A Living Lesson on Forgiveness

 

A Living Lesson on Forgiveness
Philemon 1-3
 
We are going to begin this morning a study of a brand new book in the New Testament, the book of Philemon. And I want you to turn to it. For those of you who are wandering around in the index of your Bible, it is tucked between Titus and Hebrews. Now what we have in the little book is a very brief, one chapter, 25 verse lesson on forgiveness.
 
Now I would submit to you that man is never more like God than when he forgives.
 
Of all of the human qualities that make men in any sense like God, none is more divine than forgiveness. God is a God of forgiveness. Beginning as early as Exodus 34:6, He identifies Himself in that way. 
 
God says I am the God of forgiveness. That is who I am.
 
Now the theme of forgiveness is obviously throughout the Scripture emphasized. But there are some high points where we see the forgiveness of God especially emphasized. 
 
One of those is the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15.
 
There we hear Jesus tell us what the heart of forgiveness is like, it is eager, not reluctant, it doesn't even wait for the sinner to arrive. In fact, when you see him coming far away, you run to meet him and you embrace him and kiss him.
So from that story we learn how God forgives: eagerly, totally, lavishly.
 
No wonder when Jesus taught His disciples to pray He said, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us". Remember in the Beatitudes He said, "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." You want mercy? Give it. You want forgiveness? Give it and forgive like God for you are never more like God than when you forgive.
 
Now when Paul was in his first Roman imprisonment he wrote several letters, namely Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians. We call those "the prison epistles" because they were written from Paul’s time in prison. 
 
From his first imprisonment in Rome, Paul wrote the well-known epistles of Ephesians and Colossians and Philippians. Ephesians and Colossians are of particular interest because they are tied in to this little letter of Philemon. In both Ephesians and Colossians there is a major emphasis on the matter of forgiveness.
 
For instance, in Ephesians 4:32, Paul says  "Be kind to one another, tender hearted...here's the same principle...forgiving each other just as God in Christ also has forgiven you."
 
In Colossians chapter 3:13. He says, "We are to bearing with one another and forgiving each other whoever has a complaint against anyone just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you."
 
Now if you pull all of these together you get the very clear idea that God is a forgiving God and you are to be forgiving people. That's basic. In fact, God has forgiven you, so you should forgive. That's one principle. The other one is God will forgive you if you do forgive.
 
And so, on the one hand the Scripture says God has forgiven you therefore forgive, and on the other hand the Scripture says if you don't forgive God won't forgive you and you will have violated the relationship, the fellowship that you could enjoy with God.
 
The Lord has forgiven all of us all of our sins and therefore Paul says we should forgive each other. And if we don't, we're going to be chastened by God. That's plain and simple the message.
 
Let me add one more thought about forgiveness in general, just for perspective’s sake, and then we’ll get into Philemon. 
 
In Matthew 18, this principle is illustrated in a parable. Peter says to the Lord, "If somebody sins against me...verse 21...and I forgive him, how many times do I do that? Seven?" The rabbi said three so Peter thought he was being very generous. Jesus said in verse 22 of Matthew 18, "I do not say to you up to seven times but up to seventy times seven."
 
In other words, you forgive as many times as someone sins against you. Just keep on endlessly forgiving.
 
And then He tells a parable that makes the point.
 
Matthew 18:23ff
 
Boy, what a story! That parable is so severe that there are many people who conclude that the principle Jesus teaches couldn't possibly apply to a Christian. But it does. Because the man who wouldn't forgive the slave was a forgiven man, that is God had already forgiven him, he is a child of God. But what it tells us is that the Lord will sometimes deal very harshly with His own children who will not forgive someone else.
 
So there it is in very brief form: Christians are to forgive. That is the principle taught in Scripture; that is the principle illustrating the character of God in the parable of the prodigal son, and that is the principle illustrated in this parable to be true of every believer.
 
Thomas Watson wrote many years ago a very interesting statement. He said this, "We need not climb up into heaven to see whether our sins are forgiven. Let us look into our hearts and see if we can forgive others. If we can, we need not doubt that God has forgiven us."
 
And so, there is a principle in Scripture and that is this, you are never more like God than when you forgive. And such forgiveness should come easy because you have been forgiven. And if you do not forgive, then you'll put yourself in a position to be chastened by God severely.
 
 
 
 
Now this priority of forgiveness is not only given in Scripture in principle, it's not only given in Scripture in parable, but it is given in Scripture in personal terms. And it's in the book of Philemon. Here we have a real life, living lesson on forgiveness.
 
