Philemon 17-18 "If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account"
What is forgiveness?
The little book of Philemon is dedicated to the theme of forgiveness. In studying the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words used in the Bible for "forgiveness", we find the following definitions: "to let go or to release from guilt and further accusation." Forgiveness can only be effectively done and make sense when expressed in light of the cross. (Ephesians 4:31-32; Colossians 3:13)
Though unbelievers everyday may express forgiveness, it will not have the affect nor will it make total sense outside the cross. Retaliation tends to be the default reaction of human beings in the face of injustice. Everything is turned on its head at the cross. The grounds for accusation are revoked. In its place arises mercy and grace as the only options that can be received into the heart that looks to Christ as Savior and Lord in saving faith (Ephesians 1:7).
Why is the Book of Philemon a book of forgiveness?
The book of Philemon is about Onesimus, a run away slave, who had stolen everything from his master - Philemon and fled to Rome. Onesimus thought he could find his freedom, but instead ended up in prison. What looked like a situation going from bad to worse was all part of God's Sovereign plan. Onesimus' disappointment ended up being a Divine appointment, for his cell mate was none other than the Apostle Paul!
Per 1st century Roman law, Oneismus would had been branded a Fugitive (fugitivas) by the Roman Empire. According to Roman custom, if the slave owner (Philemon) so chose, he could have the "fugative" excuted. In the course of Onesimus' incarceration, he became converted under Paul's preaching. Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, who happened to be Paul's friend and Onesimus' owner.
The question hanging over Paul's letter to Philemon would be: would Onesimus' be exonerated or executed? Forgiven or remain the captured fugative? Will Onesimus be regarded not merely as a slave but also a fellow brother in Christ? These are the questions the Book of Philemon will aim to answer.
How forgiveness is the heart of Christian expression
Pastor John MacArthur has noted that we are never more like Jesus Christ than when we forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of true Christian identity. How is it that forgiveness is at the core of Christian identity? Consider the following thoughts from Philemon:
1. Christians have no right to harbor unforgiveness. Philemon 1
Paul writes in Philemon 1a "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus....", which tells us that his own self-perception was that of a man without rights. The man who composed this little letter under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost was saying that as a prisoner of Jesus Christ, he had no rights. To forgive means letting go of "my so-called" rights to hold the grudge and to remain angry. Forgiveness means I choose to no longer accuse the other person who very may well deserve nothing but justice and scorn. Nonetheless, Christians have no right to hold grudges. Instead, they must forgive, just as the Lord forgave them. (Colossians 3:13)
2. Christian fellowship depends on forgiveness. Philemon 1b-2
Philemon 1b-2 reads - ..."and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved brother andfellow worker, 2and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house." Notice the underlined words - they all have to do with typical relationships experienced in life and among Christians in fellowship with one another. Philemon's home was the meeting place of the church at Colosse. We know this because Archippus in mentioned in that letter, most likely meaning he was its Pastor. (Colossians 4:13) Even more intriguing is the fact that Apphia is Archippus' mother and Philemon may very well had been her husband and his dad! Imagine if Philemon would choose not to forgive? A chain reaction of a church split, a split family and the dimming of the Gospel witness at Colosse would had resulted. Christian fellowship depends on forgiveness, and forgiveness is at the hub of Christian identity. But also notice....
3. Christian Victory relies upon forgiveness. Philemon 2
Paul writes in Philemon 2 - "and to Archippus our fellow soldier". Why is it that so many Christians live defeated lives? Why are we not all living as "fellow soldiers"? Because we choose to hold the grudge, take up the offense, rather than "letting-go" in Jesus' name. Jesus taught the principle of "forgiving your brother" as a means for effective in prayer. Consider Matthew 5:23-24 “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering."
4. Christians hear God through forgiveness. Philemon 3
We read these words in Philemon 3 - "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." This short epistle is all about forgiveness. It reminds us that apart from God's grace - whereby He gives to us what we do not deserve - forgiveness is an impossibility. Forgiveness brings me to God when I receive it, because in His grace He offered it to me to believe it. Jesus says in John 10:27 that every Christian follows Him because at saving grace, every sheep was given that capacity to hear His voice and follow Him.
When Christians refuse to forgive, they dull their ability to hear God in whatever area they have chosen to be bitter. Ephesians 4:30-32 reminds us - "Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. "
We have explored today the importance of forgiveness in Paul's letter of Philemon. We noted four reasons why forgiveness is so important for the Christian:
1. Christians have no right to harbor unforgiveness
2. Christian victory depends on forgiveness
3. Christian fellowship depends on forgiveness
4. Christians hear God through forgiveness