Broken Believers: "Repairing the Breach" – The Letter of Philemon

One of the realities of our modern world is that we see broken relationships EVERYWHERE in our society. Obviously, our first thoughts go toward the myriad of divorced couples that have become all too common in our lives. People speak of marriage highly, but many couples trade partners like two petty school children that pass notes and make new boyfriends each year in class. We all see the damage the no fault divorce legislation has done to America – and people were only too willing to accommodate the low view of marriage. Yet, divorce is only one way we see broken relationships. There are MANY. I have sat with parents that admit it has been years, decades sometimes, since they have had a conversation with their now adult child. The issue that caused the split may have been years ago, but the pain is still alive today. I know siblings that divided over an argument long ago, but they cannot seem to reconcile – no matter how much time passes. Is there any hope for people who have become so hurt by the past that they do not seem to be able to move forward?

Key Principle: Surrendered and obedient believers desire to rebuild the bridge of broken relationships– in part because the state of the body affects the health of our witness.

These believers will work hard to resolve and reconcile relationships if at all possible. They do so with the full knowledge that God forgave them of their mutiny and crimes, and they need to forgive others to please the Master.

There is no issue personally more painful to me as a Christian leader, or closer to my heart, than the break-up of relationships between believers. When Christians decide they can no longer live in harmony – there is a particular bitterness that I feel about the situation. One reason for that is simply this: they have made clear by their lives that their testimony of God’s wonderful forgiveness to them does not extend past their own discharge of other people’s guilt. They don’t feel they have to forgive another as Jesus forgave them. They apparently don’t truly believe, as demonstrated by their actions, that their sin before God was as bad as the sins perpetrated against them by the one refuse to forgive. Perhaps that is too bold. Maybe they simply judge themselves unable to rise to the level of a truly forgiving one – as Jesus did for them. In any case, when a believer decides they cannot live in harmony with another believer – the message of Jesus is negated in their life. Jesus came to reconcile broken man to a Holy God, and to give His followers a “ministry of reconciliation”. It is a fair question to ask how a man or woman of God can be used of God to bring a message of forgiveness of sin, when in the center square of their life they have refused to forgive another for sin done against them. Yet, forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t always easy. In fact, they are SELDOM easy.

Let me illustrate. In the first century, Paul was moving about the Mediterranean world preaching the Gospel and making disciples, forming them into small accountability and study groups called local “churches”. In the process, he met the people of Colossae, Hierapolis and Laodicea – and was greatly encouraged by their salvation and growth into communities of faith. In one of them, a man named Philemon was sharing leadership with others of the tiny church. He was a man of some means, and had household servants that were common in that time to one of his stature in the community. One of those slaves worked poorly, and did not attempt to fit into the household. Ironically, he was named Onesimus – the word that translated “profitable” – although he did not fit his name in deeds. Eventually Onesimus fled the home, apparently stealing some of Philemon’s personal possessions. Philemon was a believer, a leader in disciple making, and now the victim of theft and disrespect.

Several years went by. Onesimus was a man on the run, and ended up crossing the path of Paul. Apparently Paul met Onesimus in Rome while Paul awaited a hearing in Rome. The Apostle led the ex-con runaway to Jesus Christ and began discipling him. When the whole story became clear to Paul and the time was right, Paul sent him back to the man he wronged – back to Colossae and to Philemon. The occasion of this small letter was the return of the runaway slave – now an obedient and growing follower of Jesus Christ. He was guilty of theft and of unlawful departure, and now he was back. The normal Roman penalty of death lay upon his shoulders – and he brought with him a petition of Paul the Apostle. This is a record of that petition.

In the story, Paul petitioned Philemon to offer forgiveness and restoration to Onesimus who took advantage of him – robbed him of property and badly disrespected him in the past. This wasn’t a “he said, she said” case. This wasn’t a “two sided” case. One was wrong, the other wronged – and yet the one hurt was petitioned to restore the relationship. Paul did not make this request of one who had murdered someone in the family, nor of someone who had physically attacked the other – the context was property loss and disrespect. That context is important, or these principles can be unrighteously hoisted on a struggling and emotionally distraught victim of violence and physical abuse – and that isn’t the appropriate use of the passage. As believers, we forgive others, but we don’t always reconcile to others.

Why do we forgive others? Jesus made it clear that we were not only to ask for God’s forgiveness – but we were to anticipate that God would hold us to the same standard with each other.

