Explore the Bible Study: Restoration

7:11 PM

Think about a time when you were asked to forgive an offense.  What is the hardest thing about forgiving someone? Based on what we are seeing in today's headlines, we probably need to understand the importance of giving and seeking forgiveness a little more than we do. The Explore The Bible Study: Restoration, is going to focus on this subject as it examines Philemon 8-21.

The book of Philemon is a case study on forgiveness. Paul wrote the Philemon and the Colossian letters while under house arrest in Rome (A.D. 60 or 61) and they were most likely delivered at the same time. The focus is upon three men who are professing believers from very different backgrounds – Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Paul is the broker of the forgiveness that needed to take place between Philemon and Onesimus. When you examine the circumstances that brought about this need for forgiveness, you will discover all the personal and cultural difficulties each had to overcome to seek and to offer forgiveness. 

Issues Philemon and Onesimus Were Facing

  • Onesimus was Philemon’s servant (slave). He had robbed Philemon and fled to Rome where he could easily hide. Through God’s providence, he met Paul and became a Christian. As a believer, he knew he had to restore his integrity with Philemon by making things right. On behalf of Onesimus, Paul, still imprisoned in Rome, wrote his letter to Philemon. Based on Colossians 4:9, one has to assume that Onesimus, along with Tychicus, is hand delivering the letter to Philemon!
  • Philemon and his family lived in Colossae, and the Colossian church met at his house. Philemon was a committed Christian who had opened his home to the whole community of believers. In verses 4–7, Paul talks about his strong faith and love for God’s people.
  • We don’t know anything about the past relationship between Philemon and Onesimus except that Philemon was his master and Onesimus was his servant (slave).

According to the Holman Concise Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 1998), p. 615, during Paul’s time in history, the beginning of the first century, it is estimated slaves made up at least half of the population of the Roman Empire. By the century’s end, the city of Rome had 400,000 slaves, one-third of the populace. Many households had several slaves, and a wealthy master might have as many as a thousand.

Slavery of all kinds and in many forms has been an ugly blight that has plagued humanity. It relegates a human to a level that is less than human. It has been used throughout history as a means to control conquered people, expand wealth, exercise power, or to denigrate a race of people. Sadly, slavery is still an issue today.

With this understanding you can see why forgiveness is going to be difficult for both Onesimus and Philemon. As you study Philemon 8-21, consider the following:

  • How would respond had you been Onesimus? Would you be willing to deliver such a letter to Philemon – the one who had enslaved you for so long? What enabled Onesimus to deliver such a letter?
  • How should Philemon respond? How difficult would it have been for Philemon to change his view of Onesimus in a culture that propagated slavery?
  • How should you respond to those who have wronged you or that you have wronged? What can you learn regarding forgiveness from Paul’s words to Philemon and the actions of Onesimus?

Believers Should be an Advocate for Forgiveness – Philemon 8-12

In verses 1-7, Paul had expressed his love for Philemon as a dear friend and coworker (v.1). He described how he thanked God for him in his prayers (v.4) and had experienced great joy and encouragement because of what he had heard about his love for God and the believers. It is for this reason (v.8) that he makes his appeal and not because of his Apostolic authority in the church. The term "appeal" in this case communicates that Paul is basically begging Philemon to honor his request.

Under Roman law, there could have been severe consequences for Onesimus, but Paul applied pressure for Philemon to forgive his servant instead. Paul looked upon the fleeing servant as a spiritual son whom he had fathered. The significance is the fact that a slave, coming to faith in Christ elevated that slave to the status of a kinsman rather than a piece of human property—Onesimus was now a son in the faith to Paul and Philemon.  For this reason, Onesimus returning to Colossae would be vital (useful) to helping the church further the gospel, but Philemon would have to forgive for this to happen. The very act of a slave owner forgiving a slave in this manner would demonstrate to a watching culture the power of the gospel! The very act of an escaped slave returning to his master to express forgiveness and to ask for forgiveness would demonstrate to a lost world the power of reconciliation available to all who believe in Christ.

Imagine for a moment you are living in Colossae, and you hear that a runaway slave is coming back to Philemon’s household. This escaped slave humbly delivers a letter from Paul to his former slave owner, and there is an appeal for reconciliation and forgiveness. What would the lost observers be thinking about this situation? What would the others in the young church at Colossae be thinking? How could this one event impact an entire city?

