Let’s go back to the book of Philemon tonight. This is a final look at it; and really it’s, for tonight, just the closing portion of this book. Let me read the book to you again, because I want you to have it in mind.
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints: and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.
“Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you – since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I’ve sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I didn’t want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 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.
“If then you regard me as a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.
“At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greet you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Now we’re into this story pretty deeply. For those of you who haven’t been with us, it’s a marvelous little letter written by the apostle Paul to a friend of his by the name of Philemon, in whose house the church of Colossae met. Philemon had a slave by the name of Onesimus, and Onesimus obviously had a good master. The character of Philemon is laid out in verses 4 through 7. He was a noble Christian master who, no doubt, treated Onesimus very well, cared for him, protected him, provided for him; and it was a safe place for him to be. But Onesimus apparently was lured and seduced by the world outside, and so he became a runaway.
He ran away from Philemon. He ran with, perhaps, some of Philemon’s goods, so he was a thief in the process. He ran to Rome to get lost in the crowds; and somehow in the providence of God he ran into the apostle Paul. And he heard the gospel from Paul, he became a believer in Christ, and then he became helpful to Paul. Onesimus means “useful,” and he became useful to Paul. Paul knew, however, that he couldn’t keep him in Rome; he needed to send him back to Philemon, and he needed him to go back and seek Philemon’s forgiveness. He needed to go back for reconciliation and restoration and restitution.
So Paul sends him back, sends him back with Tychicus. Tychicus has the letter to the church at Colossae, and Philemon has the letter – or rather Onesimus has the letter to Philemon. Paul writes in this letter that Philemon would have received from the hand of his runaway slave. Paul has written in this letter, “You have a responsibility to forgive this man.” This is a letter calling for forgiveness; and that’s what we’ve been learning as we’ve gone through the letter in the last several weeks.
Now I’ve been saying that forgiveness is a wonderful and lovely reality. It is the most noble relational act that one person can do for another. We could talk about loving one another, and there are many ways to manifest that love; but none is more powerful and none is more manifest than forgiveness. You know, Jesus put it this way: “You’re never more like God than when you forgive your enemies.” Forgiveness is a magnificent, noble act, the noblest act that can be done on behalf of those who have done you evil.
Listen to what Ephesians 4:32 says: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, as God in Christ has also forgiven you.” You are to forgive, as God has forgiven you.
How did God forgive us? God forgave us by making the promise that our sins would never be remembered again, that they would be covered, that they would be buried in the depths of the sea, that they would be removed as far as the east is from the west, that they would be remembered no more, never to be brought up against us, never to be held against us, never to be used to condemn us. And that’s the way we are to forgive. You are to forgive just as God in Christ has forgiven you, with complete forgiveness, where you bury the offense in the depths of the sea, where you remove it as far as the east is from the west, and that’s infinite, where you, as much as is humanly possible, forget about it all together. That’s how we are to forgive.
Now what does that forgiveness mean? What does forgiveness really mean? We may have a hard time not recalling the offense. But what does forgiveness mean? It means that even though you recall it, you never bring it up. You never bring it up in your own mind, and you never bring it up to cultivate it in your own mind, and to sort of arouse animosity and thoughts of bitterness and vengeance.
It is a promise to forget, practically. It is a promise to bury. It is a promise to remove the wrong done against you. And it starts in the heart; and the heart says, “I will hold no vengeance, I will hold no bitterness, and I will desire eagerly, lovingly, longingly to see a full restoration of the sinner to the one offended.” Now, look, forgiveness does not necessarily mean there will be reconciliation. We are to forgive. The reconciliation will only come when the sinner comes back and seeks the reconciliation, the restoration, and the restitution.
If you truly forgive, your heart holds love toward that person. If you say you’ve forgiven someone, then the attitude in your heart is an attitude of love. It’s an attitude of affection. It’s an attitude that says, “I want only the best for that person. I want only goodness for that person. I realize that until that person comes to me and confesses the sin and repents of the sin, the relationship will never be restored, we will never be reconciled.” The real full forgiveness will not take place in its ultimate and reconciling redemptive sense.
