Philemon 1-3 - A Lesson On Forgiveness
Tonight, we are going to begin a study of a brand new book in the New Testament, the book of Philemon. And I want you to turn to it; it's just very brief, one chapter, 25 verses, a lesson on forgiveness.
Of all of the human qualities that make men in any sense like God, none is more divine than forgiveness. God is a God of forgiveness.
In fact, in Exodus chapter 34 God identifies Himself in that way. Verse 6 says, "Then the Lord passed by in front of Him and proclaimed," this is the Lord speaking of Himself, "The Lord, the Lord God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness and truth who keeps loving kindness for thousands who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin." He says I am the God of forgiveness. That is who I am.
Solomon said in Proverbs 19:11 that, "It is a man's glory to overlook a transgression," Man is never more like God than when he forgives because God is never more like God than when He forgives.
Luke 15:11-32 - Now the theme of forgiveness is obviously throughout the Scripture emphasized. One of them that may be the most familiar is the story of the prodigal son.
1. So Jesus tells us what the heart of forgiveness is like: it is eager, not reluctant, it doesn't even wait for the sinner to arrive. In fact, when you see him coming far away, you run to meet him and you embrace him and kiss him. And when he starts to say he's sorry, you hardly listen to that, you don't even give him time to finish, you just embrace him, love him, put him in your best outfit, put a ring on his finger, get the best meat out of freezer, cook up the best meal you can put together, start the music, rejoice with your friends and proudly invite everybody to come to the celebration of your son that has come back. That's how God forgives. That's how He wants us to forgive.
2. The Lord also gives us a warning: The Lord warns us also from that story of the prodigal son that such forgiveness will be unappreciated, such forgiveness will be misunderstood. You say, "How is that?” Well you do remember, don't you, that the son who never went anywhere didn't appreciate this at all and was angry with his father for being so forgiving (v.25-32).
From that story we learn how God forgives...eagerly, totally, lavishly. Jesus taught us to pray "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"? Those words tell us that God's forgiveness of us is based on our forgiveness of others.
James put it this way in chapter 2 verse 13, "There will be judgment without mercy for those who have not been merciful themselves."
Or to take it in a positive note, the Beatitudes say, "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." You want mercy? Give it. You want forgiveness? Give it and forgive like God for you are never more like God than when you forgive.
Listen again to the words of Jesus in His disciple’s prayer of Matthew. Matthew says it this way, "Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors." And then he says, "For if you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive men then your Father will not forgive your transgressions." You don't forgive, you don't get forgiven.
Now when Paul was in his first Roman imprisonment he wrote several letters, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians. We call those "the prison epistles" because they were written from prison. Ephesians and Colossians interest us because they are tied in to this little letter of Philemon. In both Ephesians and Colossians there is a major emphasis on the matter of forgiveness. I want to show that to you so take your Bible for just a moment and look at (Ephesians 4:32).
And here the Apostle Paul say to all of them and to us, "Be kind to one another, tender hearted...here's the same principle...forgiving each other just as God in Christ also has forgiven you."
In Colossians chapter 3, he says, "We are to be bearing with one another and forgiving each other whoever has a complaint against anyone just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you."
Now if you pull all of these together you get the very clear idea that God is a forgiving God and you are to be forgiving people. That's basic. In fact, God has forgiven you, so you should forgive. That's one principle. The other one is God will forgive you if you do forgive.
And so, on the one hand the Scripture says God has forgiven you therefore forgive, and on the other hand the Scripture says if you don't forgive God won't forgive you and you will have violated the relationship, the fellowship that you could enjoy with God.
The Lord has forgiven all of us all of our sins and therefore Paul says we should forgive each other. And if we don't, we're going to be chastened by God. That's plain and simple the message.
3. Now, this principle is given very clear perspective in (Matthew 18:21-35).
a) This principle is illustrated in a parable.
