Once upon a time, a mean old mountaineer fell sick and died. There were no funeral directors back in the hills then, and embalming was not yet practiced. So the widow and family dressed the body and placed it in the coffin. As the deceased was being carried from the house, one pallbearer stumbled, causing the coffin to crash into a gatepost. The knock somehow revived the old mountaineer, who sat up yelling at everyone in sight. The man lived for over a year and was as mean as ever. Then he got sick and died again. Once more the body was put in the coffin and the pallbearers lifted their burden. As they shuffled by, the long-suffering widow lifted her head and said, “Watch out for that gatepost!” (Merritt K. Freeman, Reader’s Digest, July, 1983.)
But the situation that embroiled Paul, Philemon and Onesimus was more than just someone being a difficult character, it involved a betrayal. It involved a monstrous theft. What was a slave worth in the Roman Empire? Estimates suggest that there were sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire, men and women who were treated like pieces of merchandise to buy and sell. A familiar proverb was “So many slaves, just so many enemies!” The average slave sold for five hundred denarii (one denarius was a day’s wage for a common laborer), while the educated and skilled slaves were priced as high as fifty thousand denarii. A master could free a slave, or a slave could buy his freedom if he could raise the money (Acts 22:28).
Onesimus had hurt Philemon. He had betrayed a trust. He had not only stolen from Philemon, he had put Philemon in a very awkward place.
Philemon to Onesimus
1. Remember God’s Priority
As Paul interceded for Onesimus, he presented five strong appeals.
A. He began with Philemon’s reputation as a man who brought blessing to others. The word wherefore in Philemon 8 carries the meaning of “accordingly.” Since Philemon was a “refreshing” believer, Paul wanted to give him an opportunity to refresh the apostle’s heart! Philemon had been a great blessing to many saints, and now he could be a blessing to one of his own slaves who had just been saved!
B. 9 I appeal, instead, on the basis of love Paul might have used apostolic authority and ordered his friend to obey, but he preferred to appeal in Christian love (Philem. 9). See how tactfully Paul reminded Philemon of his own personal situation: “Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (Philem. 9). Who could turn down the request of a suffering saint like Paul! He was perhaps sixty years old at this time, but that was a good age for men in that day. Along with Philemon’s gracious character and Christian love,
C. I appeal to you for my child, whom I fathered Paul’s third appeal was the conversion of Onesimus (Philem. 10). Onesimus was no longer “just a slave”; he was now Paul’s son in the faith and Philemon’s Christian brother! In Jesus Christ, there is “neither bond nor free” (Gal. 3:28). For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. This does not mean that his conversion altered Onesimus’s legal position as a slave, or that it canceled his debt to the law or to his master. However, it did mean that Onesimus had a new standing before God and before God’s people, and Philemon had to take this into consideration.
D. The fourth appeal was that Onesimus was valuable to Paul in his ministry in Rome (Philem. 11–14). The name Onesimus means “profitable,” so there is a play on words in Philemon 11. (The name Philemon means “affectionate” or “one who is kind.” If the slave was expected to live up to his name, then what about the master?) Paul loved Onesimus and would have kept him in Rome as a fellow worker, but he did not want to tell Philemon what to do. Voluntary sacrifice and service, motivated by love, is what the Lord wants from His children.
E. The fifth appeal relates to the providence of God (Philem. 15–16). Paul was not dogmatic (“perhaps”) as he made this telling point: as Christians, we must believe that God is in control of even the most difficult experiences of life. God permitted Onesimus to go to Rome that he might meet Paul and become a believer. (Certainly Philemon and his family had witnessed to the slave and prayed for him.) Onesimus departed so he could come back. He was gone a short time so that he and his master might be together forever. He left for Rome a slave, but he would return to Colosse a brother. How gracious God was to rule and overrule in these affairs!
Love… As was Paul to Philemon, so you and I need to
A. Be sensitive…Try and put yourself in the other person’s place today. Seek to deal with their struggles, to think like they are thinking. Be sensitive to their particular needs. Do not bully them to your side by coercion, compulsion or command. Win them through consideration and cooperation.
B. Be submissive…I’m not suggesting becoming a doormat here. But it never hurts to lose a few little skirmishes here and there in order to win the war down the road. Resign yourself to the fact that you do not have to win every little argument and point of contention. You might be surprised how this truth could set you free. Be submissive. Begin appealing to others on the basis of love which seeks their highest good. If they win, you win too. And, big time!