But in the meantime, my heart holds no grudge. In the meantime, my heart holds no bitterness. My heart reaches out to that person only in love, and wishes only the best. This is the kind of forgiveness Jesus illustrates on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” They weren’t even asking for it. But He had already made it available. He expressed the absence of personal vengeance against the people that put Him on that cross, the people that treated Him the way they did. In His heart is this magnanimous, forgiving love. And even though no one is asking for it, He is asking the Father to forgive them, to make available to them forgiveness, forgiveness to those who hated Him, those who executed Him, forgiveness to the penitent sinners who were so hostile and cruel to Him.
He Himself preached forgiveness, He preached forgiveness. We looked at it in the Sermon on the Mount. So whether or not there is a reconciliation and a restoration, whether or not there is really a sort of a reconstitution of a relationship of any kind, still it is Christlike and godlike to put forgiveness out there and make it available to the penitent who reaches out to receive it.
So our text is a story about this kind of forgiveness. It’s a loving letter; and we’ve gone through a lot of the essential elements of forgiveness. Forgiveness is most gracious, it is most gentle, and it is most practical, because it is the absence of forgiveness that in the end destroys every relationship that is destroyed.
So Paul is lovingly asking Philemon, who is his brother in Christ, whose home is the location of the Colossians church; he is asking Philemon to forgive this runaway slave Onesimus, who has come back now to Philemon to seek reconciliation. One would hope that he had already forgiven – Philemon had already forgiven Onesimus, because it’s right to forgive in your heart even before someone comes back and asks, as I’ve been saying. But just to complete the reconciliation, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon.
Now we saw the opening statement; just a very typical Pauline introduction. The letter is from Paul, and Paul has Timothy with him. Paul is a prisoner. He wrote four letters from prison, from incarceration in Rome: Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, and this letter to the man Philemon.
He writes to Philemon, a beloved brother, fellow worker. He refers to his wife Apphia and their son, who was also in the ministry, Archippus. He wishes them grace, which is the reason we’re saved; and peace, which is the product of that salvation from God and the Lord Jesus Christ. And then in verses 4 to 7, he spells out the virtue of Philemon. He says, “I know you’re the kind of man who will forgive, I know that. You are a man for whom I am thankful to God always. And whenever I pray and you come up in my prayers, it’s always thanks, it’s always thanks. I thank my God always, because of your love and your faith which you have toward the Lord and all the saints. And I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in your for Christ’s sake.”
And goes on to talk about this man’s impact on others. “I have come” – says Paul – “to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. You are a life that refreshes people, so I’m asking you to forgive, knowing that you’re the kind of man who forgives. It’s consistent with your spiritual character.”
Then we saw, starting in verse 8 and running down through verse 18, the very components of forgiveness; and we looked, first of all, at the reception, “Receive Onesimus when he comes;” at the restoration, “Embrace him, give him forgiveness;” and at the restitution, “Whatever he owes you, whatever he has done to defraud you, charge it to my account,” – he says in verse 18 – “and I’ll be his substitute, and I’ll pay his debt,” as Christ has paid all our debts.
So here we have seen something of the character of a forgiver, something of the characteristics of forgiveness, the components from our last message. Now, tonight, as we come to verse 19 to the end, I want you to see the motives for forgiveness, the motives for forgiveness. And I would grant you that they’re not explicit here; they’re sort of tucked under the surface in these final words.
Starting in verse 19 you have very simple language, and you might just kind of read this and run by it, and not feel the impact that I think the Holy Spirit would want us to have. And that’s why it’s here. Nothing is wasted; no word of Scripture is unimportant. All Scripture is profitable if you look at it closely enough, you can discern the prophet.
So, first of all – and I’m going to give you five or six principles that should motivate our forgiveness. Principle number one, principle number one: the recognition that I owe someone a debt I cannot pay. One of the motives for me to forgive somebody else is the reality that I owe others debts I will never be able to repay.
But I just am so moved by Paul’s beginning in verse 19. Why this deep into the letter does he say, “I, Paul”? “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand.” Why does he say that? Go back to verse 18.