• In the last days of Jesus’ ministry on earth, before the Crucifixion, He said: (Mark 11:24) “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. 25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. 26 [“But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.”] **There is a manuscript argument about verse 26, but that doesn’t change the imperative of verse 25, about which there is no debate.

• The teaching does not stand alone, but echoes what is found in other Gospel places such as: Mt. 6:14: “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

• The concept also clearly appears in the instruction to the Disciples on Prayer Jesus said: (Lk. 11:4) “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us…”

In other words, Jesus said His followers were supposed to FORGIVE as they sought God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is something I do in my heart – but reconciliation is something done BETWEEN people – and that isn’t the same thing. We should forgive others, or we will eat up precious time in our lives allowing anger and hurt to drain us. At the same time, we may or may not reconcile with another – that isn’t the same thing, and should not be PRESUMED. Let me explain:

People who have abused the trust of others are often the first to quote Jesus’ standard of forgiveness and expect unconditional reconciliation in the name of Jesus. Yet, Jesus never intended the need to forgive to be a “get out of jail free”. They aren’t truly quoting Jesus when they use His words apart from their context – they are misusing His words! If we are going to place the unqualified need to both forgive and reconcile on the shoulders of abused people by the word of Jesus, we need to set His word in the context of what He truly expected. There are cases in Scripture that Jesus would not have included reconciliation, for God granted other judicial solutions.

Listen closely, because this is the part of “the all-forgiving Jesus” the Hallmark card believer has forgotten. Under the law, for an example, a man who physically or sexually abused the children of their home would not be tolerated by society, and would simply be put to death. The children would have been encouraged to forgive the late memory of the offending parent, and the spouse that didn’t forgive was wasting their energy on pain if they didn’t learn to let it go. At the same time, forgiveness was helpful and reconciliation was NOT called for – because the offender was gone from this world. Essentially, a person who committed heinous acts in the family could be forgiven – but posthumously.

The Law was clear, and the judgment was real. If we use the words of Jesus in a “standard of reconciliation” without the legal limitations that would have been in the context of the time of Jesus, we torque the words of Jesus out of their proper context and forget the exceptions that were already clear to those to whom He was speaking. Individual forgiveness was instructed, but it was in conjunction with state justice. God’s solution to helping to ease the pain of a victim was the clear and unmistakable consequence the offender paid for their wrong. This helped the victim feel some level of resolution, and allowed forgiveness to begin to take root in their heart. When justice is slacked, forgiveness becomes all the more difficult. If someone hurts you and there is no consequence it is a lot harder to forgive them, is it not? Yet forgiveness will help you take your life back. Reconciliation with them is another story completely.

I am concerned that many well-meaning Christians have oversimplified the Bible on reconciliation. Our reconciliation to God only came AFTER judicial payment. Jesus DIED for the payment of the sin, and God didn’t declare you righteous without full and complete payment for your guilt PRIOR to His release of debt declared over you. We aren’t reconciled to God just because we asked, but because we asked AFTER the debt had been fully paid judicially by the Savior! Forgiveness happens when I release someone from their debt – but real reconciliation can only happen when they agree that they were wrong in what they did.

If someone hurt you, it is in your power to forgive them, even if they are not asking for it. It is NOT in your power, however, to truly reconcile the relationship that has been severed by the wrong, unless the offending party AGREES they were wrong, and DESIRES to make it right.

Be careful here. On the opposite side of this, some have categorized any awkwardness in their relationship as “abuse” and thereby think this will be their escape hatch to walk away from reconciliation – and they are wrong. I have heard the claim that “my spouse abused me because they were thoughtless about the sacrifices I made in our marriage.” I want to be clear – that isn’t abuse in the sense we are talking about. Their behavior may have been wrong, and it may have been painful. It may have been thoughtless – but it was not ABUSE – it was perhaps hard-heartedness or maybe just stupidity. We need to be careful deliberately avoid extremes – a “one size fits all” reconciliation is not called for in the Bible, nor is a super-sensitive “they hurt me so I have been abused and excused from reconciliation” – the Bible supports neither extreme.

Jesus didn’t offer you a “free pass” from reconciliation on a broken relationship because you didn’t know Him as Savior when you made the relationship – that is covered in 1 Corinthians 7 and clearly has no bearing on your need to forgive and reconcile. If you believe that you don’t need to stay together, say as a couple, because you found each other before you knew Christ – you are flatly in error from a Biblical standpoint.

