April 7, 2002

Philemon's Forgiveness Through the Eyes of Colossians

Preacher: Randy Smith Series: Philemon Scripture: Philemon 1:1


Philemon's Forgiveness Through the Eyes of Colossians

Philemon 1-25
Sunday, April 7, 2002
Pastor Randy Smith

Recently, we finished a 7-month verse-by-verse study of Paul's letter to the Colossians. Yesterday, I personally finished a 7-day verse-by-verse study of Paul's letter to Philemon. The reason I chose the obscure (and relatively unknown, yet inspired) book of Philemon is because of its many similarities to Colossians. For example, Paul wrote both letters during his Roman imprisonment, and Tychicus delivered both letters to the Colossian church. Philemon, the recipient of the letter, hosted the Colossae church in his house. Onesimus, the run-away slave, is discussed in both letters. Finally, many of Paul's co-workers: Timothy, Archippus, Epaphras, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke and Mark are mentioned in both letters as well.

There is no doubt that Philemon and Colossians have much in common. The more I meditated on the intimate letter to Philemon, the more I saw the application of a doctrinal issue that we learned from Colossians, namely forgiveness. Therefore, while Colossians is still fresh on our minds and fresh in our hearts, I would like to highlight 2 aspects of forgiveness found in Philemon as we examine them through the eyes of Colossians.

However, before we begin our study, allow me to provide you with some helpful background information to establish the context. As we learned a couple months ago, slavery dominated the Roman Empire. Though Christianity eventually led to the demise of slavery, the biblical writers in the first century set guidelines simply to regulate the relationship between Christian slaves and their masters. We studied them in Colossians 3. Since all are one in Christ, there is neither slave nor freeman. These guidelines were to ensure the equality of men, sanctity of life, dignity of work and, especially, unity in the church.

In our letter this morning, Onesimus, an unbelieving slave, not only stole, but also ran away from his master, Philemon. In hoping to hide amongst the faceless population in Rome (the place where "all things horrible and disgraceful find their way" according to the ancient historian Tacitus), Onesimus somehow came across the Apostle Paul during his house imprisonment. After hearing the gospel, Onesimus was converted to Christianity and began to serve as an assistant to Paul.

However, both he and Paul knew that the runaway slave had a Christian responsibility to return to Philemon. Faced with a major confrontation, Paul sent Onesimus back with this letter in his hand. The letter not only urges Philemon to extend forgiveness by taking Onesimus back without punishment (Roman law permitted capital punishment to run-away slaves), but moreover Paul encourages Philemon to welcome Onesimus no longer as a slave, but now as a dear brother in the Lord.


With this background in place, let's now move on with the lesson. The first point of application from Colossians is forgiveness from God. "For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins " (Col. 1:13-14). "And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross " (Col. 2:13-14).

First observation- God saves sinners. The conversion of the run-away slave Onesimus has always been to me a marvelous demonstration of the incomprehensible and unfathomable love of God. It shows there is no person too sinful that the grace of God cannot reach.

In the first century, slaves were on the bottom of every social list. Slave owners had little tolerance for those who defected. Most slaves were treated as animals, a piece of property, unworthy of any human love, much less the love of God. Like the thief on the cross, how unlikely Onesimus was to be a candidate of divine love. The conversion of Onesimus back then would be synonymous to the conversion of Charles Manson today. Yet the fugitive was saved, while the great men and women of authority, popularity and morality were passed over that day, oblivious to the grace of God calling sinners to Himself.

Onesimus came to Rome to be lost among humanity, but that horrific sinner was found by Divinity. And Onesimus, though vile and rejected by society, will stand blameless before the throne of God, equal with every other sinner clothed in the righteousness of Christ. God save sinners!

Second observation- God saves sinners His way. Why God has chosen to forgive unworthy sinners through the sacrifice of His Son will always be a mystery to us. But nevertheless, the theme of the Bible is redemption. His rescue mission could not be any clearer: to seek and save that which is lost, to call sinners to repentance and to help those who need a physician. Salvation always has been, and always will be, by faith through the blood of forgiveness shed by Jesus Christ. However, the methods God uses to bring sinners to Christ also remain for us a mystery

We all know that Onesimus, before he departed, was the slave of Philemon. Paul seems to go out of his way in this letter to demonstrate that Philemon was a gracious and mature Christian in the Lord. In verse 1 he calls Philemon a "beloved brother and fellow worker." In verse 2 he speaks of the "church" hosted in his "house." In verse 5 he speaks of Philemon's "love" and "faith" which he has "toward the Lord Jesus", "and toward all the saints." In verse 7 he speaks of the refreshment (used elsewhere to speak of a military rest) that Philemon has brought the "hearts of the saints".

