God on the Move: The Letter to Philemon

bridges2_1478275cBridges are important. If you have ever lived in a place where the bridge was necessary to access the rest of the world – you know that is true. For a number of years my parents lived (while my wife and I were overseas) on the “Outer Banks” of North Carolina. They made their way to and from “Southern Shores” in the “Kitty Hawk” area, by means of some bridges that were the KEY to being connected to the mainland. In times of storms, those bridges are often jammed as people flee the oncoming hurricane winds that occasionally pound that area. For those who live there, the bridge is essential.

Bridges are also places of supreme trust. When you begin to drive over them, in some cases, you may for just a moment find yourself wondering about the engineer and his abilities. It helps if you are in a “string” of cars and not alone. If the bridge “moves” or overtly “creeks” – it can be unnerving. My wife still has nightmares about a bridge that was near her home as a child – because of traumatic memories of driving over the ‘rickety bridge”. In truth, driving across a bridge is a public act of trust that the designer knew what he was doing, and the contractor didn’t cut costs on the materials.

I mention the importance of bridges, not because we are about to flee to anywhere, nor because there is any need in central Florida to cross over any perilous heights – we live where it is painfully flat. The bridge I have in mind is not between land masses – but between people. It is a bridge of reconciliation. It is a bridge over the troubled waters of interpersonal conflict.

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 society. Yet, divorce is only one way we see broken relationships. 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 are 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 someone’s actions in the past that they do not seem to be able to move forward in the relationship? I am glad to say that there is! The Bible offers a pattern to build a bridge in damaged relationships in a little postcard sized epistle. It teaches an important truth…

Key Principle: Mature believers desire to rebuild the bridge of broken relationships– because the state of the body affects the health of our witness.

In fact, truly mature 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, so they need to forgive others to please the Master. Consider for a few moments the verses penned out by the Apostle Paul while waiting to see Emperor Nero in Rome in about 62 CE. He was arrested and sitting for years, while his case awaited presentation. During that time, he “ran into” a man who trust Jesus Christ to be his Savior, but was hiding some baggage of brokenness. When Paul found out what the man was hiding, he sent him home with a letter. God was superintending a great work of reconciliation while He was leaving us a record of how it was done… The letter is the small Epistle to Philemon which told an ex-slave owner that was stolen from to receive back the now believing brother as a servant. We will look at the brief letter in a moment. First I want to be sure something is clear, so the context of the letter is soberly recognized.

If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, do you recognize that you have no right to vengeance? Do you freely recognize that you are commanded to forgive those who do wrong to you?

Some believers today have found ways to justify in their own minds a permanent break from other believers that is not godly – and we have to face that and repent. If they don’t, it will break the testimony of the body of Christ in their lives. Consider a story for a moment (on our way to our text)…

One of the excellent Christian sites that can still be observed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland is that of the “door of reconciliation”. A dispute between two leading dynastic families the Butlers, (who were Earls of Ormond) and the FitzGeralds (who were Earls of Kildare) was resolved in 1492 at that door. The reason it is so famous is because of HOW it was resolved. A feud that may have begun over territory (others say it was about a public shaming and embarrassment) grew into a war between two clans. As a war erupted between the two clan armies, Black James, nephew of the Earl of Ormond, fled from FitzGerald’s Geraldine soldiers, and took sanctuary in the “chapter house” (an old “board meeting room”) of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The soldiers of Gearóid Mór FitzGerald surrounded Black James and his men, but FitzGerald (who was then Ireland’s premier earl) wished to end the bloody feud. He pleaded with Black James to negotiate a peace. Black James rebuffed all refused though surrounded. FitzGerald ordered soldiers to cut a hole in the center of the door. He explained how he wished to see peace and bravely thrust his hand and arm through the hole to shake hands with Black James. James’s men could have severed the Earl’s arm off; but James grabbed his hand and ended the dispute. The men reasoned that two families of the same faith in the same land shouldn’t be killing one another.

I have to admit there is no issue more painful to me, 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.

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. 15 “But 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. Now, let’s be careful here.

In my experience, the people who have abused the trust of others are often the first to quote Jesus’ standard of forgiveness. Yet, it was not a license to get out of jail free. If we are going to place the need to forgive 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 in the need to reconcile because such forgiveness was NOT called on by God to be granted apart from other judicial solution.

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. We don’t live under that time or those laws – but Moses didn’t make them up. The same Jesus who forgave men of their sins with His own blood, collaborated with the Father and offered the Law at Sinai along with the subsequent additions added in the wilderness between Goshen and Moab. 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 forgiveness” 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.

