Now the story line of the Book of Philemon, or more literally the letter to Philemon written by the apostle Paul, is this. Paul is in prison in Rome and as chance would have it, he encounters a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus. Not that such a thing would be unusual since most criminals sought to lose themselves the masses in the big city. But what is more than coincidental, Onesimus is from the household of a dear friend of Paul by the name of Philemon. Now it is possible that Onesimus fled to Rome in search of Paul, we aren’t told. But whether Paul’s relationship with Onesimus grew from a chance meeting or was planned, it would grow into a close personal relationship before long. But more importantly, Onesimus came to trust in Christ for his salvation and deliverance as a result. Onesimus, I’m sure saw and seized upon the opportunity to improve both the condition of his soul and the circumstances of his life. Paul however sees Onesimus as something more than just one more soul salvaged for Christ. Onesimus has the potential to be a valuable asset and means for the spreading the good news about Christ, and using his life testimony to move others to faith. Therefore, Paul decides to appeal to his dear friend and fellow “soldier” for Christ, Philemon, to allow Onesimus to play a more useful role in God’s plan. In fact, the name Onesimus means “useful” and will be used as a play on words later on in Paul’s letter.
Now keep in mind that Paul was in prison at the time and his options with regard to Onesimus’ status, as a runaway, were limited. It may be more accurate to describe Paul as being under house arrest in Rome, a privilege he most likely would have been granted as a Roman citizen. The image of him being locked in a dark dungeon, as he had been before, was likely not his fate in Rome. Paul was allowed to receive visitors and send messages under the watchful eye of a Roman guard until his fate was decided. Ordinarily, in those days, Paul could have taken custody of a runaway slave and in keeping with the law, return him to his master. This of course was impossible under the circumstances, so Paul did the next best thing. He decided to send Onesimus back, but not before making an appeal on behalf of his new friend, to his old friend, Philemon. But why address the letter to his wife as well; because it was the custom of the day for the lady of the house to be in charge of the servants. Her input would be considered and valued in any decision made regarding Onesimus; both as to his freedom and any restitution that may be demanded for his release from bondage.
The residence of Philemon and Apphia was most likely one of the biggest in the neighborhood, the home of a well to do gentile family and the ideal site for Sunday services. This would have involved a meal, fellowship, prayer and of course, the reading of Paul’s letters. The letter to Philemon was also addressed to someone named Archippus, who some have suggested was Philemon and Apphia’s son; but whether true or not, Archippus was someone important to the family, Paul and the church having been mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians as well. It is likely that his input regarding the fate of Onesimus would be considered as well. These are the circumstances and the players, so let’s look closer at what makes this letter important us today.
Most of us, as children, were taught the necessity of forgiveness and if we had brothers and sisters the lesson had to be repeated time and time again. And if your childhood experience was like mine, you were also required by your parents to apologize to the one you offended or harmed. It didn’t really matter if you meant it; it was done because it was the right thing to do. I can remember many of times plotting to get even with my brother for the humiliation of being blamed for our altercations. But as the minutes passed or perhaps hours, it was just like the old saying, “forgive and forget; time has a way of healing old wounds.” As a kid, I think this strategy worked because it had more to do with having a short attention span and becoming distracted by things that were either more important or more fun. The trouble with this strategy is that it may work for seven year olds, but as adults it has little chance of real and lasting success. Time does have a way of helping us to forget and gaining perspective. That is unless we are forced by our circumstances to be confronted by unresolved hostility on a daily or regular basis. If the person, who was the focus of our anger, lives under the same roof, sleeps with us in our own bed, or works beside us daily, time may not be the great healer, in fact, it may make matters worse.
I have known many married couples, my own included, who have said I’m sorry to each other, with all sincerity, in hope of diffusing an explosive situation. But sadly, after the confession and apology, the shouting may have stopped, but the relationship is still as fractured as before. Most often, both combatants retreat to their corners like prize fighters, until the bell rings again and the fight continues. That is until one or both are too tired to continue; at least for today. Every day then begins where yesterday left off, both in their respective corners waiting for the bell to ring again. You go off to work or to the store in the hope things will have magically changed while you were apart, but it doesn’t. So why does a sincere and heartfelt apology so often come up short in resolving conflict and strife? Doesn’t the bible teach us that forgiveness is essential in resolving conflict? The answer is yes, but what we say and do before and after the, “I’m really sorry,” is what will dictate success or failure. This is what is at the center of Paul’s letter to Philemon and Apphia. Paul describes this in 2Corinthians 5:18 as the “ministry of reconciliation” for just as we must be “reconciled” to God because we have failed in our relationship with Him, we must also reconcile with others when we fail in our earthly relationships. If we refuse, it will be impossible to enjoy the benefits of forgiving and being forgiven.