Jesus didn’t say that if you argued incessantly for five years in your marriage, (or even much longer) that you could have an exception on the basis of “irreconcilable differences”. That term is a scar on a life reconciled to God. What bigger differences can be had then those found between a fallen man or woman and a Holy God? Yet God reconciled to you and I who know Christ. How can we now, in good conscience, act as though we are allowed to break a relationship in which we covenanted together?

I do not take theft and disrespect lightly, but our passage in this lesson is very applicable to instruct those who may have been economically and perhaps emotionally abused, though not physically beaten or sexually assaulted. They have a different path to resolution.

Here is an important question: “How could Paul expect the one who was taken advantage of by a thief to forgive?” Paul knew the conditions very well. He wrote a request for reconciliation and forgiveness, based on VERY SPECIFIC conditions…Paul taught an important truth that we need to recall in our “broken relationship racked” modern world. Now let’s look closely at the text and remember…

Remember, surrendered and obedient believers desire to rebuild the bridge of broken relationships– in part because the state of the body affects the health of our witness.

For the sake of clarity, let’s say up front that we will refer to Paul simply as the petitioner – since he is the one with the request to Philemon. Let’s also agree to call Philemon in this case the “petitioned” since a request is being made of him to accept Onesimus back into his home without the requisite penalty of death.

Conditions: The appeal to reconcile is best when offered where the right three conditions prevail:

First, the petitioner stepped into the situation with a solid testimony of following the Lord (1:1a).

Philemon 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother…

Don’t doubt the value of having a good public testimony – it may open doors to help people well beyond what you can easily see. Being known as a servant of Jesus that follows His Word will invite others seek you out. Not only will your life work better – but you will be seen by others as wise in life – because you follow the designs of your Creator.

A walk with God lends credibility to your attempts at dealing with other’s needs in a proper way. It is imperative that we get and keep our house in order before we try to get others to do so.

Second, there was a direct and solid relationship between petitioner and the petitioned (1:1b).

Philemon 1 :1b “…To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, 2 and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Look at the descriptions Paul used of the other believer that he was making a request of – a beloved brother, a fellow worker; a fellow soldier.

Don’t doubt the value of developing and maintaining a wide net of believing friends in a local church context– it will allow God to use your voice in many more ways. God’s work is most often about relationship and connection. We can be used of Him to connect people to each other, or people to HIM.

Third, the appeal was being made to another believer who was serving the Lord with their life (1:3).

a. It includes the general knowledge of the salvation of the petitioned – Philemon 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

b. It also includes specific knowledge of the testimony of the petitioned believer – Philemon 1:4-5 I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints 6 and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. 7 For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

Paul knew that both parties in the broken relationship were now believers. He knew the offender had come to Christ AFTER the offense – because Paul led the man to Jesus. He knew that the ex-servant desired to do whatever it took for God to reconcile his past. He anticipated that even an offended believer could be made to understand the place of all believers before God and each other.

Trying to get someone to do a right thing that does not know Jesus as Savior is much harder, because you don’t share a common ethical standard. Trying to get a believer that is NOT walking their faith is also incredibly hard. The best case scenario then, is to reach into a situation that is broken but has a party that is actively following Jesus Christ. The letter offers particular insight about how a believer who has both a testimony of walking with God and a relationship with two other believers who have “fallen out”, where one of the divided parties is mature in faith – but needs some assistance.

It may be possible to reconcile people who are not believers, or with people who are not living out the faith – but it is much harder. The approach would not differ much – but it would have to be adapted…

The principles of this little letter help most, then, when two parties now KNOW Jesus, and one believer wounded the other in the past before they were saved. The one who wronged the other had a desire to own up and square up – so reconciliation was possible.

Here is the model process we have from the text, along with some principles the process revealed.

1. Speak positively: Anticipate character and good result and don’t be afraid to say that! Paul said in 1:8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper…21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.

Look at the word “confidence”. parrhēsía is from pás, “all” and rhēsis, “a proverb or statement quoted with resolve,” – properly, confidence (bold resolve), leaving a witness that something deserves to be remembered (taken seriously). Ask lovingly and warmly, but expectantly. Don’t talk DOWN, and don’t wade into the blame game – offer sincere encouragement and expectation.

