Every one of us has either wronged another person or been wronged by someone else. While talking about forgiveness is great, so many times its just talk because most people don’t know what forgiveness means or how to do it. Often our efforts end up looking like a pile of mismatched puzzle pieces that just lead to more questions than answers. What is forgiveness? How do we ask for forgiveness? How do we extend forgiveness to others? What about when people hurt my loved ones? How do I teach others about forgiveness? How do I make forgiveness last?
All these questions are addressed in the Biblical book of Philemon as the author, Paul, confronts and teaches about this issue thousands of years ago with principles that can be directly applied today. Study and learn, not only the principles of forgiveness, but also how they can be used to impact your life and your relationships. Find answers to the questions and more as you learn how to create a beautiful picture by piecing together forgiveness.
Read through the Introduction below and purchase a copy in the store.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Luke 23:34 records these words from the lips of Jesus Christ in the midst of being killed for doing nothing wrong. After having endured torture and being the victim of a corrupt justice system, Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross. Still, these were the words that came out of his mouth.
I wonder what those nearby thought when they heard him. Were there assumptions that he was babbling and was insane from the severe torture he had endured? What did He mean by it? How could He possibly even be thinking about forgiveness in that situation?
The issue of forgiveness has baffled people since the first sin was committed. How do I forgive? Why should I forgive? How do I ask for forgiveness? What if I don’t ask for forgiveness?
Forgiveness seems to have so many pieces to it and so many difficulties. If we think of forgiveness as a puzzle, how do we piece it together in such a way that we actually end up with a beautiful picture and not just a pile of pieces? Thankfully, God gives us a beautiful guide and set of instructions in the Bible from the book of Philemon.
As we open to this book in the Bible, don’t blink while you are turning pages or you are going to miss it. This little book, comprised of only 25 verses, takes only 5-10 minutes to read straight through. I encourage you to take a few minutes now and read through Philemon to familiarize yourself with it as we run through some of the characteristics of the book below.
This book is one of 12 that are credited to the authorship of the apostle Paul. Paul was a prolific writer and penned almost half of the books of the New Testament. A driving force in the spread of the gospel through the years just following Jesus, he actually helped spread the gospel in two different ways. First, before he was a Christian, Paul, then called Saul, persecuted the church mercilessly. This persecution caused the Christians to flee, taking with them the story of the salvation message through Jesus Christ. Saul then began to chase these Christians, killing the ones that he caught for he believed them to be traitors to God.
On one of these journeys to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Saul in a blinding flash of light. As a result of this event recorded in Acts 9, Saul came to understand that Jesus is the true Lord and surrendered his life to him. Saul believed in Jesus Christ and then became one of the foremost voices proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ. Saul changed his name to Paul as a reflection of the change that he had experienced in Christ. This change resulted in the second way Paul impacted the spread of the gospel. He traveled prolifically to share the good news of Jesus Christ and he became one of the first official missionaries. He also personally experienced the same persecution that he had once used to inflict on the Christians, as he was beaten several times and spent much of his time in prison. Because imprisonment limited his travels, he wrote letters to the Christians in the churches he had established. From house arrest in Rome, Paul penned this letter to a believer, Philemon, who was living in Colossae.
Many of Paul’s letters were written to groups of believers and churches that he had started on his journeys, but this particular letter is written to a person, Philemon. This letter is not the only letter we have from Paul that was written to a person instead of a church. The two books of Timothy are written to Paul’s disciple Timothy. Unlike Philemon, Timothy was a preacher and these books were meant as instruction, much like a teacher trying to instill lessons in his pupil. Paul’s letters to the churches read more like sermons and are given to admonish and correct. Picture Paul instructing the churches struggling with issues of the day, praising them for what they are doing well, and correcting them where they need a stern hand. In contrast to both the previous styles, the book of Philemon is more personal and is written from Paul’s heart to Philemon’s heart. In this book, we really get a sense of the man that Paul was: leader, encourager, and friend.
The storyline surrounding Philemon is really quite simple. Paul met Philemon years before as he traveled through the city of Colossae on his third missionary journey (Acts 18:23) and led Philemon to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Philemon is a wealthy man and hosts a church in his home. Philemon’s wife, Apphia is also a believer. The leader of this house-church is Archippus. There is some discussion among commentators that Archippus might be the son of Philemon and Apphia, but there is not enough evidence to confirm or deny that possibility.
As a wealthy man, Philemon owned slaves. In Philemon’s day and time, how someone became a slave was significantly different from what we hear about today. Instead of people being kidnapped or coerced into slavery with no hope of ever being released, in Philemon’s day and time slavery arose for one of two reasons. First, they were the survivors of a conquered advisory. Rome was a conquering country. They would go in and conquer other peoples and then transport them through their empire as slaves. Often these would go to high officials in Rome or be forced to participate in the “games” in the Coliseum which would include fights to the death. Second, and far more prevalent, was the issue of debt. People would borrow money from wealthy men and then not be able to repay their debt. The person would then offer to work for their credit lender to pay off that debt. This was usually a time-limited arrangement based on the size of the debt. If you think about any type of debt or payments you have to make, you understand the need to work to be able to pay off the debt. Also, if you’ve ever been hounded by debt collectors, you understand the importance of continuing to pay that debt or make arrangements for the payment of that debt.
