Anybody you're having a hard time with these days? Ever forgiven anybody who doesn't deserve it? If so, this sermon's for you. And if you've never done that, this sermon's really for you.
Forgiveness is a strange topic today. David Wells has observed that our society seems to have almost erased the idea from among us. He writes, "Those who inhabit this self-world look only for therapy, not for forgiveness and regeneration. Recovery, in fact, is their way of speaking about regeneration. It's all about human technique and not about miraculous intervention."
While I have the highest regard for Professor Wells and his observations, I'm not sure that, at least on a personal level, forgiveness and the issues surrounding it can be obliterated or erased or replaced. We speak of nursing a grudge because we like—we can even grow to love—our resentments. We can hold them close to our hearts. We feel it would be unjust, even wrong, to forgive people in some circumstances, so we wouldn't want to do them that injustice of forgiving them, letting them get off scot-free.
For many, personal experience affords examples of forgiveness that are difficult, even wrenching, even seemingly impossible—that show the difficulty of forgiving and the difficulty of being the one who is forgiven. There are, in fact, even religions that teach that such forgiveness is wrong. There are philosophies, ancient philosophies, nineteenth-century philosophies, modern day philosophies, that teach that forgiveness is nothing but despicable weakness.
For still others, forgiveness is a topic filled with pain because we know we need to be forgiven and we're not, or we know that we should forgive and we don't. According to the Bible's presentation of life, we can't get away from the need for forgiveness in a fallen world. We feel it in everything: from our jobs to our friendships, from our marriages to our own conscience. We know that we do wrong and that we need forgiveness from others in a fallen world, and that we ourselves must grow in our ability to forgive others. But how?
One of the best places to see this in the Bible is in the little book of Philemon.
How does Philemon fit in?
To put this in context for those of you who are just beginning to look into Christianity and trying to understand things, how does this fit in? Well, Jesus lived here on Earth during the first three decades of the first century. Paul became a Christian, we think, very soon after Christ's resurrection, and after about 10 years of learning and studying and whatever other things Paul did, he began in the mid-40s to go around through what is now Turkey and Greece and Italy, preaching and establishing Christian churches. During this time, Christianity is growing rapidly. The early Christians grew in their understanding that you don't have to be Jewish in order to be Christian, and Paul's ministry there was during the time of the Roman emperor Nero. Nero reigned from A.D. 54 to 68. He was reigning during the second part, the latter half of Paul's ministry, and he was probably responsible for Paul's death in A.D. 68, not long before his own death, in fact. We think that Paul was first imprisoned in Rome from about A.D. 59 to 62, and it's generally thought that this was the time during which he wrote this letter. He wrote a number of the letters that we have in the New Testament from prison, and this, Philemon, is one of those prison epistles. It's a short letter. In fact, it's the shortest book in the New Testament: 335 Greek words.
As background for this letter, Onesimus was a slave of Philemon who had run away. He had clearly been converted, and now he is coming back to Philemon. We'll think more in the next sermon about slavery in the Roman Empire and assorted issues, when Onesimus enters the story. But he doesn't even enter the story by name yet in these first seven verses, so we're going to keep him off until next time.
These are the verses in which Paul prepares to ask Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but not yet: not here in our verses. In our verses today, Paul doesn't even mention the situation. He's preparing the ground, preparing Philemon for his request. He is preparing to ask Philemon to forgive, and that's one way we can learn from him and from this little letter as we look at what I would call five building blocks for forgiveness: five matters Paul was reminding Philemon of, making sure they were in order, to help Philemon be able to forgive. As we study this passage, I pray you will be helped to understand and to forgive, and if you need it, to find forgiveness, especially if you are struggling to forgive someone. Check and see if these five building blocks are in place in your life.
The foundation of the gospel
The first one is the foundation of the gospel. Look again at verses three and four: "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers."
