Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon 20)
Last time we saw how a recognition of our own indebtedness motivates us to forgive others. Now we will look at some additional motives for forgiveness, beginning with this: the recognition that if I forgive, I can become a blessing to others.
Paul says that he will receive spiritual benefit if Philemon does what he asks in receiving Onesimus, restoring him and cancelling his debt. If Philemon does this, it will give Paul joy. Remember what Paul said to the Philippians?
Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)
In other words, “Philemon, if you will humble yourself and consider Onesimus more important than yourself, and if you will seek unity, love, and fellowship, and therefore forgive that man, you will bring me joy.”
The forgiveness of Onesimus by Philemon will bring spiritual joy and refreshment because Paul loves both men. Paul wants them to be one. Paul loves the unity of the church. Paul wants Colossae, as a church, to see the object lesson of that forgiveness.
If Philemon refuses to forgive Onesimus, it will burden the heart of Paul. It will sadden and trouble him, because he loves those men, he loves that church, and he loves the unity of the church.
Any failure to forgive will injure that relationship. It will injure that church. It will mar its ministry and its effectiveness. And it will misrepresent the power of the gospel to the unconverted world that’s watching. But Paul believes there will be no failure to forgive:
Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. (Philemon 21)
This brings another motive to light: We should forgive because we are called to be obedient to the Lord.
Paul is not talking about Philemon being obedient to Paul, because back in verse 8 he explicitly says that he is not going to order Philemon to do anything. Instead, Paul is saying, “I know you’ll obey the Lord in doing this.”
Paul is confident that Philemon is a godly man. He is confident that he will obey God’s command to forgive. Remember, I mentioned that the theology of forgiveness is not in this letter, but we can assume Philemon knew it. We can assume Philemon was well acquainted with the teachings of Matthew 6, Matthew 18, Luke 17, and other passages that make perfectly clear God’s command to forgive.
Paul seems sure that Philemon knew it; that’s why he doesn’t bring it up. And Paul is even sure he’ll do it. He says, “I’m confident of your obedience. I know you’re going to do what God has commanded you to do, and God has commanded you to forgive.”
Finally, forgiveness is motivated by the recognition that we must be empowered by the grace of God:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (Philemon 15)
These are Paul’s final words in the letter. What he is saying is, “Philemon, I just want to remind you that in order to do this, you’re going to have the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Human nature couldn’t forgive this offense. Paul is asking something that is not possible in the flesh, because the flesh wants vengeance. But it is possible with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ that is at work in the believer’s spirit. The same grace that empowered Christ to forgive empowers us to forgive as well.
So, we must forgive. And we are motivated to forgive because we ourselves owe unpayable debts, we long to bless the saints, we desire to obey God, and we are enabled by the grace of Christ who forgave us.
That’s where the letter ends. But that’s not where the story ends. No doubt Philemon did in fact forgive Onesimus. Bible scholars will tell you it’s not likely that this book would have found its way into the New Testament canon if Philemon hadn’t forgiven Onesimus, because it would have left an unforgiving person to appear for all of human history as a godly, virtuous, wonderful man when he was really not.
The fact that God included this in the canon likely means that God wonderfully moved to accomplish forgiveness in the lives of Philemon and Onesimus.
The whole church must have known about the letter, both the believers in Colossae and beyond. It was an inspired book, and it was circulated everywhere. It was one of the great stories of the apostolic age, standing as a testimony to forgiveness.
Just as a footnote, history records that some time after this, a man became the pastor of the church at Ephesus. His name was Onesimus. Could it be the same man?
Forgiveness is powerful. It impacts people. The Holy Spirit knew it, God knew it, Paul knew it, Philemon needed to know it, and that’s why this book is here. And that’s why we continue to read and teach through this story. It reminds us of the enduring responsibility and blessing of forgiveness.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1991, titled “The Motives of One Who Forgives.”
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