In our previous lesson we looked at a man named Philemon who had a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul’s message to Philemon was the need for forgiveness. But the way Paul speaks to the need for reconciliation and forgiveness was not through command or obligation but out of love. In this lesson we are going to examine the letter for how one is to receive a person back.
A Chance To Reconcile (10-14)
As Paul writes to Philemon and to the church that meets in his home, he tells Philemon that something amazing has happened. Onesimus has become Paul’s child during his imprisonment. What this means is that somehow through the providence of God, this runaway slave encountered Paul and became a Christian through Paul’s teaching. Now Onesimus is helping and serving Paul during Paul’s imprisonment, so much so that Onesimus has become very useful to Paul spiritually. Now the irony is that Onesimus’ name means useful. But Onesimus had become a useless slave to Philemon, as it appears that he may have stolen from Philemon (18) and apparently was not a hard working person for Philemon. He was useless to Philemon, but is very useful to Paul. So useful is Onesimus to Paul that Paul wants to keep Onesimus with him. Onesimus is so useful and valuable to Paul that Paul says he is sending his very heart to Philemon by sending Onesimus back to him. But Paul did not want to assume the goodness of Philemon. So he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon so that Philemon’s goodness could come from his own desire, not out compulsion.
But I want us to consider what Paul is asking Philemon to do. While the ESV and NASB read, “That your goodness might not be by compulsion” and the NIV reads “favor” rather than “goodness,” most translations read “good deed” (HCSB, NRSV, NKJV, NET). Paul is wanting Philemon to perform a good deed on his own accord and not by compulsion. What is Paul desiring Philemon to do? What is the good deed that he desires from Philemon? There is clearly the desire for forgiveness and reconciliation. This is why Paul has sent Onesimus back to Philemon to see him face to face. Paul could just write a letter asking what to do with Onesimus and send him back if Philemon refused. But Paul wants Onesimus to stand face to face with Philemon. This is the opportunity for these two to be able to reconcile through godly, gracious forgiveness. Paul is going to be a peacemaker and facilitate the opportunity for these two to deal with whatever happened between the two of them.
The Opportunity For Good (15-16)
The good deed that is presented before Philemon is to forgive and reconcile. Consider that the good deed to merely be letting Paul keep Onesimus has problems without forgiveness and reconciliation. Philemon could have the attitude that Paul can keep that useless slave. He does not want to be around him. He only caused problems when he was with Philemon. He was useless to Philemon in every way. Even taking the financial loss of letting Onesimus stay with Paul would be worth it to get him away from me. Do you see that this would not be a good deed? Philemon can only accomplish a good deed for Paul in giving Onesimus to Paul if the problem between Philemon and Onesimus is resolved. We have no problem staying away from people that we have problems with. We have no problem steering clear of those who have wronged us and harmed us. The hard part is to come face to face with that person and do what is good for the other and not for self. This is what Paul is asking Philemon to do.
You will notice that this is what Paul is preparing Philemon to do earlier in the letter. Paul extolled about how he has heard of Philemon’s love and faith for all the saints (5). Paul has received joy and comfort because Christians are always refreshed when they are with Philemon (7). Paul knows that Philemon shares in the same faith as him and will continue to make that faith effective by doing every good thing for the sake of Christ (6). Paul has even appealed on the basis of love’s sake, rather than commanding what is required of Philemon to do, so that Philemon will have the opportunity to do the right, godly, righteous act. The godly act is not to give Onesimus to Paul without forgiveness and reconciliation, but to forgive and set him free to serve Paul on Philemon’s behalf.
I love how Paul presents this idea to Philemon in verses 15-16. Paul says that maybe the reason Onesimus was gone for this time was so that Philemon would be able to enjoy Onesimus forever. But he would not enjoy him as a slave any longer, but as a beloved brother in Christ. Paul says that if Onesimus is a beloved brother to me, how much more will he be for you! Here is Paul making the observation that these things may have happened so that Onesimus would become a believer in Jesus and now they would be able to enjoy a far greater and different relationship. Now the relationship is not that of a slave, but as a brother in Christ who is with Philemon not only in the flesh, but also in the Lord. Their physical relationship will be different and now they have a new spiritual relationship because Onesimus is now a Christian. I love that Paul presents the possibility that this was God working through this whole scene. Please consider that the likelihood of Onesimus running away from Colosse, traveling all the way to Rome, and meeting Paul is absolutely amazing. The apostle Paul has in mind the idea that is presented in the life of Joseph: what was meant for evil God has now worked out for good (Genesis 50:20). Onesimus’ actions were certainly evil. He has caused harm to Philemon. If Philemon were in the wrong in this situation, Paul would have certainly rebuked Philemon for his actions or words. But that does not happen in this letter. So we are left to understand that Onesimus is in the wrong and has done wrong against Philemon. But look at the good that has happened through this!
