The Holy Spirit was kind to include the very personal letter of Philemon in our Bible, as a case study in forgiveness practiced the way Jesus commanded.
Three Main Characters
There are three main characters in this true story of redemption and forgiveness: Paul, the apostle, who was in prison; Philemon, a brother in the Lord and slave owner; and Onesimus, Philemon’s slave who had run away to Rome and, while there, experienced salvation in Christ. At the time the letter was written, Paul was returning Onesimus to his master for the purpose of receiving earthly forgiveness. Having already received vertical forgiveness from God, through believing the gospel, Onesimus now needed horizontal forgiveness from his master.
What Is Forgiveness?
In a nutshell, to forgive means to let go, or even better, to send away. It refers to the remission of the punishment due to sinful conduct. Each time we are wronged, we have a choice. We can either hold on to the wrong committed against us, or let it go; i.e., send it away. Sending it away is the complete opposite of holding on to the offense. To hold on to an offense is to keep a record of sins committed against you, and stand in God’s place. What has God done by forgiving us? He sent our sin away as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). Biblical love forgives, rather than keeping a list of the ways people have sinned against us (1 Corinthians 13:5).
The Purpose of the Letter
Paul sent this letter to Philemon to explain what had happened in the heart of Onesimus. He wanted him to know that his runaway slave had received the gospel, and was now a new creature in Christ. He also wrote to appeal to Philemon to receive his slave back, not as a runaway who should be condemned, but as a brother in the Lord who needed to be received in fellowship, restoration, and forgiveness. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ was a common way for Paul to begin his letters, since he continually reminded his readers of God’s grace. The order is very important here. Grace comes before peace, and it is genuine grace that Philemon will be called upon to give.
Six Qualities of the Heart that Maintain a Posture of Forgiveness
In the first seven verses, we catch a glimpse of Philemon’s heart, which maintained a posture of forgiveness. Here we see six qualities of the heart that is ready to forgive, characteristics that enabled Philemon to readily receive his runaway slave. Because Philemon was a new creature in Christ, his heart was being transformed by the grace of God. It was expected that this grace would overflow into his relationships. In order to maintain a posture of forgiveness, which is consistent with the gospel, you must cultivate the following disciplines of the heart.
- You must discipline yourself to love fellow believers (v. 5a). First, the heart that is ready to forgive is a heart that loves believers. Paul thanked God for Philemon always and he let him know it. Paul thanked God for him because he heard of his love…for all the saints. Believers are set apart by God, for God, to God. Believers are saints, and saints are holy ones. Now, the problem is that though believers are holy in their standing before God, we are not always holy in our thoughts, speech, and behavior. Therefore, there will be countless times we will need to be ready to forgive one another. Brotherly love will prepare us for those times.
- You must discipline yourself to be obedient in faith toward the Lord Jesus (v. 5a). The second quality of the posture of forgiveness is the exercise of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus. Paul is referring here to the daily exercise of trusting God. It is in the present tense, meaning Philemon continually possessed true faith. True faith in God leads to the ability to trust God with your hurts and the proper judgment of those who sin against you (See 1 Peter 2:20-23, and Genesis 50).
- You must discipline yourself to preserve the unity of fellowship (v. 6a). Third, the posture of forgiveness includes a heart that makes every effort to preserve unity. Verse six speaks of the sharing of faith. This is fellowship. Fellowship speaks of the relationship that believers enjoy with one another because of our unity in Christ. Paul is calling Philemon to demonstrate Christian fellowship through forgiving and receiving his runaway slave. By doing so the fellowship of his faith would become effective, or powerful (see the admonition in Ephesians 4:3).
- You must discipline yourself to seek knowledge and understanding (v. 6b). Fourth, the heart that has the posture of forgiveness will seek understanding. Paul prayed that Philemon’s faith would become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing. The knowledge that Paul was referring to was “knowledge upon knowledge.” The word describes full knowledge and understanding. Having been in gospel ministry for over 25 years, I regularly see one simple biblical principle ignored on a regular basis. People are quick to take offense and then form a judgment against another person without acting in love by getting the other side of the story. Proverbs repeatedly says it is the wise person who seeks out knowledge and understanding before forming judgments against someone (Proverbs 18:15, 17). The person who seeks this kind of understanding demonstrates humility.
- You must discipline yourself to do all for the sake of Christ (v. 6c). Fifthly, the posture of forgiveness is maintained in the heart that is properly motivated. Paul says he prays for Philemon for the sake of Christ (v. 6), which refers to the glory of God. When the glory of God is the motivating factor in your life then how God acted toward your sin will become the standard by which you act toward the sin of others. This naturally leads to forgiveness.
- You must discipline yourself to refresh other believers (v. 7). Lastly, the sixth quality of heart in the person who maintains the posture of forgiveness is a concern for the encouragement of others. The word refreshed is a wonderful word. It means to be refreshed from the innermost being, to give rest from labor. It’s the same word Jesus used in Matthew 11:28 when he said, Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will refresh you. Believers who demonstrate the grace of forgiveness are like a refreshing spring in the dry and weary desert of constant criticism.
What Does Your Heart Look Like?
The polar opposite of forgiveness is bitterness. Bitterness accomplishes no good thing. Instead, it is a suicidal poison that destroys friendships, families, and churches. Nothing good ever comes from a bitter heart. Nothing of value. Nothing of eternal benefit. Nothing that will profit your spiritual life. But the posture of forgiveness will transform lives. God’s forgiveness flows from His grace; no one deserves to be forgiven. When we quickly forgive others, we are demonstrating that our own hearts have been taken captive by God’s grace and, therefore, will not withhold it from anyone else.
As you think about the posture of forgiveness, what does your heart look like?
[This post is adapted from last Sunday’s sermon at Cornerstone Community Church in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.]
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED MINI-BOOK: HELP! I Can’t Forgive