In our first two Daily Notes on “forgiveness”, as we considered the question: “What type of person can forgive?” We saw that the one can forgive is spiritual and Christian who prays, using forgiveness to evangelise and build relationships. Now, looking at verses 8-23 we want to answer the question: “Why should Christians forgive?” To do this we consider how Paul builds a case for Christians to forgive.
He first looks at Philemon with the conviction that Philemon owes it to Paul to forgive Onesimus.
Phm 1:8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do
As an apostle Paul could exert authority and issue a command … pulling rank to get Philemon to comply … but this would not be a wise strategy. He would not win Philemon’s heart this way. Look at his approach:
Phm 1:9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love.
Paul is almost 60 years old. It’s a good age for the first century and particularly for a man who expended himself for the gospel over many years. He considered himself a prisoner of Jesus Christ (v1) and he expected high standards of discipleship from himself and his fellow gospel workers! So picture him under house arrest. He could not go outdoors and needed someone like Onesimus to run errands, companionship, shopping, other deeds … to be his personal aid. Yet he says:
Phm 1:13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.
Phm 1:12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.
Since Onesimus’ salvation there was a great bond between him and Paul (who is my very heart). But Paul has integrity:
Phm 1:14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.
Keeping Onesimus with him would help him and the gospel but Philemon had rights … and Paul knows these rights need to be respected. Then we see something remarkable:
Phm 1:18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.
The impression is that Onesimus must have financed his run-a-way to Rome through taking something from Philemon, his master. He seems to have stolen from his owner. Slaves were not paid well. Some were not paid at all. But … now that Onesimus was converted … even struggling to exist on the bare minimum … he would never earn sufficient to repay his master. Into this environment, Onesimus somehow found Paul in Rome and was converted. It also seems as though Philemon was converted through Paul’s ministry. Now, the fact is that Onesimus owes Philemon money … and spiritually, Philemon owes Paul!
Phm 1:18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.
It seems as though Paul appealed to Caesar to be set free and anticipates favour, so he adds … “I will pay it back” … that is, whatever Onesimus owes you I’ll bay back! But in the same breathe he has the confidence in his relationship with Philemon to say
Phm 1:22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
What is Paul doing? He is appealing to Philemon to forgive Onesimus for what he did as a lost soul who is now a saved soul. Elsewhere Paul appeals to all believers to forgive each other as God forgave those in Christ.
Eph 4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Secondly, Paul looks at Philemon with the conviction that Philemon owes it to Onesimus to forgive. Remember, Onesimus stole from Philemon his master and ran away. Philemon has every right to be angry! But there is another factor and that is the power of the gospel to change lives!
Take Onesimus … he is a different person to the one who stole and ran … Since salvation he has demonstrated his new life in Christ through becoming an intentional Christian, a great companion to Paul, a helper to Paul … a servant of Paul. The name Onesimus means useful or profitable and that is exactly what he was to Paul … so much so that Paul considers him a son (v10) and losing him equates to losing his own heart (v12). This is the reason Philemon needs to see Onesimus’ theft and desertion not as a lost investment as a slave … but rather as a gain:
Phm 1:16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.
Paul is saying something like this to Philemon: Onesimus is not the man who wronged you. He is now a new man altogether. Now Philemon, love him for who he now is … love him because the grace that saved you has saved him too! Philemon, before God you are now equal! You are brothers in Christ … the same blood that cleansed you has cleansed him! Stop for a minute and think … Is not our silly, nagging faults causing us to forget that all Christians everywhere are new creations and are becoming more and more Christ like?
Paul has a case for Philemon to consider … what is the greatest debt? Someone owing you money or you owing someone for the salvation of your soul? But the greater matter is that both Philemon and Onesimus are equal in Christ, saved by the same Blood Sacrifice, having the same Divine Parent and promised the same eternal inheritance … heaven. Philemon, if you can’t forgive Onesimus, why ought you to enjoy God forgiving you?
Dear God, thank You for releasing me from the huge debt I owed You. By Your Spirit help me to release those indebted to me through injury, abuse or some sin. Freely You have forgiven me, help me to do the same to others, especially those who like Onesimus are brothers with me in Your Kingdom of Mercy. Amen.