Benjamin Franklin was into virtue, as were many of the founding fathers of the United States. That 18th century was a society in which self-discipline was lauded, almost worshipped.
Franklin was particularly interested in 13 virtues. Number one, temperance: "Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation."
Two, silence: "Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself, avoid trifling conversation."
Three, order: "Let all your things have their place, let each part of your business have its time."
Four, resolution: "Resolve to perform what you ought, perform without fail what you resolve."
Five, frugality: "Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, waste nothing."
Six, industry: "Lose no time, be always employed in something useful, cut off all unnecessary actions."
Seven, sincerity: "Use no hurtful deceit, think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly."
Eight, justice: "Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty."
Nine, moderation: "Avoid extremes, forebear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve."
Ten, cleanliness: "Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation."
Eleven, tranquility: "Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable."
Twelve, chastity: "Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation."
Thirteen, humility: "Imitate Jesus and Socrates."
Not only was Franklin interested in virtue, but he kept a careful account of it. Franklin actually had a notebook, a journal, a kind of ledger book where he kept account of each day. For each day in the week, there was space for recording self-assigned demerits. Franklin resolved to count the battle for virtue won when his honestly kept record showed no infractions for a period of 13 weeks. Meanwhile, when the pages were filled—because that did happen—do you know what he would do? He would then erase those things when they were filled and start again. Eventually erasures filled the pages with holes. When Franklin was a world figure, he was still using his little notebook, but he had substituted for these fragile paper pages durable sheets of ivory, so that he could erase and erase and erase.
It's interesting that forgiveness does not appear among the virtues Franklin listed. Forgiveness is, of course, one of the most Christian and most difficult of virtues.
In 1731, Franklin had an illegitimate son, William. William grew up with his father: helping him in his scientific experiments, traveling with him. Franklin had him educated in England, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar. Father and son were close. In 1763, William returned to the colonies with a royal commission: to be the royal governor of New Jersey, a post gotten for him in no small part by his father's lobbying for him. When the Revolution came, however, William chose to support the crown rather than the new colonial government, and by this choice, this previously close relationship that father and son had was broken. William was actually captured by colonial forces, released into New York City (which was standing with the crown), and then finally, at the end of the war, left and lived the rest of his days in England, never returning to the United States. Perhaps by means of some correspondence a number of years after the war, the relationship was partially rescued, but by the fact that William is basically left out of Ben's will, Ben's autobiography, and his life in general from the Revolution on, it seems that restoration and reconciliation never really happened: presumably because forgiveness was never really given.
Do you find forgiveness difficult? Ken Sandy, author of the great book The Peacemaker, has written that,
To forgive someone means to release from liability to suffer punishment or penalty. Forgiveness is undeserved and cannot be earned. Forgiveness requires that you absorb certain effects of another person's sins and release the person from liability to punishment. This is precisely what Jesus accomplished at Calvary. He secured our forgiveness by taking on himself the full penalty of our sins. Remembering what he did to purchase our forgiveness should be our greatest incentive to release others from the penalties they deserve.
That's what we've been seeing an example of in this little Book of Philemon in the New Testament. If you open your Bibles and find it, what you find there basically is the shortest book in the New Testament: just a little more than 300 words in the Greek. It's a personal letter of Paul to Philemon, and it's a call for Philemon to forgive. Though we know whom Philemon is to forgive—Onesimus—we don't know exactly what he's to forgive Onesimus for. By divine inspiration, we are given not a full portrait but a sketch. And yet this sketch is significant in calling us to forgive and in showing us some factors feeding into the decision about forgiving. We want to look at five of those factors this morning as we go through these middle verses of Philemon. We want to understand Philemon's situation better—and so perhaps better understand what God has done for us in Christ and what he calls us to do now as we share something of that forgiving love he has extended to us to others. As we study this letter, I pray you will be met by God's Spirit in God's Word and that he will help you know more fully the love and forgiveness there is in Christ and enable you to forgive those people that even right now you should be forgiving.
(Read Philemon verses 1-16)
If we're going to understand this passage, we need to first notice Paul's authority. Look there at verses eight and nine: "Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—"
Here Paul comes specifically to the topic of the letter. We see that Paul had established his relationship with Philemon in the Lord; he had put it in context, and now he is pressing in a little bit. Some people may wonder how Paul could say what he says here in verse eight: how he could order Philemon to do something. Basically, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he could define for Philemon what obedience to Christ meant. He could explain it, and Philemon, we have no reason to believe, would do anything other than trust him. Furthermore, Paul could call on the respect that he should naturally have for him, Paul being an older man, or perhaps an "ambassador" is how you would want to translate that. It's literally "older man," but that's the very same word that's used elsewhere to mean ambassador for someone else. Paul says he's an old man or ambassador; he's a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Philemon would respect that. You may remember that Paul was writing this, we think, from a Roman prison, where he was suffering for preaching the good news of God's forgiveness of us through Jesus Christ. Surely the very thought of Paul in prison would weigh on Philemon and would encourage him to be moved to be considerate toward Paul's requests.
