The book of Philemon is a personal letter written to a slave owner named Philemon who has a runaway slave named Onesimus, whom Paul is sending back to Philemon. Because this is the purpose of the book, Philemon is an often skipped book. A letter to a slave owner about a runaway slave. Does this book have anything for us? Can this book be useful to us? There are a couple of reasons for us to study this book and recognize that it can be useful for us today. First, this personal letter was kept by God as scripture for us today. Second, notice that this book was not written to Philemon alone, as we might assume. Carefully read verse 2 and you will see that not only is this letter written to Philemon, but also Apphia, Archippus, and the church in your house. This letter was read to the church. So, though this situation is a personal matter regarding Philemon and Onesimus, its message is important and practical for us today. When we study this short letter we will see that this is a letter devoted to forgiveness. We live in an ego-centered, selfish society that knows and cares little about forgiveness. Therefore, the message in this book is needed to be heard and learned today. There are two main points that Paul makes in this letter to Philemon: the need to forgive and how to forgive. In this lesson we will talk about the need to forgive and in our next lesson we will talk about how to forgive. As we read this letter, think about how Paul, who is a prisoner in Rome (verse 1), speaks to Philemon about forgiveness.
The Character of the Christian
Verses 4-7 is Paul’s thanksgiving for Philemon and all that Philemon has done in the faith. Paul says that he has heard of Philemon’s love and faith that he has toward Jesus and for all the saints. Paul is laying the groundwork in the thanksgiving section of the letter. Paul is thankful to God that Philemon is doing what Christians are supposed to do. Christians are to show love and faith, not only toward Jesus, but for all the saints. Philemon, you are showing love and faith for all of God’s people. You love and show faith in all the believers. This is Christian character: love and faith toward other Christians.
Notice what Paul says in verse 6. It can be a little bit misleading to our ears to read that Paul prays “that the sharing of your faith may become effective.” When we think of sharing our faith, we typically think of teaching the lost evangelistically. But this is not what Paul means. Paul is speaking of the faith that Philemon and Paul share. Paul’s prayer is that the faith that Philemon has, the faith that he shares with Paul, will be put into action (may become effective). It is not that we are allowed to simply know the faith but must perform and act on the faith we share. Practicing our faith leads us to maturity. So Paul says that he knows of Philemon’s love and faith for the brethren and he is praying that this will continue generously because of the faith they share.
In verse 7 Paul presses this thought further. Paul says that he has personally received much joy and comfort from Philemon’s love. How has Paul seen Philemon’s love? Paul says because the hearts of God’s people have been refreshed through Philemon. The work that Philemon is doing in faith and love to God’s people has impacted Paul so that he takes joy and comfort from knowing how faithful Philemon is toward the brethren.
Does Not Command
There is another fascinating aspect about this letter to Philemon about forgiveness. Not only does Paul never say to forgive and reconcile, but this book never outright commands to forgive or reconcile. But the message to reconcile and forgive is in every statement Paul makes but does not explicitly command it because he does not want to compel or command Philemon. We see this point in verse 8. Paul could take the authority as an apostle and command forgiveness. Paul could simply invoke the authority given to him to compel Philemon to forgive. Further, the apostle Paul says that he is bold enough to do this. Paul is not afraid to command this of Philemon. But this is not what Paul wants to do. The apostle Paul wants Philemon to forgive on his own once hearing what Paul tells him. This is likely why Paul does not refer to himself as an apostle as he opens this letter in verse 1 but calls himself a prisoner. He refers to his situation again in verse 9.
Paul desires to appeal to Philemon, not as a superior and not as an apostle, but as an old man and a prisoner of Jesus Christ. Think about how Paul could easily do this. Paul could easily quote scripture from the Old Testament or the very words of Jesus for the necessity of forgiveness. He could quote these words of Jesus:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14–15 ESV)
Paul could even quote himself from his other letter that he already sent to this church:
Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:13 ESV)
But this is not what the apostle Paul does. He does not invoke his authority. He does not quote the words of Jesus to command Philemon. He does not quote is words that he already penned to the church in Colosse. So what is the reason Philemon must forgive? If command is not necessary, why should he forgive? In verse 9 the apostle Paul says that he is making his appeal for love’s sake. The apostle Paul says that he has heard of Philemon’s faith and love for all the saints (verse 5) and he has enjoyed much comfort and joy from hearing about Philemon’s love for the saints (verse 7). Therefore, show your Christian love again.
Friends, we forgive one another because that is what love does. We do not begrudgingly forgive because we are commanded to and we are afraid that we will not go to heaven because our sins will not be forgiven. Forgiveness out of compulsion is not Christian forgiveness. If I wronged you and you come to me and tell me that you forgive me because you have to, there is not much restoration and reconciliation of the relationship that is happening. This does not reflect the love and graciousness of God. We forgive because this is love. Forgiveness is exactly what love for Jesus looks like. If we will not forgive other Christians, then we do not have love.
Listen to how Paul has emphasized his desire for Philemon to show Christian love without compulsion throughout this letter. In verse 1 Paul refers to himself as a prisoner, not an apostle. In verse 1 Paul calls Philemon a fellow worker, not a subordinate. In verse 8 he says he will not command Philemon about this matter. In verses 13-14 Paul says could have kept Onesimus but wanted Philemon to do nothing out of compulsion and nothing without his consent. Paul speaks of Philemon as his partner in verse 17.
Therefore, do not forgive because you have to. Do not forgive because you are commanded to forgive. Forgive because this is what it means to love one another. Forgive because we share in the faith and putting that faith into action demands forgiveness. If we choose to not forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ who come to us and desire to receive forgiveness, then we do not know nor understand the gospel. We do not understand the love of God. We do not understand what it means to be a Christian. We do not know the faith that has been delivered to us once for us. We do not share in the faith revealed to us. Our faith is to be made effective. Paul’s prayer concerning Philemon was that the faith that he shared with Paul and the other believers would be effective, put into action, through forgiving those who have hurt us and wronged us. It does not matter what a person has said or what a person has done. We will examine this more in the next lesson. But for the moment consider from the text that Onesimus has stolen from Philemon. But it does not matter what the wrong is that has been committed. We are to forgive because this is what it means to believe in the Lord and have faith in the Lord.
Let us end by considering verse 20. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon 20 ESV) Forgiveness is refreshing. Forgiveness is beautiful. Forgiveness brings joy and comfort. But forgiveness is hard. Our natural temptation is to hold on to our bitterness and grudges because someone has done something wrong against us. But you are showing love and refreshment to that person. Forgiveness is beneficial to all. The soul is refreshed through Christian love and behavior.
But ultimately, why do we need to forgive? We need to forgive because all of us are Onesimus. This letter is preserved for this church and for us because all of us have done wrong and are in need of forgiveness. All of us are Onesimus. We need to forgive because we need to be forgiven. Not only do we need to be forgiven by God, but how many times have you needed your errors and mistakes overlooked by another person? Are we going to pretend that we do not need to be forgiven and therefore act superior and be unwilling to forgive another? Even Paul refused to act superior, who had every right to do so as an apostle. Forgiveness is walking by faith. You have needed to forgiveness from others. You need forgiveness from your God. Forgive others and Christ has forgiven you.