C. Be supportive…Let others know where you stand and leave no doubt in their minds that when the chips are down they can count on you and your support. When the win-win philosophy is applied in our relationships it brings a bonding and a sense of mutual support we never knew existed. Find someone who is down this week and come to their aid with a word of support and encouragement. They will never forget it.
D. Be sensible…Use some good old common sense in your relationship. Get smart. If the other person is a winner in your relationship, then you win too. Forget forever the erroneous idea that you always have to win and the other party always has to lose for you to be on top of the relationship. Wake up! Be sensible. Win-win is the only way to play the game.
2. Relinquish The Debt
And then there’s the other hard part about forgiveness. To forgive means to put the hurt behind you, never to drag it up again. We may not be able to forget what happened, but we will no longer hold it against the person we have forgiven.
It’s like the man who was telling his friend about an argument he’d had with his wife. He said, "Oh, how I hate it, every time we have an argument; she gets historical." The friend replied, "You mean hysterical." "No," he insisted. "I mean historical. Every time we argue she drags up everything from the past and holds it against me!"
Forgiveness means releasing the debt Forgiveness means letting go of our hurt pride, our need to get back – to take revenge, and do what is illogical and ever so hard. It means making our relationship with that other person the most important thing in our lives. Jesus rates reconciliation as one of the most important things we can do. He said, "If you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God" (Matt 5:23-24).
Forgiveness means relinquishing the right. It means letting it go. It means not having the last word! It means putting the thing behind you forever. Never bringing it up.
Forgiveness means accepting the person “accept him as you would me.”
3. Remember God’s Purposes
When we read these words — “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good” — we are reminded of the story of Joseph and his estrangement from his brothers. Andrew Lloyd Webber, of “Phantom of the Opera” fame, has brought this ancient story to life in his Broadway production, “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Most of us know the story well. His brothers, filled with jealously and resentment, sold him to some nomads in a caravan in route to Egypt. They lied to his father by telling him they had found Joseph’s many colored coat soaked in blood and he had no doubt been consumed by a wild animal. Meanwhile, back in Egypt, through a series of events Joseph went from a prison to the palace to become the prime minister of the most progressive nation in the world by the time he was thirty years of age. Famine came to Israel and eventually brought these brothers to Egypt in hopes of finding food. When confronted with their longlost brother they became filled with remorse and regret and, in the end, a beautiful reconciliation took place. The brothers were the offending party. Joseph was the offended party. The rift in the relationship had gone on for years and years. The brothers were full of repentance. Now the ball was in Joseph’s court. How would he respond after all those years of being wronged and living with the consequences? From the human standpoint most of what happened to him was bad. He was the key to reconciliation. When he revealed himself to his brothers, he said, “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to save lives (Gen. 45:5) …You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done” (Gen. 50:20). God allowed it…and for a reason! Yes, as Paul says, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good.” Is it possible that there is a “perhaps” written across your own experience?
My Grace is Sufficient For Thee
In his Grace Abounding, John Bunyan tells us that there was a period in his spiritual history when his soul was like a pair of scales. It partook of three phases. At one time the right-hand balance was down and the left-hand empty and high; then for awhile they were exactly and evenly poised; and, at the last, the left-hand balance dropped and that on the right-hand was swinging in the air.
At the first of these stages he was being tormented about the unpardonable sin. He reminded himself that, for Esau, there was no place for repentance; and he felt that there was none for him. The scale in which he laid his despair was heavily weighted; the scale in which he placed his hope was empty!
And the second stage—the stage that levelled the balances? `One morning,’ he says, ‘as I was at prayer, and trembling with fear, lest there should be no word of God to help me, that piece of a sentence darted in upon me: My grace is sufficient! At this I felt some stay as if there might yet be hope. About a fortnight before, I had been looking at this very scripture, but I then thought that it could bring me no comfort, and I threw down the book in a pet. I thought that the grace was not large enough for me! no, not large enough ! But now it was as if the arms of grace were so wide that they could enclose not only me but many more besides. And so this about the sufficiency of grace and that about Esau finding no place for repentance would be like a pair of scales within my mind. Sometimes one end would be uppermost and sometimes again the other; according to which would be my peace or trouble.’
