Posted by: mikenicholsblog | October 18, 2015

insistence on forgiveness

Do you ever miss the days of personal letters?  It was so special to receive words from someone who cared deeply about you. It was also nice to say some meaningful words to those who influenced and blessed your life.  Letters were a picture of how we really felt about someone. To me, words typed and sent via email or texts just don’t have the same meaning. I have been amused and a bit embarrassed when my wife shows me or reads to me from the countless letters I sent to her pre-marriage. The letters were filled with words like darling and honey, but they were far more special in my handwriting than in a sterile email. Centuries ago, a man little known to most Christ-followers had a meaningful letter penned to him. We call it the book of Philemon.

Philemon was privileged to receive a personal letter from the Apostle Paul. This masterful letter also listed Apphia (his wife) and Archippus (his son), plus the church that met in his home as recipients. This letter from God through Paul challenged Philemon to do the right thing with his runaway slave, Onesimus. The letter left no doubt about what Paul wanted Philemon to do. It reminds me of the dilemmas you and I face in the 21st century.

Philemon was probably an elder in the church at Colosse which met in his home. He had been saved under Paul’s ministry. My study tells me that he was a wealthy and generous man. Philemon was also a slave owner. His slave ran away to Rome and came to Christ through the Apostle Paul’s ministry in that city. There is reason to believe that Onesimus didn’t just run away; he had stolen money from Philemon. Paul’s letter challenges Philemon to forgive and receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ. It is easy to read the story but harder to consider forgiveness and restoration if we had comparable circumstances.

Rather than give you the outline of Paul’s letter, I offer several verses from The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language.  Note verses 8-22:

In line with all this I have a favor to ask of you. As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him, I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request. While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to. Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me—he’ll be even more than that to you. So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good. I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. And by the way, get a room ready for me. Because of your prayers, I fully expect to be your guest again.

What masterful words written as part of Paul’s letter. There is no question what Paul (and God) wanted Philemon to do. And Paul felt Philemon would do right! The question for you and I to consider is this: Faced with a 21st century version of Philemon’s dilemma, how would you and I respond? Biblically, I hope!

Is there an Onesimus in your life who needs forgiveness?

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