Furthermore, if you look down at verse 19, it seems that Paul may have been the human means of Philemon's conversion—so Paul could speak even more clearly and frankly to Philemon, given the role he had been called to play in his life. I wonder if you have anyone in your life who could speak to you with such moral authority: whether they are in a formal role of authority over you, or it's simply because of the way God has used them in your life before.
Look how carefully Paul speaks. He has all that authority; he could speak very differently. But look how carefully and gently and even tenderly Paul speaks to Philemon. If you want to help someone else to do the right thing, particularly if you're in authority over them, it is rarely the right thing to do simply to order them to do it. If you're a manager at work, you understand it is better for the people who work for you, or at least under you, to understand what you're doing and to own that end and see this as a good and right way to do that. It's the same way in our marriages, in our homes. It's the same way in the church. Luther observed a man is more easily drawn than pushed.
Well, what is Paul attempting to draw Philemon to? He says here in verse eight: "what you ought to do," an essence of what is fitting. It's the opposite of something being out of place. Paul was calling on Philemon to take appropriate action, and surely—from the way that Paul has painted Philemon so far, the way he loved all the saints there in verse seven—this is the exact kind of thing that Philemon will do. Paul, it seems like, can be confident of this. Here in verse nine, he doesn't order, but he appeals to Philemon.
It has to be said that for all of the bad publicity Paul sometimes gets about being rigid and intolerant, the people who say that clearly show they really haven't read Paul much, or if they have, they haven't read him very understandingly. Paul, for being as knowledgeable and opinionated as he was, allowed a lot of wiggle room on a lot of things. He had clear opinions himself about meat sacrificed to idols, about the observation of days, and yet again and again he defends Christian liberty. He says, "Look, I think this is better, but you do whatever. You know, this is what I would do, but each man will answer to his own Lord." Paul is actually, strikingly, freehanded with things that aren't absolute, essential, or ultimate. When it gets near the gospel, it's a whole different matter. But otherwise, Paul is amazingly tolerant, and that fits with the picture we see here of Paul not exercising his apostolic authority by ordering Philemon, but Paul appealing to Philemon on the basis of love to do what he knows would be the right thing to do.
What an amazing picture of the reality that we see in Christianity. As somebody who used to self-consciously not be a Christian, I am struck by the fact that here you have a man who is in prison speaking to apparently a fairly prosperous free man, and he is exercising authority over him. Christianity is not usually well-understood by this world. We Christians are those who understand a God who has incarnated himself not in a president or a pope, but in One who wandered and was rejected and was executed by the government.
But the prisoner Paul is the one who wrote this letter, and if we're going to understand what's going on here, we must take this into account. Could it be any clearer that worldly status does not reflect spiritual authority? We Christians are not anarchists; we will respect the authorities of this world to a certain degree. The authorities of this world killed Jesus, so we do not expect any election to take care of the problems in this world. We do not expect a social movement to do that; we do not expect anybody other than the Lord Jesus Christ to finally sort things out. That doesn't mean there aren't pros and cons, and you can argue about that all you want. But my point is that as Christians, we are the ones who should understand that the ultimate authority is Jesus Christ. He alone should have our ultimate allegiance, an unquestioning allegiance. It's wonderful to see the apostle Paul spending the last years of his life, perhaps the last ounces of his strength, as he was battling with the hardships of prison, in working to see people reconciled with each other. There was Paul, who had planted a lot of the churches in the known world. Yet what is he giving himself to at this point but helping a slave be reconciled to his master? I wonder, with so many fewer difficulties than Paul was facing, if we give ourselves to the merciful work of reconciliation between people—do we just think that's their problem, or are we happy to be involved? Are we happy to use our energies to reflect the gospel in the way God has been reconciled to us in Christ, as we, brothers and sisters, reconcile with each other?
