"Philemon: Learning to Forgive"


One of the hardest things for people to do is to forgive. It does not matter who we are, where we live, or what wrong has been done. Forgiveness does not come easy. Many people hold grudges, refuse to forgive or even seek to take revenge on those who have offended them. That's just the way it is. Yet, that is not the way it is supposed to be for those who belong to Jesus Christ. The message that is before us today is found in the very short letter called Philemon. It was written by the apostle Paul to Philemon and it revolves around his relationship with one of his slaves. Evidently, that slave, named Onesimus, had done something wrong. Not knowing how his master would respond, he ran away. He ran to the City of Rome, where he found the apostle Paul, or perhaps Paul found him. Eventually, he became a Christian. In fact, he even became Paul's good friend. It was now time, however, for Onesimus to return to his master. Paul puts this letter into his hand and asks him to take it to Philemon. It was time for forgiveness to take place, and for a slave and master to treat one another with love and respect. They are now fellow believers in Christ. Even though this letter was written a long time ago, it still has some major implications for us today. For the next few minutes, we will look at the practical things we can take away from this short letter. It has to do with forgiveness, and that is something all Christians everywhere are to practice every day. I hope you will stay tuned to this station for the next few minutes as we study this most important message.



It has happened to all of us at one time or another. Someone said or did something which offended us in some way and we thought about how we needed to respond. Perhaps we were taken advantage of or mistreated, and our feelings were hurt. We wonder; what do we need to do? We realize that if we said or did something too quickly, we might later regret it. Then if we held in our thoughts, then it would build up feelings of anger or perhaps resentment. Yes, we have all been there at one time or another, it's just a part of life. Yet for those who choose to follow Jesus, we know how to respond. We forgive. The apostle Paul wrote 13 letters, which are found in the New Testament part of the Bible. The shortest and the last of which that we look at in our study of the New Testament is called the Letter of Philemon. He wrote it from a prison cell in the City of Rome about the same time he wrote the letter called Colossians, in AD 60. He not only wrote this letter to Philemon, but also to the members of the church meeting there in Colossae. However, Paul's message was directed primarily toward this influential church member. Philemon was a faithful servant of God, he loved the saints. He was also a slave owner. Now, owning slaves was rather common in Paul's day. He accepted it as a part of society and yet at the same time, he often wrote about that slave-master relationship. He wrote about it in places like the Letter of Titus and Ephesians and also in Colossians. Evidently, one of Philemon's slaves named Onesimus had run away. We don't know for sure what he did, it's not recorded for us, but evidently, it was bad enough for Onesimus to take off. That's what he did. He tried to get as far away as possible from his master Philemon and from the City of Colossae and he ran away. Perhaps he had lied to Philemon. Maybe he stole something from him. We don't know. But his solution was to get out of town, so he left Colossae and he went to the City of Rome. That's no small matter. He had to travel some 100 miles down to the sea. He then got onto a boat and traveled another 1,200 miles across the Mediterranean Sea before he landed in Rome. Colossae was in Asia, Rome was in Italy. Now, the ease and convenience of travel that we enjoy today was certainly not available to Onesimus back then and so it took a number of months to get to Rome. No doubt it was a very hard and difficult travel. We notice also that at that time the population of Rome consisted of about one half slaves. Perhaps Onesimus was thinking to himself, "If I can just get there and mingle in with all of the other slaves there in Rome, nobody will find me." He knew that if someone did find him, he would be sent back to Philemon in Colossae and suffer all kinds of punishment and hardship, perhaps even to the point of death. Well, by the hand of God, Onesimus found Paul. We might say by the hand of God, the apostle Paul found Onesimus. Emerging from the winding streets of Rome, one day Paul and Onesimus met. God brought them together. On that occasion, Paul shared with Onesimus the gospel story of Jesus Christ, like he had done so many other times before. He told this runaway slave about God's love and Jesus' salvation. He shared with him the Good News message, and like so many other times before, Onesimus responded to it like other people had. He became a follower, a believer of Jesus Christ. He put his faith in Him and no doubt was emersed into Jesus, identifying himself with Him. They continued to be good friends. Paul needed that friendship, because he was in prison. He would welcome anyone who would come and spend a few minutes with him. Luke was there, and Timothy, but Onesimus was a special friend of Paul's. Paul needed that companionship, and Onesimus needed someone to talk to. Over the course of time, Onesimus evidently told Paul about what happened back in Colossae. Maybe he just confessed to sin, he came out and he said, "This is what I did. This is how I offended my master, and this is why I ran away all the way here to the City of Rome." No doubt, Paul had a special place in his heart for this runaway slave. In fact, he had become very useful to Paul, as Paul writes in Philemon verse 11. I don't believe it's by coincidence, but Paul knew the slave owner. He knew this man named Philemon. And so, he writes a letter to him explaining the situation, telling him what happened and how he had met Onesimus and how Onesimus had become very useful. Certainly, Paul was well aware of the customs and the traditions of the day. He knew about the legal authorities. He understood how the slave ownership system worked. Yet in the midst of this letter, Paul calls upon Philemon to think differently than other slave owners. Yes, Philemon had perhaps every right to punish or maybe even put