11. Forgiven to Forgive: Philemon

Christ reconciled himself to us while we were sinners, so we can forgive and love those who have hurt us.

For perhaps it was for this reason that he was separated from you for a while, that you would 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.

-Philemon 1:15-16


Jesus once told a parable about forgiveness… A servant of a king runs up a debt of 100,000 dollars. Unable to pay, the servant and his family are destined to be auctioned off at a slave market. The servant is desperate, and he throws himself down at the king’s feet, begging for a chance to pay back his debt. In radical generosity, the king completely cancels his servant’s debt, letting him go free. Shortly thereafter, the servant confronts an acquaintance who owes him ten dollars. The indebted person begs for mercy, but the servant refuses and has him thrown in jail until the debt is paid.


The scenario appears ridiculous! Who would demand ten dollars when they were just forgiven 100,000? But here’s the convicting reality. Jesus says if we don’t forgive people in our lives unconditionally, we’re just like the servant in the parable. In this line of Gospel truth, the Apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon encourages a wholehearted embrace of forgiveness.


Philemon has been wronged by his slave, Onesimus. In first-century Rome, slavery was a form of indentured servitude. For example, people might sell themselves into slavery for a limited time to pay off a debt. So, Onesimus legally owes work to his employee Philemon, but he decides to run away. Onesimus is now indebted to Philemon.


After running away, Onesimus meets Paul, and the two become friends. Paul soon leads Onesimus to faith in Christ, and he holds Onesimus accountable to make things right with Philemon. Paul encourages Onesimus to go back home, but he does something else that’s radical, especially for the time.


Paul sends Onesimus with a letter for Philemon, who he personally knows as a fellow follower of Christ. While Philemon does have the legal right to punish Onesimus, Paul encourages Philemon to not only forgive his runaway slave but to go even further, accepting Onesimus back no longer as a slave but as a “beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16).


Paul stands in solidarity with Onesimus, telling Philemon to welcome his former slave as if he were welcoming Paul himself. Paul identifies himself with Onesimus to the point of vowing to pay back any debt owed to Philemon.


What is it that’s driving Paul to be a loving reconciler? Why does he expect Philemon to not only forgive but also to go above and beyond? Jesus, the ultimate reconciler, compels and empowers his people to follow in his path of forgiveness and reconciliation.


We were once all enemies of God, committing the offense of sin against God and turning away from him. But Christ, king of the world, lowered himself in humility to reconcile us to God: he gave his life to pay our debt and secure our forgiveness; he rose from the dead, crediting those who believe in him with his righteousness; and he made us eternally right with God, adopting us as unconditionally loved children.


Just like the servant in Jesus’s parable, we have been forgiven everything by God, and so we are compelled to forgive any offense committed against us! As Paul instructs Philemon to accept Onesimus as an equal partner, a family member in Christ, so we understand that we are not above anyone else: we are fellow recipients of God’s extravagant mercy and forgiveness!


Is there someone in your life who has hurt or wronged you? Forgiveness is a process that requires wisdom and discernment, but in its simplest form, it requires us surrendering punishment to God. Herein lies the power to do so: Christ reconciled himself to us while we were sinners, so we can forgive and love those who have hurt us.


RESPOND: Take a moment to contemplate and thank God for Christ’s reconciliation on your behalf, that you might be empowered to love and forgive those who have wronged you.