You know one way to spot an elder? They are the one who uses this sort of divide-and-conquer mentality. They can be accused of all kinds of things, but continues to work for the good of others. They should have a long track record of it. If there's something you see an elder doing that you don't understand at the moment, then step back and look at the pattern. What's the fruit of the person's life? If the fruit is a bad pattern, please speak up. That's important. Paul addresses that in 1 Timothy 5. But what should be typical is this kind of action: acting as an agent of reconciliation again and again, painting God's love for us in Christ, his bleeding and dying for us, then (in light of that love) turning to the situation they are addressing and leading us to call on God to fill our own hearts with love so that we will forgive. However great our fears, however constant our complaints, however gloomy our hopes for reconciliation may be, a person who is an elder should be one who takes the hope we have in the gospel and brings it into real life in our congregation and in our lives again and again and again and again.
Paul himself knew what it was to be forgiven by God. Even when he was in the middle of going to persecute Christians, God extended forgiveness to him. Paul could appeal to Philemon, who also knew the forgiveness of God, to himself forgive others. This is how Paul used his authority. Paul not only commanded forgiveness; he was a walking example of forgiveness, knowing how deeply he had been forgiven by God and how much he was an agent of forgiveness in the lives of others.
Of course, we don't just have Paul here, though. If we are going to understand this, we have to come also to what Paul told Philemon: what news he had brought to him of what amazing things had happened to Onesimus. We need to introduce Onesimus. Verses 10-13 are when we first find Onesimus in this letter. Look and see what's happened to him.
In verse 10, Paul says, "I appeal to you for my son," and then in the Greek, he leaves the name for last. The modern English translation put it earlier because we don't speak like that, but in the Greek, it would be more like, "I appeal to you for my son, who became my son while I was in chains: Onesimus."
(Read Philemon verses 11-13)
This may seem like an unlikely thing. Why would God choose to love such a person as Onesimus? Why would God care for him? I mean, you guys are on Capitol Hill. If you strategize the kingdom of God, you'll begin by reaching senators. Isn't it interesting? I'm not saying God doesn't care for senators, but isn't it interesting that he begins here, that he cares in Colossae? We don't assume there are many people in the church there yet. We know there's Philemon; they're all meeting in Philemon's house. But God, in the movements of the gospel, cares about Onesimus.
God has always been delighted in doing things like this. He has experience in working with slaves. You remember, in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was in bondage for hundreds of years. By bringing out the slaves, the Hebrews, and by doing so getting glory, God showed the power was not theirs: they couldn't go around bragging. The power was certainly not the Egyptians', either. The power was God's. God has a long track record of doing this.
It seems that Onesimus had come to Paul as Paul was in prison in Rome. Many prisoners might have felt God-forsaken in such prisons: starving, freezing. But there Paul was, probably in his 60s by this point, faithfully sharing the gospel with others. I love that picture: that despite worldly adversity, Paul hasn't become embittered. Why would God let me be in prison? If he really loved me, why would I be here after all I've done for him? In that way, Paul would sound more like us. But it's amazing: there he is in terribly adverse circumstances, and he continues to serve the Lord, sharing the gospel. What a great example he is there.
In verse 10, we see that Paul refers to Onesimus as his son: not physically, of course, but spiritually. What that means is that Onesimus was evidently converted through Paul sharing the gospel with him. So what happened? It's summed up there in that little word in verse 10: "became." He wasn't, but now he is. Something happened; a change occurred. Onesimus was evidently converted. God forgave him of his sins while he was with Paul, while Paul was in prison.
When I was going over this last night with a friend, he observed, "Isn't that ironic that Onesimus, the slave who has left his master, has come into a prison to find Paul, and that's where he finds freedom?" That's a good observation.
In the sentence in verses nine and 10, in the Greek, Onesimus stands last. So what was happening? Paul knew that Philemon might not have been happy with Onesimus. Onesimus had absented himself, and Paul was therefore wanting to convey some good news to Philemon. He tells him what's happened, and only then does he tell Philemon that it's Onesimus he's talking about. You can just imagine: He says, "Somebody was converted, oh, it's wonderful. I appeal to you for my son, who became my son while I was in chains."
"Wonderful," Philemon is saying.
"I'm referring to Onesimus," Paul then says.
You look a little bit later in the letter, and it seems like Onesimus may have stolen from Philemon. We don't know that, but I think it's a pretty good guess. Paul goes on in verse 11 to make a play on Onesimus's name, which means "useful." It was a very common name for slaves to be given in the Roman Empire. "Formerly he was useless to you"—we don't know how Paul means that—"but now he has become useful both to you and to me" (v. 11). Yet even though Onesimus was so useful to him, Paul was—as we read in verse 12—sending him back to Philemon.