“If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, any cost that you accrued by having to deal with him running away and stealing from you, charge that to my account.” And then to make sure that Philemon knew Paul was serious, he picks up the pen, in verse 19, and he writes, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it.” That’s his signature on his promise. He gives a personal signature. He’s probably, as he usually did, dictating his letters to somebody who wrote them down. But now he picks up the pen.
He did the same thing in the Colossian letter. He dictated the letter up to chapter 4, verse 18, and then he says, “I, Paul.” And we find that even in others of his letters, where at the end he puts his own signature. Here it’s his own signature to sort of authenticate the letter. But, perhaps, more than that, it’s a way of signing a blank check for Philemon, and he can fill it in. Whatever Onesimus owes, Paul will pay.
He’s signing to make restitution for Onesimus. Onesimus is a runaway slave. He has no money. He has nothing with which to bring restitution. Restitution is important in forgiveness, Paul knows it. He knows the runaway slave doesn’t have anything, so Paul steps in for him and takes his place as his substitute.
Now here’s this point. Philemon should be reminded. He should be reminded as he thinks about why he should forgive Onesimus. He should be reminded that whatever debt Onesimus owes him, he, Philemon, owes a greater debt to Paul. Look at the end of verse 19: “not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well.” That is a very, very compelling statement. What does it mean?
Philemon is not just a man who is owed a debt, he’s a debtor who owes somebody else a far greater debt. Whatever Onesimus owed him was far less than what he owed Paul – right? – because Paul was the one who led him to the knowledge of Christ. Beyond the material or financial debt that Onesimus owes Philemon is the spiritual debt that Philemon owes Paul. Paul had given him the gospel and led him to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Paul says, “Take Onesimus’ debt, put it on my account. I’m signing a blank check; that debt will be covered. And just remember, you ought to be eager to forgive and to receive my payment for that debt, because you owe me far more. I was the one that God used to deliver you from death and hell eternally.” The principle is really simple. “Since you owe such unpayable debts to others who have generously benefited you with the richest of spiritual blessings, and they don’t demand any payment, can’t you forgive the obligations that people incur against you?
I think about that from a personal standpoint; I don’t say much about myself on a personal level. But as I look back over my life, I’m in debt to so many people that it’s staggering. It is just absolutely staggering. First of all, grandparents, parents, family; the greatest gift God ever gave me, Patricia; children; friends, teachers, through elementary school, coaches who taught me discipline; godly pastors, elders; so many of you who have loved me, who have treated me kindly, who have prayed for me, who have given me your wisdom, who have enriched my life with your kindness and your fellowship, who have ministered alongside of me. There is absolutely no possible way to even list all the people to whom I owe an unpayable spiritual debt.
I’m in debt. I’m in debt to dead people, a lot of dead people. I’m in debt to the apostle Paul. He’s my spiritual hero. I’m in debt to great leaders in the history of the church. I’m in debt to many precious Christians who wrote books that changed my life and shaped my teaching and shaped my ministry. I could never repay that. I owe debts that it is impossible for me to pay. Now if somebody crosses me, harms me, is unkind to me, am I so blind to what I owe that I can’t forgive a small offense?
No matter how many times I am personally offended, it is but a small amount compared to the massive debt I owe to so many others, that I can never ever pay. Can I not allow gladly some material debts to go unpaid, and with a full heart forgive that person? That’s a motivation to forgive. Remember that you owe debts that are vastly beyond what anybody owes you, by far more people. You ought to be eager to forgive.
There’s a second motivation to forgive in this text. It’s the recognition that you can become a blessing to others. Look at verse 20: “Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.” He’s saying to him, “Look, if you will forgive this man you’ll bless me. That will be a blessing to me.”
“Yes, brother,” – that’s endearing; that shows Paul’s kind-heartedness – “let me benefit from you in the Lord.” Paul is saying, “Why don’t you be a blessing to me. And if you forgive Onesimus, that will bless me.”
