A Study over Philemon
What is the key to forgiveness? Have you ever been hurt by someone and then hear about something bad happening to that individual and feel vindicated by it? Have you ever been mistreated by someone and then hear that something good has happened to that individual and it made you angry? Is there a name that I could mention this morning that would bring back painful feelings and experiences that you would rather forget? The reason is that you have unforgiveness in your heart.
I will never forget at one church where I served as pastor I had a constant struggle with the deacons and the members trying to get them to follow Jesus Christ. If I challenged them to share their faith there was resistance, if I challenged them to pray there was resistance, and if I challenged them to get into the Word of God there was resistance. I remember when my job was threatened there. A member came and said, “I have heard that you are intent on reaching out to the blacks in our area. I said absolutely, God loves everyone no matter the color of their skin and plus God has given us favor in sharing our faith with them. He said, “If you do, then we will fire you. We don’t marry them and we don’t worship with them.” My deacons didn’t stand up for me and I was hurt. I wasn’t going to buckle, but I was hurt. I felt the pain emotional, mentally, and spiritually. Soon God removed us from that situation. I thought time away from the situation would bring healing, but it didn’t. About two years later a person mentioned the name of one of those deacons and I couldn’t think of anything good to say. All I did was complain about how lousy they were to me. God spoke to me and said, “D, I brought that man’s name up so that you can see that you still haven’t really forgiven him.” My response was, “he hasn’t repented and even more he isn’t sorry.” My problem was that their actions two years previous where still effecting me. I have since found the ability to forgive them. I can say with Joseph, “What you meant for evil, God meant it for good.”
This morning I know that you have come here wanting to meet with God or you have come wondering why your relationship with God hasn’t been everything you wanted it to be. The issue is forgiveness. You need to experience it in the Lord and then practice it. I do believe your heart can be healed today.
As we examine the letter of Paul to Philemon we find that the purpose of the letter is forgiveness. Paul had been the one who led Philemon to Christ. Philemon’s relationship with Christ was transformational. In verse 4, Paul writes, “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” Paul tell Philemon that he is excited about how Philemon was been living for the Lord and loving the saints. It is amazing that we can be caught up living for Jesus and still have an issue of forgiveness in our lives that needs to be address. We can love everyone else, but if there is one person who has sinned against us then we need to address it.
Philemon is a wealthy believer who also owns slaves. Philemon is a slave owner and a Christian. We may wonder how he could be both. In Paul’s time a person most commonly became a slave not through birth, but through debt. Let’s say I take a loan from you for my business or my house and then I am unable to pay off my loan, I could become your slave, thereby paying off my debt. It sounds weird in our culture to think that someone would enslave themselves for money, but we do it all the time in our jobs. Now you could also be a slave if your people had been conquerored by another group of people. The victors would take you and make you work for them as a sign that they had authority over you. This was common in Rome. So for whatever reason Philemon has slaves.
Onesimus was one of Philemon’s slaves. He became frustrated with being a slave. Now we don’t know if he owed a debt to Philemon and hadn’t been able to pay it or if somehow Philemon had Onesimus as a slave through a Roman victory, but what is clear is that Onesimus steals money from Philemon and runs away. Onesimus ends up in the same town that Paul is in and hears the gospel and becomes a believer. Onesimus commits himself to Paul’s ministry and starts working to help Paul spread the gospel. When Paul learns that Onesimus is a runaway slave from his friend Philemon, Paul knows what needs to happen.
If you are like me at this point in the story I am shocked that Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon to seek his forgiveness. Slavery is wrong and going back to Philemon could mean death. Shouldn’t Philemon have had to apologize to Onesimus for making him a slave? I am amazed that Onesimus is the one going back to seek Philemon’s forgiveness.
There is an important lesson here. God won’t let you and I do the right thing the wrong way. I have heard people say the ends justify the means. I want you to know that Onesimus wouldn’t have truly been free until he had been forgiven. Onesimus heads back as a believer to face the person he has wronged and seek forgiveness. Onesimus also brings a letter from Paul to Philemon. This is what I want to focus on this morning. We now know the situation. Now the question is how will Philemon treat the slave who has stolen from him and abandoned him?