"Grace and peace to you" was a very common way for letters to begin. We find this same beginning in Revelation and 1 and 2 Peter—really, in all of Paul's letters except for the pastorals. Titus is very similar, and in 1 and 2 Timothy the only difference is he inserts "mercy" in between "grace" and "peace." Now, Christians, you understand this intuitively, these words. I could give you social background. Grace was the Greek greeting; peace, shalom, was the Hebrew greeting. Paul is combining these. But theologically, we understand what's going on. Grace, the mercy of God, is how we come to have peace with God and each other. It's a profoundly Christian greeting when said by a Christian, like Paul here. But if you're here and you're not a Christian, I want to make sure you understand this because this is the most important thing you could understand from the sermon, and mercifully for you, it's coming early on in the sermon, so here we go.
I want you to understand what Paul would mean by "grace" and "peace" here. We understand God has made all of us in his image and that we're all made to know him, and part of that means to recognize his authority in our lives—but we don't. We do what we want rather than what God wants: to use the biblical language, we sin. Because of that, and because God is good and righteous and just, he will punish us for our sins. He will, not because he has to, but because of who he is: because he is good.
And that leaves us in a fix. Because God is good, we deserve his punishment. That's what Christianity said is the problem with everyone in the world, regardless of what their national background is or their status in life. This is the problem. But God, in his great mercy, did not leave us there. The eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, took on flesh, lived as a man—a perfect life, perfectly in fellowship with God as his heavenly Father. He died a death on the cross in which he was standing in the place of sinners who deserve God's punishment, and there he took God's punishment: not for sins he had committed, because he had committed no sins, but for the sins of everyone who had ever turned from their own sins and trusted in Christ.
And was what he said true? Were those amazing claims in fact the case? Yes, we know this because God vindicated these claims by raising Christ from the dead. He publicly, as it were, signed the claims that Christ made, and he calls us now to repent of our sins and to believe in Christ, to have faith in him and so have a new life. All of that Christians understand when we hear these words "grace" and "peace"; we have our own personal history with God flash before us. This, then, is the foundation that we Christians have for forgiving others, knowing we have been forgiven in this way by God. You remember Jesus taught us to pray, "[F]orgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matt. 6:12). Can you imagine the arrogance of a Christian not forgiving someone else? Can you imagine the arrogance of someone who says they understand they have sinned against the almighty God and he has forgiven us, and yet they will not forgive? What sin against us could be greater than our sin against God? None.
My non-Christian friend, have you done anything you think needs God's forgiveness? What would it mean for you to be forgiven by God, to belong to God? This is not the kind of thing that you will ever find an economic or medical or political solution to. Our estrangement from God because of our sin is only solved from God's work through Christ, and now he calls us to act, to turn from our sins and trust in Christ as our Savior.
Here Paul is specifically praying for Philemon, that he will know these great gospel blessings of grace and peace. In verse three, that "you" is in the plural, but throughout the rest of the letter Paul is talking specifically to Philemon, the user singular. Paul has essentially asked Philemon's church to overhear his encouragement and admonition of Philemon, which is a very skillful move on Paul's part. And notice what Paul calls God in verse four. I love this: "my God." Christian, pause for a moment to appreciate this. He calls God "my God." You know, the pagans at the time—when they would stand up and pray publicly—would use a lot of different names for God. It was perhaps part of their uncertainty, their desire to make sure they would really get his attention. They would have different proper names and then different titles ascribed to whatever the God was they were praying to—kind of like how we might put more words into a Google search in order to try to get some result. That's what they would do as they prayed, looking for something out there. But the Christians prayed much more simply and directly and personally: just as the psalmist did, just as Jesus did. "My God, my God."
