…as we forgive our debtors…

Posted: March 8, 2009 in Philemon

Philemon 8-25, “…As We Forgive our Debtors”

Say for a moment that you had 2 very good friends in Christ. One (before he came to Christ) severely hurt the other & that person had the legal right & expectation to prosecute the 1st person to the full extent of the law. What would you say? Would you get involved at all?

That’s what is going on in this little letter. Philemon was apparently a wealthy Christian in the Colossian area whose slave Onesimus had stolen from him & run away. Onesimus ended up in Rome & (providentially) encountered Paul in prison, who shared the gospel with him & he was saved. That could have been the end of the story, but Paul personally knew Philemon & understood that reconciliation needed to be made between the two men, so he sends Onesimus back with this letter asking for forgiveness on his behalf.

In vs 1-7, Paul laid the foundation for what he was about to ask & wrote very clearly how anything he was about to say was based in Christ & His agape love… [] In the rest of the letter, Paul actually lays out his request & in doing so, models the work of Jesus in intercession – in substitution – in justification – and in grace.

Beyond Paul’s Christ-like actions, what this all serves to underscore is the result of the work of the Lord Jesus in every believer. The core of Paul’s letter to Philemon is this: “The guy who once stole from you & betrayed you isn’t the same person anymore – he’s been changed by the same God who changed you & me.” We are all fundamentally different in Jesus Christ from what we once were (PTL!)…and if that’s not a reason for us to relate to one another in the Church differently from the world, not much is.

Philemon 12-25 (NKJV)
– The introduction…
8 Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, 9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ—

A. This is not a command; it’s an appeal in love. As we saw in vs. 1, Paul did not approach Philemon as an apostle (which he had every right to do), but simply as a prisoner of Jesus…emphasizing their common ground as believers in Christ. It’s one thing to get begrudging obedience from a command; it’s quite another for someone to act because they want to – any parent can relate! [] Paul is coming in the agape love of Jesus & is asking Philemon to demonstrate the same towards his runaway slave…

B. Paul is a prisoner of Jesus; not of Rome. Likely around 60 years of age, Paul is sitting in a Roman prison awaiting trial & chained to a guard 24/7. Even though Rome is indeed persecuting him on behalf of the Jews for his missionary activity, he’s there for one reason only: the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ! …

– vs. 10-14 – the request…
10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, 11 who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.

A. Paul brought Onesimus to Christ… Greek actually holds off on mentioning him until the end of the sentence – attempting to soften the blow…

B. Appeal = παρακαλέω (parakaleō). Sometimes means to “comfort” – used of the Holy Spirit who comes alongside us (Paraclete). Primary Gk definition is “to call to/ beseech/plead.” Basically, Paul is pleading to Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf…he’s interceding for him. In doing so, he’s imitating a key ministry of Jesus & the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes intercession for us in groanings that cannot be uttered (Rom 8:26) – Jesus makes intercession for us at the right hand of God (Rom 8:34) – Jesus always lives to make intercession to God for those whom He saved (Heb 7:25). Ever ask for a prayer partner? God Himself is praying for you…always! …
__a. All this puts praying for one another in a different light, doesn’t it? What a privilege it is to intercede on behalf of one another in Christ! When you pray for one another, you’re engaging in a holy ministry & participating alongside Jesus as He is praying… Never neglect the importance of prayer…

C. There’s a bit of a play on words here. “Onesimus” = “profitable”. Surely after Philemon got ripped off by a slave he paid a lot of money for, he didn’t think this servant was very profitable to him. But now as a helper to Paul, he was very profitable…and thus by extension, he was profitable to Philemon as a laborer in the Great Commission (and simply as a brother in Christ).

12 I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel.

A. What Paul is actually doing: “sending him back…” This was a dangerous thing to do for a runaway slave. Due to the prevalence of slaves in the Empire, the Romans took escape very seriously. Some were branded with an “F” on their forehead (for the Latin equivalent of ‘fugitive’) – others were killed – most were beaten severely. For Onesimus to show up on Philemon’s doorstep was a risky chance – but it’s one that had to be taken.

B. Paul had an obvious fondness for Onesimus…which he’s trying to make plain to Philemon. Basically saying, “Onesimus isn’t just any runaway slave. He’s my son in the Lord, your brother in Christ, and my heart is with him when he’s away.” Showing that Paul cared for both of them.

C. How could Onesimus minister to Paul on Philemon’s behalf? As Philemon’s servant, Onesimus would be serving Paul in Philemon’s place. With Paul in prison, he needed all the help he could get running errands, sending letters, etc. Philemon could serve Paul by allowing Onesimus to serve Paul. Underscores the idea that Onesimus truly was useful & profitable to Paul in the ministry & Paul was sacrificing (in a sense) by taking a chance on Philemon & sending Onesimus back to him.

