Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of Philemon’s slave Onesimus, who had for some reason left Philemon without permission. During that time Onesimus had met Paul and become a believer. Paul knew by right and by law that the slave had to return to his master. So he wrote to appeal to Philemon to forgive Onesimus and look at all the good that came out of his disobedience and subsequent return to obedience.
Forgiveness is not an easy thing for everyone. But God commands us to forgive. Forgiveness is a hallmark of salvation. Matthew 6:14-15 reads,
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
God forgave us of so much and somehow we hold on to slights and hurts and blame. And sometimes, some of us can’t bring ourselves to forgive. But if we are being transformed to Christ’s image then we have to forgive, because that is how Jesus loved us. It is very hard to do, but we can do it because we have The Holy Spirit and He makes it possible for us to live righteously.
Paul knew the kind of man Philemon was. His love and faith were a source of joy and encouragement for many believers. So he trusted his brother to do the right thing. But he still wrote to him, perhaps to ease Onesimus’ anxiety over what would happen to him when he returned, apologized, and made up for his wrong. Verses 8-10 read,
“Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.”
We do not have a right to choose not to forgive another person. Regardless of whether that person has apologized or repented. But, we are commanded to forive especially if the person is penitent. What right do we have to hold his sins against him, when our Lord doesn’t hold our sins against us? When we forgive another it opens opportunity to rebuild a relationship, and to make good come out of the bad. When Onesimus left Philemon, he became a believer. And so when he returned to Philemon he could be of so much more use to his master, and to his master’s ministry. Verses 11-16 read,
“(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 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.”
Paul didn’t look down on Philemon and judge him for his sin, he shared the gospel with him and afterward told him he needed to go back and atone for the wrongs he had done to Philemon. Paul saw Onesimus not as a slave and a sinner, but as a brother and a partner. He saw all the great this man could do for the Kingdom. He knew Philemon would do the right thing, he had no doubt, but he needed Philemon to see himself in this new light not only as slave but as a co-worker for the Lord, a brother to the believers, and a slave of Christ. He needed Philemon to forgive Onesimus and he needed Onesimus to recognize that forgiveness from God and from Philemon and consequently forgive himself.
God forgave us. He chooses not to remember our sins, why do we hold onto them? We have to be able to forgive ourselves just as much as we forgive others. It is the enemy, our accuser who wants us to remember all the awful things we’ve done, not our Lord.
But consequence for our sins still remain. We have to deal with them righteously. When Onesimus left Philemon, he caused problems, he caused losses that someone had to make up. Paul offered to pay Onesimus’ debt. Paul was loving Philemon and Onesimus as Jesus loved him. He didn’t question that Philemon would not only forgive Onesimus but also forgive the debt he incurred. Regardless Paul offered so that Onesimus could return with the promise and ability to repay his master and be welcomed back. Verses 17-22 read,
“So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.”
Paul closed his letter with hope, he was in prison with no idea how long it would be, but still he told Philemon to expect a visit from him. He knew the love and brotherhood shared among the believers would be expressed in many ways, such as hospitality, kindness, encouragement, unity, prayer, and forgiveness. Verse 23-25 read,
“Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Does the Lord’s grace cover only you or do you extend it to others? Do you forgive as you were forgiven, wholly and without limit? Is there someone you need to forgive? It is not easy. Jesus never promised the walk would be easy. He is with you and he will make it possible. He has given you the faith to accomplish it.