I am concerned that many well-meaning Christians have oversimplified the Bible on forgiveness and reconciliation. Don’t forget that even our forgiveness by 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 set free from sin 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. 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 and deliberately avoid extremes – a “one size fits all” forgiveness is not called for in the Bible, nor is a super-sensitive “they hurt me so I have been abused and excused from forgiveness” – 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 Biblically flatly in error.

• 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 the background. 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. Much later, it appears that Paul met Onesimus, that very same runaway slave, in Rome while Paul awaited his hearing before the Emperor. Paul urged the return of the runaway slave – now a follower of Jesus Christ. He was guilty of theft and of unlawful departure, and now he came 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 un-righteously hoisted on a struggling and emotionally distraught victim of violence and physical abuse – and that isn’t the appropriate use of the passage.

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.

Remember: Mature believers desire to rebuild the bridge of broken relationships– 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 repair the relationship 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 believers. He called them beloved brother, fellow worker, and 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).

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.

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 living out 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…

When two people KNOW Jesus, and one believer has wounded the other, how can they be reconciled? That is the central question here. Our response won’t fit every situation, but it will fit SOME situations. It provides principles for when BOTH KNOW JESUS, and when the person who wronged the other LONGED NOW TO OBEY CHRIST and reconcile.

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

First, expect the wounded believer to CARE about the reconciliation and relationships, and make that clear.
8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, 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 for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment…

Note the word “appeal”. Don’t bully, show them relationship and love to get relationship and love.

Second, take the time to acknowledge the injured party – don’t bury the offense in love. (11a). 11 “who formerly was useless to you…”

Third, recognize the value of the offender as well as the offended (11b). “…but now is useful both to you and to me.”

Fourth, if at all possible, bring the parties physically together (12a). 12 “I have sent him back to you in person…”

Fifth, put your heart into their restoration, this is not simply an intellectual exercise! (12b). “…that is, sending my very heart”.

Sixth, state the rights of the injured and enlist their help for the solution (13-14a). “13 whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything…

Seventh, offer the injured party the means to respond willingly in the repair of the relationship (14b). “…so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.

Eighth, look for and express a Heavenly perspective if you can, God was at work in this relationship even in the difficult times (15-16). 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.”

Ninth, be direct in asking the parties to forgive each other (17). 17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.

Tenth, be warned. If you are truly willing to serve in the restitution of the relationship, it may cost you something, but the payoff is a restored relationship (18-19). 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).

Remember, the reconciliation must be worth it to you! If so, you should verbally encourage and anticipate the best in both the parties, encouraging them to act responsibly toward the Word of God and the relationship (20-21).

1:20 Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.

I truly have long held concerns about believers not getting along – and I say this with no particular situation in mind (which is the best time to teach on such a thing!). Yet, I want to be clear to those who would lead God’s church – we must be people of reconciliation – and far too many bitter spirits are rising into places of leadership in churches across the land. Let me illustrate that with a story that will perhaps leave you with a smile. Pastor Gene Gregory told a great story that I think will tie together what we are saying to those who are maturing in their faith:

The story is told of a terrible traffic accident. Police officers were called to the scene and when they arrived they found a husband, wife, and two children lying unconscious in the car. They pulled them from the car, and as they waited for the paramedics to arrive they noticed a monkey in the car also. Seeing that the monkey was the only witness to the accident who was conscious, the officers decided to question him about the accident. Turning to the monkey they asked, “What was the dad doing at the time of the accident?” The monkey motioned, indicating that the dad had been drinking. The officers next asked what the mother had been doing at the time of the accident. The monkey took his finger and shook it angrily at the unconscious man. The officers then asked what the children had been doing. The monkey this time indicated by hand gestures that the children had been fighting in the back seat. The officers said, “Well, no wonder there was an accident with all of that going on in the car.” As they turned to leave, almost as a parting thought they asked, “By the way, what were you doing at the time of the accident?” To which the monkey signed that he had been the one driving. He went on to say this: My friends, I am afraid that there are many churches today headed for trouble. There are many churches heading for an accident because they do not understand God’s design for the church. They do not understand God’s call for leadership, and as a result they have allowed the noisiest monkeys in the group to run the church. My friends, noise does not equal leadership.

I am blessed to have in place godly men and women who lead, serve and care about the flock. Let us be warned, though, that it is easy for noisy people to take over the agenda. In the absence of strong leadership, strong personalities take over. We need to be growing in our understanding of forgiveness and deepening the roster of reconciliation – and that comes by following the model we have. We need to build some new bridges between people who have left the landscape broken.

Mature believers desire to rebuild the bridge of broken relationships– because the state of the body affects the health of our witness.