Here in the shortest letter of Paul's inspired writings is the major issue of forgiveness laid out not in principle, not in parable but in a personal case. The prodigal son is not a true story. The king and the servant is not a true story. Those were simply parables fabricated by Christ to make a point.
 
This little book, however, is a true story. Now we're going to see the principle flesh out. So lets look at it.
 
Verses 1-3
 
Now this is a very typical Pauline introduction. It begins with the word "Paul." Ancient letters always started with the name of the one writing. If you or I get a long letter, we have to fumble through the pages to see who it’s from, but not in ancient days. 
 
They always started with the name of the man or the woman who authored it. It signals then that this is from the Apostle Paul. You can imagine that when Philemon got this letter and he saw "Paul" his adrenalin started to flow. His heart began to beat more rapidly because Paul was not only the great Apostle that everybody knew about, and Paul was not only the one who had, in a sense, founded the very church at Colossae where Philemon lived, but Paul had personally led the man to Christ. And so Paul identifies himself and certainly set Philemon's heart racing.
 
Paul identifies himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. This is a note to tell us that he is in prison. It's the same place from which he wrote Philippians, Colossians and Ephesians. This is the fourth of the prison epistles.
 
This little letter differs in that it is written to an individual and not a church. It is the only one of those four written to an individual. And Paul says, "I am a prisoner of Jesus Christ." He never identifies himself in that way to start with in any of his other epistles. Usually he wanted to identify himself as an Apostle, as having been called by God as a servant of Jesus Christ to lay down some authority on them, to emphasize his calling and emphasize his authority.
 
He even did that, by the way, in his letters to Timothy even though they were personal letters that he was writing to one individual and even his letter to Titus, in those cases though they were personal letters like this one, he still mentions his Apostleship because they had to take his authority and carry it out in the life of a church that needed correction and direction and it needed to come through them as an authoritative word from Paul.
 
This, however, bears no such necessity. He is not laying some authoritative message on the church. He is speaking tenderly, personally, warmly, compassionately to a friend. And it is an appeal to his heart, an appeal to his compassion, to his love, so there's no need to refer to his apostolic office or calling or authority.
 
He says "I am a prisoner of Christ Jesus." It's a wonderful note because it is the way you would expect to him react to this Roman imprisonment.
The Romans thought he was a prisoner of Rome. They had captured him. They had incarcerated him. He was under their authority. But from his vantage point he was a prisoner of Jesus Christ. He was in prison because Christ put him there, not because Rome put him there.
 
And if you ever have any questions about that, all you have to do is remind yourself of some of the things that he said while he was in prison, most namely this one at the end of Philippians, "Greet every saint in Christ Jesus, all the saints greet you especially those of Caesar's household." The Lord had him in prison and while he was there he was evangelizing Caesar's household.
 
On a number of occasions in Ephesians, chapter 4 verse 1, chapter 6 verse 19 and 20, as well as Colossians chapter 4, he refers to himself as a prisoner. But it was for preaching Christ and it was for the sake of Christ and it was by the will of Christ that he was a prisoner.
 
And he is saying this to Philemon, and I think it's very wise because what he is really saying sort of subtly to Philemon is, "Look, Philemon, if I can do this for Christ, can you do for Him what I am going to ask you to do? If I can bear the harder task of being in this prison, can you do the easier task that I'm going to ask you to do, and that is to forgive?"
 
He's very wise, Paul. He's very tactful, because as soon as Philemon hears the word "Paul" his love begins to well up. And as soon as he reads "a prisoner of Christ Jesus" his eyes may fill with tears as he thinks about this beloved man that led him to Christ, this great Apostle being in prison.
And as he thinks about all that Paul has suffered to bring the gospel to people like him, it's bound to have an effect on his willingness to do what Paul asks him to do.
 
And then Paul throws in, "Paul a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy our brother." Timothy is not a co-author. Timothy is just a present companion...a brother in Christ.
 
Timothy had been with Paul on his third missionary journey, Acts chapter 19, he was acquainted with the believers in Colossae, probably had met Philemon and so this would be a word from somebody that Philemon knew. I think also think Timothy is mentioned because soon Paul will be passing the baton of leadership over to him, and so he gives some recognition here to Timothy. 
 
And so it is then from Paul, along with the greetings of Timothy, to Philemon. 
 