2. Speak lovingly: Reach into their heart for you and for God’s work. Paul said in 1:9 “…yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you …” Later in the letter you can hear the LOVE and friendship between Paul and Philemon: 1:23 “…Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24 as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

Paul and his companions were personally invested in one another. Distance didn’t deter them from commitment! Paul’s appeal was for LOVE’S SAKE. It was for the sake of the love between Paul and Philemon and between Philemon and His Lord. Cover over a hard request with love. This would be hard to swallow for a man who had others watching him. Philemon would be judged by all his neighbors and his servants for how he responded to Onesimus’ return. Paul knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it would be easier if it was said lovingly – after all, most things are easier that way!

3. Speak directly: Philemon didn’t know what happened to Onesimus, and Paul informed him that the runaway was now a brother in Christ. Paul said it this way in 1:10b “…for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment 11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. Later in verse 17 he added: “…If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.

Look at the details Paul offered:

• Onesimus is my spiritual son now. How critical this information would have been at the time – it probably saved his life!
• He wounded you before – and you were wronged. Think about this. Paul was acknowledging the wrong done to Philemon. You cannot truly reconcile a party that won’t admit wrong, and Onesimus clearly had admitted wrong to Paul.
• You will see the change I have seen in him – and you will be pleased with him. Here is a jewel of this little letter – the hope Paul placed in Onesimus’ clear and demonstrable walk with Jesus.
• Paul made his request CRYSTAL CLEAR – laying out exactly what he wanted Philemon to do with the information. There are times people share important pieces of information with me, but I don’t know WHY. I don’t know what I am supposed to DO with the information. Direct speech is not only informative – it is directive in nature.

4. Speak personally: By this I mean get the parties face to face – and attend the meeting if at all possible. Paul said it this way: 1:12 “I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel;

Paul made it clear that Onesimus was an asset to him, but the past needed to be resolved more than Paul needed a helper. He would have joined Onesimus on the journey, but he clearly couldn’t. When possible, settle disputes face to face. No email can convey reconciliation like a face to face meeting. Even “Skype” has its limitations, but it is the next best thing.

5. Speak respectfully: Paul didn’t take liberties in the request, but allowed the man his due. 1:14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.

When we were not a party to the pain, we don’t truly understand all the dynamic involved in reconciliation – so we need to proceed cautiously. It is important that we approach wounded people – even ostensibly mature wounded people – with caution, care and respect. Diplomacy is not just about the request, but about the tone.

Matthew Rogers wrote: “Have you ever noticed how when people are angry, things tend to get broken. As a teenager, my brother once stormed out of the house in an angry huff, slamming a door so hard that a window broke. Once when playing racquetball, I got angry over making a bad shot and slammed by racket against the wall. Harder than I meant to, because my graphite racket broke. A college friend of mine got into an angry disagreement with his girlfriend one night. In the morning he learned that after the fight she had gone into her room and broken a framed picture of him, by slamming it against her desk. (They’re happily married now, however most of their pictures are kept in rubber frames!) Someone throws a punch and a nose gets broken…Express too much anger when disciplining a child, and trust gets broken. Use angry words and perhaps a heart gets broken…because angry outbursts ruin many relationships…Church unity gets broken…Relationships get broken.

Jesus said stewing anger is as serious as murder – and a form of killing in violation to God’s standard. Clarence Darrow, probably the most famous criminal lawyer of his generation, once said, “Everyone is a potential murderer. I have not killed anyone, but I frequently get satisfaction out of obituary notices.”

We need to remember to speak respectfully. Many people in our world are desperate to receive a little respect. Let me illustrate: When Brennan Manning … was waiting to catch a plane in the Atlanta airport, he sat down in one of the many places where usually black men shine white men’s shoes. And an elderly black man began to shine Brennan’s shoes. And Brennan had this feeling inside that after he was done, he should pay him and tip him and then reverse the roles. And when he was finished, he stood up and looked at the black man and said, “Now, sir, I would like to shine your shoes.” And the black man recoiled and stepped back and said, “You’re going to do what?” He said, “I’d like to shine your shoes. Come on. You sit down here. How would you like them done?” And the black man began to cry, and he said, “No white man ever talked to me like this before.” And the story ends with the white Catholic with arms around a black Atlanta man, and they’ve only just met, tears flowing, reconciliation taking place. — Brian Buhler, “The Ultimate Community,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 146.