Paul had already come to love Onesimus, whom he had led to Christ. He had been with Onesimus. Onesimus had served him, been useful to him. The “me” here is emphatic in the original. “Yes, brother, me benefit from you in the Lord. Think of what your forgiveness will mean to me. Because I love you, and because I love Onesimus, think of what your forgiveness will mean to me. Let me benefit.”
By the way, that’s the same word as the name “Onesimus.” It’s another play on his name, “useful.” “Let me be blessed by you in the Lord,” spiritually benefitted, and spiritually blessed. When we forgive someone else, others will be blessed, others will be refreshed in heart, because you are demonstrating a spiritual grace. You are manifesting a spiritual virtue.
Philemon is told to do what’s right because of how it will benefit and encourage and bring joy to the heart of another believer who seeks the Lord’s honor. When you forgive someone, all the believers around you are blessed. All those who seek the honor of the Lord, and know the virtue of forgiveness, and know that God has commanded forgiveness, and is honored when you forgive are therefore blessed. As we live in the body of Christ, as we fellowship together, we share the joys of our common virtues.
His joy was bound up in the obedience of others. That’s a kind of pastoral joy, isn’t it? His joy was bound up in the obedience of others. I will tell you that the sorrow, the greatest sorrow for pastors is not, Paul says in 2 Corinthians, being whipped and beaten and shipwrecked; the greatest sorrow for pastors is the care of all the churches, because, “Who sins, and I don’t feel the pain? Who is weak, and I don’t feel the weakness?”
As pastors, yes. But even as family and friends and fellow believers, we are all blessed when we see a believer behaving in a virtuous way. Paul says to the Philippians in chapter 2, “Make my joy complete.” What a statement, verse 2: “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not look out for your own personal interests, but for the interests of others.” “Be humble, loving, caring for others;” – and that embraces forgiveness – “therefore, make my joy complete.” Sort of like John said; he had no greater joy than to see his children walking in the truth.
“Refresh my heart.” I love that statement at the end of verse 20, “Refresh my heart in Christ.” He said something similar back in verse 7 when he said about Philemon that, “The hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. You have a reputation of refreshing other believers by your virtue, by your spiritual devotion, by your love, by your humility, by your pursuit of unity, by your sacrifice, by your kindness, by your goodness, by your gentleness, your humility. Now do it again. You have refreshed the brothers,” – it says in verse 7 – “now refresh me.” Paul is refreshed when Philemon acts in a way that honors God.
Wonderful to think about; the forgiveness of Onesimus by Philemon will bring spiritual joy and refreshment, because Paul loves them both. Failure to forgive will burden Paul, it will sadden Paul, it will trouble Paul’s heart, because he loves them and cares that they be godly. Any failure to fully forgive, any failure to fully restore would also injure the church of Colossae meeting in the house of Philemon. It would mar his ministry and misrepresent the power of the gospel to those outside the church. “Do for me what you’ve been doing for the brothers. Refresh us all; refresh me by giving forgiveness and full reconciliation to Onesimus.”
Two good motives then to forgive. One, “You owe more than you can pay. You have a debt you will never ever be able to pay. You owe far more to people than anybody could ever owe to you.” Number two, “You can bless the saints and refresh their hearts, because they long for your fellowship in godly virtue.”
Now another motive surfaces in verse 21, and here it is, the recognition that I am called to be obedient to the Lord. Look at verse 21: “Having confidence in your obedience,” – he just goes right to the point – “having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.” The recognition that forgiveness is an act of obedience. It is an act of obedience.
Paul’s confidence here, by the way, comes from the character of Philemon laid out in verses 4 to 7. The obedience refers to his submission to the will of God. “I know you submit to the will of God. I know” – in the language of Philippians 2:12 – “that you work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” It’s more than responding to Paul – and that’s what we’re seeing here. “It isn’t just that I want you to do it for me; it will refresh me. But I want you to do it, and I have the confidence you’ll do it, because you are one who is obedient to God. You will obey the Lord in the matter of forgiveness.” We’re commanded by the Lord to forgive, Matthew 16: “If you don’t forgive each other, I won’t forgive you.”
