PHILEMON – Principles of Forgiveness

  1. The Prayer of Thanksgiving for Philemon <1:1-7>

Paul addresses this personal letter primarily “To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker” <1:2 (NIV)>, and then to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home”. It is suggested that Apphia was Philemon’s wife, Archippus was their son, and that the church met in their home.

Philemon was a resident of Colosse and a convert of Paul; his house was large enough to serve as a meeting place for the local church. He may have had other slaves beside Onesimus, and was not alone as a slave owner (from Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts). Slave ownership was common in the Roman Empire at that time and it was not uncommon for Christian business people to own slaves <see Col.4:1>, and the guidelines provided here could be applicable to all Christian slave owners of that time period.

In Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving for Philemon he recalls hearing about Philemon’s faith in Christ and his love for all the saints, and he prays that Philemon will be active in sharing his faith and that he will have a full understanding of all the good things that we have in Christ <see Eph.1:3-8>. He states that the love that Philemon demonstrates has brought him joy and encouragement “because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” <1:7 (NIV)>; and this is a great demonstration for all believers to imitate.

  1. The Petition of Paul for Onesimus <1:8-18>

Having completed his greeting to Philemon, Paul now addresses the reason for his letter, stating that in light of Philemon’s love expressed for all the saints <1:5>, he would not dictate what proceedings Philemon should bring against Onesimus, but allow Philemon to deal with the matter guided by his love for all the saints; “I appeal to you on the basis of love.” <1:9 (NIV)>. Onesimus is now one of them <Col.4:9>, because he is now a convert to Christianity, a “brother” in Christ, for he considers Onesimus his son <cf 1 Tim.1:2; 1 Thess.2:11>, having been converted through Paul’s preaching while in Rome.

The account does not give any details as to how Onesimus came in contact with Paul, but one can conclude that The Holy Spirit directed Onesimus so that he made contact with Paul, and this is an encouragement to all Christian parents as we pray for rebellious children, grandchildren, and other family members and friends, that The Holy Spirit would soften their hearts and guide them to someone who will introduce them to the gospel message.

Paul then sends Onesimus back to his master Philemon with a letter that expresses all the principles of God’s forgiveness: the offense; “Formerly he was useless to you” <1:11 (NIV)>. The name Onesimus means profitable or useful, so here Paul uses that meaning to express the concept; he that was unprofitable is now worthwhile. As sinners, we are unworthy and useless to God <cf Rom.3:10-18, 23>, and when we trust Christ in faith as our saviour, God is able to use us for His glory. We see the compassion, of Paul as he expresses his request and concern for both Onesimus and Philemon; it was not easy for Paul to send Onesimus back <1:13-14; cf Col.3:12-14>, it was harder for Onesimus to face his former master; but was most difficult for Philemon to have to forgive and take back his runaway slave. We see the similarity in God’s compassion for sinners in His plan of salvation; while we were still sinners and unaware of our destiny the Scriptures teach that God had prepared a way of escape for all who wish to be saved from the penalty of sin <see Rom. 3:23; 5:8; 6:23>. Next, we see Paul’s intercession on behalf of Onesimus; he states that it could be, they were separated for a time so that they might be united permanently, since Onesimus was “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” <1:16 (NIV)>; he was returning as a brother in Christ which would be forever. Christ interceded for us as sinners on the Cross <see Lk.23:34> and still intercedes for us as believers <see Jn.17:20-21>. We also see the substitutionary aspect in God’s forgiveness as Paul expresses “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” <1:18 (NIV)>, for there was no way that Onesimus would ever be able to repay his debt to Paul or Philemon; and in this we see the substitutionary act of our Lord Jesus Christ as He gave Himself to God His Father in payment for our debt <see Lk.19:10; 2 Cor.5:21; 1 Pet.2:24>. So, as Onesimus was restored and promoted in his relationship to the one whom he had offended, we see all the aspects of divine forgiveness of sin (New Testament Survey – Merrill C. Tenney).

Where do you stand in light of the above? Do you need God’s forgiveness for your sin? Do you need to forgive someone for injustice done to you? Remember that you can be restored to fellowship with God and with others by simply turning to God and request His forgiveness <see Lk.18:13; Titus 3:5; cf Matt.5:23>. One must understand, however, that continuous rebellion against God will end in certain judgment for sin <see Heb.10:26>.

  1. The Promise of Paul to Philemon <1:19-25>

“I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back” <1:19 (NIV)>; here Paul’s promise to Philemon expresses the fact that as Onesimus was unable to repay his debt, we too as sinners are unable to repay God for our salvation. There is nothing that we can do since the penalty we face is death – eternally separated from God; but since Christ has payed our debt, we have freedom and fellowship with God, just as Onesimus and Philemon experienced <see Eph.2:8, 12-13, 19; Titus 3:4-7>.

So, Paul expresses his confidence in Philemon; “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” <1:21 (NIV)>, for in this we see a picture of Christianity in action, for these men were Christians which made all the difference in their behaviour and response to each other; for the teaching of Christ, which we are all called to follow, is: “For 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.” <Matt.6:14-15 (NIV)>.