The Story of

Philemon and Onesimus

Philemon 1

In matchless grace, God the Holy Spirit has preserved the story of a slave by the name of Onesimus who stole something of great  value from his master, and ran as far away as possible. He ran to Rome where, in the providence of God, Onesimus came under the personal ministry of the apostle Paul who was in prison in Rome. The thief was converted, and was sent back by Paul to his master, Philemon. However, Onesimus did not go back to Philemon the same man, for “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).

When Onesimus returned to Philemon, there were some new, spiritual dynamics to be manifested by each party. For Onesimus, the challenge would be to return to a place of servitude, humbly ask for forgiveness, and make restitution for whatever he had stolen. For Philemon, the challenge would be to receive Onesimus back into his household, and not whip, brand, kill, or sell him, which Philemon had the legal right to do under Roman law. An important Christian principle is established. What is legally right to do in a secular society, can be morally wrong in the kingdom of God.

In addition to receiving Onesimus without retribution, Philemon, as a Christian, would be required to forgive Onesimus.  That would be the most difficult part.  Once a person is unjustly offended, to root out hatred and bitterness in the heart is a divine undertaking. It is made easier when the offending party is repentant with sorrow, accepts responsibility, and changes their behavior. This was something Onesimus did.

To help Philemon receive Onesimus according to gospel terms, the Apostle Paul decided to write a letter to the man he knew in Colosse.  How Paul came to know Philemon is unclear, because Paul never visited the city of Colosse. 

The best that can be deduced, is that while Paul ministered at Ephesus (c. AD 54-57), his sphere of influence was wide enough to reach 120 miles east to Colosse.From Ephesus, Paul was able to lead many men to Christ, first Philemon, and then Onesimus who was also from Colosse.  Now Paul will use specific arguments to persuade Philemon to build a bridge of fellowship with his former slave based upon spiritual principles. 

First, Christians are to forgive because of the reputation associated with their character and conduct. In the opening part of his letter, Paul speaks of the Christian reputation Philemon has.  He is called “dearly beloved” and a “fellow-laborer” (Phil. 1:1, 7).  Philemon’s love and faith towards the Lord, and towards all saints has become well known (Phil. 1:1). 

The only question is whether the reputation is well deserved.  Philemon’s reputation will be well deserved, if it is found to be effectual in expressing actual forgiveness (v. 6). “That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.”

Today the reputation of Christians forgiving one another is a cruel joke. More than one person has observed,   “The church is the only charitable organization that shoots its wounded.” In this area of being kind, the Church needs a better reputation.

Second, Christians are to be gracious because Christ has instructed His followers to forgive one another. The question of authority is called upon in this principle.  In verse 8, Paul states that his apostolic authority provides a basis for the request he is about to make.  Paul will not assert his apostolic authority and demand Philemon receive Onesimus in a kind way, but he holds that apostolic right saying, “Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, 9 Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.”

Many parents can understand this concept.  Sometimes a parent will say to a child, “Because I am your mother” or “Because I am your father, I am asking you out of respect for my authority to do certain things.”

So, Christ comes and says to the Christian, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which use you, and persecute you, That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45). 

Third, Christians are to forgive based on love’s appeal. There is a return to verse 9.“Yet for love’s sake, I rather beseech thee.” Paul appeals, he pleads on bended knees for Philemon to act in a grace rooted in the love of God shed abroad in the heart. Bill and Gloria Gather have written a lovely song which says,

“I am loved,
I am loved,
I can risk loving you.
For the One who knows me best,
Loves me most…”

And there it is.  We can forgive “for love’s sake,” provided a person will put aside their hostility in order to receive it. 

Fourth, Christians are to find Divine grace to forgive because of the rich tradition of forgiving others. Paul speaks of himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ in verse 1, along with “Timothy our brother, … and fellow-laborer.”

Why was the apostle Paul, and Timothy, in prison?  They were in jail for declaring the gospel of redeeming grace in a society that was hostile to Christianity.  Paul suffered many times for telling people about a Saviour from sin.  Paul knew as much about being unjustly hurt as any person in Christendom. Over the years, Paul was bloodied and beaten. He was mobbed and left for dead. He was ridiculed and misunderstood, and still, he writes to tell Philemon to find grace to forgive.

Fifth, Christians are to forgive because of the great trouble it is to bring a soul to the Saviour.  In verse 10, Paul speaks of Onesimus as a son whom he has brought to Christ though in bonds, “I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds.” 

It is hard enough to minister to someone as a free man; it is much more challenging to have an effective ministry while in prison. Then, Paul uses another image to describe the difficulty of bringing a soul to the Savior.

Paul uses the image of intense labor in childbirth to indicate that the salvation of a soul is difficult. 

Because it is so difficult to bring someone to faith, great grace is needed for great sinners.  Perhaps one reason why the Prodigal Son was readily forgiven was because of the agony of heart he gave his father for so many years.When the young man came to himself, the conflicting emotions of anger and happiness, sorrow and joy,  disappointment and pride, vanished with this thought in his father’s heart; “The hard labor was worth it all for my child has come home.”The difficulty of bringing a person to Christ causes rejoicing in heaven because,

“There’s a new name
Written down in glory,
And it’s mine,
oh yes, it’s mine!

And the white-robed
Angels sing the story,
‘A sinner has come home.’

For there’s a new name
written down in glory,
And it’s mine, oh yes, it’s mine!