As I meditated on that this week, I felt, "Oh my goodness, is Paul in favor of the Dred Scot decision? This does not sound good." Paul is sending an escaped slave—a runaway slave—back to his master. I mean, I appreciate the desire for reconciliation, but that doesn't sound like something we would celebrate. What's going on here? Was Paul acting like the bounty hunters in 19th-century America who would find escaped slaves and then return them to bondage for a price? In the Old Testament, it was clear the people of Israel were not to behave like this. Deuteronomy 23:15 required those to whom the slave had fled not to return the slave, but rather to allow them to live in their new town that they had come to without being oppressed.
Is Paul disobeying that here? I don't think so. I certainly don't think he was acting like a bounty hunter. You see, in Roman law at the time, there was an interesting provision. The person in Paul's position could work for reconciliation between the slave or master, or he could sell the slave in the market and return the money to the master. Now, the question comes up: What had happened here so that Onesimus had escaped from Philemon? Had he gone out and not come back? I don't think so. Roman rule at the time also recognizes slaves' rights to go to one of their masters' friends if their relationship with their master was strained. He could go to one of the friends—even without the master's approval—and appeal to this friend of the master's to work for reconciliation.
Frank Thielman, in his introduction to the New Testament, has a great example of this. He cites a letter from Pliny the Younger in the early second century that is almost exactly like Philemon, just without the theological stuff. But this same law is being used: The guy is going to appeal to Pliny to appeal to his master to receive him, and Pliny then writes this letter, saying, "Receive this slave back into your affections."
I think this seems to fit the situation even better than viewing Onesimus simply as a runaway slave. Understanding that Onesimus was looking for Paul deliberately helps make more sense out of how it was that he could have just found Paul. One of the struggles the commentators always wrestle over when they just think of it as a runaway slave is Onesimus is trying to get away from Philemon. Paul was well-known to Christians. The church met in Philemon's house. Onesimus would probably have heard of Paul, so you'd think one of the last people he'd want to run into was one of his master's friends. Furthermore, he wasn't just nearby; he was in Rome. That's a boat ride away. Furthermore, he wasn't just anyplace in Rome: He was in a prison. So how on Earth does Onesimus just "run into" Paul?
Well, God is sovereign. He certainly could have just run into Paul. How is somebody born of a virgin? God majors in viewing things we would find unlikely. But if I don't have any particular reason to think it had to be like that, and if I know this other law existed and was exercised at the time, it makes a lot more sense to think that Onesimus went out looking for Paul to help him be reconciled to Philemon. And that, in fact, is what I think happened.
So Paul was here, not supporting slavery by sending an escapee back to his master and into enslavement, but rather responding to a request by a slave for aid and reconciliation that was both legal and consistent with Christianity. I'm assuming, in reading this, that Onesimus was not trying to escape; Onesimus was trying to be reconciled. While Onesimus had sought Paul to help him reconcile with his earthly master, God had then worked this much more important reconciliation between him and Onesimus, and so Onesimus became very dear to Paul. You look at verse 12 there; he uses that phrase "my very heart." You can tell that deep affection Paul felt for Onesimus.
I have to say, as the pastor of a church, I think I understand something of this special affection in which Paul holds Onesimus. If you've seen friends grow remarkably while you've known them as Christians—or even seen people be converted—then you know something about special affection. That does build an affection in your heart, like the affection you feel for a son or a daughter. It's a precious thing. When Paul writes "my very heart," I think I know exactly what he's talking about. He's talking about the stuff that goes way beyond a job description, and it reaches into your gut. That's the way you'll feel for those people whom you've seen come to Christ or you've seen remarkable growth: when God uses you as part of that. I think it's one of the greatest joys of being a pastor. I can understand why Paul, even in prison, would be relishing that.
If you're here and you're not a Christian, I've referred to Onesimus being converted. It's a big change. Can you imagine such a change as big as what I'm talking about? As Christians, that's what we believe goes on when you become a Christian. It's not a matter of saying, "You know what? I'm going to start the habit of going to church." No, when you become a Christian, God the Holy Spirit actually takes you, whom we understand to be spiritually dead, and makes you alive to him. He forgives you of your sins because of what God has done in Christ. By our sins, we have separated ourselves from God, who is holy and perfect, who made us in his image to know him. God comes among us, those who are sinners, and by the gospel, by the message of Jesus Christ, he calls us to himself. We hear that God was incarnated: Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man. Jesus lived the life, a perfect life that you and I should have lived, but hadn't. Then he died the death on the Cross that you and I both deserve, but he didn't. Then why did he die that death? He died it for all of us who would ever repent of our sins, turn from them, and trust in him. When we repent and when we trust in Christ like that, God entirely changes us. Every part of our being is affected. We're not perfected yet. We're all walking evidences of that. But we are radically affected at the root of ourselves as we are brought alive to God. We are knowing his love and his peace and his grace as we are actually indwelt by his own Spirit.