Recognizing God’s Work in all Circumstances Allows Forgiveness to Take Place – Philemon 13-16

I’m sure you have quoted Romans 8:28 during times when you have faced certain challenges: We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Imagine for a moment you are Philemon—a new believer in Christ. Onesimus has escaped to Rome after stealing from you. Now he is returning with this letter from your beloved friend, Paul, and you read what Paul says regarding God’s work, even in this situation.

Notice, first, the testimony and the integrity Paul expresses in this portion of the letter. Paul desired to keep Onesimus with him so he could serve, but not as a slave but as a son and fellow believer. He distinguishes this by stating that Onesimus would serve me in your place, indicating that, if Philemon were to be in Rome, he and Paul would be serving together. In saying this he elevates the faith and conversion of Onesimus to that of Philemon’s. 

Both had life-changing and equal encounters with Christ!

Also notice the integrity of Paul. He didn’t command anything but wanted Philemon’s consent in this matter. Paul desired that his consent be from the goodness of his heart and of his own free will.

One must realize that Onesimus was spending a lot of time being discipled by Paul in Rome. Since Onesimus is delivering the letter, then one must assume that, because of his discipleship, Onesimus desired to make things right with Philemon because of his desire to obey God. Reconciliation was necessary for Onesimus and for Philemon so the gospel could be fully revealed to a lost world that didn’t understand forgiveness.

Now Paul suggests that God was at work, even during Onesimus’ desertion. He drew a contrast between for a brief time and permanently. He wanted his friend to take a positive slant in his assessment of the actions of Onesimus in leaving. In an admirable and tactful way, Paul chose not to put emphasis on the decision of Onesimus to flee from his position of servitude but the good that God had brought from it. 

One who once was a slave is now a dearly loved brother—Not only to Paul but to Philemon—because of God’s work through the gospel! He is not only a spiritual brother but one in the flesh as well.

How does NOT looking for how God is at work, cause reconciliation or forgiveness be difficult to achieve? 

Accepting Forgiveness is Vital for a Healthy Faith – Philemon 17-21

Paul emphasized how vital forgiveness was by:

  • Encouraging Philemon to welcome him as he would Paul – as a partner in the gospel.
  • Offering to repay Onesimus’ debt. By running away Onesimus had created headaches for Philemon. He had stolen time, service, and possessions. If Philemon added up all these expenses, Onesimus would face a mountain of debt or other consequences. Paul stepped in to support his new brother in Christ by offering to pick up the tab if it would bring reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.
  • He reminded Philemon of the fact that he owed Paul a much greater debt: your very self. – Through Paul, Philemon had heard the gospel message and received Christ, thus removing the debt of sin upon his life.
  • He explained how his forgiveness of Onesimus would be a blessing to Paul—refresh my heart in Christ.
  • He was confident that Philemon would do even more that he asked – perhaps a reference to freeing Onesimus from slavery.

What About You?

Many would say Onesimus did nothing wrong; he only sought freedom that every human deserves. Therefore, he shouldn’t be pursuing forgiveness from a former slave owner. Yet he did, because of his faith in Christ. How could this be? Many would say Onesimus deserved reparations for his time in slavery. Yet he didn’t seek this; he sought forgiveness. Why? Because God’s ways are not ours. Because the gospel offers forgiveness and demands forgiveness whether you are the offended or the offender—each must do their part because of the gospel!

We don’t know how Philemon responded. Did he forgive Onesimus? Hopefully. But we do know that Onesimus had done his part. He had sought reconciliation, and now the response was in the hands of Philemon. Just as your response to someone seeking reconciliation and forgiveness is in your hands.

Live long enough, and you will understand the difficulty of offering forgiveness when you have been wronged. Yet forgiveness serves as a determining factor in who we say we are and how we hope to live our lives. 

In what ways has forgiveness been a struggle for you since you accepted Christ’s forgiveness? Describe what could take place if people sought forgiveness and reconciliation instead of reparations and revenge? How can the church apply Paul’s appeal for forgiveness? How can you demonstrate Paul’s appeal for forgiveness?

When we do not forgive, bitterness takes root in our hearts and chokes the vitality out of us. Allow Paul’s letter to Philemon to encourage forgiveness in your own life, and trust God to foster renewed life in your heart and your relationships. 

The downloadable teaching helps provide more details for this study along with some tools you can use in guiding a group Bible study. Be sure to use this as a supplement to your study of the Explore the Bible Study resources provided by LifeWay.

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