Why It’s Important to Forgive Offenses
Paul’s letter to Philemon: An Appeal to Forgive
When was the last time you made a huge personal sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel? Be honest. Most of us have never had to give up personal comfort or sacrifice much of anything…not because of our faith…not for any reason. Philemon was a guy who was about to face a crossroad in his life: one that would challenge his understanding of what it really meant to be a follower of Christ…one that would define the kind of follower he would be…one that would require him to make a huge personal sacrifice. Allow me to share a little background that led to this crossroad in Philemon’s faith.
Philemon was a believer in the early church. He was likely an affluent business owner. We know this because he owned slaves and because a church met in his home. House churches often met in the homes of their more wealthy members; homes that would have the space for good sized groups. It’s quite possible that the church meeting in Philemon’s home (Philemon verse 2) was the Colossian church (See Paul’s letter to the Colossians).
One of Philemon’s slaves, a man named Onesimus, had left the company of his master. It’s not clear what circumstances prompted Onesimus to leave, but it appears that Onesimus had gone off and never returned – making him a runaway slave. It is likely that Onesimus caused Philemon some financial hardship as a result. Slaves were typically put to death for stealing or for running away.
Somewhere along the way, Onesimus became acquainted with Paul who shared the gospel and led him to salvation in Christ. Onesimus, now a believer, had been helping Paul. Paul was preparing to send Onesimus back to deliver letters (including one for the Colossian church). This could put Onesimus in a dangerous situation with Philemon. Paul saw the need to intercede on Onesimus’ behalf. And so Paul wrote this letter to plead with Philemon for mercy on behalf of Onesimus.
Paul could have ordered Philemon to do the right thing and receive Onesimus back, forgiving the debt he owed; but he wanted Philemon to make the right decision on his own, on the basis of love (vv. 8-9).
Paul based his appeal to Philemon on five things:
1. Paul appealed first to Philemon on the basis of his relationship with him; his dear friend and fellow worker in the gospel (v.1). Paul hoped that their friendship would be enough to influence Philemon’s decision.
2. Paul appealed to Philemon on the basis of the grace and peace Philemon had experienced in Christ (v. 3).
3. Paul appealed to Philemon on the basis of Philemon’s faith and the love he had for other believers (v. 5): and remember, Onesimus is now one of those believers.
4. Paul appealed to Philemon on the basis his own love and affection for Onesimus (vs. 10 & 12).
5. Paul appealed to Philemon on the basis that he and Onesimus were now brothers in the Lord (v. 16).
Paul expected Philemon to act in a way that was worthy of his calling as a believer. Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossian church (which Philemon would have read):
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
My Own Story
Disciplining other people’s children is always a risky proposition no matter how delicately handled; but as a teacher, it’s part of the territory. When a friend’s child treated another student badly in Sunday school, I found it necessary to ask that student to take a time out from the group. This child’s mother became very upset with me. She yelled at me in front of the class and the other parents. She complained to the pastor about me. For the next year or so, she wouldn’t speak to me, gave me the evil eye in church, and purposely bumped shoulders with me in the hallways. I was embarrassed. I was uncomfortable. I dreaded going to church some days because I might run into her.
One day, the worst of my fears came true – she approached me in the lobby and said she wanted to talk to me. Oh no! Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. I felt my face flush and the room suddenly felt hot. I had nothing to do but stand there and listen to her. She said, “I need to ask you to forgive me. I’ve treated you badly and I was wrong.”
Wait…what? That was not what I expected to hear. Much like Onesimus was going to go and ask Philemon for forgiveness, this woman came to me and asked for forgiveness. I could have responded like so many of us do – in anger, with resentment, punishing her for the embarrassment and discomfort she had caused me. Instead, I hugged her right away and said, “Of course I forgive you.” I’d like to claim that I responded that way because it was worthy of my calling in Christ; but the truth is, I was just surprised and relieved that she wanted to reconcile.
What I had to forgive was just a small thing. A little embarrassment. A little discomfort. Philemon would have to forgive much more. Public embarrassment. Loss of respect in the business world. Financial loss. Possibly loss of authority before his other slaves. Philemon would have to set aside his pride, his position, and his own rights; both personally and legally. Legally, he could have put Onesimus to death. This would be a huge personal sacrifice for Philemon.
Why It’s Important
Philemon was someone people looked up to. After all, the church was meeting in his home. He was in a position to influence other members – especially the newer ones. How he responded would not only determine Onesumus’ fate, it would set the tone for how others would respond when people committed offenses against them. His response would also influence the way onlookers regarded the church. And people were watching. Because of his position in the community (both the church community and the greater community), Philemon had the responsibility to forgive Onesimus. Because of his new identity in Christ, Philemon now had the capacity to forgive Onesimus. Philemon was at an important crossroad in his faith. How would he respond?
You have your own sphere of influence. Your response when you are offended has the potential to influence the way those around you respond when they are offended. Your response can completely change the atmosphere of future interactions – both yours and theirs. How you respond can also influence the way people regard Christ-followers and the church. Because, people are watching. Will you choose to forgive, or will you hold a grudge? Will you pardon or will you punish?
And don’t just think about huge offenses like the one Philemon had to forgive. Consider the every day offenses.
How do we respond when people offend us in random ways day in and day out?
You know, the ones who irritate the heck out of us. We may not pay much attention to how we respond to these small offenses because we don’t see them in the same light as the big ones. But how we respond in these everyday situations may be even more important than how we respond in the big ones – because they are far more frequent and people see how we love (or don’t love) every single day. Every. Single. Day. Do we forgive? Do we reconcile? Do we love? Or do we hold on to our right to be angry…look down on them, treat them badly, talk poorly about them, refuse to embrace them?
What happens when we don’t forgive?
Think about that woman who treated me badly after I disciplined her daughter. If I had chosen not to forgive her, the climate between us would have continued to be unbearable – not just for us but for everyone around us. Discord hangs heavy like an oppressive fog. Jesus said that people will know we are his disciples if they see the love we have for each other.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
When we wear bitterness, anger, animosity, even hatred instead of love and mercy, we don’t look much like followers of Jesus. It hurts us, it hurts the ones we won’t forgive, and it casts a dark shadow over our representation of Jesus in the world. If Philemon could forgive Onesimus – a runaway slave and possibly a thief – spare his life, and welcome him back, Philemon must surely be a disciple of Jesus. If someone of Philemon’s position could ignore cultural standards, cross boundaries of status and class, set aside his own rights and humble himself to welcome a slave (and criminal) as brother, then surely Jesus must have the power to transform anyone.
Forgiving is hard. Setting aside our pride is hard. Giving up our right to be offended is hard. Click To TweetBut because of Jesus, we now have the capacity to forgive. Because we have experienced grace and peace, we can extend grace and peace. We can choose to clothe ourselves with Jesus. We can choose to wear his compassion, his kindness, his humility, his gentleness and his patience.
When you are faced with the choice to forgive or hang on to your right to be offended…When you are at that crossroad…
How will you respond to those who offend you?
Philemon is a short little letter. It’s easy to miss it completely – it’s only one page in most bibles.
But it’s packed with powerful messages. It shows us the gospel has the power to transform relationships. It shows us the gospel has the power to make a difference in the interactions between believers regardless of class or status. It shows us the gospel not only makes reconciliation possible, it demands it.