Do you ever wonder why God inspired a certain passage of scripture to be written, preserved, and included in His Word? The Old Testament makes logical sense; it is the history of the Jewish people through whom Christ came and the prophetic promises that were made through God’s prophets. It contains their worship hymnal (psalms) and the wisdom literature of their culture. The New Testament is made up of historical accounts like the four gospels and Acts, a lot of epistles containing doctrine and teaching for the church that had been birthed after Jesus’ ascension, and a book of prophecy that is yet to be fulfilled.
So why did God include what is clearly a very personal letter about a very personal matter, the little book called Philemon? It’s not doctrine; it’s not prophecy; it’s just a tiny little “dot” in the big scheme of history.
The story is simple. A slave had run away from his master and encountered Paul along the way. Paul had befriended this young man and led him to Christ, and had taken time to arrange his return so that he could make things right. We don’t know the circumstances that led to his slavery; in those days, it was common for a person to indenture themselves to another in a time of poverty to avoid the debtor’s prison. Whatever the case, Philemon was guilty of a crime, and needed to make restitution.
The most obvious lesson in this letter, one which God certainly wants us to take note of, is that of forgiveness. Paul appealed to Philemon’s good character and love for the Lord, as well as his ability to see beyond the physical circumstances to the spiritual good that had come out of Onesimus’ wrong choice to run away. He had become a brother in Christ, affecting eternity. Whatever financial loss Philemon had incurred in losing a slave was of lesser importance. Paul promises to make up the physical loss in exchange for Philemon’s willingness to forgive the slave and receive him back as a brother.
The Bible talks a lot about forgiveness. We are to forgive others “seventy times seven” according to Jesus, indicating as many times as necessary, without limit (Matthew 18:22). We are to forgive just as Christ forgave us…because Christ forgave us (Ephesians 4:32). Forgiveness protects us from becoming angry, bitter people who die leaving a trail of broken relationships behind us. It is the hallmark of a true believer – forgiven people forgive others.
I think there are also a few other lessons God wants us to notice and apply to our own lives in these few verses. First, Paul interceded and mediated on behalf of this young believer. Perhaps Onesimus wouldn’t have had the courage to face the owner he had wronged without the support of his mentor. Paul got personally involved in the messy circumstances of this relationship so that God-honoring good would come of a situation that could have affected both men’s spiritual growth if not dealt with biblically. As members of the body of Christ, we too must be willing to help others in similar situations.
Second, there is the need to look beyond the surface issues and see what is at stake eternally. Sin is ultimately a wrong against God. We are simply the means by which someone is acting against their Creator; this understanding helps us take ourselves out of the way and be more ready to forgive so that God can do His redemptive work in the one who needs our forgiveness.
Finally, there is the issue of restitution. God is indeed a God of grace and mercy, and we ought to forgive one another freely for our failures and the hurts we inflict on each other. But if we are the ones needing forgiveness, we also should be willing not only to seek the restoration of the relationship but to offer restitution where feasible. Even when the issue is far greater than a physical loss (you steal, so you repay the value), we should seek to make things right. How can we give back or restore what was lost through our wrongdoing? Obviously, some things can’t be repaid and leave scars that will only be healed in eternity, but as far as it is possible with us, we ought to seek restitution.
How is it possible to apply these lessons to our lives? Paul tells us in his prayer for Philemon.
Philemon 1:4-6 – I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.
Our ability to forgive is directly related to a correct understanding of what we have in Christ. He has given us every good thing, and as we grow in our knowledge and love of Him, we will be able to love and forgive others. Our faith must be more than ideology; it must become effective and have an impact in practical living and relationships.
What has someone done to you that is worse than what you did to Jesus?
What have you done that you need to seek forgiveness for, and offer restitution?
Who is in your life that needs a little help and encouragement to mend a broken relationship?
Aren’t you glad God included Philemon and Onesimus’s story for us to read? I can’t wait to ask them how things turned out! May we have our own stories of forgiveness and restoration to share when we meet them in heaven.