14 But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.

A. Paul could have kept Onesimus in Rome without Philemon ever knowing the difference… It would have been virtual freedom for Onesimus, and there would have never have been any ‘awkward’ moments or expectations for Philemon. … But Paul wanted to do the right thing the right way…

B. That’s Paul’s desire for Philemon, too! He doesn’t want Philemon to forgive Onesimus because Paul told him to do so; he wants Philemon to forgive him out of joy & compassion & love for the Lord Jesus… It’s doing the right thing the right way…

C. Do we do the same? There are a lot of actions & confrontations we could blast our way through, but although we may be doing something that is justified, our attitude or method could make all the difference in the world… [Moses’ error – Num 20] We need to remember that as Christians, we are always representing Christ…and that applies to us whether we’re around unbelievers or the Church.

– The reason…
15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

A. Interesting contrasts here: “departed/received” – “a while/forever” – “slave/brother.” Everything is turned upside down in Christ! Onesimus had departed in sin & was to be received back in Christ. He had left for a while & now would be in fellowship with Philemon forever because of Christ. He was an earthly slave, but now a beloved spiritual brother in the Lord Jesus. Everything is different because of the work of Christ Jesus…He changes everything.
__a. Jesus makes us new creations! 2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. [] Our spirit was dead, but now is born of the Holy Spirit – we have a new nature & new man – we’re freed from the slavery of sin – we have a new family, new body, and new inheritance…everything is new! We look back on those sins we committed outside of Christ & the price has been paid – what was once as red as scarlet is now white as snow (Isa 1:18).
__b. Does that mean we don’t face any consequences once we repent & are born again in Christ? No…the thief on the cross who trusted Jesus still died next to Him… Zaccheus still made restitution to those he took money from, once he put his faith in Christ… But those of us who are believers ought to be able to acknowledge the new creation of someone else (even one who has hurt us).

B. “for this purpose”: Did God make Onesimus sin? No! But God could use it for His glory & His gospel & to bring Onesimus to repentance & faith… [Joseph, slavery in Egypt… Gen 45:5]

C. Philemon had the right to receive Onesimus as a slave to be punished – but Onesimus was now infinitely more than a slave… (So are we in Christ! No longer slaves to sin…) Instead of looking at Onesimus as a lowly slave, he was to receive him as a brother… (Rupprecht) writing of all three, “Paul was once a rigorous Jew of the Dispersion who advanced in Judaism beyond all his contemporaries. Philemon was a wealthy Asiatic Gentile. Onesimus was the most despicable of all the creatures [ed. Of the time], a runaway slave. They find themselves united in the gospel of Christ. Here is a living example of Paul’s statement that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3:28)” Those previous divisions were done away with – and even if Philemon never gave Onesimus his freedom (which is unlikely), his future relationship with him was to be foundationally & profoundly different than it was before. Why? Because everything is new & different in Christ…

– vs. 17-22 – the motivation…
17 If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me.

A. How would Philemon receive Paul? Certainly not as a slave awaiting punishment or execution! He’d receive Paul as an honored guest – and that’s exactly the intent. In essence, Paul’s giving Onesimus a similar status as Timothy or Titus – as his own representative. … Just one more example of how Onesimus is no longer the same person that fled Colosse – he’s to be received as a brother in Christ & partner in the gospel.

B. How do we receive those who have hurt us? Especially if they are truly in Christ, do we perceive them as an enemy – or a member of the family of God? Christians really have no place carrying grudges…it’s antithetical to the forgiveness we’ve received & the definition of love being longsuffering (1 Cor 13:4).
__a. Keep in mind that none of this means that repentance/contrition isn’t an essential step for the brother or sister in Christ who’s been the cause of the hurt. They (perhaps we, if the case fits) are under the obligation of Christ to go & make things right (leave your gift at the altar – Matt 5:23-24). But whether we’ve been wronged or we committed the wrong, we’re to do the right thing in the attitude of agape love…

18 But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.

A. Paul’s basically giving Philemon a promissory note (IOU). He doesn’t come right out & say Onesimus had been a thief – but if he had, Paul was willing to pay for it himself. And considering his work in bringing Philemon to Christ, Paul’s credit was more than reputable (and his account sufficient).

B. Very reminiscent of 2 core theological doctrines about Jesus: “Imputed righteousness” & “substitutionary atonement” – which are just 2 fancy ways of describing how Christ forgives us before God.
__a. “Imputed righteousness”: If our lives were to be put up as a giant checkbook or accounting spreadsheet before God, then outside of Christ our bank account of righteousness is zero…and worse, our account of sin is off the charts. But when we repent & trust Christ for forgiveness of sin, He takes the sin from our account (wiping it clean) & imputes to us His righteousness (Rom 4:24). As we justify our checkbooks to make the numbers add up, He justifies us by declaring us righteous in Him. This is what Paul’s doing for Onesimus by saying, “I will repay – it’s on my account.” Note Onesimus can’t do anything here – it’s the testimony & declaration of Paul that’s going to make the difference. Same with us & Christ – it’s not our work, but completely His, which He imputes to us.
__b. “Substitutionary Atonement”: By placing himself in front of Onesimus in order to receive the consequences the former slave deserved, Paul also models how Jesus stepped in on our behalf & became our substitution at the cross. We ought to have received the wrath of God because of our sin, but as Isaiah prophesied about Christ, the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:6). Jesus took our punishment in our place – not because He deserved any, but because we did. 2 Corinthians 5:21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. []
__c. Have you thanked God for the work of Christ on your behalf today? That’s one reason we worship! We don’t sing songs to see how good we can sound – we sing out of overflowing gratefulness to God & because He’s so worthy of worship…

