I was recently challenged to pray for those who have hurt us, such as with the example of praying for Muslims in response to the 9/11 attacks. I think one of the toughest parts about that, however, is that in order to truly pray for another person (or people), there has to be a significant level of forgiveness that you have reached with them. In other words, can we pray for Muslims with a pure heart if we still hold grudges against them? I don’t think so. Let me share a story I heard of that happened a few years ago; it will bring this down to the personal level.
In Iran, it is standard practice for families of murder victims to oversee the execution of murderer of their family member. They are also given the choice to pardon the offender. Such was the fate of a young man who had already served seven years for killing 17-year-old Abdollah Alinejad in a street fight, according to The Associated Press.
In May 2014, Samereh Alinejad watched as a noose was slipped around the neck of Bilal Gheisari, her son’s killer. This was her chance to have the vengeance she’d waited seven years to have. Instead, she and her husband stepped forward at the last minute and removed the noose from his neck. Gheisari’s death sentence was commuted and he will finish serving a 12-year prison sentence instead.
Forgiveness is a powerful thing. But how does that play out in life? Sure we all would like to have the love in our hearts as shown by the Alinejad family, but is that practical? In fact, I wonder how Onesimus felt walking up to the front door of the house of his master (whom he ran away from), preparing to face the wrath of Philemon. How confident did he feel in his chances of being forgiven? Today we are going to take an in-depth look at the Letter to Philemon and see what true forgiveness is all about.
Why was this such a potentially volatile situation? Let’s dig into the background and find out.
- Onesimus was a slave (bondservant), but worse a runaway slave. Evidence shows that he skipped out on Philemon and his work, along with possibly stealing goods at the same time. He became a believer and worked with Paul.
- Slavery, as discussed in the NT, was not like we understand it now. People were not really kidnapped or forced into slavery. When a person needed money, it was common for them to sell themselves into slavery for a time so they could earn the money they needed to pay back their debt. It was a choice and a way to make an income. It was a voluntary giving up of certain rights for the monetary gain. In fact, that term could possibly be used for people who are tied to long-term jobs now.
- Paul had never been to Colossae. He heard of them, and was a father of their faith because of those whom came from him to found the church there, but he was not directly involved.
- Onesimus, along with Tychicus, were the ones who delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossians (Colossians 4:7-9). Research seems to show that Philemon lived there, meaning that Colossians and Philemon were delivered to the same city at the same time.
- Since Paul had never been to Colossae, it stands that he most likely had never met Philemon, and the language used in the letter asserts that premise.
- Colossae, as a city, was well past its prime. Income inequality had become common place, as most of the trading opportunities had moved on to nearby Laodicea. That probably added to the sting Philemon felt when betrayed. Philemon, as the owner, was fully within his rights to do as he saw fit to Onesimus.
With that background in mind, we need to put ourselves in the Philemon’s shoes. After all, the letter was written to him, so we need to understand him as best as we can so that we can come to the best response for us.
IMAGINE PHILEMON SEEING ONESIMUS WALKING TOWARDS THE HOUSE – I bet that he immediately went to pulling out the punishment or torture equipment and was going to make extra sure Onesimus couldn’t escape again! With retribution for Philemon that close at hand, how hard would it have been for you to stop and read this letter that Onesimus hands to you?
ARGUMENT OF WORDING
Paul knew this letter had to be worded perfectly and he setup an argument in this letter that makes an amazing case for the benefit of everyone. Most Bibles have this book laid out in a different structure, but let me offer a way of looking at this letter that might make more sense.
- Building Rapport with Philemon | v4-9
- REPEATED WORDS – familial language – Paul was pressing, starting with the first verse a strong family connection between him, other workers in Christ and Onesimus. 7 times in this letter a familial term was used to describe someone, including Onesimus. Another 6 times Paul used descriptive words that are almost as strong as family, such as fellow worker, or partner.
- KINDNESS – Paul’s tone here is different than we are used to from him. His tone is gentle and his words uplifting – the opposite of his usual direct nature. He knew he couldn’t just tell Philemon what to do, he had to make him want it.
- Persuasion Argument | v10-19
- APPEAL OVER COMMAND – Paul makes a significant distinction of not telling Philemon what to do, but to ask (even though Paul would have the authority to command).
- PRISONER/SLAVE – the other set of repeated words refers to being locked in – whether it be prison or slavery, of which Paul uses to tie a direct line from Paul to Onesimus, and references freeing him from his ties, just as Christ freed us from our ties to sin.
- FINAL COMMANDS – the commands at the end of the letter are for Philemon to see Paul as he looks at Onesimus and treat him as such.
- Emotional Appeal | v20-22
- CONFIDENCE – Paul ends it with confidence that Philemon will do the right thing.
So what was Philemon’s intended response? He was to take Onesimus back and forgive completely, holding no charge or grudge against him. What Paul wanted from Philemon is pretty clear. The question is, how do we understand the application for us (our intended response) through the instructions for Philemon?
- Forgiveness does not consider the grievance | Notice what Paul does NOT talk about in the letter. Onesimus’ sins are not discussed. We can infer a few things, but it really doesn’t matter. That’s not what is important. Forgiveness is an action that takes place inside the offended and is not dependent on the offender’s actions.
- Forgiveness is not about the offender | While a refusal to forgive would have been a hindrance to Paul, as it seems he had future plans for Onesimus, that’s not the reason to call on Philemon to forgive. Take a closer look at verse 20 – Paul wants benefit from Philemon. Philemon must get past this “roadblock” for him to be useful (as Paul says in other places). Philemon is the one at the fork in the road – Onesimus was already faithful in delivering the letter. It was the wronged party that had to deal with the anger in their heart and let go.
I had to be able to forgive God and my parents for having this disease. Though no one was actually to blame, as it was no one’s fault, I had to be able to forgive so that I could get past that roadblock and grow in my relationship with the Lord. As we prepare to pray and finish up our time here today, I ask you to consider who you may be holding a grudge against. Regardless of who was right, regardless of how serious it was, regardless of how long ago it may have been, I believe God is calling you to let it go. Forgive, let your heart be free, and open yourself back up to the Lord. Consider Paul’s argument for forgiveness and the depths of what Philemon had to forgive – not to mention the depths Jesus went to in order to forgive you – so that you can let go of anger in your heart and turn your eyes back on God.