by Paul Tautges | January 11, 2018 9:43 am
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.
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
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