And the third stage—the triumphant stage? Bunyan felt that the scales were merely level because, in the balance that contained the hope, he had thrown only four of the six words that make up the text. ‘My grace is sufficient’; he had no doubt about that, and it gave him encouragement. But ‘for thee’; he felt that, if only he could add those words to the others, it would turn the scales completely. ‘I had hope,’ he says, ‘yet because the "for thee" was left out, I was not contented, but prayed to God for that also. Wherefore, one day, when I was in a meeting of God’s people, full of sadness and terror, these words did with great power suddenly break in upon me; My grace is sufficient for thee, My grace is sufficient for thee, My grace is sufficient for thee, three times together. And oh! methought that every word was a mighty word unto me; as My and grace, and sufficient, and for thee; they were then, and sometimes are still, far bigger than all others. Then, at last, that about Esau finding no place for repentance began to wax weak and withdraw and vanish, and this about the sufficiency of grace prevailed with peace and joy.’ And so the issue was reversed; the scale that held the hope overweighed completely the scale that held the despair.
If it were not that others have passed through an identically similar experience, we should feel inclined to marvel at Bunyan’s reluctance to cast into the balances the tail of the text: My grace is sufficient—for thee! It seems strange, I say, that Bunyan should have grasped with such confidence the four words and then boggled at the other two. And yet it is always easier to believe that there is a Saviour for the world than to believe that there is a Saviour for me. It is easy to believe that
There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss;
but it is much harder to believe that there is grace and room for one. Martin Luther believed implicitly and preached confidently that Christ died for all mankind, long before he could persuade himself that Christ died for Martin Luther. John Wesley crossed the Atlantic that he might proclaim the forgiveness of sins to the Indians; but it was not until he was verging upon middle life that he realized the possibility of the forgiveness of his own.
It is all very illogical, of course, and very absurd. If we can accept the four words, why not accept all six? If we credit the head of the text, why cavil at the tail? Sometimes the absurdity of such irrational behaviour will break upon a man and set him laughing at his own stupidity. Mr. Spurgeon had some such experience. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, one Friday afternoon, in an address to his students, ‘Gentlemen, there are many passages of Scripture which you will never understand until some trying or singular experience shall interpret them to you. The other evening I was riding home after a heavy day’s work; I was very wearied and sore depressed; and, swiftly and suddenly as a lightning flash, that text laid hold on me: My grace is sufficient for thee! On reaching home, I looked it up in the original, and at last it came to me in this way. MY grace is sufficient for THEE! "Why," I said to myself, "I should think it is!" and I burst out laughing. I never fully understood what the holy laughter of Abraham was like until then. It seemed to make unbelief so absurd. It was as though some little fish, being very thirsty, was troubled about drinking the river dry; and Father Thames said: "Drink away, little fish, my stream is sufficient for thee!" Or as if a little mouse in the granaries of Egypt, after seven years of plenty, feared lest it should die of famine, and Joseph said: "Cheer up, little mouse, my granaries are sufficient for thee!" Again I imagined a man away up yonder on the mountain saying to himself: "I fear I shall exhaust all the oxygen in the atmosphere." But the earth cries: "Breathe away, O man, and fill thy lungs; my atmosphere is sufficient for thee!"’ John Bunyan enjoyed a moment’s merriment of the same kind when he threw the last two words into the scale and saw his despair dwindle into insignificance on the instant
It is so easy for Bunyan to believe that the divine grace is sufficient for the wide, wide world; it is so difficult to realize that it is sufficient for him!
It is so easy for Wesley to believe in the forgiveness of sins: it is so difficult for him to believe in the forgiveness of his own!
It is so easy for Paul to believe in the grace that is sufficient to redeem a fallen race: it is so difficult for him to believe in the grace that can fortify him to endure his thorn!
Is it any wonder that, this being so, Paul felt that his splinter positively shone? ‘I will glory in it,’ he cried, ‘that the power o f Christ may be billetted upon me.’ He feels that his soul is like some rural hamlet into which a powerful regiment has marched. Every bed and barn is occupied by the soldiers. Who would not be irritated by a splinter, he asks, if the irritation leads to such an inrush of divine power and grace?
And so, with Paul as with Bunyan, the grace turns the scales. It is better to have the pain if it brings the pearl. It is better to have a thorn in the one balance if it brings such grace into the opposite balance that one is better off with the thorn than without it.
4. Relate Well
A. Affirm one another (vv. 4-7)
Affirmation is the greatest motivational factor in interpersonal relationships.
B. Accommodate one another (vv. 8-11)
Here is the synergistic principle of a win/win relationship.
C. Accept one another (vv. 12-16)
True reconciliation requires a repentant heart and a receptive heart.
D. Give Allegiance to one another (vv. 17-21)
True commitment is one of the missing elements in many relationships today.
E. Accountable to one another (vv. 22-25)
We all need accountability in our relationships with one another. We will never be properly related to one another until we are properly related to ourselves and this will only happen when we are properly related to our Heavenly Father.