Luke 17, it couldn’t be more explicitly stated by our Lord, and I think it’s verses 3 and 4, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” Just keep forgiving, and forgiving, and forgiving, and forgiving, and forgiving, seventy times seven it states in Matthew. We are called to this relentless and repeated forgiveness.
So he is saying, a third motive to forgive is the motive of obedience to the Lord. “You are commanded to forgive. And since I know you, I know” – he says in verse 21 – “you will do even more than what I say. Somehow, you’ll push this forgiveness thing over-the-top. It won’t be some minimal kind of forgiveness, ‘Yeah, uh-huh. Well, I forgive you, but you’re going to pay.’ It won’t be that. It’ll be the kind of forgiveness in the story of the prodigal where the father throws his arms around him, kisses him on the head, puts a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, a robe on his back, and holds a celebration for him. It’ll be that kind of magnanimous, over-the-top, rich forgiveness.
“I know you’ll do even more than what I say, more, a more magnanimous forgiveness, a prodigal son type party; more in the sense that you will put him in a responsible place back in your home, and more. You’ll even put him in a responsible place in ministry in the church in your house.” There are so many possibilities as to what ‘more’ means, voluntarily, without coercion. Because of your obedience to the Lord and your love for him, you will obey the one who commands you to forgive, and you’ll go over-the-top.”
And that’s really what obedience should be, shouldn’t it? I mean, it should be this willing, lavish, eager, loving, gracious, magnanimous kind of obedience. And that is how we should actually obey everything that God has called us to do with that same kind of total commitment.
There’s a fourth principle here, and it comes in verse 22: “At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I’ll be given to you.” This is a very compelling motive. Here’s the motive: “Get a room ready, I’m coming, and you’re not going to be able to hide whatever you did.”
This is another motive: I am accountable to godly leaders. I’m accountable to godly leaders. “Prepare me a lodging. Oh, by the way, I’m coming to visit you. I’m coming to be with you, to spend time with you, fellowship with you.” Just a gentle reminder that the apostle was likely to find out absolutely everything that Philemon did.
This is gentle compulsion. This is not a threat, I really think this is a promise. This is a promise. Paul is still a prisoner, so it’s an optimistic promise. He says, “Don’t just expect me,” – this is really interesting – “don’t just expect me, I hope that through your prayers I’ll be given to you.” In other words, “Don’t just expect me; pray me out of this prison, pray me out. Pray me to your house.”
God’s sovereign will is worked through believers’ prayer, right? James 5:16, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Prayer is the means very often through which God does His work and works His will. So he says, “You be praying for my arrival. That means that you’re going to have my coming on your mind constantly, ‘He’s coming. He’s coming. I’m praying for his coming, praying honestly, “Lord, bring him, bring him, bring him.”’” That puts some gentle pressure on Philemon to do the right thing, because he’s going to have to give an account to a spiritual leader in his life.
Spiritual accountability is a very healthy thing. Spiritual accountability is a very healthy thing. In your marriage, you hold each other that way, spiritually accountable. Your children you hold spiritually accountable. Friendships that have any real impact spiritually have a certain kind of accountability. They set down a certain kind of expectation that helps you conform to the standard that honors God, because you know there’s someone watching.
All the evidence says, by the way, that Paul was released from prison, and he made more missionary trips. This was not his final imprisonment; that came later, where he lost his head in Rome. There was the answer to this prayer, and he was released; and, perhaps, certainly from what he says here, when he was released he showed up at the home of Philemon. You must consider then as you live your Christian life how those over you and those who are your spiritual accountability will perceive your behavior.
So what motivates us to forgive? Well, first of all, the realization that I am in debt to so many people at such a vastly higher level. I certainly, I certainly can tolerate someone who owes me far less, and eagerly forgive. Secondly, if I forgive, I’ll refresh the brothers. Thirdly, if I forgive, I am being obedient to the Lord who called me, and I’m honoring Him. Fourthly, when I forgive, I am demonstrating a sense of accountability to my spiritual caretakers.