No doubt Philemon faithfully witnessed by word and deed to his slave. No doubt Onesimus heard and observed the gospel first hand. But in our account this morning, Onesimus was converted by a non-family member imprisoned hundreds of miles away. It has always puzzled me as to why Onesimus was not converted under Philemon's ministry in Colossae.

We so often think that if our unbelieving spouse or unbelieving children do not get saved through our witness that all hope is lost. But we do not know the eternal plans of God. You may say, "I shared the gospel with my son for 18 years, and now he has left the home. If he rejected the gospel from a parent, why should I think he'll listen to a complete stranger?"

So often we underestimate the providence of God. How do we know that our son or daughter won't come across an Apostle Paul in Rome? Why do we disbelieve that God may use a complete stranger to bring him or her to salvation? We can't follow our children, but the Spirit of God can. And maybe their departure, like it was for the Prodigal Son, is the remedy used by God to compel the sinner to come to himself, consider his ways and seek a merciful Savior.

Self-righteous people don't see a need for a Savior. As with Onesimus, God in His sovereignty (and mercy) allows sin to be visible that people may seek Him for forgiveness. I love the way Paul expresses this in verse 15, "For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever." Even Paul was unable to see the providential hand of God. He was suggesting to Philemon that possibly Onesimus' departure was for the purpose of exposing his sin. And God, through the situation used His sovereign power to triumph over sin and bring forth good from evil.

Third observation- true salvation produces fruit. Unlike so many conversions today, God's grace in the life of Onesimus was proven through deeds of repentance. Both he and Paul knew the rightful thing to do was to return to Philemon, offer an apology and make reparations for the wrongs committed. Though God forgives us for all our past sins upon conversion, He often calls us to make the human compensation within our power. And the fruit of that compensation proves the validity of our repentance and genuineness of our salvation.

Do you remember Zaccheus? His account is mentioned in Luke 19. "And He entered and was passing through Jericho. And behold, there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; and he was a chief tax-gatherer, and he was rich. And he was trying to see who Jesus was, and he was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. And he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, "Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house." And he hurried and came down, and received Him gladly. And when they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, "He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." (See the parallel? Jesus-with the sinner Zaccheus, Paul-with the sinner Onesimus) And Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, (Here's the repentance-making things right-fruit) "Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, (assurance evidenced by his fruit-no mention of a prayer) because he, too, is a son of Abraham. (Here's the rescue mission-vs. 10) "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Lk. 19:1-10).

Like Zaccheus, Onesimus proved the sincerity of his salvation through deeds of repentance. What a tremendous way to extol the glory of God in His power to change a heart. Contrast the man, who once robbed, with the man who now gives. Putting off and putting on (Col. 3)! Because of God's grace, Paul can exclaim in verse 11, He "who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me." What a vivid demonstration of the power of God all to His praise and all to His glory!


In addition to being forgiven by God, Onesimus needed to be forgiven by the church, namely Paul and Philemon. As Onesimus (now as a Christian) is responsible to extend the same forgiveness he received from the Lord to others, others need to extend the forgiveness they received from the Lord to him.

The second point of application is found in Colossians 3. "And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you " (Col. 3:12-13).

Acceptance by Paul

First, how did Paul forgive Onesimus? It may seem strange that we would even consider Paul in this equation. After all, it was ultimately Philemon who was wronged by Onesimus. But how easy it would have been for the Apostle Paul to ignore a filthy, uneducated criminal. How easy it would have been to distain one who wronged his personal friend, Philemon. How easy it would have been to at best see Onesimus converted, but then refuse the dirty-work of disciplining this barbaric creature in the Lord.

Rather, in sharing the love of Christ, Paul believed the best about this young man. He forgave him, and eventually saw him develop into a prolific servant for the kingdom. In verse 10, Paul called Onesimus a "child" whom he had begotten. Like Timothy, Onesimus had the honor of being one of Paul's spiritual children. In verse 11, Paul says Onesimus is "useful" to him. Since the name Onesimus means "useful" Paul engages in a play on words. In other words he says, "Useful was formally useless, but now Useful is useful." According to verse 13, Onesimus proved his usefulness by ministering to Paul. Paul found Onesimus to be a faithful co-worker and as hinted in the letter, Paul even wished to retain him for future ministry. In verse 12, Paul says that sending back Onesimus was sending his "very heart." The normal Greek word for heart is kardia; however, here Paul uses a different word (splagchnon), which conveys the idea of feelings and compassion. Paul had taken him in and found him to be a dear friend to know and love. In verse 16 (and Colossians 4:9) Paul called Onesimus a "beloved brother" in the Lord. The man was more than a slave; he was one of the family!

Historical evidence suggests that Onesimus developed into a great man of God. Fifty years later when Ignatius was transported from Antioch to Rome to be executed, he wrote letters to certain churches. In writing to Ephesus, he praised their Bishop Onesimus, and even made the same pun on his name! Though we cannot be dogmatic, most historical scholars believe that this is the same man who earlier was a run-away slave.

