Friday, November 16, 2012

The appeal to forgive

Philemon 10-11 "I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, 11who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me."

For the past couple of days we have been exploring the book of Philemon, noting the major themes of forgiveness.  No other book in the Bible is soley devoted the subject of forgiveness like Philemon.  At the heart of this short letter is Paul's appeal to Philemon to forgive his run away slave Onesimus.  If you will recall, Onesimus had stolen property from Philemon, ran away and ended up in the same prision situation as the Apostle Paul.  Onesimus' conversion to Christ prompted Paul to appeal to Philemon to take Onesimus back and regard him as a fellow brother.

The appeal to forgive expects a response
The word translated "appeal" in verse 10 is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as a "summons", a "call", an "urging" and an "exhortation".  This request by Paul carries with it the idea of an expected response from Philemon.  It shows us that true forgiveness in Christ is connected with the Divine calling of God on your life as a Christian.  We have seen already that forgiveness is at the hub of the Christian identity and that love is at its heart.  Now we can add another thought to understanding true forgiveness - namely that it is an appeal. 

For the remainer of this post I want to unfold the manner of the appeal to forgive written here by Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Note the following about the appeal to forgive:

1. The appeal to forgive comes from a mediator.  Philemon 10-13
The Lord is speaking through Paul to Philemon.  God is making His appeal.  He desires His people to be reconciled to Him and to one another.  Paul is functioning here as a mediator between Philemon and Onesimus, a role that he has done before in other letters to other churches. (compare Philippians 4:1-2)The Lord shows us that only with a mediator can forgiveness be possible. (1 Timothy 2:5; 1 John 1:9-2:2; Hebrews 1:3-4). 

2. The appeal of forgiveness is to a willing heart.  Philemon 14
Paul's appeal is based in love, which we explored in the last post.  We won't write too much more on this point, only to note that love and forgiveness have this common trait - a willing heart.  What Paul is trusting God for and appealing to Philemon for is a willing heart to forgive.

3. The appeal to forgive acknowledges God's working. Philemon 15-16
We read in verses 15-16 of Philemon: "For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16no 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."  I love it when a biblical author writes a phrase like - "perhaps for this reason".  It clues us in on the fact that the events leading to Onesimus' incarceration with Paul and Paul's letter to Philemon were orchestrated by God. 

God was at work.  No doubt he had brought Onesimus to the end of himself.  Onesimus had been a runaway thief. Now Onesimus was a convert, a worshipper of Christ.  Philemon too was having a season as well.  God knew the timing that would be needed for Philemon to heal and for Onesimus to be brought to repentance.  Sometimes separation, distance and time are not always bad things.

Think about Jacob and Esau or Joseph and his brothers in the book of Genesis.  Those true accounts involved forgiveness.  Time, distance and separation were used by God to orchestrate events on both sides of the forgiveness event - both for the forgiver and the offender.   

4. The appeal to forgive points back to the cross.  Philemon 19-20
Paul states in Philemon 19b - "not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well." - aluding to Philemon's conversion to Christ under Paul's ministry.  As Paul begins to bring his appeal to a close, points back to the cross - the event upon which Philemon and every child of God leans on for salvation.

The theological concept called "imputation" or the crediting of Christ's work and life to a person at saving faith is found in verse 18, namely:  "But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account".  To impute means "to credit the work of another to another."  Thus Paul's statement is pointing back to what Jesus did when our sin was reckoned to him and in turn when He reckons to every believer His righteousness.  Faith alone is necessary and sufficient to receive what Christ has done and accomplished.  Paul tells Philemon to regard Onesimus as himself, and that he in turn is willing to take on Onesimus' debts if need be to make Philemon's forgiveness of Onesimus a reality.  Truly that is what Christ did for us - taking on my sin so that I by faith could be clothed in His righteousness. (2 Corinthians 5:21) 

The appeal to forgive truly has its beginning and end in the cross. 

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