Paul starts his challenge of Philemon in verse 8-9, “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love.” Paul could have commanded Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but Paul knows something about forgiveness that he is sharing with Philemon. If I order you to do something I am engaging your mind, but if I make an appeal on the basis of love I am engaging your heart. Paul knows that you can’t choose to forgive solely because it is the right thing to do, you must forgive because you are choosing to free your heart to love. Forgiveness isn’t a mental decision alone, it is a heart decision. You have struggled to really forgive because you thought you could just mentally say, “I forgive you.” and that would be enough. My friends if love isn’t springing forth from your heart then you have only engaged the mind in forgiveness. This morning I want to challenge you to move from the mental side of forgiveness to the heart side of it.
The reason that forgiveness must come from our heart is that it is in our heart that we feel the loss, we feel the pain of abuse, we replay the lies, and we hold on to the rejection. We know that scripture says that for every sin committed there was a debt that was paid through the cross of Jesus Christ. The issue is that for every sin committed against you there is a debt and your heart is keeping track. You wonder if there a way for the debt of their sin against you to ever be repaid. When someone doesn’t acknowledge their sin, we are left carrying the note waiting and wondering will the debt ever be paid.
Paul challenges Philemon to forgive Onesimus because Paul was going to pay Onesimus’ debt. V. 18-19, “If he had done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you own me your very self.” Paul tells Philemon to add up all the debt that Onesimus has inflicted upon him and Paul will pay it. Sure Onesimus is now a believer, but there was still a debt. Philemon could now let go of the debt because someone was going to pay it back. Paul tells Philemon, you owe your life to me so you know I am good for it. If I tell you that I will pay you back for every sin that Onesimus has done, you can take it to the bank. You owe your life to me, I wouldn’t lie to you. Forgive Onesimus because I am paying off his debt. Now don’t miss this, Philemon had to give the debt over to Paul so that Paul could pay it. If Philemon wanted Onesimus to pay the debt instead of Paul it would never had been paid. Philemon transfers the debt of Onesimus to Paul and Paul says he will pay it off when the meet face to face.
Now let’s see how this whole story impacts you and I in our ability to forgive. Clearly we have to make a heart decision if we are going to truly forgive. Here is something even more amazing. Philemon owed Paul his life because Paul shared the good news with Him. I want you to know that you and I owe someone also. We don’t owe Paul, we owe the Savior Jesus Christ. Before you can be a forgiver you must be forgiven. You must come seeking forgiveness from Jesus Christ for you sin, rebellion, and resistance. The great news is that He does forgive you and is the key to your forgiveness of others.
Let’s start with that idea. Are you forgiven in Christ Jesus? Until you are forgiven you can’t be a forgiver. Now just like Paul tells Philemon to turn the debt over to himself so that Paul can pay it. Jesus does the same thing. You and I are to turn our debt over to Jesus Christ and expect Jesus Christ to pay the debt. Catch this, Jesus can only pay the debt that has been turned over to Him. Do you want reimbursement from the person who sinned against you or from the Lord Jesus Christ? Jesus is going to pay every debt that is turned over to Him. You might say how is that possible? Didn’t Jesus pay for your every sin? Then it isn’t a stretch to realize that every debt of yours will be reimbursed.
You may have been abused and you have been carrying around that debt for years and you can’t forgive because you know what has been taken from you. Turn it over to Jesus, everything that has been taken He will repay to you. Every mean word that broke you heart and every hurtful deed that was meant to break you will be repaid and rewarded. Just turn it over to him. If you try to get your reimbursement back from the person you will never find forgiveness. Onesimus had nothing to pay Philemon back with, but Paul did. The same is true for us. Jesus promises to repay the effects of the sins committed against us when we meet Him face to face. We will be repaid when we see him face to face. Can you trust Jesus to repay you? Well he saved you right? Well if you can trust Him to save you, can’t you trust Him to repay the debts of others in your life? Of course you can, you can forgive because everything they have done is going to be made up for by Jesus.
You thought you missed out, you thought you were done away with, and you were abandoned. My friend everything you have seen and faced when handed over to the Lord Jesus will be repaid. You will miss nothing. Matter of fact, Jesus repays with interest! Now you can forgive because their sin debt has been paid by the same one who paid your sin debt.
How do you get on with your life? Paul challenges Philemon to let Onesimus leave and return to Paul. You live everyday with the assurance and joy that Jesus has paid your sins in full. Take that same faith and know that the Lord Jesus will repay you those debts. Let us say to those who have and will sin against us, “You thought you could take my future, my hope, my joy, and my life. Wrong on all accounts! I forgive you because Jesus has repaid everything you had taken. I have been repaid because I turned those debts over to Jesus. Let’s pray.