With my sins forgiven
I am bound for heaven,
Nevermore to roam.”

~C. Austin Miles

Sixth, Christians are to forgive because of the spiritual union that exists among the members of the family of God. Verse 17 explains. “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.”

Christians should treat each other with special consideration, whenever possible.  We are to do good to all men, but especially to the family of God. Christians are to forgive, believing the future will justify any exercising of grace.In the past, Onesimus was unprofitable, but in the future, Paul is confident he will prove to be profitable. Notice verse 11. “In times past, Onesimus was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me.”

This is a pun in Greek, a play upon the word “Onesimus,” which means “profitable.” Paul was saying that, he who was “profitable,” became unprofitable, only to become “profitable” again. There is a bit of sanctified humor in Paul. Every person who lives a Christian life following salvation falls into this category.  They become profitable to God.

Billy Sunday was nothing but another rough and carousing ball player before he met Jesus at the Pacific Garden Rescue Mission in Chicago One night in 1887.Then he became a profitable preacher of the gospel. Millions of people hit the Sawdust Trail under his ministry and were converted.

Mel Trotter was nothing but a drunkard desperate enough to steal the shoes from his dead baby girl, until Christ saved his soul.  Then, in 1897 Mel Trotter, age 27, met Jesus who changed his life. Mel became a great soul winner and a preacher of the gospel.

These marred vessels were made again in the Potters hands and became profitable for His service.

Seventh, Christians are to extend forgiveness because of the love others might have for an individual, verse 2. “Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels.”

Paul states that he hopes Onesimus will be received because he personally has grown to love him.

Paul had thought of keeping Onesimus in his own company, but decided that he could not do that without Philemon’s consent. Notice verses  13-14. “Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: 14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.

Eighth, Christians are to forgive others because of a fundamental change that Christ can produce in others. Philemon has nothing to fear from Onesimus.  He can be trusted—forever. “For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him forever” (verse 15). 

Ninth, Christians are to forgive in order to encourage one another in the sphere of faith.  Nothing will help to mold Christian grace more than to see someone who has been treated unjustly exercising a forgiving spirit. When the story of Corrie, or Betsy, Ten Boon is read in The Hiding Place, the heart’s desire is to want to show grace. This is what pleases Jesus. “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39).

Charles Spurgeon encouraged Christians to have one blind eye, and one blind ear in their journey in grace, so believers do not see every fault in every person, or listen to every foolish word spoken.

Tenth, Christians are to extend forgiveness because of the pleasure it produces in others, verse 20.

“Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.”

Perhaps God will allow us to give someone pleasure someday in a special way, according to gospel terms. Here then are ten principles on which to build, A Philosophy of Forgiveness.

~The Caveat~

Now, in all of this, it must be remembered that forgiveness does not mean past transgressions  are to be passed over without comment, confrontation, or protest. The gospel demands individuals repent of their harmful words and deeds, and their part in hurting someone.

Onesimus had to confess he was a thief.

Onesimus had to feel sorrow for his behavior.

Onesimus had to become an honest man.

The gospel will cover sin by the blood of Calvary, but it will never cover up sin, for which Christ had to die. The evil that men do must be confronted, and a just verdict must be rendered against the guilty whose mouths must be stopped. That too is the will of God (Titus 1:11).

Nevertheless, in all situations grace is to season the conversation. Paul acknowledges that Onesimus is a runaway thief (Phil. 1:18-19).  Yet, Paul speaks of his past temperance with temperance (Phil. 1:11; 1:15). Temperance can be mixed with justice. There is mercy with the Lord. It is because Onesimus was contrite, humble, and willing to make restitution that he should be forgiven.

Some people believe God forgives sins arbitrarily, and so should every Christian.  The truth is that the Moral Lawgiver demands gospel repentance as the basis for divine forgiveness. It is because individuals acknowledge their transgressions, and show remorse, that mercy and grace are free to flow.  The greatest example of this in the Old Testament is Nineveh (Jonah 3:5-10). Because the people of Nineveh repented, the wrath of God was pacified.

Finally, forgiveness does not mean pretending the past has never happened.  Sometimes a verbal or physical injury is committed, and then never discussed again.  That is not right.  It is only a matter of time before the same behavior will re-surface.

What forgiveness does mean is that positive feelings will replace negative feelings of cruelty and hostility. Unfortunately, a wounded heart does not heal suddenly.

What gospel forgiveness means, is that positive thoughts will eventually be emphasized over negative thoughts, as Paul did with Onesimus.

What gospel forgiveness means, is that every effort will be made to communicate and be together again. That, might take time some time. But then, time and distance can be helpful.

As lovely as the story of Philemon and Onesimus is, there is a strong probability that a person who has grievously offended someone else, real, or imagined, who asks for forgiveness, will never find it.

The strength of sin is strong.

The Bible is realistic. 

But where it is possible to have peace, it will come because a philosophy of forgiveness has been considered, and implemented by God’s grace.

Forgiveness is the will of the Father, the example of Christ, and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Forgiveness is not something Christians must tire of extending.

When professing Christians grow weary in well doing, they will move to destroy others in public, after holding many private conversations to gain a secret following.

Now the questions come.

“Do we have a philosophy of forgiveness?” If we do, God the Holy Spirit will give us an opportunity to express it by bringing people into our lives who, from our perspective offend.

“What will we do?

“What have we done up to this very moment?” 

“Are we a forgiving person?”

By God’s grace, may it prove to be true.

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