The Bible does not indicate the reason Onesimus is enslaved, but based on the book of Philemon, we find that at one time wealthy Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus. One day, Onesimus then decided that he would defy Philemon. He caused some sort of financial loss, either through leaving, or stealing, or possibly even destroying property, and ran away. Onesimus eventually became acquainted with Paul. Paul explained to him the message of Christ. Onesimus came to understand the truth of God’s love for Him and accepted that Jesus had paid for his sins and received the salvation that God provides.
That left Onesimus with a dilemma. He was a runaway slave. Now, he had been set free by the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, but that didn’t negate his cultural responsibility. Onesimus’s witness to other people would always be hindered by this past issue until he got this issue addressed. Paul and Onesimus spoke about it. In an “it’s a small world” moment, Paul realized that Onesimus belonged to the very Philemon that Paul had introduced to Jesus. Paul is in the process of writing a letter to the church at Philemon’s house in Colossae. Paul agrees that Onesimus needs to get this issue reconciled and so Paul agrees to write a personal letter to Philemon to be delivered at the same time.
The heart of the message of this book is forgiveness. Paul explains what he knows about forgiveness and invites Onesimus, Philemon, and his household to embrace forgiveness. Understanding what forgiveness is about is actually quite simple. Forgiveness is pardoning a past wrong and then moving forward with a restored relationship. Forgiveness is about relationships. Without a relationship, forgiveness has little meaning. Forgiveness implies that it is costing us something to be able to offer the pardon to a person. If someone does something wrong that we read about on the internet, but we are not directly or even indirectly affected by the action, we can say that we forgive them quite easily. We didn’t lose anything by their betrayal so the forgiveness costs us nothing. However, if we have been betrayed by a spouse, longtime friend, close relative, or even a fellow believer, then the personal cost of overlooking the betrayal and restoring the relationship is extremely high. Forgiveness always has a cost and that cost is directly proportional to the depth of the relationship and the severity of the betrayal.
Once we factor in the cost issue, we see that forgiveness is not only simple, it is also extremely complex. So many factors affect whether or not we feel that forgiveness is “worth it.” We start trying to measure the depth of the relationship and whether or not we want to put forth the effort to even try to restore the relationship. I’ve spoken with several people over the years and many of them have difficulty with this issue of forgiveness. How do they reconcile the pain they feel because of the betrayal, from the pain they would feel if they tried to forgive? Even in my own life, I’ve felt the justification at trying to hold on to my anger at being betrayed because I think it will cost me less emotionally than the pain of letting it go. In this respect, forgiveness can be very complex.
Forgiveness is life-changing. For those betrayals, those wrongs, that we choose to forgive, the result is a complete change in our life. We are able to restore relationships. We are able to move forward. We are able to find the ability to love again. We have a restored relationship that can be even stronger than the initial relationship because of the bond that is forged when a person says that the relationship is worth more than the pain of the betrayal.
Forgiveness is an attribute of God. As we look through the next sessions, we’re going to see different people in different circumstances looking at different pieces of this complex puzzle of forgiveness. The initial people you would expect to see in this discussion are Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon. Paul is the experienced one. He’s had to deal with the issue of forgiveness; he understands how forgiveness works and what God’s place is in the puzzle. Onesimus is in the unenviable position of needing to ask for forgiveness. He has betrayed his master Philemon, and he has run away from his responsibilities. Yet, now Onesimus is placing a greater value on the relationship with Philemon and seeking to make it right. Philemon has been wronged. He has yet to decide exactly what value he is going to place on the relationship with Onesimus, whether he will be willing to forgive.
However, a few others need to be brought into the discussion as well. Apphia, Philemon’s wife, watched as her husband was betrayed by Onesimus. Often this feeling of anger and betrayal goes unaddressed as people focus instead only on the betrayer and the betrayed. Apphia still has to address the issue of forgiveness because her relationship with Philemon will be affected by the restoration of Philemon’s and Onesimus’s relationship. Arcchipus, as the pastor of the church that met in Philemon’s house needs to address the issue of how the entire church will be affected by the restoration of forgiveness. He needs to lead and teach in the area of forgiveness. Finally, God is the creator of everything, including forgiveness, and He understands all aspects of the puzzle of forgiveness. He offers us a look at the overall picture of forgiveness so that we can be effective when we offer forgiveness and understand the true cost when we ask for forgiveness.
As we move through the next 6 sessions, we will view this book from the perspective of each of the six people above. Each section, except the last, will start with a fictional account based on that character so that we can get a glimpse into what might have been that person’s mindset and perspective. Then, we will go through the book of Philemon and see the truths from scripture, keeping in mind that perspective. Finally we will examine how these truths apply in our own lives. Watch the book of Philemon unfold as we examine the pieces that make up the puzzle of forgiveness and we seek to piece these back together to display the picture of God’s true forgiveness.