Christians know wonderful unity together in being able to say "my God" or "our God": not the God of our city or of our country, not the God of our class or our profession, but the One true God who is my God, is our God. My Christian friends, we must be clear on the gospel; we must be clear on the importance of the gospel, of being reconciled to this God. This is the basis for everything we are and do as a congregation. Therefore we want to both define and delight in the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you find a church or a preacher who doesn't like theology, stay away. I understand you can turn sermons into dry and boring theology lectures; I'm not advocating that. But someone who says they don't like the very message of their deliverance from God's judgment, who doesn't see the importance and the significance of it: even with the best of intentions, they will not be a faithful shepherd. Stay away from them. We as a congregation delight in being careful in our sermons: in the hymns we sing and the prayers that are prayed to be clear about the hope we have in Jesus Christ and to exalt in it. If you want to know how to forgive, then understand more, my Christian friend, about how you have been forgiven in Christ. Understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The context of the church
The second building block we find here for forgiveness is the context of the church. Look again at whom Paul sends his letters to there in verses one and two: "To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home." Philemon is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament. He seems to be a member of the church in Colossae. Perhaps he had been converted under Paul's preaching. Paul had never been to Colossae, but Ephesus isn't that far away, so maybe he had been at Ephesus when Paul was ministering there for some time and he had been converted there. He's one of this rare group of individuals, including Timothy and Titus, to receive a personally divinely inspired letter. Apphia is a feminine name; most people assume this was probably Philemon's wife. Then people see Archippus here also, and because that follows Philemon and Apphia and is before "the church that meets in your home," many people assume, "Well, this perhaps is one of their children, one of their sons: an adult son who is a fellow Christian." Archippus is also mentioned in Colossians 4. In fact, when you look at the letter to the Colossians, you see so many overlapping names. That's one of the reasons people are fairly confident this letter to Philemon was sent along with Colossians at the time it was sent to the church at Colossae, which we know (from this verse) met in Philemon's home.
Now, if you've read your New Testament much, you might remember finding similar mentions of churches meeting in houses elsewhere. In the time of the New Testament, churches weren't determined by where they got together so much as by the fact that they did regularly gather together. They might have met in various kinds of places. They would have to meet someplace. It could be a rented hall like the Hall of Tyrannus that we read about in Ephesus, some open area outside like they maybe did at Philippi, or a house if there were a room or an area outside the house large enough for the people to gather in. Philemon's house, or maybe his yard, may have housed the church at Colossae. We don't start to find buildings dedicated solely to the use of Christian congregations until the third century.
There is no surprise here that a congregation meets in a house. In Puritan New England, these purpose-built houses for Christian congregations were called what? Meeting houses. You often will still see that in the meeting house. It's the house in which the church meets. That's what they were. I mean, we love our old building, but it's not us. I know the sign outside says "Capitol Hill Baptist Church," and in one sense it's talking about this building, but more fundamentally, it's talking about those of us who are gathered here right now. The saints meeting on this very corner a hundred years ago were in a much smaller building, and they needed a larger building, and so they gave sacrificially (like many of us have probably never done yet) in order to build what we're in now, and we've been in for 97 years and it has served us remarkably well. It's been very useful—may it serve us for 97 more. But it's not fundamentally what we mean by "the church." We understand we are the church most fundamentally, and we don't need this building or any other building in order to be a church. We have to be able to assemble—that's what it means to be a church—but where we assemble is not the crucial matter.
My Christian friends, what are you doing to use the communal nature of your church in your own life? How about in your evangelistic life? What about with your friends at work who don't know the Lord? Have you thought of any way to use the community of this church as part of witnessing to your friends at work, to teach them the truth of the Gospel? Could you invite them here or to your home or to some other special event, where they might hear the Gospel but also see something of the way God calls us to live together? I can think of more than one person who has found the Gospel to be true in part through observing the corporate witness of a Christian congregation as the Christians love each other, expressing God's love.
Sometimes we Christians here in America have mistaken God's temporary blessings to be permanent requirements. For example, I sometimes hear preachers get very upset about the possibility of the tax-exempt status of our properties being removed. I am not in favor of removing the tax-exempt status of our properties, let me be clear (should any lawmakers be present). I appreciate this as a sign of benevolence toward religion and of recognizing that religion in general has a good effect on our society—and therefore we want to promote the stability of our homes and our society by giving some special, indirect support, but allowance, to houses of worship. I appreciate that.