(1) Matthew 18, Peter says to the Lord, "If somebody sins against me...verse 21...and I forgive him, how many times do I do that? Seven?" The rabbi said three so Peter thought he was being very generous. Jesus said in verse 22 of Matthew 18, "I do not say to you up to seven times but up to seventy times seven." In other words, you forgive as many times as someone sins against you. Just keep on endlessly forgiving. And then He tells a parable that makes the point.
b) And it's a parable that depicts God and the sinner.
(1) v.23-25 - The king in the parable is God. The man who owes the big debt is the sinner. That's an unpayable debt, massive debt he could never pay. The debt was too much to pay but if all these people were sold into slavery at least the king could get something. The man had obviously defrauded him. Probably one of those servants who was a tax collector and who had charge over great sums of money and had defrauded the king and now had lost it all and had no means to pay. And he said, "Well, if I can't get what I owe, I'll get what I can. So sell all of his family into slavery and at least give me that."
(2) v.26-27 - He had a right heart, he had a willing spirit even though he couldn't have done it, his intention was right. "The lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.” That's God and the sinner. When the sinner comes before God and is convicted about his unpayable debt, he's convicted about his sin and God tells him you have no means to pay me, you should be sent to hell; you should pay whatever you can pay even though you could never pay me what you owe me. And that's what hell is; by the way, it's spending forever paying what you could pay which never does pay the debt you fully owe because you've affronted God so greatly as one who rejected His Son.
(3) v.28-30 - But this king is compassionate and when he sees the man's willingness, he forgives him the debt. Now here comes the point. And the people who would be listening to Jesus tell the story at this point would be absolutely outraged.
(4) v.31-35 - This is unthinkable. Here is a man who has been forgiven a massive debt who turns right around and won't forgive somebody a small debt. "When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him his lord said to him, You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you asked me. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow slave even as I had mercy on you?” And there's that principle. You want mercy from God, you show mercy. You want forgiveness from God, you be forgiving.
c) Whom the Lord loves He disciplines.
(1) That parable is so severe that there are many people who conclude that the principle Jesus teaches couldn't possibly apply to a Christian. But it does. Because the man who wouldn't forgive the slave was a forgiven man, that is God had already forgiven him, he is a child of God.
(2) But what it tells us is that the Lord will sometimes deal very harshly with His own children who will not forgive someone else, whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and every son He scourges, Hebrews 12 says.
(3) And one of the reasons He disciplines and scourges us and makes life very trying and difficult is because we have an unforgiving heart towards someone. Christians then are to forgive. That is the principle taught in Scripture, that is the principle illustrating the character of God in the parable of the prodigal son, and that is the principle illustrated in this parable to be true of every believer. This is a matter, I think, not only of blessing and fellowship with God, but it's also a matter of the assurance of salvation.
Thomas Watson wrote many years ago a very interesting statement. He said this, "We need not climb up into heaven to see whether our sins are forgiven. Let us look into our hearts and see if we can forgive others. If we can, we need not doubt that God has forgiven us."
And so, there is a principle in Scripture and that is this, you are never more like God than when you forgive. And such forgiveness should come easy because you have been forgiven. And if you do not forgive, then you'll put yourself in a position to be chastened by God severely. Now the priority of forgiveness is not only given in Scripture in principle, it's not only given in Scripture in parable, but it is given in Scripture in personal terms. And it's in the book of Philemon. Let's look at it.
II. The Cause for Writing this letter.
A. Philemon & Onesimus
1. The man Philemon.
a) Philemon’s background.
(1) During the Apostle Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, Philemon had been led to saving faith.
(2) Philemon was a prominent member of the church in Colossae and in (v.2) we would understand that the church in Colossae met in Philemon’s house.
(3) He was active in serving the Lord because Paul calls him a “fellow laborer” (v.1).
(4) He also owned at least one slave named “Onesimus”.
2. The slave Onesimus.
a) Onesimus’ background.
(1) First of all… his name means “useful.” He was a slave…. a non Christian… and ran away from his master… and may have even stolen money (v.18).