Number five reason to forgive: the recognition – and this has kind of been woven through all the others – but the recognition that I’m not alone, but I’m setting an example. I’m not alone, I’m setting an example.
When you forgive magnanimously you set an example. How does that get conveyed here? Look at verses 23 and 24: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers.” Five men send their greetings to Philemon in this letter.
Now who are these five men? They are five men mentioned in chapter 4 of Colossians. Chapter 4 of Colossians, verse 10: “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; also Barnabas’ cousin Mark,” – and then in verse 12 – “Epaphras, who’s one of your number, a bondslave” – or a slave – “of Jesus Christ, and then Luke,” – verse 14 – “and then Demas.” Here are five men from that church, or have had some association with that church – Luke obviously accompanied Paul. But these are five men who know Paul and who know Philemon.
Epaphras probably converted under Paul – likely the founder of the churches in the Lycus valley: Colossae, Laodicea, Hierapolis – was himself a Colossian. He is called “my fellow prisoner in Christ,” so he must have been a captive also. And then there’s Mark, writer of the gospel of Mark, a cousin of Barnabas.
Then there’s Aristarchus, “my fellow prisoner.” He was associated with the Thessalonians, was with Paul at Ephesus during his third journey and a long stay there. He was even captured in the riot in Ephesus. He was with Paul, by the way, on the voyage to Rome, in Acts 27.
And then there’s Demas, “fellow worker,” Demas, fellow worker, who we know at the end of Paul’s life, 2 Timothy 4, deserted him, having loved this present world. So one of the five was a kind of Judas.
And then there’s Luke, the beloved physician, a Gentile Christian doctor, author of the third gospel as well as the book of Acts. Luke was often Paul’s traveling companion.
Five men, they all knew Philemon, they all knew the church at Colossae, and Paul is giving all these names to him to say, “All your friends are watching. All your friends are watching.”
Forgiveness is compelled then, because I have to consider that I owe debts I could never repay; that by forgiveness I can become a blessing to the saints; that I am called to forgive, because that’s obedience to God. Forgiveness demonstrates accountability to spiritual mentors, and forgiveness lets me set an example to not let sin interrupt pure friendships and fellowship.
And then, finally, finally, there is the motive that comes from the recognition that I must be empowered by the grace of God, verse 25: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Isn’t that wonderful that that is there? “You don’t want to go out and do this in your flesh.”
This benediction is so familiar, it is a prayer that divine grace may be granted to Philemon and all his family. “So the church” – because with your spirit is plural – “with you, your family, your church, I’m praying for divine grace to be poured out into your life and through you to your family, and through your family to the church.”
What is not likely and not welcomed, and maybe sometimes not even possible in the flesh or by the law, is possible by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ working in your spirit; you forgive. You must recognize the motives for forgiveness. “You owe more than you could ever pay. Why can’t you forgive someone who owes less? You must recognize that your act of forgiveness blesses the saints. Your act of forgiveness is obedience to God. Your act of forgiveness recognizes the accountability you have to those who shepherd your soul. Your act of forgiveness sets an example for others to see, so that the fellowship is not interrupted by sin, and your act of forgiveness is a demonstration of the power of divine grace operating in your spirit. And since the Spirit is alive in you and grace is operative, if you don’t forgive, you’ve prevented it from doing what it supernaturally does.” Now that’s how Paul wraps up Philemon – motives to forgive.
I want to close by having you turn to 2 Corinthians chapter 2, 2 Corinthians chapter 2. I cannot resist this final little addendum. This is a parallel illustration of forgiveness, and it’ll serve well to wrap up our study. Let me start reading in verse 5, 2 Corinthians 2:5, I’ll read down to verse 11.
“But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree – in order not to say too much – to all of you. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. For to this end also I write, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. But one who 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, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.”
Now let me tell you what’s going on here. False apostles had come to Corinth and influenced some of the Corinthians. Paul visited Corinth, came to the church in Corinth. One of the Corinthian church members influenced by the false teachers shamelessly stood up and unjustly accused Paul, openly blasted away at Paul. Paul told the Corinthian leaders to confront the man and call him to repentance. Discrediting Paul’s apostolic authority openly like that was serious. It had to be dealt with so that others would see the consequence of such an assault on the instrument of Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul.