Here we are introduced to the man who is the head of a family in Colossae. Colossae was a small town. The church there was probably very small. And the church met in his house. So we know he was a wealthy man. Most of the people in the Roman Empire who became Christians were slaves. Some of them were freemen. Very few of them were wealthy or noble or mighty. 
 
And wherever you had a wealthy person that was converted, they had a house. Slaves and freemen didn't have such things. Most of the freemen lived in apartments or single rooms and paid a modest sum. Wealthy people owned their own homes.
So here is a man of some means who has the church meeting in his house.
 
And Paul calls him "our beloved brother and fellow worker," and that means our dear friend.
 
Now this friendship probably developed in Ephesus, just as a note, because Paul never went to Colossae. When I said he was responsible for the founding of the church there it was because he founded Ephesus, stayed there three years and out of Ephesus all those other churches in Asia Minor were planted.
 
No doubt during the time Paul was at Ephesus, this man was converted, came to know Paul on a personal way even though he lived a little distance away in the very small town of Colossae. So they had from then on developed a friendship. And Paul now is going to put his friendship on the line. This is a straight-forward letter where Paul is going to ask Philemon to do something in the area of forgiveness that is crucial.
 
Further, verse 2, addresses the letter to Apphia, our sister. That, no doubt, is his wife. I think the King James says, "Apphia, our beloved." Then he says, "And to Archippus, our fellow soldier." Most likely this is their son. Their son, Archippus, an older son and a noble Christian who had come alongside Paul in the spiritual battle somewhere, fought valiantly in that war and is commended for his spiritual life.
 
Now Philemon and Apphia are mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. Archippus is Colossians 4:17 as Paul writes to the Colossian church. He says to Archippus, "Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord that you may fulfill it."
So chances are good that we have here a father, mother with a church meeting in their house, and a son in the ministry. And this little family is very important in the life of Paul.
 
In verse 3 we find the standard greeting. I'm not going to spend a lot of time on it. He says, "Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
 
There is the typical standard Christian greeting. Grace, the means of salvation; peace, the result of salvation. And it comes "from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
 
And so in that way, Paul introduce his letter.
 
Now there has been much written about the purpose of this letter. Some think the purpose of this letter is to demonstrate the nature of Christian love. Others suggest that the purpose is to reveal the working of God's providence. Still others suggest it is an example of proper manners and Christian courtesy.
Some think its purpose is to give principles for the maintenance of good Christian relations. Some suggest that the purpose of the letter is to reveal the effect of conversion on culture and society.
 
Most generally it is seen as a statement about slavery and the purpose of Philemon was to tear down slavery.
 
 
 
 
 
 
But it seems to me that first and foremost, its theme is forgiveness. That is its message; that is its intent. The story behind the letter makes that absolutely clear.
 
Let me read you the story and make just a few comments on it.
 
Verses 4-18
 
This is an incredible story. Philemon was led to Christ by Paul, probably during Paul's three years in Ephesus. And apparently Philemon had a slave named Onesimus. And the relationship of these two people, Philemon and Onesimus, is really the context of this call to forgiveness.
 
At the time of the writing of this letter, years have passed since Philemon's conversion. Paul is now a prisoner in Rome. Philemon is active in ministry in his church. He's got the church meeting in his house. He's busy serving, refreshing the brethren by his usefulness.
 
His slave, Onesimus, not a believer, probably felt the heat of a believing family. Apphia, his wife, having been converted and Archippus their son, Onesimus decided that he would be better off to run away even though his family that he was employed by was a good family and so he ran away. As the text indicates, when he ran away he took some money, he stole from his master.
 
Now slavery was changing but it wasn't changing so much that a slave could steal, wasn't changing so much that a slave could run away.
Some would tell us that in some places the death penalty for such activity was still in place and that slave could lose his life. Others would say the punishment was a severe imprisonment, or even physical corporal punishment. Onesimus had committed by all Roman law a crime, a felony, a major crime and had left and tried to hide.
 
Some times when a slave ran away and was caught, they would burn an "F" into his head, F for fugitivus, fugitive. History records that some runaway slaves were crucified; many were tortured. Running away was a serious offense. And he ran just where you would think he would run. 
 
He ran to Rome because that was the biggest city. The estimate is the population was about 870 thousand at this time and he thought he could hide himself in the underworld of Rome and try to survive. We talk about street people today. We talk about the homeless. He would be one of them. He would be living in the underground, sleeping in back alleys, holes in the ground.
 
