Welcome back to our study of Philemon! I so hope that you are enjoying this in-depth approach to Bible study and that it is increasing within you a desire to know the Word of God. His Word changes us, and it breathes life into us! It’s always speaking, always working, always transforming. That is just its way.
Last week, we talked about Paul’s decision to make his appeal to Philemon on the basis of love and how that approach is so powerful—sometimes more powerful than when we use strength and authority. Love is often fun and easy to talk about. This week, we find ourselves surrounded by “love” or at least expressions of it with Valentine’s Day just around the corner. Love makes us feel good. We want to be loved, and we want to love.
Today’s topic from Philemon is equally as important but perhaps a bit harder to digest. The main theme of this small book is forgiveness, and let’s just be honest:
Forgiveness is hard.
We love being forgiven. I mean, if we are in Christ, that’s our story. “Forgiven” is written in bright red letters over our lives. It’s who we are. Offering forgiveness to others, however, is so much more complicated for us. People who have wronged us, betrayed us, stolen from us, hurt us, lied to us, abused us…extending forgiveness to these people can seem incredibly daunting, even impossible.
And so, the story of Philemon continues to unfold. Paul is writing this letter to his friend and brother in Christ, Philemon. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, and based on the context of Paul’s letter, we know that Onesimus was a runaway slave who had stolen from Philemon before he ran. When Onesimus arrived in Rome, trying to get lost in the crowd of many slaves, somehow he came in contact with Paul. Over the course of time, Paul led Onesimus to faith in Jesus Christ, just like he had with Philemon.
Now, in Christ, they are all brothers…equals…set free…made new.
Philemon had every reason and right to be angry, bitter, and vengeful toward Onesimus. This slave had broken the law and broken his trust. Still, Paul calls Philemon to forgive. That word…forgive…what emotions does it stir up within you? Does any particular person or persons come to mind? What hurts begin to surface when you hear that word? Forgive.
I’m not wondering if you have anyone in your life whom you need to forgive. Every single day offers us countless opportunities to extend forgiveness and grace to those who offend us…from the smallest of offenses to the biggest of ones. We live in a sinful world, and sin ushers in brokenness. Hurt people hurt people. It’s the way of this hard life. You and I probably have more opportunities to forgive than we even realize. Forgiveness is hard, but it’s not impossible.
I was in conversation with a pastor this past week, and in response to a question I asked him about division and disunity between believers (which is exactly what Paul is addressing here in Philemon), his response to me was this:
“Value the relationship above the issue.”
Boom. It was like one of those mic drop moments. And isn’t that just right? People matter more than problems. Pain and hurt and evil are very real, and I’m not suggesting that we are supposed to enter back into a relationship with a dangerous, abusive, or unsafe person. I’m talking about forgiveness, and in the case of Philemon, we’re talking about two believers.
Forgiveness might just be one of the most difficult obediences that God calls us to, but I find that so interesting, because forgiveness is the very thing that has brought us hope in this hopeless world. We are so quick to readily receive God’s forgiveness and His grace over us, so why is it that we don’t so freely give it out in return? The offense here in Philemon was very real, very big, very punishable. But, forgiveness. The appeal Paul made was to forgive, to cancel the debt that was owed to him…the very thing that Christ did for you and for me.