But friends, this is a privilege most Christians around the world have not enjoyed and probably won't until the Lord comes back. These are privileges and blessings we've enjoyed and want to continue to have if we can, but we want to be very careful about sounding like those things being threatened equals the gospel being threatened. That's not true at all. The church has existed in far more adverse circumstances than all the hostility we are currently experiencing in the Western cultures we live in. We need to be careful about how we think about this.
Here in the New Testament, we see very clearly that churches met in houses. It emphasizes a congregational nature of the church. It's not a building, it's not a regional or political organization, but it's a congregation because it congregates. It meets, and regardless of where it's meeting, it was a Christian congregation because of what they intended to do together. They intended to read God's Word and pray; they intended to sing and be instructed by the Word, to obey Jesus' commands to baptize and to celebrate his supper together. They were not just one physical family or one homogenous social group: They were brought together, all of them, simply by their shared faith in Christ. This letter, as you see then, was not written only to Philemon and his family, but it was written to this church.
Now, as I said, Paul goes on and says "you" in the singular from verse four on throughout the letter. But it's kind of like he's just invited the church to overhear what he's going to say to Philemon because he knows that what he's going to say could be—maybe it won't be but it could be—a little difficult for them to hear. So he's inviting the community to step in and listen and then be watching how Philemon responds to him. You might call this a kind of semi-private letter. Paul was deliberately bringing other Christians in.
It's useful, isn't it, to have those around us to help us in the kind of challenging obediences that we are called to? It is wise to use friends to help you in your Christian life, and God knows that. He's made us that way. We are saved individually, but then we are brought into the church: full of relationships with real people with whom we flesh out what it means to love the invisible God. This is how you grow as a Christian. You commit yourself to following Christ along with a specific group of people. You cultivate relationships with them, you get to know them, you let them get to know you. You join a local church.
Christian, you realize you have both a personal need for and a responsibility to be a part of a local congregation: not just in attending often, but in committing yourself to be a part, a regular part, of its life: someone who can be depended upon. This is how you're to grow as a Christian without getting trapped in the self-deception that lone-ranger Christians can get lost in. This is a part of how you are supposed to give yourself in love to others. If you don't commit, those God has raised up as elders don't know you; they can't call on you to serve and don't know how to distinguish you from a visitor. I could just go on and on about the difficulties that happen by you not doing just a little official thing of joining. It has serious effects about how you cannot be integrated into the body of the congregation. Regular attender, do not assume you don't need to be a member of a local church. It is arrogance on your part to think you don't need to do that.
It's in the context of such a friendly relationship that Paul will go on later in the letter to address this potentially difficult issue, and one reason you have friendships like this is because even you will have to have difficult issues addressed sometime in your life, and you will be helped by having people you're not paranoid about. The Evil One will try to tell you they don't love you, but if you have put years of your life into that community, it will be much harder for you to believe the Evil One when he tempts you like that.
Godly relationships prepare you for the trials you don't know are coming, and if you wait until those trials come, it's too late to build those relationships. Ask yourself: Are you building the kind of relationships right now that will help you endure, that will help you persevere, that will help you go through trials to grow in sanctification, that will harness your energies to help others in their lives? Some may do this more, some less, given circumstances and personalities, but you do none of these only at great peril to yourself and, honestly, at loss to others: God could use you in their lives. Friends, build these relationships before you need them, then they will be there to help you forgive and to help you receive forgiveness—or however else God would grow you as a Christian. The context of the church is another building block in forgiveness.
The practice of prayer
A third building block is the practice of prayer. Look again at verses four and five: "I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus." Intercessory prayer is when you stop and you take time to ask God to do things for others. We see regular examples of it in Paul's writings, and here Paul mentions remembering Philemon in his prayers.
