Some acts of unforgiving behavior in families can go for generations without being resolved. The ripple effect can cause damage to how we think, what we think and how we relate to people in the world.
As I was growing up, my parents had very specific ideas about music in the church. When other forms, like gospel from a paperback book, was introduced by another singing family the dissidence began. I remember a time of seeing this family in the store on day and my little brother looking up at my mom and dad, saying, “Why do we not like them, I forgot”. This opened up my parents eyes to how their talk at home was affecting the next generation and things began to change for the good. I was so glad as a kid, for even then I did not like disputes and unrest in my own family or in the church family. In my household they were one in the same. By the way, I like ALL music to this day that praises God and gives Him glory!
In the family of God, every movement we make in response to God has a ripple effect, touching family, neighbors, friends, community. Belief in God alters our language. Love of God affects daily relationships. Hope in God enters into our work. Also their opposites–unbelief, indifference, and despair. None of these movements and responses, beliefs and prayers, gestures and searches, can be confined to the soul. They spill out and make history. If they don’t, they are under suspicion of being fantasies at best, hypocrisies at worst.
Christians have always insisted on the historicity of Jesus–an actual birth, a datable death, a witnessed resurrection, locatable towns. There is a parallel historicity in the followers of Jesus. As they take in everything Jesus said and did–all of it a personal revelation of God in time and place–it all gets worked into local history, eventually into world history.
Philemon and Onesimus, the slave owner and slave who figure prominently in the letter from Paul, had no idea that believing in Jesus would involve them in radical social change. But as the two of them were brought together by this letter, it did. And it still does.
As we read the short story of Philemon and Onesimus, let us learn about true forgiveness and restoration with love, mercy and grace made possible by Jesus.
Paul’s letter to Philemon
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
3 Grace and peace to you[a] from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanksgiving and Prayer
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 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. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Paul’s Plea for Onesimus
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 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— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,[b] who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 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. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 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.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
We can be slaves to ideas, behaviors and thoughts of opinion that are not becoming or righteous in God’s eyes. What are some of those thoughts that might have a ripple effect in your family?
Paul appeals to Philemon on the basis of Christian love followed by forgiveness. Paul was a prisoner in Rome, his friend Philemon was in Colosse, and the human link between them was a runaway slave named Onesimus. The details are not clear, but it appears that Onesimus robbed his master and then fled to Rome, hoping to be swallowed up in the crowded metropolis. But, in the providence of God, he met Paul and was converted!
A special relationship had developed between Paul and Onesimus whom he affectionately calls “my son”. In sending Onesimus back, Paul requests Philemon not to treat him as a vagrant slave, but to receive him as a Christian brother. The apostle puts himself on the line personally in behalf of Onesimus: “Welcome him as you would welcome me”. “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything . . . I will pay it back”.
In this story, we see Paul in three important roles as he tried to help Philemon solve his problems. At the same time, we see a beautiful picture of what the Father has done for us in Jesus Christ. Martin Luther said, “All of us are Onesimuses!” and he was right. We are slaves to sin and Jesus forgave us all and set us free.
1. Paul was a beloved friend of Philemon.
In his greeting, Paul expressed his deep love for his Christian friends, and he reminded them that he was a prisoner for Jesus Christ. Paul reminds Philemon who he is in Christ. In his thanksgiving, Paul described his friend as a man of love and faith, both toward Jesus Christ and God’s people. His love was practical: he “refreshed” the saints through his words and work. He also prayed that his friend would have a deeper understanding of all that he had in Jesus Christ.
2. Paul interceded on Onesimus’ behalf. (Like Jesus does for us!) Paul might have used apostolic authority and ordered his friend to obey, but he preferred to appeal in Christian love. Onesimus was no longer “just a slave”; he was now Paul’s son in the faith and Philemon’s Christian brother! In Jesus Christ, there is “neither bond nor free” (Gal. 3:28). This does not mean that his conversion altered Onesimus’s legal position as a slave, or that it canceled his debt to the law or to his master. However, it did mean that Onesimus had a new standing before God and before God’s people, and Philemon had to take this into consideration.
As you review these appeals, you can see how Paul tenderly convinced his friend Philemon that he should receive his disobedient slave and forgive him. But it would not be easy for Philemon to do this. If he was too easy on Onesimus, it might influence other slaves to “become Christians” and want to influence their masters.
However, if he was too hard on the man, it might affect Philemon’s testimony and ministry in Colosse. At this point, Paul offered the perfect solution. It was a costly solution as far as the apostle was concerned, but he was willing to pay the price.
3. Paul, the burdened Partner. The word translated “partner” is koinonia, which means “to have in common.” It is translated “communication” in Philemon 6, which means “fellowship.” Paul volunteered to become a “business partner” with Philemon and help him solve the problem with Onesimus. He made two suggestions: “Receive him as myself,” and “Put whatever he stole from you on my account.”