How was Joseph able to forgive and reconcile with his brothers who had done so much evil against him? What helped Joseph not retaliate or respond in an ungodly way? Joesph recognized that the evil done against him was used by God to accomplish good. Friends, we are able to forgive someone who has done wrong to us because we know the great power of God to accomplish good through our suffering and through our hurt. This is why James can tell us to count it all joy when we encounter various trials. Good is being accomplished by what we are enduring which frees us to be forgiving. The apostle Paul presents this very idea to Philemon. God has done something great with the pain experienced and the loss suffered. Onesimus is now a brother in Christ and has been serving Paul. God is working in the matter and is accomplishing his purposes.
Receive Him (17-20)
Notice that the apostle Paul continues this teaching about reconciliation. Listen to verse 17. “Receive him and you would receive me.” How does it sound like Philemon would receive Paul? They sound like they are great friends. Paul calls Philemon a beloved fellow worker (1). In verse 17 Paul speaks of Philemon has his partner. In verse 22 Paul states that he is hoping to come stay with him in his house. Now Philemon, receive Onesimus as you would receive me. Even though Onesimus has caused you harm, he is to receive him as if he were receiving Paul himself. This teaches us what forgiveness and reconciliation look like. You will receive the person back to you like you were receiving Christ himself or an apostle of our Lord Jesus. Forgiveness is not merely a lack of retaliation. Forgiveness is about restoration. Forgiveness is about how we receive each other and have relationships with each other. Please think about the fact that this is the way God receives us when we are forgiven. Forgiveness does not merely mean that God will not execute wrath on us for what we have done. Forgiveness also means that we are fully restored into relationship with God. Forgiveness means that we are reconciled to our God. Forgiveness without reconciliation is not forgiveness at all. I love the way that Paul gives Philemon this picture. Receive him as you would receive me because that is what Christian love and forgiveness looks like.
Now one can imagine the potential inner turmoil Philemon might have, as we may have as well when it comes for forgiving our brother or sister in Christ. We might consider all the wrong that happened to us and all the suffering we endured. But listen to Paul’s response to this potential objection. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” Paul says that he will repay whatever the debt is. Philemon, you write down all the wrongs and debts that Onesimus has against you and you charge this to my account. I, Paul, will pay it. But this is not what Paul wants. Listen to the rest of what Paul says: “To say nothing of your owing me even your own self” (19). Paul does not want a list of wrongs but wants Philemon to realize how he owes his own life and also possess a great debt. Paul is telling Philemon to erase the account of wrongs and be willing to absorb the debt against him. The New Testament repeatedly uses this picture as how Christians respond to wrongs done against them. Paul wrote the Corinthian church and told them that love does not keep a record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5). Paul also wrote in that same letter to those Christians who had wrongs against each other and were taking each other to court over those matters:
Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (1 Corinthians 6:7–8 ESV)
Just suffer the wrong! Why not be defrauded? This is your Christian brother or sister. You are acting wrong and defrauding rather than just suffering wrong. We forgive the record of wrongs that a Christian has committed against us because we certainly have a record of debts that others have against us, and, more importantly, we have a debt that cannot be paid to God. We owe our very lives to the Lord. How can we possibly withhold forgiveness when we have such a great debt forgiven by our God? We forgive others because God has forgiven us.
Going Above and Beyond (21)
Not only this, Paul knows that because Philemon is a lover of the Lord that he will go above and beyond what Paul is asking. This is to be our desire! We should not begrudgingly do the minimum for another. We should go above and beyond for our brother and sister in Christ who desires forgiveness.
Gracious Giving Oneself (22)
Going above and beyond is the giving even of ourselves. Notice that Paul does not say that he plans to come visit Philemon. Listen to how Paul says this in verse 22: “I will be graciously given to you.” Christians give themselves for each other. I give my life to you and you give your life to me. We adopt a whole new view of life and view of each other when we belong to Christ. Now we see each other as people who belong to Christ, partners of grace, family in Christ, which trumps all else. Family overlooks, forgives, and gives themselves to each other. We are family in Christ and we graciously give ourselves to one another.
The gospel takes our unworthiness and uselessness and makes us useful to the Lord. We are made useful by grace. The gospel radically transforms lives and radically alters our relationships with each other. We set aside our rights with each other and give ourselves to each other. We have been forgiven and received by God so that we can become useful again. We must forgive and receive one another, even if they have harmed us, so that they can be useful to the family of Christ again. Forgiveness is the opportunity for good to come from the evil that has happened previously.