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Basic Bible: A Plea for Christlike Forgiveness

Philemon 1:4-21

The epistle of Paul to Philemon is God speaking. If one only hears Paul plea for Philemon to forgive Onesimus, one is missing much of the main course of that which the Lord has placed before us.

“I thank my God, making mention . . .” (v. 4). All believers know the same God because God the Son has revealed God the Father. Paul is thanking God because of what he has heard. Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith — love and faith which are directed to the Lord Jesus Christ and to all saints. Paul has heard from others, others who have witnessed and experienced Philemon’s love and faith in action. Paul thanks God because he has heard that Philemon possesses the same love and faith which he (Paul) possesses. Paul and Philemon are joined together by the love of Christ.

The Holy Spirit inspired the human author of Hebrews to direct us to forsake not the assembling of ourselves together (Heb. 10:25). We cannot witness the love and faith in fellow believers fully unless we come together and experience Christ in each other. Paul had heard the testimony of believers who had communed with Philemon. Paul is thanking God for that which he has heard. Paul is not thanking Philemon for being a good person. Paul is not thanking Philemon because Philemon exhibits the same love and faith which Paul finds in himself. Paul is thanking God for that which God has done. Philemon has been changed. Philemon was made a new creature in Jesus Christ.

In verse 7, Paul says, “For we . . .” Paul and others have great joy and consolation because they are refreshed by Philemon. They are refreshed because they have witnessed Christ in him.

“Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ . . .” (v. 8). Paul was endowed with apostolic power. He could have instructed Philemon to do that which was convenient (the right thing to do) but he chose not to instruct him. Instead, Paul beseeched him to do that which is right for love’s sake. Love’s sake is not independent of Christ. Christ is the love of God revealed. Paul speaks, not as an apostle, but as Paul the aged and as a prisoner of Christ. What is Paul the aged? It is Paul speaking as one who is sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, and in patience (see Titus 2:2). Paul, in speaking in this manner, reveals how mature believers are to interact with others. Paul is asking Philemon to do as he (Philemon) sees Paul do. Maturity in faith is demonstrated in all believers who consistently depend upon the Holy Spirit to direct their ways. As a prisoner of Christ, Paul is constrained by Christ (God the Son and God the Spirit are one with God the Father). Paul’s request was triggered by looking to the Holy Spirit and acting upon that which the Spirit revealed to him.

Paul’s request that Onesimus be received, not as a servant, but as a brother beloved, both in the flesh and in the Lord (v. 16) is preceded by information which may or may not have been known to Philemon. It is information which is preserved in scripture for our admonition. Onesimus was begotten by Paul while Paul was physically imprisoned in Rome. Onesimus had heard the word of God which Paul delivered to him and believed. He had become a new creature in Christ (v. 10).

In verse 11, Paul states that Onesimus is now profitable to both Philemon and to himself (Paul). What does Paul mean by being profitable? Paul fully understood what it is to profit in a divine sense. Paul knew that trading one’s soul for the whole world was without profit (Matt. 16:26). Paul knew that God the Son shall return and shall reward every one according to his works. The works of Onesimus as a slave counted for nothing. Onesimus’ works of value began when he believed. Real faith produces real works (James 2:14-18). Onesimus’ works (those done in the cause of Christ) were profitable because they shall produce eternal reward. Onesimus was profitable to Paul because he was begotten by the word which Paul delivered.

How was Onesimus profitable to Philemon? Paul was not the first to witness Jesus Christ to Onesimus. As a slave and member of Philemon’s household, Onesimus would have observed Christ in Philemon. Philemon’s testimony ultimately produced profit (works of faith) when Onesimus heard and believed. Philemon planted the seed that produced the fruit which Paul harvested. Onesimus was profitable to both Paul and Philemon.

Paul and Philemon were both on the same page. Both desired to obey Christ’s command to go and to spread the good news of Christ. While Paul could have utilized Onesimus in his ministry (v. 13), he did not want to do anything concerning Onesimus without Philemon’s consent (v. 13).

“If thou count me therefore a partner . . .” (v. 17). The partner relationship is between Paul the aged and Philemon also the aged. Paul asks that Onesimus be received of Philemon as an equal. To be a partner with Paul, one must be Spirit directed. In verse 15, Paul suggests that the departure of Onesimus may have been for divine purpose — that purpose being to return and be received forever and ever.

Paul asks Philemon to charge any wrong or anything owed by Onesimus to his (Paul’s) account (v. 18). Paul describes his account in the sixth chapter of II Corinthians. Paul had nothing yet possessed all things (II Cor. 6:10). One can almost envision Paul standing before the judgment seat of Christ and, if necessary, casting a crown on behalf of Philemon.

In Paul, we see Christ who gave up all, not for himself, but for others. May we do as Paul. May we let Christ be seen in us.

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