Forgiveness in the Book of Philemon4
FORGIVENESS IN THE BOOK OF PHILEMON.
The book of Philemon hardly qualifies as a book, it is only twenty five versus long and is a letter written by Paul to his good friend and brother in Christ, Philemon, a wealthy resident of Colossae.
This personal letter was written to Philemon while Paul was under house arrest in Rome, his first imprisonment. At this time Paul wrote four epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon.
Now Paul is writing to his brother in Christ to address the matter of his runaway slave, Onesimus. It would appear from the text that Onesimus stole from his master and made his way to Rome, a substantial journey at that time.
Onesimus comes in contact with Paul either through God’s providence or knowing of Paul through Paul’s conversion of his master Philemon. Paul’s house arrest enables him to receive and minister to visitors during his confinement.
Now Paul leads Onesimus to Christ and sees how salvation has changed him, but his repentance and service are not enough. Onesimus is still a runaway slave and must go back to Colossae and face his master, Philemon. Runaway slaves at this time faced corporal punishments or even execution, some slaves had the letter “F” for fugitivus (where the word fugitive comes from) branded into their scalps.
Now Philemon is a Christian and like Onesimus came to Christ through Paul’s ministry. Paul relies on the special bond he has with Philemon as a fellow believer and appeals to him on Onesimus’s behalf. God has given us the ability to reconcile and forgive even when a relationship seems beyond repair because of our relationship with Christ.
Now Paul could have used his authority as an Apostle and demanded that Philemon forgive Onesimus, but Paul teaches us that any forgiveness that is forced won’t last. It is what Paul meant in Verse 8 and 9 when he said “Accordingly, though 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- I Paul an old man and now a prisoner for Christ Jesus”. He is appealing to his heart as a believer.
Paul understood that faith is the basis for reconciliation and forgiveness, he emphasized to Philemon that while Christian love is the motivation to forgive, salvation gives us the basis for it. Paul says in verse 5 “because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints”.
Martin Luther once said “Onesimus is all of us”. We were all sinners who wronged our master, we owe him a great debt we cannot pay. Before we found salvation in Christ: we were rotten to the core. Now Onesimus’s name means “useful” or “profitable” and was a common name given to slaves at that time, yet when he ran away he became useless just like us today, useless without Christ. Paul reminds us that a changed life for Christ is always useful to God. Paul said in Verse 11 “formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me”.
Paul knew that Philemon could not be forced to forgive Onesimus but he also knew that his faith would not allow him to withhold forgiveness, Paul said in verse 21 “Confident of your obedience, I write to you knowing that you will do even more than I say”.
We can look at the letter to Philemon with the characters representing the spiritual situation we are all in. The master, Philemon could be seen as God the Father, Onesimus the disobedient slave is each one of us, and Paul is the mediator the go between as Christ is for us. Paul even offers to have the things owed by Onesimus “Put on his account” in verse 18, just as Jesus put our sins on his account. Onesimus was condemned under the existing law, but saved by grace. Each of us was condemned under God’s law and instead have been saved by Grace.
So why would God let a short personal letter to a slave owner regarding a runaway slave become a book in the Bible? Because we are all runaway slaves who are useless without Christ, and when we turn from our disobedience and unforgiveness and ask Jesus into our hearts we are no longer slaves but are set free by his enduring, never-ending love for us, and we are freely given the ultimate forgiveness which Christ purchased for us when He took our sins to the cross.
Never is a believer more like Christ than when he or she forgives because that is the nature of God and the nature of Christ which is given to us in salvation.
In conclusion I would like to say that time and again scripture calls us to forgiveness and much is expected from us in response, though forgiveness is often difficult, to be unforgiving is to disobey God and to depreciate the greatness of His gift that we have in our Lord Jesus Christ.
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