If you're here and you're not a Christian, I wonder how this sounds to you. Does this sound strange? I mean, do you do this? Do you spend time praying for other people? I wonder to whom you pray. If you don't understand yourself to be a Christian, to whom are you praying?
My Christian friend, do you pray for others? Outside of a church service, by yourself, who have you prayed for? Just think in your own head: Who did you pray for by yourself today? Maybe if you're married or in a family, who did you pray for before you came to church? Do you only pray for people in your family, or for people who are most like you? Americans, did you spend any time praying for your Asian brothers? Ladies, did you spend any time this morning praying for the men in the church? I wonder if those we've sent to seminary have remembered to pray for us this morning. I wonder if we've prayed for them. You who are getting ready to move, do you pray for those who are staying?
I think we are tempted to only or mainly pray for those who are in situations like us or who are like us. We should pray regularly for the people in the congregation, maybe especially for those people who aren't just like us.
Pray for people at work. Maybe you've been trying to think, How can I do a better job sharing the gospel at work? Have you ever told anybody at work that you're praying for them? I know people can get offended at anything, but that's got to be on the harder end of things to be offended by, especially if you say it humbly: "I just want you to know I'm praying for you." Or you could even ask them, "How could I pray for you? I try to discipline myself to pray regularly for the people I'm around, so I'm praying for you. Is there any particular thing you'd like me to pray about?" Maybe you've been trying to figure out a way to speak to them about Jesus Christ. That could be the way to do it. Begin by praying, by speaking to God about them.
Another word on our prayer lives: I think that considering even this brief prayer of Paul's, we see that thanksgiving is to be an important part of our praying for others. Here in verse four, Paul says, "I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers." Such thankfulness is typical of Paul. And what's interesting is that with both congregations he knows personally and congregations he doesn't, this thankfulness is always there.
Well, how about for us? Is thankfulness typical of our prayers? Or are our prayers usually a bit of a spiritual laundry list for ourselves without spending time thanking God for things he has done? Are there ways we can be more thankful in our prayers? Thankfulness, you know, is accurate. God has answered prayers, so many prayers we've prayed. Thankfulness is helpful; it reminds us to notice God's kindness. Notice here that Paul is encouraging Philemon by sharing his prayers with him. But Paul isn't fundamentally turning to Philemon and saying, "Thank you for being the way you are." He'll do that in a minute. But first and most fundamentally, he is thanking God. Have you ever considered all the serious theology that is packed into thanksgiving? It acknowledges that God is the author of the good. Thanksgiving is a great and a correct thing to do. Thankfulness is part of God-centeredness. Paul is thanking God because God is the author of Philemon's faith and of Philemon's love.
Any progress in sanctification should cause us to be thankful to God, not proud of ourselves. I'm struck by the fact that Paul said praying for Philemon always drove him to thankfulness, and I am challenged by that. I know I'm better at asking things of God than at thanking him. You ever find yourself thinking of your prayer time as essentially just your "asking God" time, or is thanksgiving to God for what he's already done for others a vital part of your own personal devotional life?
He has done so much for us, much more than we have ever asked or thought. Do we thank him for his many kindnesses in our own lives and in the lives of those we pray for? Thankfulness is encouraging, and thankfulness helps us to see still more to be thankful for. We Christians should really be the most thankful people, shouldn't we? We know what we deserve, and we know what we've received, and that causes tremendous thanksgiving. Who else has what we have to be thankful for?
Check yourself and see how disciplined you're being in thanking God. How many prayers that you prayed earnestly last week—or earlier this year, or in 2004, or in 1989—have you just forgotten about but God didn't forget about, and he's faithfully answered, again and again and again and again, with never even a notice or a "thank you" from you? Because he's a faithful God, a good and a kind God, he answers our prayers.