If you are here today and you're not a Christian, that's what we would encourage you to do: to repent of your sin. It always lies to you anyway. Has it ever fulfilled a promise? No. Sins constantly make promises they don't fulfill. Leave that bad old master and find the one you were made for: God, the Lord Jesus.
But what I wanted to say is that this gospel was being portrayed by Paul, even as he preached this great news of reconciliation to God while he was in chains, as he says there in verse 13. Paul is reminding Philemon: "Look, I know something about the cost of being an agent of reconciliation, all right. I'm not an armchair reconciler. I am spending my dotage in uncomfortable circumstances in order to try to make sure that people like you, Philemon, hear this gospel, this Good News."
Prisons today are bad, and prisons in Roman times were worse. Prisons in Roman times didn't give you clothes, didn't give you food. If you didn't have somebody out there who would go through the shame of coming publicly to a prison to bring you clothes or bring you food, you froze and starved. Onesimus, it seems, was doing very useful work: work Paul appreciated. It's the kind of thing Philemon would have done if he were there. Paul is thankful for this friend God has given him, who is doing these things for Paul that Paul couldn't do for himself. In a funny way, Onesimus was even living out the very gospel of God's care for sinners who couldn't care for ourselves, even while he was a non-Christian beginning to care for Paul. God was preaching the gospel to Onesimus through Onesimus's own actions. Paul preached the gospel to him, and by God's grace, Onesimus believed. He was converted. He was born again. His life changed.
Paul was sending Onesimus back not as a supporter of slavery, but rather, he was sending back this converted regenerated sinner to be reconciled to one from whom he was seemingly alienated before Onesimus ever left him. Indeed, it seems that this alienation would be the most likely reason for why Onesimus had left Philemon in the first place. God had converted Paul when Paul was not looking to be converted, as we saw in Acts 9, and now God had converted Onesimus through Paul. Fundamentally, Onesimus was not there to be reconciled to God, but God had another agenda. Onesimus had come only looking for an earthly reconciliation, but God had given him a heavenly one.
This is something of who Paul was and of what had happened, but now, with this letter's presentation, they stood at a moment of decision because of Philemon's freedom. Look at verse 14, "But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary." This is what we might call the implied ask. He's going to get a little more explicit as he keeps going, but basically, he is saying that Onesimus should be accepted back and forgiven, and he should be treated differently, and Philemon should probably even send him back to Paul to care for him because he is doing what Philemon would do and he's doing it so well. But none of that did Paul simply want to make happen. He didn't, therefore, simply allow Onesimus to stay indefinitely with him in Rome and be useful to Paul that way. He wanted to assist in the reconciliation of Onesimus and Philemon.
I was asked by a seminary student just this past week if this verse was a verse about free will: for why we have to do something freely in order for God to value it. I have to confess I hadn't looked at it that way. As I looked at it, I think that's not what Paul is talking about here: about valuing some acts more because they are freely chosen rather than whatever God might constrain us to do by predestination or irresistible grace. I don't think Paul is talking about that here. Paul is talking not about God not using his authority, his ability, but about Paul not pulling strings and rank in that sense. Paul is simply saying he doesn't want to coerce or constrain Philemon, but that he wants to know what Philemon wants to do.
We humans, even apostles, do not stand in an analogous position to God. We can't really force anyone to do anything, and if you doubt that, you can go read Jonathan Edwards on the freedom of the will. God can force people, but even God doesn't do that. What God does, we see from Scripture, is give us new hearts, transformed minds, renewed love of him and holiness, so that we—authentically we—want to do these things. This is just not an analogous situation to that. Paul could never do anything like that. We humans don't predestinate, elect, regenerate, sanctify, or glorify. God, on the other hand, does all of those things or else we're lost. I appreciate the question about verse 14, but I don't think that's what Paul is talking about. Paul is simply saying the much more mundane "I don't want to try to force you to do this; I want to see that you really want to do this. I want this to be from you. I want you to care about this."
If you're not a Christian, I think understanding this actually explains something of how we in this church act toward you. We're really glad you're here; you can come here for years and not be a Christian and we will love to see you, and we can be your friends. Basically, this is what we want to do: We want to tell you honestly about your sins, and we want to tell you about how we understand Jesus Christ to be the answer for your problem that you have because of your sins. It's the problem all of us have had, the only answer to which is Jesus Christ. But then we want to explain what that means, to pray for you, to love you.
