Even though forgiveness is the theme of Philemon, the word itself is never mentioned. Another curiosity of this book is the fact that there are no doctrinal principles given to provide the foundation for forgiveness.
You would assume that no less a theologian than the apostle Paul, in calling a man to forgiveness, would want to give him the theology behind forgiveness. But you don’t find them here. In fact, as you go through this epistle, there is nothing said about principles of forgiveness. The appeal is not to law, but to love.
We must assume that Philemon knew the theology of forgiveness. It’s obvious that he was grounded in the knowledge of the Word. But I think it might be good for us to lay down some foundational elements of forgiveness that rise out of Scripture which compel us to forgive. So let me give you seven elements of a theological, doctrinal, biblical defense for forgiveness.
You have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not commit murder” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, “You good-for-nothing,” shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)
In other words, when God said, “You shall not kill,” He also meant, “You shall not hate. You shall not seek vengeance.” This also outlaws unforgiveness, which is motivated by anger.
David, who sinned against Bathsheba, against Uriah, against his own wife, children, and nation, said this to God:
Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight. (Psalm 51:4)
In other words, he knew that no matter what offense he gave to men, he gave a greater offense to God. And if God can forgive the greater offense, then why can’t we forgive the lesser offense? No man could ever offend you the way you offend God, and God forgives you. Can you not forgive others?
For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:14-15)
There is a high price to pay for a lack of forgiveness. If you refuse to forgive someone else, then God refuses to forgive you, and you are cut off from meaningful communion with God and brought under chastening.
But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, “Pay back what you owe.”
So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, “Have patience with me and I will repay you.” But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed.
So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. (Matthew 18:28-31)
You won’t be able to participate in the joyous communion of Christian believers if you don’t forgive. You’ll destroy your own relationships with other Christians, who will then have to go to God and ask Him to discipline you.
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19)
When you won’t forgive someone, when you carry around anger and bitterness and hostility, you are presuming to take the sword of divine judgment out of God’s hand and use it yourself. You’re saying, “God, give me that sword; I’m taking over.”
Such an attitude says: I must be the avenger because God is unjust, or slow, or indifferent, or ignorant, or incapable. And that is all blasphemy.
Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24)
You can’t draw near to God if you are sinning by not forgiving your brother. You’re unfit for fellowship with God’s people. You’re unfit for fellowship with God. You’re in a situation of aggravated sin; you can’t be a blessing to others, and you can’t be acceptable to God.
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:44-45)
Whenever something happens to you that is an offense or a sin against you, that is a trial or temptation, and you have to deal with it as such. If you want to be truly and distinctively Christian, then no matter what anybody does to you, you forgive them and you love them.
Every time somebody offends you, that is a trial or a temptation. If you pass it and you forgive them, it is a trial producing strength. If you fail it and you are not forgiving, it is a temptation producing sin. You must be little concerned about the actions of others against you, whatever they are, and greatly concerned about whether they become tests that make you strong or temptations that make you sinful.
Now, we assume that Philemon knew all this, because Paul doesn’t give it to him. Instead of giving him theological proofs, Paul instead appeals to him in love to forgive.
But what exactly is Paul asking Philemon to do? What are the components of this action we call forgiveness? We will unpack that next time.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1991, titled “The Actions of One Who Forgives.”
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