Did you notice what caused Paul to be so thankful? Look at verse five: "because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus." Brothers and sisters, does what you hear cause you to thank God? We should let the things that come in our ears fuel our thanksgiving, and we should also want the things that come out of our mouths to be able to fuel the thanksgiving of others. I am turned to thankfulness to God in my heart by hearing reports of what God has done and is doing.
Thus, another building block of the kind of forgiveness that Paul will be calling Philemon to is what he exemplifies here in his practice of prayer.
The necessity of love
A fourth building block for forgiveness is the necessity of love. Look again at verses five to seven.
Faith without love is dead. Faith appears among us and becomes visible as love. That's the appearance of faith. Some translations of verse five render "love" and "faith" as being about Jesus and all the saints, the Christians. I think the NIV does a better job here, both with understanding this verse and seeing how it relates to verses six and seven, because you see in verse six Paul talks about Philemon's faith and in verse seven about his love. He has correctly laid it out in what would technically be a chiastic structure. The NIV translators have perceived this, and they have translated it correctly there, I think, in verse five. The faith is in Christ; the love is for all the saints.
I want to point out that this is why I think the NIV translation—as good as it is there—is not quite as good in verse seven. The verse is already clearly about sharing the faith, but I don't think it so much means sharing the faith with non-Christians, and I know when most people read that verse seven in the NIV that's what they think of. It's a great thing to do, to share your faith with non-Christians. But I think Paul is talking here about sharing the faith with fellow Christians in a sense of sharing generously with them because you share the same faith.
With that in mind, look again at verse six: "I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ." You see, Paul didn't want Philemon to evangelize Onesimus; he was already saved. Paul wanted Philemon to care for Onesimus, to forgive him, to treat him as a Christian, to be generous: koinonia, to share his faith in that way. That's what I think Paul is calling Philemon to there in verse six. It could be a reference to evangelism, as some people have read; it's certainly true that you do come to understand more fully every good thing we have in Christ through evangelism. But here, I think the living out of the Christian life together in a shared fashion is that we have this faith together in Christ. This is more fitting with what Paul is asking Philemon to do with Onesimus.
Paul prays for Philemon that he would be effective in his acts of sharing generously. To what end? Well, that Philemon himself might understand and experience all the good Christ has for him. It's another wonderful phrase to meditate on, and it's true, isn't it? As we act in the Christian faith, we come to understand it more. We can read it, and we can read a book about it, and we can take a test on it and get it all right, but it just pops up and becomes three-dimensional when we begin living it. We understand in a different way than we did before. The more we recognize how we have benefitted from Christ, the more likely we will freely give ourselves in Christ's service to others: because we understand the depth of his love for us, the extent to which he has gone.
Paul acknowledges in verse seven that Philemon has been doing exactly this kind of thing in his sharing. He says here in verse seven, "Your love has given me great joy and encouragement." Paul had thanked God for Philemon's actions; now, in verse seven, he is turning and speaking directly to Philemon, and here he is expressing his appreciation to him. He's thanking him for how Philemon had benefitted other Christians. Paul is encouraging Philemon.
Again, if you're here and you're not a Christian, I wonder what your highest example of love would be. Would it maybe be your parents? Something you've read in a novel? I think I can say, as a Christian, that the experience—not just an example that I may know of, but the experience—of love that I have had from God is greater than any example of love you can point to. In fact, I think that's the testimony of every Christian. Because of the nature of the God against whom we've sinned, and because of the extraordinary way he has responded to us in love in Christ, we have known love in a world-transcending manner that changes us. It changes the way we respond to others. It's very much part of what it means to be a Christian.
I love the fact that Paul calls Philemon "brother" here, along with a "dear friend" up in verse one. Paul loved Philemon; love is something that Paul has expressed toward him here. He's encouraged about Philemon, about how he's expressed that love so well to many other Christians, how he has "refreshed the hearts of the Lord's people" (v. 7). We don't know exactly what he means. The image is one of helping armies to rest after a march. Paul doesn't say specifically how Philemon had done this: probably providing hospitality, maybe to traveling Christian preachers or missionaries. Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). Philemon was a living picture of that to his fellow Christians.