In this letter, 2 Corinthians, we are told that Titus reports back to Paul, and said, “The man was repentant. The man was confronted and the man was repentant for his sin.” However, in that report was also the information that some of the faithful Corinthians were not satisfied that the penalty was severe enough. They said he assaulted the apostle Paul openly, and just forgiving the man when he repented is not enough. That is too severe a crime. And, remember, in Corinth there was a Paul party, a Paul faction: “We are of Paul.” So no doubt, those people wanted a lot more inflected on that man than just an easy forgiveness.
So here Paul writes back to them and says, “Stop. Stop the unforgiveness. Stop. Don’t add more sorrow.” – verse 5 – “Don’t add more sorrow. Sorrow that you heap on this man, just remember this: if any has caused sorrow, he’s caused sorrow not to me.” Paul is minimizing that.
Let me tell you what forgiveness does: it ends self-pity. “I don’t take this thing personally; it’s not important to me. If he’s caused sorrow, he’s caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree – in order not to say too much – to all of you. I’m sorry for you having to deal with this; but don’t think you need to defend me by heaping severe punishment and unforgiveness on this man.” Forgiveness ends self-pity.
And then forgiveness grants mercy. Look at verse 6: “Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority. He’s already been disciplined, he’s already been confronted, he’s already repented; that’s enough. The majority have agreed; don’t let a minority keep inflicting pain on him, the pain of unforgiveness.” The punishment was enough. So forgiveness ends self-pity, and forgiveness grants mercy.
Verse 7, he says, “On the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” Forgiveness seeks – listen – the penitent sinner’s joy. Forgiveness seeks the penitent sinner’s joy.
Verse 8 says, “I urge you, reaffirm your love for him.” What does forgiveness do? It ends self-pity, it grants mercy, it seeks joy, and it pleads for love. And it’s agapē there, the highest, noblest kind of love. “Show him love, open, public love.”
Forgiveness further, verse 9, demonstrates obedience in all things. When you forgive you’re being obedient. Verse 10, forgiveness ends vengeance: “But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything,” – and he’s discounting it – “I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ.” “It’s so minor. I’ve even forgotten it. I’m not even sure that it matters.”
And then this important comment in verse 11: forgiveness thwarts Satan, “so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, we’re not ignorant of his schemes.” You know what one of his schemes is? To divide the church, to have people at each other’s throats because of the lack of – what? – forgiveness.
No. Forgiveness ends self-pity, grants mercy, provides comfort and joy, pleads for love, demonstrates obedience, ends vengeance, and thwarts Satan. So that’s a second lesson on forgiveness.
Now how did the story of Philemon end? Well, I would imagine that Philemon forgave Onesimus. Wouldn’t you? Pretty convincing argument Paul laid before him, and the kind of man he was, and now that Onesimus was a brother. And I’m sure that Philemon forgave Onesimus, or maybe the letter would never have landed in the New Testament, because there had to be a history of what happened; and the early church would have known it. The whole church would have known this precious story and its ending. And, oh, by the way, it is a common name; but history records that a man named Onesimus became the pastor of the church at Ephesus; maybe the same man. Such is the power of forgiveness.
Father, we are so blessed again to enjoy the richness of Your precious Word. We love it. We cherish all of it. More than that, we long to know it, to embrace it, to obey it, to proclaim it, to adhere to it, to be faithful to it in every sense, from the depth of our being. And the more we know about Your Word, the more we love it, the more it opens up to us, the more it transforms us, the more precious it becomes to us.
Thank You for bringing Paul again and, for the first time, Philemon and Onesimus into our lives to teach us the importance of forgiveness. And may we have lives marked by magnanimous forgiveness no matter what others might have done to us. May we forgive one another as You, O God, have forgiven us in Christ. This is our prayer. And that way we can bring honor to Your name. It’s in that name that we pray. Amen.