There is no doubt that Paul accepted this misfit before his conversion. He also accepted him after his conversion in strong fellowship through a partnership of ministry.

Acceptance by Philemon

Even though Paul would accept Onesimus, his acceptance by Philemon was a different story. After all, it was Philemon who Onesimus wronged through theft and abandonment. According to the laws and customs of the time, both were capital crimes. Philemon would have been expected to execute his rebellious, run-away slave if the two were to ever meet again. If not executed, the best Onesimus could hope for was a large "F" branded on his forehead which stood for Fugitivus (Fugitive), or a "CF" for Cave Furem (Beware of Thief!)

Though society clearly called for these responses, Paul knew that a repentant fellow brother in the Lord should not receive the death penalty or an insulting tattoo on his forehead. But was Onesimus returning as a slave or as a brother? It was exactly this tension that prompted Paul to compose the letter to Philemon. No doubt the theme that runs through this masterful piece of diplomacy is Philemon's need to forgive Onesimus and to forgive him as a brother in the Lord. Let's look at Paul's argument.

First, rather than exercising his apostolic authority, Paul pleaded with Philemon to do that which was right. "Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do that which 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, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus" (vs. 8-10). But without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will (vs. 14). Though a Christian who refuses to forgive is committing a blatant and rebellious act of disobedience toward God, Paul wanted to see Philemon obey from the compulsion of his own heart rather than from a command from the authoritative Apostle. When God changes our hearts in Christ, He enables us through the Word and His Spirit to do what would otherwise be impossible: the flesh demands vengeance, the Law demands justice, but grace makes biblical forgiveness possible. This was a test for Philemon before his entire church. This was an opportunity for Philemon to publicly glorify the Lord. Paul wished to see Philemon compelled from love through faith to do that which is proper.

Second, Paul reminded Philemon of the changed status of Onesimus' heart. "Who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me" (vs. 11). "For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should 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" (vs.-16). Though Christians have a responsibility to forgive all people, the forgiveness of fellow Christians is especially important if we as a church wish to maintain the harmony, unity and peace of Christian fellowship.

Imagine Paul saying, "Philemon, he's a brother in the Lord! He's proven his salvation through faithful ministry with me! He's proving his salvation by returning and standing before you right now in seeking reconciliation. Take him back; he's one of the family. And there are no outcasts or second class citizens in this family!"

Finally, Paul expresses his optimism that Philemon will do what is right. 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" (vs. 20-21). Paul knew this godly man could be counted on. He could be counted on to obey the commandments of the Lord. He could be counted on to set an example for the church. He could be counted on to maintain the unity of the Colossian church. He could be counted on to bring great joy and blessing to the heart of Paul. Godly people can be trusted to do what is right when faced with a test.

I wish I were there 2,000 years ago. I can imagine Onesimus standing before Philemon and possibly the entire church that met in his home. The converted slave, tears running down his face, seeking reconciliation. Had Philemon refused to forgive, he would have demonstrated a selfish heart to the saints and marred the testimony of the church to a watching world. I am confident with Paul that surely forgiveness flowed that day. What a tremendous lesson of love and selflessness was learned by all. Oh how God is glorified through such actions.

CH Spurgeon in summarizing both the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness for others once said, "Remember that your brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom you find so much fault, are God's elect. And if He chose them, why do you reject them? They are bought with Christ's blood, and if He thought them worth so much, why do you think so little of them? Recollect, too, that with all their badness there are some good points in them in which they excel you. They do not know so much, but perhaps they act better than you. It may be that they are more faulty in pride, but perhaps they excel you in generosity. Or if perhaps one man is a little quick in temper, yet he is more zealous than you. Look at the bright side of your brother, and the black side of yourself, instead of reversing the order as many do. The lesson is this: as your heavenly Father has pity on you, have pity on one another. Jesus, the Compassionate One, covers our sins with the mantle of His love! Be as tender towards those who sin as the Master is. He remembers that we are dust; remember this of others. I will not find fault with you, my friend, if I can help it, because you will one day be without fault before the throne of God! If God will so soon remove your faults, why should I take note of them? I will not peevishly complain of the 'rough stone'; for I see it is under the Great Artist's chisel, and I will tarry till I see the beauty which He brings out of it."

Because Christ has forgiven us, we have all the motivation we need to forgive others. Just as Christ accepts us imperfect rebels, we are called to accept others. Just as Christ forgives us without limits, we are to do the same for others. We are to be like Christ, beloved! And we are never more like Christ than when we forgive others from the heart. Then, God can be glorified as we reveal that forgiving heart which seeks to love others more than we love ourselves.