Who knows what kind of mess Onesimus was in? And by the amazing providence of God, think of it, in a city of somewhere around 870 thousand, or nearly a million people, he bumps into the Apostle Paul.
 
And our imaginations can just run wild. Maybe he knew that Paul was preaching there and he wanted to hear this man preach. Even though Paul was a prisoner he must have had some access, such an imprisonment. It may have taken different forms which gave Paul not only access to his friends which are shown having some relation to him, but even to unbelievers.
However it happened, Paul persuaded Onesimus to become a Christian and he was converted. His life was transformed.
 
Not only that, he became a helper to Paul. It tells us, as we noted, in the text that he became a very encouraging servant to Paul in his confinement. Maybe he cooked meals for him and brought them, to give him proper nourishment. Maybe he provided information to him. We don't know.
 
But as much as Paul loved him and as much as Paul wanted to keep him, Paul knew there was something that had to be settled. He was a criminal, this man. And the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was not right. And you know Philemon was still holding this bitterness against a very close friend, for Onesimus even though a slave would have been a household slave and a very close companion.
 
Onesimus was at fault. Philemon was a good Christian master. Philemon had been greatly wronged by Onesimus because financially he had stolen from him and also losing your employee like that would mean you'd have to hire someone else and you'd have to pay another price for another one. So Paul knew he had to go back. He had to go back with an attitude of repentance and he had to go back and ask Philemon for forgiveness.
 
And the opportunity presents itself to send him back. Why? Paul had finished Colossians and he had finished Ephesians and he was going to send them back to those two churches with a man named Tychicus. So it was just the perfect opportunity to send Philemon his runaway slave.
 
We discover that bit of information in Colossians chapter 4,  where Paul says, verse 7-9, As to all my affairs, Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bondservant in the Lord will bring you information. And then verse 9, "And with him, Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you." So he's sending Tychicus with these two letters and with Onesimus.
 
Now there's risk here because Philemon would have the right to punish Onesimus. But Paul decides to send him back anyway, and he sends him with this personal letter. And what it basically says is you've got to forgive this guy, you've got to be willing to be merciful. You've got to treat this slave the way Christ treated you.
 
Same principle that he put in Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13, forgive as you have been forgiven.
 
And that's basically the background of this story.
 
What's going to happen when he goes back? Well, the rest of the book from verse 4 on splits into three parts, and we’ll look at them over the next three Sunday nights. I'll just mention them tonight. 
 
The first part, verses 4 to 7, basically deals with the spiritual character of one who forgives. That is just a thrilling message, and that's what we're going to talk about next time. What kind of person is a forgiving person?
 
Then the second part of the book is the spiritual action of one who forgives. First we look at the character of a forgiver and then we look at the action of a forgiver, verses 8 to 18.
And then from verses 19 to 25 is the spiritual motivation of one who forgives.
 
Now by the time we're done with this book, you're going to know what a forgiving person is like in character, in action and in motivation. And this is essential.
 
So let me close tonight be repeating what I began with: you are never more like God than when you forgive. And you have been forgiven and therefore because of the forgiveness of God in Christ you ought to forgive one another and if you don't forgive one another then God relationally is going to keep His distance from you and put His hand of chastening on you rather than His hand of blessing.
 
Think about this: Of all of the subjects that Paul could have written about, why in the world did he pick the subject of forgiveness? This is this just this little isolated kind of odd, out of sync, little letter stuck in the middle of these great sweeping epistles to talk to one guy about forgiving one slave. Why all this fuss?
 
Again I say, because never is a believer more like God, more like Christ than when He or she forgives because that's the nature of God and the nature of Christ which is most wonderfully applied to us in salvation.
 
We read throughout the New Testament, don't we, be like Christ, be like Christ, walk like He walked, remember Jesus Christ, be ye followers of me as I am of Christ, let this mind be in you which was also in Christ. Well what does that mean? We're to be like Christ. What does it mean to be like Christ?
Well for sure it means to be forgiving because that's how we know Him as the one who forgave us all our sins.
 
The character of God's forgiveness is seen in the parable of the prodigal son...eager, lavish, loving forgiveness.
 
And the severity of chastening for one who doesn't forgive is seen in the parable of the king and the servant.
 
But the real-life fleshing out of the principle is seen in what happens between Onesimus and Philemon. I hope you’ll be here to watch it unfold because this is a central theme in all of Scripture.
 
Contents © 2021 Trinity Baptist Church • Church Website Builder by mychurchwebsite.netPrivacy Policy