God calls us to forgive as we have been forgiven (see Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). And in this second part of our study through Philemon, we examine the call to forgiveness.
The apostle Paul writes to Philemon, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (v. 8-17 ESV).
There are two things I want us to see in this passage of Scripture.
First, forgiveness must come from a willing heart.
Paul recognizes the authority he has to require Philemon’s acceptance of Onesimus. However, instead of commanding Philemon to forgive, he appeals to Philemon to forgive from a willing heart.
Last week, we pondered the work before forgiveness. The work of Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. And we saw how Philemon had indeed experienced the grace of God. So now, with a changed heart, Paul asks him to willingly receive Onesimus back.
Paul loves Onesimus to the point of referring to him as his own child. After all, Paul has led him to Christ. And now, as he writes in verse 11, Onesimus is much more useful. But what exactly does this mean?
You see, “Onesimus” means “useful.” As Philemon’s slave, one can only imagine the usefulness expected from such a man. But now that Onesimus has experienced the grace of God, his usefulness is all the more realized. He is now a believer. It might be that Paul recognizes a renewed work ethic in Onesimus as one who now works heartily unto the Lord and not unto men (see Col. 3:23). Or, perhaps he is one who now makes the best use of his time (see Eph. 5:15-17).
Onesimus is now useful for the spreading of the gospel, and Paul is sure to mention that to Philemon as he prepares to send him back. The heart Paul has for Onesimus is further recognized in verse 12 when Paul says, “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart” (ESV).
Indeed, it is difficult for Paul to return his brother in the Lord to his master. But even so, Paul’s plea to Philemon is that his acceptance of Onesimus come from a willing heart rather than compulsion. In verse 14, Paul writes, “… I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (ESV).
The same is true for us. We must forgive from a willing heart.
Second, forgiveness spreads the gospel.
Paul is sure to mention that Onesimus is now a child of God. As he writes to Philemon, he asks him to receive Onesimus “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (v. 16-17 ESV).
In his commentary on Philemon, F.F. Bruce writes, “Even the most forgiving of Christian masters would normally find it difficult to exclude a note of disapproval on finding the prodigal servant back at his door: no, says Paul, give him the same warm welcome as you would give me if you found me unexpectedly at your door.”
You see, now that Onesimus is a believer, he is a partner in the gospel alongside Paul and Philemon. Forgiveness among Christian brothers and sisters spreads the gospel, for it strengthens the fellowship.
Unforgiveness in the local church becomes a disastrous thing. Here we see Paul asking Philemon to forgive a fellow brother in Christ. In Romans, Paul encourages those in Christ to receive one another as Christ has received them (see. Rom. 15:7).
Because of Christ’s work in our hearts, we can obey His call to forgive others.