What we don't want to do is attempt to create an emotionally charged atmosphere in which we get you to make some vague decision, and then on the basis of that vague decision we now assure you that everything has changed. We very much believe that God saves people and converts people. When that conversion happens, it is punctiliar: that is, it is one moment in time, though we may or may not be so fully aware of exactly when that moment is. But we don't believe that is how we see God working normally in Scripture.
I love the story recounted by the great British pastoral evangelist Martyn Lloyd-Jones about a time when a man came up to him after a service. Lloyd-Jones had been preaching the previous night and didn't give an altar call. This man who represented himself as a non-Christian was very frustrated by the fact that the "doctor," as he was called, didn't give an altar call. Lloyd-Jones recounts this man saying to him, "You know, doctor, if you had asked me to stay behind last night, I would have done so." "Well," Jones said, "I'm asking you now; come with me now." "Oh no," the man replied, "but if you had asked me last night, I would have done so." "My dear friend," Jones said, "if what happened to you last night does not last for 24 hours, I'm not interested in it. If you are not as ready to come with me now as you were last night, you've not got the right, the true thing. Whatever affected you last night was only temporary and passing; you still do not see your real need of Christ."
There are choices that truly reflect our natures and choices that don't. We mean to talk about the real ones.
This verse should also not be seen to undermine all coercive authority. This is not an anarchic verse. This is not saying government is wrong. What we see here is, again, that Paul is showing the love of God in being so careful with a person of the lowest status you could have in that society. Yet Paul was not acting toward people on the base of their status in the world. His action wouldn't have made sense in the status-conscious world of Rome or of today. But Christianity is a religion that has always recognized the equal value of all people.
Brothers and sisters, does your desire for the good of others before your own show itself as Paul's did here? That's what you want to pray that God will continue to develop in your life.
In the midst of all this activity, Paul pauses to point out God's purposes to Philemon. Look at verse 15: "Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever."
Paul stops to reflect on God's purposes in all this. Such reflection is true, and it may help Philemon to forgive whatever there is that needs forgiving. God often overrules our actions for good. The goodness of that result in no way justifies our sin, but God is good and kind and he may use this to help remind us there is more going on than we can see. It may also help to remind us how God has dealt with our own stubborn rebellion against him, how he has been patient, how he has waited, how he has kindly persevered with us.
Here in this verse, there is this contrast between "for a little while" and "for good" or "forever." Some things are passing; others endure. Paul says that Onesimus's separation from Philemon was passing. But now Onesimus is converted, and therefore his fellowship with him shall be enduring. We know Onesimus left Philemon, and it seems that he left under circumstances in which Onesimus needed Philemon's forgiveness. But behind Onesimus's action, Paul points out the Lord's. You see the verb "separated" in this verse. That's what we call a divine passive: a passive verb that, by the context, infers God was acting. God was acting in this. Onesimus left, yes, but Onesimus was—in another sense, Paul says—separated from Philemon for a little while. That means God separated him from Philemon for God's purposes.
My non-Christian friend: have you ever asked the question "Why?" when something happens? The very asking of that question presumes you might be more of a believer than you've realized. Why? Well, why ask "Why?" if you don't think anything's there? You have some sense of how things should be and that there's a purpose and a design. As Christians, we don't just believe there's intelligent design in creation. We believe there is intelligent design in the story that keeps going in history. We believe things happen for a reason. We can't always tell you specifically why x happened so that this would happen, but we are not surprised at all to see God sovereignly using history for his own purposes.
The Bible is full of stories like this. The Book of Genesis climaxes in the amazing story of Joseph, where he had been thrown by his brothers into a pit, and then, years later, when the brothers are undergoing a famine, they come down to Egypt. They don't recognize Joseph, and when they realize, "Oh my goodness, the ruler of Egypt is the brother we threw into the pit years ago," they are terrified.
This is the same God acting here who overruled what Joseph's brothers did. This is the same God who was active even in the disciples betraying Jesus and the soldiers nailing him to the Cross. Is what they did sin? Yes. Are they responsible for it? Yes. Is that the whole story? No. God was also active in a way we won't fully understand. Are you aware there is a God who is so committed to working his sovereign will?
I love the way the hymn puts it:
God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take. The clouds you so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace. Behind the frowning providence, He hides a smiling face. Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain. God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain.
Onesimus's changed status
Here's the last point we should consider if we're going to understand this. The picture isn't complete without noting, from the last verse in our passage, Onesimus's changed status.
