, what should Onesimus do”? After careful consideration, the apostolic decision was to send Onesimus back to Colosse and back to his legal master but under different conditions. Thing could never be the same between Philemon and Onesimus because their relationship would not be only as master to slave but as spiritual brother to spiritual brother.
True, in the eyes of the civil law, Onesimus was still a slave and Philemon was his owner.
True, Onesimus must submit himself to servitude.
True, the outward forms of society favored Philemon and yet in the sight of God because both men were now in Christ things were different.
The spiritual dynamics of the Christian life demanded much from each of them. For Onesimus, the challenge would be to return to a place of humility and make restitution for whatever he had stolen. For Philemon, the challenge would be to receive Onesimus back into his household and not kill him or sell him. In addition, Philemon would be required to forgive Onesimus. That would be the most difficult part. To root out hatred and bitterness in the heart is a divine undertaking.
To help all of this come to pass, the Apostle Paul decided to write a letter to the man he knew in Colosse. How Paul came to know Philemon is unclear because Paul never visited the city of Colosse. The best that can be discerned is that while Paul ministered at Ephesus (c. AD 54-57), his sphere of influence was wide enough to reach 120 miles east to Colosse. From Ephesus, Paul was able to lead many men to Christ including Philemon. Now Paul will use specific arguments to persuade Philemon to build a bridge of fellowship with his former slave based upon spiritual principles.
First, Christians are to forgive because of the reputation associated with their character and conduct (Philemon 1:19). In the opening part of his letter, Paul speaks of the Christian reputation Philemon has. He is called “dearly beloved” and a “fellow-laborer” (Philemon 1:1 cf. 1:7). His love and faith towards the Lord and towards all saints has become well known (Philemon 1:1). The only question is whether or not the reputation is well deserved. It will be if it is found to be effectual (Philemon 1:6) in expressing actual forgiveness.
Today the reputation of Christians forgiving one another is a joke. More than one person has noted, “The church is the only charitable organization that shoots its wounded.” Christians are known today for separation and not co-operation. That can and must change. Towels for serving others must be sought, not titles.
Second, Christians are to forgive because Christ has instructed His followers to forgive others. The question of authority is called upon in this principle. In Philemon 1:8 Paul states that his apostolic authority provides a basis for the request he is about to make. Many parents can understand this concept. Sometimes a parent will say to a child, “Because I am your mother” or “Because I am your father, I am asking you out of respect for my authority to do certain things.”
So Christ comes and says to the Christian, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which use you, and persecute you, That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45). Plotting to destroy a person does not fulfill this commandment.
Third, Christians are to forgive on the basis of love’s appeal (Philemon 1:8). Paul asserts his apostolic authority but does not use it. Rather, he will appeal to Philemon to act in grace on the basis of love. Bill and Gloria Gather have written a lovely song which says,
“I am loved,
I am loved,
I can risk loving you.
For the One who knows me best,
Loves me most…”
And there it is. We can forgive “for love’s sake.”
Fourth, Christians are to find Divine grace to forgive because of the rich tradition of forgiving others. Paul speaks of himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ (Philemon 1:1). What is the apostle a prisoner for? He is in jail for declaring the gospel of redeeming grace. He suffers in time for telling people about a Saviour from sin. So Paul knows as much about being wronged unjustly as any other person in Christendom. Over the years, Paul has been bloodied and beaten. He has been mobbed and left for dead. He has been ridiculed and misunderstood, and still he writes to tell others to find grace to forgive.
Fifth, Christians are to forgive because of the great trouble it is to bring a soul to the Saviour. Paul speaks of Onesimus as a son whom he has brought to Christ though in bonds (Philemon 1:10). He uses the image of childbirth to indicate that the salvation of a soul is difficult. And because it is so difficult to bring someone to faith, great grace is needed for great sinners. Perhaps one reason why the prodigal son was readily forgiven was because of the agony of heart he gave his father for so many years.
Sixth, Christians are to forgive because of the spiritual union that exists among the members of the family of God (Philemon 1:17). Family members should treat each other with special consideration whenever possible. We are to do good to all men but especially to the family of God. Christians are to forgive believing that the future will justify any exercising of grace.
In the past, Onesimus was unprofitable but in the future, Paul is confident that he will prove to be profitable (Philemon 1:11). Every Christian who lives a Christian life following salvation falls into this category. Billy Sunday was nothing but another rough and carousing ball player before he met Jesus at the Pacific Garden Rescue Mission in Chicago. Mel Trotter was nothing but a drunkard desperate enough to steal the shoes off of his dead baby girl until Christ saved his soul. These marred vessels were made again in the Potters hands and became profitable for His service.
