Hello. I invite you to join me in taking one final look at forgiveness from the book of Philemon. If you are just checking out my blog for the first time, you might want to back up a few days to the post from Friday entitled “Profitable,” where you’ll find the beginning of this discussion, then work your way to the present.
Last night the assistant pastor of our church concluded a three-part message on the book of Philemon, and today I’d like to share some gleanings from those messages. The thoughts are not really organized at all, just a bunch of nuggets of truth that were important enough to me to write down in the margins of my Bible. But I hope they will be a blessing to you just the same.
Unforgiveness shows a lack of love.
Unforgiveness keeps the pain alive.
Unforgiveness paves the way to bitterness.
Forgiveness is a sacrifice.
Forgiveness is unconditional.
Forgiveness is permanent.
The Consequences of Unforgiveness
Unforgiveness keeps the pain alive. That point in particular hit me right between the eyes. As the pastor said this, immediately I recalled my own words about how the scab keeps getting torn off, and I bleed like crazy all over again. Could it be that I am causing my own pain by refusing to forgive? And if that is true, then could it be that I don’t really love him as I should? And if that is true, could it be that I’ve already planted the seed of bitterness in my own heart?
Love Toward God and Others
“Hearing of your love and faith, which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints” (verse 5).
Paul commends Philemon for his love. Love for others stems from a love for God. If I do not love God, how can I love others? And if I do not love others, how can I forgive them? On the flip side, no matter how much I say I love a person, if I cannot forgive him, then I do not truly love him. The book of I John has much to say about love, and the clincher is this: “If a man says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (I Jn. 4:20).
“For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints are refreshed by you, brother” (verse 7).
Philemon was given to hospitality. The door to his large house was always open to strangers and fellow believers. In fact, a church met for services there, and many a guest from out of town found lodging in his rooms. Do you think Philemon never experienced any trouble? Do you think his life was always easy? Did he never experience pain? Imagine what a shock it must have been to him when he discovered that Onesimus was missing, and perhaps some of his other belongings as well. He surely would have felt betrayed by this servant whom he had trusted. But Paul says that Philemon’s faith was refreshing. A refreshing faith rises above difficulties and hurts.
Motivated to Forgive
“Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you that which is required, yet for love’s sake I rather beseech you, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (verses 8-9).
Paul was Philemon’s mentor and elder, and he could have commanded Philemon to forgive Onesimus and take him back into the household. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he appeals to Philemon’s heart of love. Even so, God wants me to forgive others out of love, not out of duty or fear.
The Power of Forgiveness
Imagine the scene as the doorbell rings. A servant goes to the door and opens it, and his jaw hits the floor. “Master Philemon!” he calls out. “Guess who’s here. It’s Onesimus!” I wish I could have seen that reunion. It may have been pensive at first, but surely Philemon would have been curious to hear the story about this runaway slave who had the courage to return of his own accord. The letter from Paul was quickly thrust into his hands, and he opened and read it right there on the spot. Then, with tears running down his face, Philemon grabbed Onesimus and hugged him like a long lost brother, grateful that the servant who had run away from him could not run away from the merciful hand of the Savior.
Philemon gave up his right to punish Onesimus. It was a sacrifice, but it was one of love. Just think. If he had exercised his right, Onesimus most likely would have died. But what would Philemon have gained from that? He still would have been short one servant, and no doubt others would have grieved the permanent loss of a friend and fellow servant. And what of Philemon’s testimony as a man of love and compassion? Would anyone have trusted him after that, if they could not see his words being put into action? Philemon chose to forfeit his rights and offer forgiveness; and not only did he get his servant back, but he also gained a brother.
“Yea, brother, let me have joy of you in the Lord: refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience I wrote to you, knowing that you will also do more than I say” (verses 20-21).
We do not know for sure what happened after that, but Paul was confident that Philemon would do even more than what he had asked of him. As for me, I think he gave Onesimus his freedom. And in humility and gratitude, I think Onesimus chose to remain with him, no longer as a servant, but now as a bondslave—a willing servant.
How many of you have heard—or said—“I’ll forgive you this time, but if it ever happens again….” Seriously. Is that forgiveness? No way. Jesus had to something to say about this when Peter asked him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” Jesus said unto him, “I say not unto you, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22). In other words, don’t keep count, just keep forgiving. Forgive unconditionally, and forgive for good. You have to because we all are sinners, and we will fail over and over again. We must forgive the same way we want God to forgive us.
How often I forget the value I have in the sight of Christ. I must learn to let my value in Christ motivate my service. What value has He given me?
When I live in the reality of the value Christ has given me, then I can easily forgive others. For my value is not measured by what I have done, or by what they have done, but only by what Jesus Christ has done.
Forgiven all my sin, I can forgive
And brother-love my heart can now distill;
For love of neighbor is indicative
That Jesus Christ in me and I in Him now live.
(from “Perfect Example, Perfect Love” 2002).
Photo taken in Milton, Florida, 2017