I love the fact that how Philemon is encouraging Paul here is not about how kind Philemon had been to Paul, though we could all write "thank you" notes and that's a good thing to do. Paul is encouraged about how kind Philemon had been to others. I love the kingdom-mindedness that shows in Paul: that he was not small and self-focused and self-centered. He was thinking about what God was doing in the world, and he was rejoicing at the profit and benefit and prosperity of God's people, wherever they were. He was given joy and encouragement by Philemon's care for others.
In being united to Christ, we are united to everyone else who is united to Christ. And that is fearful, wonderful, awkward, tremendous, amazing, strange. It's all those things. But it's the case. Paul experienced that and spoke about it and wrote out of that. Paul is given joy and encouragement as he is refreshed. Even in prison, he is refreshed by Philemon's kindness and generosity toward other Christians.
Friends, that's how we as Christians experience hearing about our brothers and sisters in the Sudan or Nigeria or China or Burma, those being persecuted. We understand we are much more connected to them than we are to fellow Americans who don't know Christ. We have commonalities with our fellow citizens; we have commonalities, certainly, with other members of our family who aren't Christians. But the most profound commonality we know in this life is with those fellow Christians who actually are indwelt by the same Spirit that indwells us, the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I wonder if this kind of thankfulness describes you. Is what I'm describing, what Paul writes about here in Philemon, just sound like another world? Or does this actually sound like what you've begun to experience as a Christian? Did you ever think that we may rejoice so little over other spiritual prosperity because we may pray for them so little and so seldom? Paul had apostolic wisdom here. He begins to exhort Philemon, but before he exhorts, he encourages. It's a wise way to proceed. Just ask yourself: Is your faith expressing itself through love? Is it happening at work? Is your faith invisible to your friends at work? We want people to miss us when we go because, fundamentally, of the characteristics of Christ that his Spirit reproduces in our lives.
We also realize our families are gifts God has given us to begin teaching us baby steps to pull us out of ourselves, to start caring about others. He'll do that more and more as we keep growing up: to care about others still more and more, and ultimately, of course, himself. That's who we are to give ourselves in love to. Brothers and sisters, it is our love that makes our faith visible. Our faith appears as we love.
The example of an elder
The final building block for forgiveness I want you to notice would be the example of an elder. I think Paul's example here is to be helpful to Philemon to teach him to forgive. If we elders aren't good at forgiving, we shouldn't be elders. If ministers of the Word don't forgive, it would seem to suggest they don't understand the Word they mean to teach.
Did you notice how Paul introduces himself? He says, "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus" (v. 1). Generally, the way this letter opens is a very normal letter, but this is the only time Paul ever introduces himself like this. He calls himself a prisoner when he writes to the Ephesians and in his last letter to Timothy. But this is a unique way for Paul to introduce himself in one of his letters. Paul is a prisoner, and not just any prisoner: a prisoner of Christ Jesus, for Christ's sake, under Christ's control.
Being a leader among Christians in a fallen world means being prepared for conflict and may well mean being involved in conflict. You notice he calls Archippus in verse two a "fellow soldier." There is this willingness to oppose, and even to contradict, which must be there in a faithful Christian minister.
I appreciate the way Matthew Henry describes the minister: "Ministers must look on themselves as laborers and soldiers. They must therefore take pains and endure hardship. They must stand on their guard and make good their post, must look on one another as fellow laborers and fellow soldiers who must stand together and strengthen one another's hands and hearts in any work of their holy function and calling. They need see to it that they be provided with spiritual weapons and skill to use them. As laborers they must minister the Word in sacraments and discipline, and watch over souls as those who must give an account of them. And as soldiers they must fight the Lord's battles and not entangle themselves in the things of this life, but attend to the pleasing of him who hath chosen them to be soldiers."