to death his runaway slave, but Paul asked him to respond to Onesimus out of a spirit of love and acceptance. He asked him to respond differently than other slave owners might respond. Yes, he calls him to think about the love and the acceptance that he himself has received as a child of God, from God, and then to pass that on to Onesimus. When I think about living a changed life, when I think about practicing something different than what the world practices, I'm reminded of what Paul wrote in the Letter of Romans chapter 12, beginning with verse 1. "Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is, His good, pleasing, and perfect will." As Paul writes this letter to Philemon, he basically asked him to not conform to the way of the world. You have been transformed by what Jesus Christ did for you, therefore, transform your thinking, change your way of thinking, don't respond like other slave owners, but respond with love and forgiveness for Onesimus. Paul wrote this letter in hopes that Philemon would do that, that he would see the bigger picture. He wrote this letter in hopes that what God had done for him had made a difference upon him and he would be transformed in his activity. He appreciates Philemon's work at the church. He thanks him for the partnership they share and their friendship; and yet, as one who has brought him to faith in Jesus Christ, Paul kind of steps out on a limb, and with love and with boldness he calls upon Philemon to have a change of heart and to do something differently. To some degree, Philemon was in Paul's debt, for if it had not been for Paul, Philemon perhaps would not have become a believer. Perhaps he would not have had the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel message; and so, Philemon, in a way, owed something to Paul because of his salvation. Based upon that, Paul writes, "To partially erase that debt, I simply want you to see Onesimus in a different light, to accept him and to love him and to recognize him now as a fellow brother in Christ instead of as a runaway slave." In one of his earliest letters, Paul writes in Galatians chapter 3 these words. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." He then wrote on other occasions, "God does not show favoritism." Paul knew and he wrote about the importance of a believer's oneness. He wrote, there in Galatians 3: "It really makes no difference who you are. It makes no difference if you are a Jew or a Gentile, if you are a male or a female. It makes no difference if you are a slave or a slave owner. If you have received the salvation of the Lord, then God sees you as one of His children. You are a part of His family, and all of you are, together, one." As I mentioned a moment ago, Paul wrote the Letter of Colossians at about the very same time he wrote this letter called Philemon. As he did that, perhaps he had Philemon in mind when he wrote a special section there in Colossians chapter 3. Listen closely to what Paul writes on that occasion and consider how Philemon might have felt as he read not only his personal letter, but these words, in Colossians 3, beginning with verse 12. "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other, and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you." Can you just imagine Philemon reading those words as Onesimus shows up? He's thinking to himself, perhaps, he's even asking Paul in his mind, "Paul, you really want me to show compassion and to be gentle with and to put up with this man named Onesimus? You want me to bear with him? He did me wrong. He ran away. He stole from me. He lied to me," whatever it might have been. Then he reads those words, "Forgive those who have offended you, just as God and Christ has forgiven you." How do you think Philemon responded when he read those words from Colossians chapter 3? If Philemon truly wanted to imitate his Heavenly Father and to follow in the footsteps of His son Jesus Christ, then he would do that, he would receive Onesimus. He would reflect upon what Paul had already taught him about God's love and forgiveness and acceptance and then he would demonstrate those very same qualities to this runaway slave, who was now his fellow brother in Christ, the man Onesimus. That reminds me of Jesus' words in Matthew chapter 6. "If you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." Paul did not have to remind Philemon of those words. Perhaps Paul had shared with him on another occasion those words from Jesus. Perhaps Philemon had heard them in a different setting. He knew the words of Jesus, about forgiving and not forgiving other people. Philemon must have thought to himself, "It's important that I forgive. It's important that I accept him back and love him and not hold a grudge against him." There's something else that comes to mind. As the blood of Jesus Christ had reconciled Philemon back to that relationship with the Father, Philemon now was to serve as a reconciler of differences between he and Onesimus. The burden was upon his shoulders to do that. I think about the words the apostle Paul wrote over in 2nd Corinthians chapter 5, which address that very thing. "So from now on, we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come. All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them, and He has committed us to the message of reconciliation." Philemon was to be a minister of reconciliation. He was to reconcile with Onesimus, to get rid of those problems and those difficulties, and to come together as one. And now, as Paul wrote here in 2nd Corinthians 5, that was his ministry, to heal broken relationships, to heal those broken fences and to become one in Christ Jesus. Yes, what God had done through Jesus Christ for Philemon and for Onesimus and everybody else who had responded to Jesus, Philemon was now to do that with Onesimus. When Paul gave this letter to Onesimus and told him to take it back to his master, all the way back to Colossae, Paul did not know for sure if he would do that. Very easily, once Onesimus left Paul's presence, he could have torn up that letter and thrown it into the fire. He could have thrown it off of the ship into the water, never to be seen again. Yet, we know Onesimus did not do that, because he went back to Colossae, he gave this letter to Philemon, and now it is a part of the Bible. The Letter of Philemon does not list all the details of living a Christian