Seventh, Christians are to extend forgiveness because of the love others might have for an individual (Philemon 1:12). Paul states that he hopes Onesimus will be received because he is loved. Paul had thought of keeping him in his own company but decided that he could not do that without Philemon’s consent (Philemon 1:13).
Eighth, Christians are to forgive others because of a fundamental change that Christ can produce in others. Philemon has nothing to fear from Onesimus. He can be trusted—forever (Philemon 1:15).
Ninth, Christians are to forgive in order to encourage one another in the sphere of faith (Psa. 101:6). Nothing will help to mold Christian grace more than to see someone treated unjustly exercising a forgiving spirit. When the story of Corrie or Bettsy ten Boom is read in The Hiding Place, then the hearts desire is to want to show grace.
Tenth, Christians are to extend forgiveness because of the pleasure it produces in others (Philemon 1:20).
Now, in all of this it must be remember that forgiveness does not mean that past public sins are to be passed over without protest. The gospel call goes forth for people to repent of the evil they have done in tearing the body of Christ apart needlessly.
In all situations grace is desperately needed to be extended. Paul acknowledges that Philemon is a runaway thief (Philemon 1:18-19). Yet, he speaks of his past sins with temperance (Philemon 1:11 cf. 1:15).
Again, forgiveness does not mean that repentance is unnecessary. It is because Philemon is contrite, humble, and willing to make restitution that he should be forgiven. Some people actually believe that God forgives sins arbitrarily. The truth is that the Moral Lawgiver demands repentance as the basis for divine forgiveness. It is because individuals and nations acknowledge their sins and show remorse that mercy and grace are free to flow. The greatest example of this in the Old Testament is Ninevah (Jonah 3:5-10).
Finally, forgiveness does not mean pretending the past has never happened. Sometimes a verbal or physical injury is committed and then never discussed again. That is not right. And it is only a matter of time before the old problems will re-surface. What forgiveness does mean is that positive feelings will replace negative feelings of cruelty and hostility; positive thoughts will be emphasized over negative thoughts; and every effort will be made to communicate and be together again.
As lovely as the story of Philemon is, there is a strong probability that a person who has grievously offended someone else and who asks for forgiveness will never find it. The strength of sin is strong. And the Bible is realistic. Elsewhere, Paul says that we are to live peacefully with all men as much as is possible. Sometimes it is not possible for people are not prone to forgiving others unless they have developed a philosophy of forgiveness. It is the will of the Father, the example of Christ, and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Forgiveness is not something Christians must tire of extending. When the believer grows weary in well doing they will move to destroy others in public after holding many private conversations to gain a secret following.
I have read of a couple married for 15 years who began to have more than usual disagreements. They wanted to make their marriage work and agreed on an idea the wife had. For one month they planned to drip a slip of paper in a “Fault Box.” The boxes would provide a place to let the other know about daily irritations. The wife was diligent in her efforts and approach:
“leaving the jelly top off the jar.”
“wet towels have been left on the floor”
“dirty socks were not put in the hamper” on and on until the end of the month.
After dinner, at the end of the month, they exchanged boxes. The husband reflected on what he had done wrong. Then the wife opened her box and began reading. They were all the same, “I love you.” The man had developed a philosophy of forgiveness that was practical, and not just theoretical. May every Christ find grace to do the same.
Personally, I do not expect to be forgiven by anyone who thinks I have hurt them. I understand the human heart too well. So, I embrace more tightly the love, grace, and forgiveness of God, and sing a song of joy.
“O happy day, that fixed my choice
on thee, my Savior and my God!
Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
and tell its raptures all abroad.
Happy day, happy day,
when Jesus washed my sins away!
He taught me how to watch and pray,
and live rejoicing every day.
Happy day, happy day,
when Jesus washed my sins away!
O happy bond, that seals my vows
to him who merits all my love!
Let cheerful anthems fill his house,
while to that sacred shrine I move.
It’s done: the great transaction’s done!
I am the Lord’s and he is mine;
he drew me and I followed on,
charmed to confess the voice divine.
Now rest, my long-divided heart,
fixed on this blissful center, rest.
Here have I found a nobler part;
here heavenly pleasures fill my breast.
High heaven, that heard the solemn vow,
that vow renewed shall daily hear,
till in life’s latest hour I bow
and bless in death a bond so dear.”