(2) Through circumstance unknown to us, he met the Apostle Paul in Rome.
(3) He & Paul became very close to one another (v.12, 16). Paul would have loved to keep Onesimus there with him; however there was a matter that needed to be settled.
(4) Onesimus was a criminal, because he was a runaway slave. By running away from his master, he cheated him of his services and to send him back would be a big risk.
(5) Roman law gave the power of the master over his slave… the alternative of life or death. Slaves back then were crucified for far lighter offenses. A thief and a runaway had no claims to forgiveness.
(6) Runaway slaves could be branded with an “F” on their foreheads (for fugitive) or even beaten.
(7) Because Onesimus was willing to go back to his master and take the chance of being beaten or even put to death, speaks of the genuineness of his faith!
(8) Paul is now going send Onesimus back to Philemon under the protection of Tychicus along with a letter (the one we are reading) urging Philemon to forgive Onesimus and receive him as a new brother in Christ.
Paul entreats Philemon to put into practice the principles taught in (Eph.4:32) which says "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you." (Ephesians 4:32)
As well as the principles taught in Col.3:13 which says "bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. " (Colossians 3:13)
Here in the shortest letter of Paul's inspired writings is the major issue of forgiveness laid out not in principle, not in parable but in a personal case. The prodigal son, not a true story. The king and the servant, not a true story. Those were simply parables fabricated by Christ to make a point. This, a true story. Now we're going to see the principle flesh out. Let's read the first three verses.
! III. The Nature of One Who Forgives (v.1-7)
A. Introduction (v.1-3)
1. Our Society.
a) Our society see’s forgiving people as weak and unforgiving as strong. The movie industry exalts those who take vengeance on others. And I would say, lack of forgiveness is the leading cause of breakups in the family relationships.
(1) For a Christian to be unforgiving is unthinkable. Unforgiveness as a Christian is a blatant act of disobedience to God.
Let me remind you of Ephesians 4:32 where the Apostle Paul says "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you." (Ephesians 4:32)
He also reminds us in Colossian to be "bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. " (Colossians 3:13)
(2) For a Christian to be unforgiving produces bitterness. The longer a person dwells on some offense that has been committed against them, the more bitter they become. Bitterness is not just a sin, but an infection.
The writer of Hebrews advises "See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; " (Hebrews 12:15, NASB95)
Bitterness will devastate the marriage relationship because it cuts off the kindness and affection that needs to exist for a healthy marriage. A root of bitterness often produces the weed of divorce.
(3) For a Christian to be unforgiving gives Satan an open door. Most of the ground that Satan gains in our lives is due to lack of forgiveness
Paul warns the believers in Ephesians 4:26-27 “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.”
To the Corinthians he wrote, “Whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2Cor. 2:10–11).
(4) For a Christian to be unforgiving hinders fellowship with God.
Our Lord solemnly warned, “If you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:14–15).
2. Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ (v.1a).
a) Paul identifies himself.
(1) And Paul says, "I am a prisoner of Jesus Christ." He never identifies himself in that way to start with in any of his other epistles. Usually he wanted to identify himself as an Apostle, as having been called by God as a servant of Jesus Christ to lay down some authority on them, to emphasize his calling and emphasize his authority.
(2) This, however, bears no such necessity. He is not laying some authoritative message on the church; he is speaking tenderly, personally, warmly, compassionately to a friend.
(3) The Romans thought he was a prisoner of Rome. They had captured him. They had incarcerated him. He was under their authority. But from his vantage point he was a prisoner of Jesus Christ. He was in prison because Christ put him there, not because Rome put him there.
(4) On a number of occasions in (Eph.4:1; 6:19-20; Col.4) he refers to himself as a prisoner. But it was for preaching Christ and it was for the sake of Christ and it was by the will of Christ that he was a prisoner.
(5) And he is saying this to Philemon, and I think it's very wise because what he is really saying sort of subtly to Philemon is, "Look, Philemon, if I can do this for Christ, can you do for Him what I ask? If I can bear the harder task of being in this prison, can you do the easier task that I'm going to ask you to do, and that is to forgive?"