Look again in verse 16. Paul is telling Philemon to receive Onesimus "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord."
Here, Paul gives a summary of the situation. Onesimus is now no longer to be regarded fundamentally as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Philemon had freedom not to send Onesimus back to Paul. He didn't have to do that. Now, fundamentally as a slave, by God's Holy Spirit converting him, he had taken that option entirely out of the place. Paul isn't denying that Onesimus is, by station, a slave. He's not requiring Philemon to free him. He's simply saying that Onesimus is not only a human made in God's image—which he was assuming—but that he was a slave. Slavery itself is not being condemned here. But Onesimus's status has been altered, has been exceeded by now being made Philemon's brother in the Lord.
This is the way all the commentators put it: What's happening here is that slavery is not itself being condemned, because to do that would have immediately crushed Christianity. That's the speculation commentators give. Slavery is being entirely undermined, as here, in a specific case, Philemon is told to regard this man as his brother. Such a view of someone who is a slave was an unusual thing in that world. Simply being taught that slaves were equal to owners in terms of both being fully human, having a profound equality: That was taught in some places in the ancient world. Stoicism, for example, taught that. But in having such a close relationship, as that of a brother, with an owner: Christianity seems to have been unique in teaching this.
Slavery doesn't make its first appearance in the Bible with Onesimus. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews were slaves. Furthermore, Jesus and the apostles used that image of slavery to describe spiritual realities: being enslaved to sin or being enslaved to God or righteousness. Peter and Paul actually exhort slaves to obey their earthly masters. Paul warns masters that God will punish them if they, in any way, mistreat someone who is one of their slaves. In fact, one of the letters in which Paul warns masters of this is the letter to the Colossians, which is the letter Philemon went with to the church that met in his house. Philemon would either have heard that read out or maybe even read that out himself. Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 7 that slavery is not an ultimate matter, but that freedom is preferable. Listen to these words he wrote to the Corinthian church.
In 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul wrote in condemnation of stealing men, which I think would have included kidnapping and slave trading, taking people as slaves.
The Romans' slavery was not 18th- or 19th-century American style; it included in what we would think of in America as more of an indentured servanthood. This slavery talked about here is a broader category than we think of as slavery in American history. It was brutal: It's not correct to think that a Roman slave was essentially what we would think of today as an employee. It included people whom we would think of today as "employees," but it also included all the worst parts that we can think of slavery as well. About one-third of the population of the Roman Empire consisted of slaves. People became slaves through falling into debt, through being conquered, through being kidnapped or taken by pirates, or through being born into it. It wasn't racial, though, as we've known it in America's history.
One thing that set Christianity apart was the way that slaves were welcomed in as full members of the congregation: entirely equal and to be treated like anyone else. In fact, in the second century, Celsus, who was writing against Christianity, even attacked Christians at this very point. He says, "They want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable, and stupid, only slaves, women, and little children." But here in Colossae, we find prosperous Philemon, and look how Paul instructs him to regard his slave: as a dear brother. What a transformation Christ works when he makes someone a Christian. Philemon was given, by God, a new brother in Christ.
My friend, if you're not a Christian, it may be that this Christian regard of each other as brothers and sisters may seem corny or fake. My wife and I were watching something the other night in which the writers were clearly trying to portray a cult with a money-grubbing preacher at the middle of it, and they had everybody referring to each other as "brother so-and-so" and "sister so-and-so." You could tell those writers thought this was the most hilarious, false, phony, plastic thing imaginable.
If you're not a Christian, I want to tell you that's not our experience of it. We don't mean to be corny; we see that exampled in Scripture, and we understand we've been given the same heavenly Father in God, and it is our experience. It's not perfect, but it's real and genuine. You can have a new family. You can have fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters as God meant you to have. It was Jesus himself who said, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice" (Luke 8:21). Jesus started what may seem like this corny way of talking, but I have to tell you, it's a reality we experience—and we'd say we experience it in part because we understand we all have God's Spirit in us. We literally have the same Spirit in us, and it brings about a family sense and a family understanding that exceeds anything else we experience in this life.
Part of this shows the dear regard of God for every person who's made in his image. Christianity will always be threatening to governments that treat human beings as mere commodities, to be ordered around as they place—or denied liberties, or even aborted as infants. There is an even more special family relationship with those who are not only made in God's image—which is everybody—but are indwelt by God's Spirit, and that's Christians. We understand we have God's Spirit dwelling in us, the same Spirit, so we are made together, a family.