6. Speak prophetically: I don’t mean start telling of the end times. What I have in mind is sometimes called “silver lining” speech”. Direct them to what Heaven’s view may be! 1:15 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

I cannot read these words without going back to the room in Joseph’s house while his brothers were hearing him explain THEIR PAST. “You meant this for evil, but don’t worry, God meant it to preserve all our lives!” It is a wonderful moment when Heaven’s perspective floods the dark room.

George Mueller knew Heaven’s view of him when he wrote, “There was a day when I died, utterly died to George Mueller and his opinions, his preferences, and his tastes and his will. I died to the world, to its approval and its censure. I died to the approval or the blame of even my brethren and friends. And since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.” (John MacArthur Matthew 1-7, p. 336)

7. Speak with investment: show that you are willing to be a part of the reconciliation – even if it costs you something. Paul said in 1:17 “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). 20 Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 22 At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you.

Paul put his money where his mouth was. He wasn’t speaking from the sidelines, but taking on a DEBT if need be, to make it right. Perhaps the real principle here is “Don’t get involved unless you are willing to really stand behind the reconciliation with more than platitudes.” Paul was clearly prepared to pay, but I suspect he knew Philemon would quickly realize how inappropriate that would be – to charge Paul for past debts of Onesimus.

From the book Courage to Begin Again, Author Ron Lee Davis wrote: “Pastor Hayes a man in his middle forties, was well-loved by his congregation, and faithful to God and to his family. He enjoyed a successful ministry in an exuberantly vital, growing church. Just when everything seemed to be going well, a cloud came over this man and his ministry. Rumors circulated through the church that Pastor Hayes was guilty of moral misconduct. He had been seen at the home of Miss Morrow, a school teacher, just a few weeks before she resigned for “personal reasons” and moved to another city. Apparently someone in the church put two and two together-and came up with five.

Pastor Hayes was innocent, but the stain of the alleged scandal could not be erased. The rumors followed Pastor Hayes for years, seriously hampering his effectiveness as a pastor. It was difficult for him to endure the rejection, mistreatment, and misunderstanding caused by the false rumors. But it was even more difficult for him to witness the toll of these events on his wife and on his teenaged son.

It was ten years later-after his son graduated from college-that Pastor Hayes learned how the hurtful rumors began. One night a man the pastor had not seen for years appeared at his door. “Brother McLean!” said Pastor Hayes in surprise. “I haven’t seen you in…” “Eight years,” McLean supplied. “It’s been eight years since I left the church.” McLean had been an elder in the church, but left a few months after his term expired. Pastor Hayes studied McLean’s features. He looked older, and something was clearly troubling him. “Please come in,” the pastor invited warmly. “No,” McLean answered quickly, “I only have a few minutes to talk. I just had to tell you-I was the one responsible.” “What? I don’t….”

“The story about you and Miss Morrow,” McLean interrupted. “I was the one who started it all.” “You!” Pastor Hayes’ hands and voice trembled as old emotions flooded back. “But why? You knew I was innocent, didn’t you? Miss Morrow left town to care for her dying father. She called me to her house the day she learned of her father’s cancer. I went there to pray with her. How could you twist that into….”

“I know! I know!” Tears began to fill the other man’s eyes. “I was twisted, Pastor I twisted with jealousy! You see, before you came, I was a leader in this church. The previous pastor asked my advice on everything. People looked up to me. The programs I was involved in were flourishing.
“But when you came, a lot of new people came into the church. There were so many new programs and people didn’t listen to my ideas anymore. The church got so big-and it took a different direction.

I felt left behind. I was so angry and bitter against you. Pastor Hayes, I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I just had to tell you.” The pastor stepped toward the man who had deeply hurt him for ten years. He wrapped his arms around Mr. McLean and embraced him. There in the yellow glow of the porch light, McLean sobbed away years of pent-up sorrow and guilt in the arms of the man he had wronged. And Pastor Hayes held him with strong arms of forgiveness and unconditional love, saying repeatedly, “I forgive you, my brother. I forgive you.”

It isn’t easy – reconciling broken relationships – but it can be done. It must be done. Surrendered and obedient believers desire to rebuild the bridge of broken relationships– because the state of the body affects the health of our witness.