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)>.




[Mercy: Compassion; kind forbearance; an act of kindness – can also be portrayed as: grace; forgiveness] The scriptures describe God as merciful, depicting His compassion; His forbearance; His acts of kindness, His grace and His forgiveness in various ways. There is a vast difference between the mercy of God and the mercy of man. Very seldom is man merciful to his enemy, yet God’s mercy is shown first and foremost to His enemies: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. For … when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” <Rom.5:6-8, 10 (NIV)>


“I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD.” <Jer.9:24 (NIV)> “my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,” declares the LORD.” [Ephraim/Israel] <Jer.31:18-20 (NIV)>

“In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD your Redeemer.” <Isa.54:8 (NIV)> “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” <Isa.55:1 (NIV)>. Mercy is God’s undeserved act of kindness to mankind; extended to us, not according to any righteous act that we have done or could do <see Deut.9:5, 18; Rom.9:16; Titus 3:5>. God knew the absolute helplessness of mankind under the curse of sin, and acted in mercy toward us – mercy freely given to mankind <see Psa.84:11>. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” <Eph.2:4-5  (NIV)>


We are all under the curse of sin! Apart from the mercy of God we could not exist! “What shall we conclude then? …… that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.”Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” <Rom.3:9-20, 23 (NIV)> “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” <Rom.5:12 (NIV)>

There is no one found righteous before God <v10>; all have sinned <v23>, because sin entered the world through Adam and we are all descendants of Adam <5:12>. No one seeks after God <v11>; no exception is allowed. “All have turned away” <v12> echoing the thought of Romans chapter 1, that mankind had opportunity to know God but discarded him to their own detriment and confusion. What effect does sin have on the sinner? The effect is total, because our entire being is corrupted – the throat, tongue, lips, mouth, feet and eyes – total depravity <13-15>; mankind’s entire being is adversely affected by sin – his whole nature is permeated with it. Human relations also suffer, because society can be no better than those who constitute it. Some of the obvious effects – conflict and bloodshed – are specified <vs. 15-17>. The root difficulty is: There is no fear of God” in any one <v18>, and because of this, the Law holds everyone accountable to God <v19>. Consequently, the Law makes us all conscious of sin <v20>; “So that every mouth may be silenced.” <v19>. When human achievement is measured against what God requires, there is no place for pride or boasting, only for silence that lends consent to the guilty verdict. In the various biblical scenes of judgment, the silence of those who are being judged is a notable feature <Rev 20:11-14>, and the reason for the verdict is given: “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'” <Matt.25:44-45 (NIV)>

When the explanation is given, no appeal is attempted, the Judge of all the earth does right <cf Gen 18:25>; therefore, all mankind – “the whole world is accountable to God.” <v19>, and the final word <v. 20> is – justification before God cannot be attained by attempted observance of the law, no matter how much man may take satisfaction in such observance; Jesus indicated that no one had succeeded in keeping the law <John 7:19>. Therefore, for mankind to spend eternity with God, we must accept His mercy! However, the simplicity of the gospel message is often spurned because we are asked to do nothing but only believe and trust God for our salvation, meaning, we cannot work for, or contribute to what Christ has done for us at Calvary! In this is seen the mercy of God! That God would grant us His mercy although we do not deserve it. “He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” <Psa.103:9-10 (NIV); see also 30:5; Hab.3:2>


[Philip Yancey in his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” makes this observation]: “The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. Of all world religions, only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional”. God’s mercy is unconditional to all sinners for God extends His mercy to us in spite of whom or what we are.


“it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved” <Acts 15:11 (NIV); see also Rom.3:24; 11:16; Eph.2:4; 1 Pet.1:3>


“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them– yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” <1 Cor.15:10 (NIV)> we can never in this life or in eternity repay God for His mercy to us; however, God’s mercy places us under a deep obligation to work hard in serving the Christ who saved us and as we work for Him it is really the grace of God that empowers us.


“As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.” <2 Cor.6:1 (NIV)>; do not allow the gospel message to fall on deaf ears, give careful thought to what you hear; “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard” <Heb.2:1 (NIV) see Heb.3:7-8; Gal.2:21>. God’s unconditional gift of salvation cannot be earned; otherwise it is no longer by grace <Eph.3:7>. The gift of God’s grace to Paul demonstrated God’s power in reaching out to Paul’s self-righteousness, saving him, commissioning him and strengthening him for service, and God can still reach out to self-righteous people today. Those who struggle with life’s difficulties and problems can have comfort in His mercy because we are not left alone to deal with temptations in our own strength, God invites us to approach Him in our time of struggle so that in our difficulties we do not reject His mercy; “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” <Heb.4:16 (NIV)>; His grace is given to the humble <Prov.3:34> not to the proud.


2 Kings 6:24 – 7:11 records one incident of God’s mercy to His people: the northern kingdom of Israel had sinned greatly against God, Samaria was under siege by Ben-Hadad king of Aram and the siege lasted so long that there was no food left for the people, they sinned even more by eating unclean animals, and worse of all – their children <see curse – Lev. 26:29; Deut. 28:53, 57>. God, in His mercy, caused the Aramean army to hear the sound of chariots, horses and a great army during the night, and assuming that the Hittites and Egyptians were coming to the aid of Samaria, they ran away, leaving behind all their armour, horses and food. “Now there were four men with leprosy at the entrance of the city gate. They said to each other, “Why stay here until we die? If we say, ‘We’ll go into the city’– the famine is there, and we will die. And if we stay here, we will die. So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.” <2 Kings 7:3-4 (NIV)>. Arriving at the Aramean camp they found it deserted, then they went and reported their findings to the guards at the gate to the city; God spared the city even though their sin was so great.

There are those that will call out to God when His mercy is available <see Lk.17:13; 18:38>, but there are those that will wait until it is too late <Lk.16:24>. Today, God’s mercy is extended to us even though we do not deserve it <Rom. 3>; His mercies to us are numberless – they are constant and sure, they follow us all day long, and from day to day, and we cannot repay Him for all His mercies.

We must understand, however, that one day God’s mercies will come to and end for those who continually reject Him! Our response is to accept His mercy and to be faithful in our service to Him


[Author: Thomas O. Chisholm]

The mercies of God What a theme for my song
Oh I never could number them o’er
They’re more than the stars in the heavenly dome
Or the sands of the wavebeaten shore

For mercies so great, What return can I make
For mercies so constant and sure
I’ll love him, I’ll serve Him with all that I have
As long as my life shall endure

They greet me at morn when I waken from sleep
And they gladden my heart at the noon
They follow me on into shades of the night
when the day with its labour is done

His angels of mercy encompass me round
Wheresoever my pathway my lead
Each turn of the road some new token reveals
Oh For me life is blessed indeed.