During Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (Philemon 1; cf. Acts 28:30–31), a household slave named Onesimus stole from his master Philemon and ran away (cf. Philemon 18–19). If Philemon caught Onesimus during this time, he could have severely punished him as a result. Philemon’s wife Apphia and his son Archippus would have known about the situation, and the church that met in their house was likely aware as well (cf. Philemon 2). Onesimus’s sins affected many.
As time went on, Onesimus somehow found Paul in Rome, and Paul led him to saving faith in Christ (cf. Philemon 10). As much as Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him, he returned him to Philemon whose say determined Onesimus’s future (Philemon 11–14). Paul encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in the Lord, and Paul took Onesimus’s debts upon himself (Philemon 15–19).
Paul assumed in advance what we can assume in retrospect today—Philemon forgave Onesimus. Paul was confident of this forgiveness, and Philemon may have gone beyond Paul’s words to free Onesimus from servanthood as well (Philemon 21). In fact, Paul was so confident of the matter (and his release from prison) that he asked Philemon to prepare a room for him to use in a future visit (Philemon 22).
Among many lessons that we could explore from this example, here are at least three for now:
Forgiveness shows our faith.
Philemon was a fellow Christian, likely led to Christ by Paul (cf. Philemon 19). Paul expected Philemon to forgive. Because Philemon knew the forgiveness of God through Christ, he would gladly forgive as well (cf. Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:12–13). Christians cannot be contentious, grudge-nursing people. Love does not resent but believes and hopes and endures (1 Corinthians 13:4–7). Whether we suffer theft or abandonment or worse, we forgive the one who did wrong and remember his sin no more (cf. Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12; 10:17). A failure to forgive contradicts one’s faith and may show no faith at all (cf. Matthew 18:35). Forgiveness shows our faith.
Forgiveness should be free.
Paul could have given an apostolic mandate for Philemon to obey, but he did not want Philemon’s “goodness” to “be by compulsion but of [his] own accord” (Philemon 14). As Jesus taught, forgiveness is “from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). Compulsory forgiveness is cold and false. Forgiveness might need some prodding from time to time, but, in the end, it should be voluntary and free.
Forgiveness is helped by friends.
A friend can help bring others together. As Christ advocates for us before the Father (cf. 1 John 2:1), so also Paul spoke to Philemon on Onesimus’s behalf and assumed his debt. He even encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus as himself. When one Christian sees or anticipates the need for reconciliation between others, it is sometimes appropriate to mediate as a helpful means to peace. Paul had mediated before (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5–11), and he had received this grace himself (cf. Acts 9:26–28). From this story and others, we see that a friend can help the offended party to forgive.
I don’t know who reads these posts, and I can only imagine the sorrows that some readers have borne. Whatever you may have suffered, we should forgive one another like Philemon forgave Onesimus, especially if the matter is between two Christians. Better yet, remember your forgiveness in Christ, and forgive others just the same.
PS In case anyone is wondering, next week I hope to answer the question, “Should the sinner be sorry before I can forgive?”
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