life. It is not full of instruction about doctrinal matters. It does not retell the story again of Jesus' death and burial and resurrection. No, Paul's shortest letter presents a very challenging responsibility for believers today. This letter is about treating people with compassion and mercy. It emphasizes the importance of forgiving one another, just as Christ has forgiven us. It causes us to consider how we are to treat someone who has offended us, especially if that person is a fellow believer. That may be one of the greatest things we can put into our relationships, and no doubt, it is one of the apostle Paul's most important messages. Do you remember the story Jesus told over in Matthew chapter 18? The story is about a master who wants to settle his financial accounts with his servants. One of the men he calls in before him owes him a great, huge amount of money, perhaps a million dollars in today's terms. He begins to say, "I'm going to sell you and your wife and your children, and the money I get will help offset that debt." That servant realizes he cannot pay this un-payable amount and so he falls down on his knees and he begs and he pleads with his master, "Have mercy on me and please forgive me because I cannot pay this amount of money!" The master does just that. He lets him go free. That servant then goes out and he finds someone who owes him just a handful of dollars, and he begins to choke that person and threaten that person until the money is repaid. When others see what is going on, they go back and report to the master. He then calls in this servant one more time. As he does, he simply says, "I don't understand what has happened. I have forgiven you a tremendous amount of money, and yet you will not forgive someone who owes you just a few dollars? Here's what I will do. I will throw you into prison, and the guards will beat you until that last dollar is paid." Jesus then finishes the story with these words in verse 35. "This is how my Heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart." Jesus told that story in response to a question that one of his disciples named Peter asked him. "How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me; seven times?" Jesus said, "No, seventy times seven. Forgive as long as someone offends you." That is the point that Jesus made. True forgiveness for one who has offended us can only come from an appreciation of how God has forgiven us. An interesting thing about this letter is that the word forgiveness is not even found in it. As we read through the Letter of Philemon in various translations or versions, we don't even find the word forgiveness; and yet, obviously that is its overall message. Why is that? Well, Paul did not have to publicly announce the need for a Christian to forgive a brother who has offended him. Philemon's forgiveness for Onesimus was to come from the heart. He was then to demonstrate that forgiveness by the way he loved him and accepted and welcomed him back. Followers of Jesus Christ, today, are not to make a big deal about forgiving those who have offended them. It comes from the heart. It comes from one's desire to extend the same forgiveness we have received from God. Many of us are wronged and offended on a regular basis. We are taken advantage of. We are mistreated in some way. People hurt our feelings on a regular basis. They say and do things that really hurt us and we don't understand why; and yet, that's just a part of life, that's the way it is. Yet there is no need to get upset about that. There's no need to let everybody know when that happens. There's no need to make a big deal out of such a common sin. We simply decide in our hearts to forgive as God has forgiven us. Then we begin to treat that person as God treats us, as forgiven sinners who are saved by His grace. The standard of forgiveness to which Paul called Philemon is the very same standard to which we are called today, to recognize, first of all, how God has loved and forgiven us through the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ. We then take that same forgiveness and we demonstrate it to those who have hurt us in some way, especially if that person is a brother or a sister in Christ. My hope and my encouragement for you today is not only to read and study the Letter of Philemon, but perhaps most importantly of all to incorporate that primary lesson of forgiveness into your daily life.



Forgiveness is at the very heart of Christianity. Based on the forgiveness God extends to us through His son, Jesus, we are to forgive one another. God does not hold grudges. He does not keep a record of wrong things we have done. God forgives. He always has and He always will. He forgave us of all of our sin when His son, Jesus, died upon the cross. Because the Lord is so forgiving, He asks us to do the same thing. Sometimes that is not easy, yet for the Christian who is filled with God's Holy Spirit, that is what we do. Practicing forgiveness, extending grace, and accepting one another in love, is to follow the example of our heavenly Father. That is the message of Paul's letter called Philemon.



Thank you for joining us for today's message on "Key to the Kingdom". Learning to forgive is easy compared to actually forgiving. It is something we all need to learn and to put into practice. Hopefully this message from Paul gave us an example of forgiveness and how it can look in our own lives. As you perhaps know by now, we are studying through the New Testament part of the Bible each week. If you have missed any of the previous lessons, they can be found on the website, keytothekingdom.com. Feel free to look at or download those that might be of interest. It is free to do so, and we hope these lessons will bless you spiritually. There are a number of other things on the website that might be of interest. Short devotional thoughts and videos are available, which can encourage you in your daily walk with the Lord. Please feel free to access any of them. Would you like to study the Bible through a correspondent course? If so, call the number on the screen and make your request. It does not cost anything, and requires no commitment. Please leave your name and address and we will send it to you by mail in the next few days. Again, thank you for tuning in to today's program. Consider joining us again next time as we study the Bible on "Key to the Kingdom."