So far in this letter, Paul has calmed any anxieties Philemon might have as well as encouraged his heart with evidences of God’s grace in his life. He has assured the heart, but not convinced the mind.
As a people who are fallen, living in a fallen world, our minds are trained to think sinfully – even if the actions we desire are useful and beneficial to others. Paul argues in his letter to the Roman believers that all people, Jews and Greeks, are under sin. He cites the book of Psalms saying, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12).
The words “no one” and “all” are absolutes. They reference all people in a negative or positive sense. Appropriately, no person is righteous before God, understands God, seeks God, or does good. Likewise, every person has turned aside to his own desires and away from God, and has become altogether sinful.
These are strong words, but true nevertheless. This is the reality of life without God’s divine intervention. This is our condition while we are “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Thus, with so many years of living in such deadness, we have cultivated a mind of sin. It is against God and requires a renewal (Rom. 12:2). Even after the regeneration of the Spirit we suffer a war in our mind.
For this reason, it is consistent with the pattern of this world and the cultivation of our mind prior to our salvation, to forego forgiveness. It was common then as it is common now. Today, if someone wrongs us, we respond, often in this order. First, we feel self-pity and whine. Second, we wonder where God was when it happened. And third, we sue somebody. As General Custer said in one of my children’s favorite movies, “We’re Americans, we don’t think, we do!”1
The fact we are fallen, mixed with the cultivation of a fallen world, convinces us to ignore the goodness of God’s commands since they are contrary to what this world teaches. In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus teaches his followers not to retaliate, but endure and give. He says “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn him the other also.” The world teaches the opposite – you’re to slap them back.
Paul has not yet made his appeal to Philemon, but the appeal is coming. And in his wisdom and understanding of man’s having fallen and man’s recovery in Christ, Paul knows that Philemon will wrestle with the arguments of the world in which he was once trained.
Onesimus wronged Philemon. He stole from him and ran away. The government at that time permitted slave masters to do as they pleased with criminal slaves. Since a slave is worth time and money, Philemon lost financial provisions as well as the continuity of his household. It was equivalent to today’s employee leaving town with the company’s resources, leaving the company short-handed and at a loss financially. So the way of this fallen world is to recoup one’s losses from this criminal and punish him for his actions. The slave laws of that time would add to this punishment, death.
Being the successful man that he was, Philemon likely heard the surrounding city people offering their worldly advice: “Let justice be done! Show this criminal how wrong he was.” Other successful men might have told him how they handled a similar situation, lawfully but harshly, to show authority. There were probably even some Christians within the church that told Philemon as Job’s friends told him, that he’d done something wrong for God to have allowed this to happen. Perhaps some even said as Job’s wife said, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9).
Whatever the case, the reality remains. Christians living in a fallen world, war against the temptation of doing things the world’s way in contrast to a way pleasing to God. For this reason, James tells us to ask God for wisdom, “Who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jas. 1:5).
Such wisdom comes from God through Scripture by the work of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:19-21). Paul, an apostle and writer of the Holy Scriptures, gives cognitive reasons to convince Philemon that forgiveness is good. He aims at setting the mind at rest so Philemon will not give in to the temptations of this world.
“Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Phile. 8-16)
- Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. 2009.
From the book, Forgiveness: A Commentary on Philemon, by Jacob Abshire