If you read Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon carefully, you will notice that Paul never makes a direct appeal for Philemon to forgive Onesimus; neither is the word reconciliation used. Instead Paul lays out a carefully worded “appeal” on Onesimus’ behalf, but appeal for what? Obviously, the appeal is for forgiveness and reconciliation but instead of directly asking or even demanding it (v.8), Paul makes his appeal “on the basis of love (v.9).” Paul begins his letter telling Philemon that he remembers him in his prayers because of the love he shows to others and that because of his demonstration of love, he, Paul, enjoys “great joy and encouragement (v.7).” Paul finishes his thought by crediting Philemon’s show of love as having “refreshed the hearts of the saints” or in other words, having motivated and encouraged others around him to do the same. Paul’s letter is preparing Philemon for what is about to laid at his feet, an act of forgiveness and a request for reconciliation that without love of God, may be impossible to carry out. The love that Paul is commending Philemon for having demonstrated in the past is the same love that will be necessary in facing his new dilemma. It isn’t brotherly love or the passionate and emotion filled love that may exist between a man and a woman. It is the love that God holds for each of us. It is by definition the willingness and desire to place the interests of another before our own; it is selfless and sacrificial love.
As you read the following thoughts of a fictional character, see if any them sound familiar.
“I suppose that was his best effort and I should be grateful, but somehow I’m not. In fact, I don’t feel much different than before he apologized. If this had been the first time he’d done it…well, I might feel differently but heaven knows it wasn’t. His behavior in fact seems to have gotten worse lately, not so much by degree but it seems he refuses to think of me before he speaks or acts. I certainly deserved more than, ‘I’m sorry and I’ll try to control myself in the future.’ If he thinks this is the end of it, he’s wrong…dead wrong! I deserve more and if he wants to sleep in this house, he’s going to have to prove to me he’s really sorry.”
Let me begin by exploding a few myths regarding the process of forgiveness and reconciliation from God’s perspective, what he saw and felt from the cross. A good place to begin is with what Jesus said to his Father after he had been mocked and condemned by the same crowd that just hours earlier had cheered him as he entered the Holy City of Jerusalem. “When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him…the people stood watching and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, he saved others, let him save himself…the soldiers also came up and mocked him. (Even) one of the criminals who hung there with him hurled insults at him (Luke 23: 33-39).” So what was Jesus’ response? “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Myth #1 An apology is necessary before we can forgive and be reconciled with another.
Before providing you a very compelling illustration, let’s get a few definitions down. The act of forgiving someone is something we learned as children, but we often did it, not because we wanted to, but because we were told to by an adult, usually someone in authority like a parent or teacher. To forgive someone simply means pardoning or setting aside a grievance against someone for something they have done to us, or someone or something we care about. It’s usually preceded by a confession of guilt but not always. I have watched convicted men on TV reality programs, which deal with crime and punishment, tell the families of someone they have been convicted of murdering, “I’m sorry for your loss” but never admit their culpability in the crime. The one essential element seems to be the “I’m sorry” or apology. But do you really think the convicted man’s apology or confession, assuaged the anger and hostility the family felt toward him? It is rare indeed when forgiveness is granted without an apology and confession, yet is it essential to the process of forgiveness and reconciliation?
In Psalm 103, David describes God’s forgiveness of men who have sinned against Him as having their sin put away, “as far as the east is from the west”; David points out that not only does God forgive all our sin but he “redeems” us from the anguish and agony of not being forgiven but “crowns” us with “love and compassion”; satisfying our “desires with good things.” Never once does David say that such forgiveness can be earned or is deserved but instead says, “He (God) does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” What a stark contrast to the fictional portrayal of the women I quoted earlier who was struggling with forgiving her husband and accepting his apology.
The problem for many who are trying to deal with the inevitable problems associated with forgiving someone is that they emphasize the necessity of the “apology” and hold out as a reward their forgiveness. They also soon come to the realization that something must be wrong with this formula when nothing seems to get resolved. The cause invariably is because they have overlooked the most important part of the process, which is reconciliation. By definition, reconciliation is the process when completed, results in a complete restoration of the relationship.
It is the restoration of a broken relationship to the extent where all those involved are healed and have put away their anger “as far as the east is from the west.” If you were friend’s before, you are friends again; made stronger by the process. If you were a loving husband and wife before, your love, passion and compassion for each other has been restored. If your relationship was one characterized by mutual trust before the conflict, then that trust has been restored, fully and without condition. This is true reconciliation and as hard as it may be to believe, it can be accomplished with the help of God, through the power and counsel of the Holy Spirit; made possible because of what Christ did for us on the cross.