C. Is Paul laying a guilt trip upon Philemon here? Certainly could seem that way. I.e…“I won’t mention the fact that you wouldn’t be saved if it weren’t for me, and how that should cover anything I might ask. I could mention it, but I won’t…”  Although it’s difficult to say for certain, I suggest Paul is not going for guilt so much as gratefulness. True, Paul’s missionary efforts were the means behind Philemon’s salvation, but beyond the means – Philemon has been saved. He himself had been forgiven much from God, and thus the relatively minor offenses from Onesimus ought to be forgiven in sheer gratefulness to God. [Peter’s question on forgiveness & the parable of the unforgiving servant…] Matthew 18:32-33 (32) Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. (33) Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ [] We have been forgiven of much! Who among us did not rebel against God Almighty in worship or attitude – or use the lips He gave us to spout lies or blasphemies – or despise His goodness in order to covet everything but Him? We deserved God’s complete and utter wrath, poured out on us for all eternity because we had sinned against our infinite Creator God. As Paul told the Corinthians, we were unrighteous: idolators, fornicators, thieves, covetous, & more – but that’s all past tense in Christ! Now we are washed, sanctified, and justified by the name of the Lord Jesus & the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:9-11). How so? Not because of any action of our own, but because Almighty God forgave us because of the work of Jesus Christ… How could we possibly conceive of withholding forgiveness from anyone else? Our gratefulness to God compels us to forgive!

D. God takes our forgiveness of others very seriously! Lord’s prayer… (forgive our debts as we forgive…) Mark 11:25-26 (25) “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. (26) But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” [] We mentioned grudges earlier…this is the result of grudges in the lives of Christians. Our fellowship with God is interrupted – and although we may not totally understand how this all works, we can be assured that what Jesus is referring to here is not good.

20 Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord.

A. Why would Paul rejoice? Because of the maturity, forgiveness, grace, love, etc. modeled by people within his care…

21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

A. This combined with vs 16-17 (receive him as more than a slave & as you would me) are strong hints that Paul desired Philemon to not only forgive Onesimus his debts, but to grant him his freedom (manumission). Paul’s being very tactful in the way that he asks, but it’s obvious that this is really what he’s asking.

B. Why didn’t Paul address this directly? Nowhere in the NT is slavery condoned or recommended – but at the same time, there’s no direct statement calling for its end. Why? Some scholars estimate that up to half of the Roman Empire was composed of slaves. For Christianity to be viewed as a direct threat to the practice would have been a fatal stumbling block for most people to even hear the gospel at all. At the same time, there’s no mistaking the fact that Christianity laid the seeds for the abolition movement & the eradication of legal slavery in the western world owes a debt to the gospel.

22 But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.

A. Paul’s planning on coming too… Philemon can’t ignore the request or sweep it under the rug. He has to either grant it or deny it & then take responsibility for his decision…

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24 as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. 25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

A. Grace from Jesus to help demonstrate the grace of Jesus…

It may be a little letter, but it’s a powerful one! 🙂 Forgiveness of those who have hurt us isn’t easy (the difficulty generally increases with the extent of pain), but it is necessary. Philemon had every right in the world to be angry with Onesimus & had a legal right to punish him severely. It’s doubtful that a single person in Colosse would have batted an eye if Onesimus had been beaten, whipped, or worse. But the way we live our lives as believers in Christ has little to do with what our culture deems right or wrong & everything to do with what God has done for us through Jesus – and what He expects us to do as believers.

Why should Philemon forgive Onesimus?
A. Because Onesimus was now a brother in the Lord Jesus & not just a slave. He was a completely new creation in Christ. As is every believer…
B. Because Paul was interceding for him, substituting himself in Onesimus’ place & offered to take on Onesimus’ accounts. Just like Jesus does for us…
C. Because Philemon himself had been forgiven & been granted everlasting life. And because he had been forgiven much, he also needed to forgive others… As do we…

Is there someone you need to forgive? It’s easy for us to nurse grudges & rehearse past hurts every time certain people walk up to us… But Christians of all people ought to be forgiving people. Don’t put off forgiveness – every day you do you’re interrupting the full fellowship you could be having with the Lord.

Is there something you need to make restitution for? Or someone you need to seek forgiveness from? Don’t put this off either. As Jesus said, we ought to leave our gift at the altar & 1st be reconciled to our brother, and THEN come back & offer our gift. Maybe there’s someone here you need to seek out…

Most importantly – do you need to seek the forgiveness of God? The wonderful work of imputed righteousness & substitutionary atonement is only applied to those who trust Christ for forgiveness of sins – to only those who have been born again. If that’s not you, then you have absolutely no access to the forgiveness of God – your accounts are overflowing with sin (due to past thoughts & actions & rebellion against God) – and you are to face the wrath of God on your own. But this is the gospel: God loved the world so much that He sent Jesus to die on your behalf, take your punishment & rise again to new life, offering you forgiveness. But you must respond to His offer of grace.


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