(6) He's very wise, Paul. He's very tactful. Because as soon as Philemon hears the word "Paul" his love begins to well up. And as soon as he reads "a prisoner of Christ Jesus" his eyes may fill with tears as he thinks about this beloved man that led him to Christ, this great Apostle bearing the pain and agony of imprisonment. And as he thinks about all that Paul has suffered to bring the gospel to people like him, it's bound to have an effect on his willingness to do what Paul asks him to do.
3. ‘…Timothy our brother...’ (v.1b).
a) Timothy is not a co-author.
(1) Timothy is just a present companion...a brother in Christ. But there are others with Paul that Philemon might have known. If we were to put together all the names that Paul mentioned while he was in Rome, there was Tychicus, Epaphroditus, Aristarchus, a fellow prisoner, there was Mark, there was Jesus Justus, there was Epaphras, there was Luke and there was Demas.
(2) Why doesn't he talk about these guys? Why doesn't he make some reference to them? Well he does at the end of the letter. But at the very beginning of the letter he mentions Timothy, all the rest of them he mentions at the end of the letter.
(3) Why? I believe it's because Timothy is often singled out in the introductory part of a letter because Paul knew that some day he would pass the baton of spiritual leadership primarily to the hands of Timothy and he wanted to set Timothy in place as one who had the role of leader. And so he identified Timothy closely, very closely, with himself.
4. ‘To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer’ (v.1c).
a) Philemon (v.1c).
(1) As noted earlier, Philemon was the owner of the slave Onesimus and almost certainly a resident of Colossae. He was brought to a knowledge of the gospel through the Apostle Paul (19), and held a prominent place in the Christian community (4–7).
(2) Philemon was a wealthy member of the Colossian church. The Colossian church met in his house, and he was active in Christian service.
(3) Now, most of the people in the Roman Empire who became Christians were slaves.
(a) Some of them were freemen, that is slaves prior and now free.
(b) Few of them were wealthy, not many noble, not many mighty.
(c) And wherever you had a wealthy person that was converted, they had a house. Slaves and freemen didn't have such things. Most of the freemen lived in apartments or single rooms and paid a modest sum. Wealthy people owned their own homes.
(4) So here is a man of some means who has the church meeting in his house.
b) Beloved friend (NASB brother) and fellow laborer (v.1c).
(1) Brother – brother—refers to a person who has the same parent. Epaphroditus was born of God by placing his faith and trust in Jesus Christ.
John writes in his Gospel chapter (1:12), "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name." (John 1:12, NKJV)
Just a side not, the Scriptures declare that your spiritual parent is either God or Satan. Jesus says "You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it." (John 8:44, NKJV)
(2) Fellow laborer or worker is a word used by Paul for those who had worked beside him in the cause of Christ (Rom.16:3; 2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25; Col. 4:11).
In Colossians 4, the Apostle Paul says "Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’s cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him); and also Jesus who is called Justus; these are the only fellow workers for the kingdom of God… and they have proved to be an encouragement to me." (Colossians 4:10-11, NASB95)
He also says this of a man by the name of Epaphroditus, in (Philippians 2:25) he says "But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need." (Philippians 2:25, NASB95)
(3) Epaphroditus was a fellow worker.
What does Jesus say in Matthew 9:35-38 about laborers? "Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”" (Matthew 9:35-38, NKJV)
And those of you who are laboring, let me remind you to "not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart." (Galatians 6:9, NKJV)
Continue to be "steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." (1 Corinthians 15:58, NKJV)
(4) Paul and Philemon’s friendship probably developed during Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. In this letter, Paul puts that friendship on the line for the sake of the spiritual principle of forgiveness and reconciling Philemon and Onesimus.
5. Our beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier… the church in your house (v.2).
a) Apphia and Archippus (v.2a).