I'm convinced that if you look back over these few verses we've looked at, you will find the character of an elder: humble, thankful, prayerful, concerned for others, mature in understanding, generous in spirit, joyful, encouraging of the good. I love the way Paul takes joy in the good that God does in others' lives. This was Paul's apostolic spirit, and this should be the spirit of every father in every family and of every elder in every church. Pray for your humility and mine and for the other elders of this congregation. We need to both have a good reputation with outsiders, as Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:7, and be willing to be imprisoned by them when we don't have a good reputation with them—even to lose our lives if they decide to take them for the faith we have in Christ. Pray God would cultivate such faithfulness, such encouraging natures and such joy among the elders of our congregation. Pray that we elders will be examples of those who— knowing the gospel, loving the church, practicing prayer, and showing love—know we are forgiven and who therefore freely forgive others. Pray that we would be examples of this.
Can you forgive? That may have more to do than you realize with the answer to this question: "Do you know yourself to be forgiven by God?" An inability to forgive someone may suggest you've never really experienced the forgiveness of God. Have you considered what it would be like to know there is a righteous and holy God and that he will not forgive your sin? That he is committed to not forgiving your sin? Can you imagine how different your experience of life in this world would be if God were like that? Have you perhaps taken forgiveness for granted, thought too little of it? If you know you are not forgiven by God, the good news I have for you today is that you can be. Even today, come to Christ.
I love the way Spurgeon put it: "I wonder how long a man would need to spend in preparing himself for coming to Christ. When he had done it all, what would it be worth? Preparation for coming to Christ is simply this: If you are empty, you are prepared to be filled. If you are sick, you are prepared to be healed. If you are sinful, you are prepared to be forgiven." Friend, what more could you want? What better, what more significant thing could be said of you than that you are forgiven?
My wife and I walk the dogs around Congressional Cemetery here on Capitol Hill, and we pass the names of many people I'm sure were quite important during their lives, whose names are now largely meaningless to those of us who go by every day, exercising our pets. But you know what matters most now and forever is this: Were they forgiven? Whether they were in Congress for one term or five, were they forgiven?
Don Carson speaks very movingly of his father: "When Dad died there were no crowds outside the hospital, no notice in the papers, no announcements on the television, no mention in the parliament, no notice in the nation. In his hospital room there was only the quiet hiss of oxygen vainly venting because Dad had stopped breathing and would never need it again. But on the other side all the trumpets sounded. Dad won admittance to the only throne room that matters. Not because he was a good man or a great man, because he was a forgiven man."
Friends, appreciate that. And appreciating that, let me just push you: Those who know themselves to be forgiven, forgive others.
Robert Seiple, former head of World Vision, tells of a meeting with a Lebanese Christian named Mary. Mary was living in a Christian village in Lebanon in 1980s when things were just falling apart: Israelis and south Syrians all over, other local militias too. Muslim militia came into her village. She was running; she stumbled and fell. She was standing up, and a young man about 20 put a gun to her head and said, "Renounce the cross or die." And she said, "I was born a Christian; I will die a Christian." And he shot her. He carved a cross on her with his bayonet, then he left.
The next day, the militia was coming back through to cart out the dead and clean the town out. They found Mary was still alive, and for some reason, they made a stretcher and took her to the hospital. Seiple recalls his conversation with Mary, then in a wheelchair. The bullet had severed her spine, and she was paralyzed. After she told him her story, he said, "This makes absolutely no sense about these people who tried to kill you—why in the world would they take you to the hospital the next day?" Mary said, "You know, sometimes bad people are taught to do good things." Seiple responded, "How do you feel about the person who pulled the trigger, the person who made you be strapped to a wheelchair for the rest of your life, a ward of the state? How do you feel about the guy who pulled the trigger?" She said, "I have forgiven him." "Mary, how in the world could you forgive him?" he asked. "Well, I forgave him," she said, "because my God forgave me. It's as simple as that."
Will you forgive today? It probably has a lot to do with whether or not you have been forgiven.
Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and president of 9Marks.