Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon 1-3)
You can imagine that when Philemon got this letter and he saw “Paul,” his adrenaline started to flow. Paul was not only the great apostle that everybody knew about, and Paul was not only the one who had, in a sense, founded the very church at Colossae where Philemon lived, but Paul had personally led the man to Christ. When Paul is writing here, he is speaking to a friend.
Philemon was the head of a family in the town of Colossae. The church there was probably very small, and the church met in his house. So we know Philemon was a wealthy man, because it was wealthy people who owned houses.
Now, Paul never went to Colossae. Paul founded the church at Ephesus and stayed there three years, and out of Ephesus all those other churches in Asia Minor were planted. No doubt during the time Paul was at Ephesus, Philemon was converted and came to know Paul in a personal way, even though he lived a little distance away. This is clear because Paul speaks to Philemon as to a dear friend in this letter.
And listen — Paul puts his friendship on the line here. He asks Philemon to do something. He asks him to forgive:
I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.
For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account. (Philemon 10-18)
This is an amazing story. Philemon, who was led to Christ by Paul, had a slave named Onesimus. And the relationship between these two people, Philemon and Onesimus, is the context of this call to forgiveness.
Years had passed since Philemon’s conversion. Paul is now a prisoner in Rome. Philemon is active in ministry in his church. He’s got the church meeting in his house. His slave, Onesimus, not a believer, probably felt the heat of a believing family. Onesimus decided that he would be better off running away, and when he ran he took some money. He stole from his master.
Onesimus had committed a major crime by Roman standards. Sometimes when a slave ran away and was caught, they would burn an “F” into his head for fugitivus, meaning “fugitive.” Some of them were crucified. Some were tortured. Running away was a serious offense.
When Onesimus ran, he went to Rome. He may have thought he could hide himself in the underworld of Rome and try to survive. And by the amazing providence of God, in a city of nearly a million people, he ran into the apostle Paul.
Paul persuaded Onesimus to become a Christian, and he was converted. His life was transformed. Not only that, he became a help to Paul. But as much as Paul loved him and wanted to keep him, Paul knew there was something that had to be settled. He was a criminal, and the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was not right. Paul knew he had to go back and ask Philemon for forgiveness.
Now, there was risk here, because Philemon would have the right to punish Onesimus. So Paul sends this letter with him. And what it basically says is, “You need to forgive this guy. You need to treat this slave the way Christ treated you.” And throughout this letter, Paul unpacks the character, actions, and motivations of a forgiving person.
You may ask, “Of all the subjects Paul could write about, why would he choose forgiveness?” And I would say again that it is because a believer is never more like Christ than when he or she forgives.
We read throughout the New Testament that we are to be like Christ. Well, what does it mean to be like Christ? Among other things, it means to be forgiving, because that’s how we know Him: He is the one who forgave us all our sins. And we, in turn, are called to forgive the sins of others committed against us.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1991, titled “A Living Lesson on Forgiveness.”
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