(1) Apphia – no doubt Philemon’s wife
(2) Archippus – who was probably their son. Paul describes Archippus as a fellow soldier, which shows he was also actively involved in the ministry (Col.4:17).
b) Our fellow soldier (v.2b).
(1) What Is A Soldier?
(a) A soldier is enlisted in the army (2Tim.2:4). When you put your faith & trust in Jesus Christ you were enlisted in God’s army.
(b) A soldier endures hardship (2Tim.2:3).
(c) A soldier is engaged in warfare (1Tim.1:8)
(d) A soldier does not entangle himself in the affairs of this life (2Tim.2:4).
(e) A soldier must refuse to allow the things of the world to distract him (James 4:4 cf. 1 John 2:15-17).
(2) What Are The Weapons Of A “Soldier” Of Jesus Christ Use?
(a) The Weapon are not carnal but Mighty In God (2Cor.10:4-5).
(b) The “Armor Of God” (Eph.6:10-18).
(c) By living a godly life separated to God, that is an awesome weapon.
Paul says to not present “your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God." (Romans 6:13, NKJV)
!!!!! (3) Archippus is also mentioned in (Colossians 4:17). He is commanded to take heed to his ministry that he might fulfill it. We don’t know what ministry Archippus had but there is a similar passage in (2Tim.4:5).
c) The church in your house (v.2c).
(1) Now, even though it was a private letter he wanted it read to the church in Philemon’s house. Why? So that the whole church would hold Philemon accountable for this and that they would all learn the lesson of forgiveness and that they would all know how to treat the forgiven man.
6. Grace… peace… God our Father… the Lord Jesus Christ (v.3).
a) Grace and peace.
(1) Grace, the means of salvation; peace, the result of salvation.
b) God our Father… the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1) The union of those two together would be blasphemous if Jesus were a man or an angel. This must be understood as an affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ. If Jesus were a man, to make that kind of combination would be blasphemous.
(2) If Jesus were an angel, to make that kind of combination would be blasphemous, for it is saying that grace which saves and peace which is the result of it comes as its source from God and the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore they must be divine, both.
(3) And thus does Paul introduce his letter...the only one of his prison letters to an individual.
7. Conclusion of introduction.
a) Purpose of this letter.
(1) …to demonstrate the nature of Christian love.
(2) …to reveal the working of God's providence.
(3) …to give principles for the maintenance of good Christian relations.
(4) …to reveal the effect of conversion on culture and society. In other words, many believe this letter is an attack on the institution of slavery and the purpose of Philemon was to tear down slavery. Well certainly the principles of Philemon will have an effect upon the abuses of slavish relationships, no question about that.
(a) But it must be noted, because this last one is the most popular approach, seemingly, that no place in Scripture is there any effort ever made to abolish slavery. And at no time did any prophets or preachers or teachers or apostles of the New Testament ever attack slavery.
(b) But any call to righteous living, any call to holy love, will eliminate the abuses that are any social system. In fact, quite the contrary, there are throughout the New Testament many texts where slavery becomes a model of Christian principle, slavery becomes a picture, as it were, as we are related to God as His slaves and His servants. And repeatedly whether (Eph.6; Col.4; 1Tim.6:1, 2, or 1Pet.2:18), slaves are told to be obedient, submissive, loyal and faithful to their masters no matter how they act, and masters are told to treat their slaves with love and equity and kindness and fairness no matter what they might do. So while nothing attacks the institution of slavery, everything in Christian principle attacks the abuses of any social system, including slavery.
!!!! b) Christianity introduces a new relationship.
(1) Christianity introduces a new relationship between a man and a man, a relationship in which external differences don't matter and we are one in Christ:
Paul says in Ephesians 6:5-9 "Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him." (Ephesians 6:5-9, NASB95)
Paul says over in Colossian 3:11 that since we "have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him— a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. " (Colossians 3:10-11, NASB95)
We read in (1Timothy 6) that "All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles." (1Timothy 6:1-2, NASB95)
Peter writes "Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable." (1 Peter 2:18, NASB95)