As Philemon’s new “partner,” Paul could not leave Rome and go to Colosse, but he could send Onesimus as his personal representative. “The way you treat Onesimus is the way you treat me,” said the apostle. “He is to me as my own heart” (Philem. 12).
This is to me an illustration of what Jesus Christ has done for us as believers. God’s people are so identified with Jesus Christ that God receives them as He receives His Son! We are “accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:6) and clothed in His righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). We certainly cannot approach God with any merit of our own, but God must receive us when we come to Him “in Jesus Christ.”
MORE THAN LOVE…FORGIVENESS
It takes more than love to solve the problem; love must pay a price. God does not save us by His love, for though He loves the whole world, the whole world is not saved. God saves sinners by His grace (Eph. 2:8–9), and grace is love that pays a price. God in His holiness could not ignore the debt that we owe, for God must be faithful to His own law. So He paid the debt for us! That price was His One and Only Son, Jesus Christ.
When Jesus Christ died on the cross, my sins were put on His account, and He was treated the way I should have been treated. When I trusted Him as my Savior, His righteousness was put on my account, and now God accepts me in Jesus Christ. Jesus said to the Father, “He no longer owes You a debt because I paid it fully on the cross. Receive him as You would receive Me. Let him come into the family circle!”
However, we must keep in mind that there is a difference between being accepted in Christ and acceptable to Christ. Anyone who trusts Jesus Christ for salvation is accepted in Him (Rom. 4:1–4). But the believer must strive with God’s help to be acceptable to the Lord in his daily life (Rom. 12:2; 14:18; 2 Cor.5:9; Heb. 12:28 niv). The Father wants to look at those who are in His Son and say of them as He said of Jesus, “I am well pleased!”
Is Jesus your Savior AND the LORD of your life?
Does our behavior have a ripple effect in our family? In our church family? In the world?
Was Paul hinting in Philemon 21 that Philemon should do even more and free Onesimus? For that matter, why did he not come right out and condemn slavery? This letter certainly would have been the ideal place to do it.
Paul did not “condemn” slavery in this letter or in any of his letters, though he often had a word of admonition for slaves and their masters (Eph. 6:5–9; Col. 3:22—4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1–2; Titus 2:9–10). In fact he encouraged Christian slaves to obtain their freedom if they could (1 Cor. 7:21–24).
During the American Civil War, both sides used the same Bible to “prove” their cases for or against slavery. One of the popular arguments was, “If slavery is so wrong, why did Jesus and the apostles say nothing against it? Paul gave instructions to regulate slavery, but he did not condemn it.”
One of the best explanations was given by Alexander Maclaren in his commentary on Colossians in The Expositor’s Bible (Eerdmans, 1940; vol. VI, 301):
“First, the message of Christianity is primarily to individuals, and only secondarily to society. It leaves the units whom it has influenced to influence the mass. Second, it acts on spiritual and moral sentiment, and only afterwards and consequently on deeds or institutions. Third, it hates violence, and trusts wholly to enlightened conscience. So it meddles directly with no political or social arrangements, but lays down principles which will profoundly affect these, and leaves them to soak into the general mind.”
Had the early Christians begun an open crusade against slavery, they would have been crushed by the opposition, and the message of the gospel would have become confused with a social and political program. Think of how difficult it was for people to overcome slavery in England and America, and those two nations had general education and the Christian religion to help prepare the way.
Think also of the struggles in the modern Civil Rights movement even within the church. If the battle for freedom was difficult for us to win in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, what would the struggle have been like back in the first century?
Laws can change but it takes a change of mind to make a difference!
Christians are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13–16), and their spiritual influence must be felt in society to the glory of God. God used Joseph in Egypt, Esther and Nehemiah in Persia, and Daniel in Babylon, and throughout church history, there have been believers in political offices who have faithfully served the Lord.
But Christians in the Roman Empire could not work through local democratic political structures as we can today, so they really had no political power to bring about change. The change had to come from within, even though it took centuries for slavery to end.
Paul’s benediction was his “official signature” for his letters (2 Thessalonians 3:17–18), and it magnified the grace of God. After all, it was the grace of Jesus Christ that made our salvation possible (Ephesians 2:1–10). It was He who said, “Charge that to My account! Receive them as You would receive Me!”
Above all, preach Jesus who set us free once and for all!
Dear Heavenly Father,
We are able to come to your throne because of you dear Jesus! Thank you! Thank you for setting us free to love like you love, to show mercy like you have shone to us and to forgive freely like you have forgiven us. Wow! Help us daily to live for you, be a representative of you to others, causing a Holy ripple effect to all we encounter on this journey here and now. It’s all about you, not us.
In Jesus Name, Amen