There have been a lot of ideas about how to make this world a better place, and they have not given us real transformation. Christianity is not simply a theory; it's a reality. It has happened again and again in practice, like in this example of Onesimus and Philemon, who had their relationship transformed. Perhaps you've experienced that same transformation. Christianity, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is how God intends this change to really happen.
Here, Paul isn't ultimately teaching an egalitarianism that denies the appropriateness of roles of authority. We Christians understand that we can be brothers and sisters to those who are in authority over us in our home or in our state, in the church or at work. This extra relationship doesn't dissolve the authority these Christians have over us, but it does give a special added component and even essence to our relationship. The freedom all Christians know is a spiritual freedom, which may or may not have much expression in our relations with others in the world, depending on our circumstances—but in the church, we experience relationships with others who have known the same liberation, and that leads us to celebrate the liberating grace of God we have known with people who may be considered much above us in the world or much below us in the world. That is just not our concern. If anything, we revel in the difference. We appreciate that there are people the world regards differently because that brings the reality of the gospel to the fore and says, "Look, we are not together just because we all have the same hobby, or we all like the same sport, or we all like the same entertainments, or we all like the same political party, or we all like the same school, or we are all boosters and supporters of the same community organizations. The only thing we have together is Jesus Christ. That's what brings us together. And our differences actually highlight what we have in common." We rejoice in God's grace to us in Christ, poured out on our lives: the loving-kindness God has brought to us in Jesus Christ. What a joy it is to know the grace of God. Do you experience joy from that today?
Here, Paul informs Philemon of this: of this new freedom Onesminus had found in Christ. From this transformation in which God has brought the spiritual liberation, there are now implications of how Philemon should regard Onesimus, how he should treat him. So what about us? How could we value each other more like brothers and sisters in Christ? God has changed our status from what it once was. How could we regard each other more like God does, push it a little further?
My Christian brother and sister, who do you have trouble relating to that way? Pray to God to help you with those people for the sake of the gospel. You realize that worldly status should never determine how we regard one another, because we are those who have a changed status, a status changed by God.
I love the story of the interaction of Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. Wilkins kidded King for his nonviolent methods of trying to work for change, and he was doubtful that he had achieved even a single victory for integration by it. He said to him, "In fact, Martin, if you have desegregated anything by your efforts, kindly enlighten me."
"Well," King replied, "I guess about the only thing I've desegregated so far is a few human hearts."
One writer comments that King knew the ultimate victory must be won there. Laws could prevent white people from lynching blacks, but no law could require races to forgive or love one another. The human heart, not the courtroom, was his supreme battleground.
I tell you that the heart is the battleground for forgiveness, and if there is anybody you are having trouble forgiving right now, you know the truth of that. The heart is the battleground for forgiveness. It's something no politician will ever be able to legislate, and our ability to forgive others seems to be tied to our knowledge of having ourselves been forgiven.
I think I've shared with you before the story about James Smith, the slave around Richmond, and his faith in God. "His faith wasn't the puny soft flesh type of those whose belief is the equivalent of a Sunday morning stroll," Betty DeRamus writes in her book Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad. "James Smith's faith was muscular enough to fortify him for two decades after he shambled away from his family in chains. Each night after his labors, the born-again Richmond-area slave preached the gospel to fellow slaves, even after his master whipped him for it. Sold away from Fannie and his two children to a slave trader for refusing to stop worshipping with other bondsmen, Smith was purchased by a Georgia cotton grower who ordered his overseer to administer a 100-lash beating to discourage the slave's stubborn prayerfulness. When the overseer later overheard Smith praying for his soul, he begged Smith's forgiveness and promised not to recapture him if he escaped. So Smith ran back to Virginia, where he learned his wife had been sold. It took 22 years of jailings, beatings, searching, and praying before he found Fannie in Canada, where she had fled. But find her he did."
Can you imagine that forgiveness? This is what a brother in the Lord did because he knew how God had forgiven him in Christ. Don't you see the way God has acted to show the glory of his gospel in this most amazing kind of forgiveness, which actually becomes typical in truly Christian churches?
How does forgiveness like this happen? Because it's commanded, "You should forgive"? Well, not just that: because we have been born again and forgiven. Coming to trust God, we come to love more like he loves. Do you see again how forgiveness is affected by our knowing we are forgiven by God? Human reconciliation arises from and should point to our reconciliation with God. Have you found it that way in your own heart? The more you understand how much mercy you have received from God, the more you will be merciful with others. None but Jesus can provide the forgiveness we need as sinners. None but Jesus can do helpless sinners good.
Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and president of 9Marks.