Philemon Series: Performing the Ministry of Reconciliation (Phm 1:8-25)
Performing the Ministry of Reconciliation
So, although I have quite a lot of confidence in Christ and could command you to do what is proper, I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—I, Paul, an old man and even now a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus—I am appealing to you concerning my child, whose spiritual father I have become during my imprisonment, that is, Onesimus, who was formerly useless to you, but is now useful to you and me. I have sent him (who is my very heart) back to you. I wanted to keep him so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. However, without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your good deed would not be out of compulsion, but from your own willingness. For perhaps it was for this reason that he was separated from you for a little while, so that you would have him back eternally, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a dear brother. He is especially so to me, and even more so to you now, both humanly speaking and in the Lord. Therefore if you regard me as a partner, accept him as you would me. Now if he has defrauded you of anything or owes you anything, charge what he owes to me. I, Paul, have written this letter with my own hand: I will repay it. I could also mention that you owe me your very self. Yes, brother, let me have some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Since I was confident that you would obey, I wrote to you, because I knew that you would do even more than what I am asking you to do. At the same time also, prepare a place for me to stay, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given back to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you. Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my colaborers, greet you too. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Philemon 1:8-25 (NET)
How can we perform the ministry of reconciliation? Since the fall relationships have been broken. Because of sin, God said that wives would seek to control their husbands and husbands would seek to dominate them (Gen 3:16). After the fall, the battle of the sexes began. However, the problems within the first marriage were extended to all people. Adam and Eve’s oldest son, Cain, killed his brother, Abel (Gen 4). And since then, we have had constant discord in family relationships, school and work relationships, between races, genders, and even nations. The world has known no time without war.
In Philemon, Paul writes to his friend in ministry who was a wealthy slave owner. Slaves were the backbone of Roman society. It’s been said that there were around sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire. One commentator said that Italy itself consisted of eighty-five to ninety percent slaves. When Christianity entered the world in the first century, it did not teach slaves to rebel against their masters or the Roman Empire. If it did, it would have led to bloody wars. However, it taught principles that led to the overthrow of slavery in societies throughout history. Slaves were called to obey their masters and submit to them as their duty to Christ (Col 3:22-23). By their obedience, they were to make the gospel attractive (Tit 2:9-10). Masters were called to love and care for their slaves, because they had a Master in heaven who was watching them (Col 4:1). Christianity also taught the equality of all people (Gal 3:28). When people would visit churches, they would see masters and slaves worshipping together as equals and sometimes a slave would even be his master’s pastor. The master and slave relationship were dynamically changed. Christianity helped get rid of abuses in the work relationship and eventually led to the dissolving of the system altogether in nations the gospel reached.
With that said, Paul wrote to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus. There was probably some discord in the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus—leading Onesimus to run to Rome and probably steal from Philemon to fund his trip there. However, while there, he somehow ran into Paul, heard the gospel from him, and became a believer (v. 10). While staying in Rome, he became Paul’s disciple and assistant. He was tremendously useful to Paul, and therefore, Paul hoped to keep him. But, he knew that Onesimus had committed a crime and needed to be returned to Philemon. Consequently, Paul writes this friendly letter to Philemon, asking him to forgive Onesimus and receive him as a brother in Christ. Paul also hoped that Philemon might allow Onesimus to return and support his ministry (v. 13-14).
In this letter, we learn principles about the ministry of reconciliation. As we study it, it will help us reconcile our troubled or broken relationships and also enable us to help others experience reconciliation.
Big Question: In Philemon 1:8-25, what principles can be learned about performing the ministry of reconciliation—reconciling strained or broken relationships?
To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Forgive Others in Obedience to Scripture
So, although I have quite a lot of confidence in Christ and could command you to do what is proper,
In Philemon 1:8, Paul is about to ask Philemon for a favor. He mentions how he could command Philemon to do what was “proper” or what he “ought to do” (NIV). Why was forgiveness and reconciliation proper and what Philemon ought to do and why could Paul command it? Simply because reconciliation would be in accord with God’s will for Philemon according to Scripture.
This is the very reason many people struggle with forgiving someone who hurt them. They don’t have a strong theology of forgiveness, and therefore, don’t feel that God is commanding them to forgive and reconcile with someone who hurt them. They only have a sense of God’s justice which Scripture also teaches but not God’s command to be merciful. Certainly, these seem like conflicting truths, but they can both exist. There can be forgiveness and yet still be justice at times. David was forgiven for his adultery and murder (which deserved the death penalty) and yet still experienced just consequences, as God said the sword would never depart his house. However, often when forgiving others, God also wants us to remove all the consequences, even as God commonly does with us. Certainly, we need wisdom in both being merciful and just, as God is. Either way, it is God’s will for us to forgive those who hurt us.
Interpretation Question: Why does God command forgiveness and reconciliation in Scripture?
Here are a few biblical reasons God tells us to forgive others:
1. We should forgive and reconcile with others to be like Christ.
Colossians 3:13 says, “bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if someone happens to have a complaint against anyone else. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also forgive others.” As followers of Christ, we should seek to be like him in every way. On the cross while his enemies were crucifying him, he cried out to God, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Likewise, while Stephen was being stoned, he petitioned for God to forgive them just like Christ previously did (Acts 7:60). In addition, God sent his Son to die for the sins of the world while we were still enemies of God—still sinning against him (Rom 5:8, 10). When we forgive, we are being just like our Savior and God. Therefore, we forgive to be like him. Ephesians 5:1 says, “Therefore, be imitators of God as dearly loved children.”
2. We should forgive to protect our intimacy with God and worship of him.
In Matthew 6:14-15, Christ said this, “For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.” How is it possible for God to not forgive us if we don’t forgive others? Didn’t he forgive all our sins on the cross? It’s easier to understand what Christ taught if we think of forgiveness in two ways. There is judicial forgiveness. We deserve eternal damnation for only one sin, and yet on the cross, Christ paid the penalty for every one of our sins, so we can be adopted as God’s children and become part of his family forever. However, when we choose to not forgive others as Christians, we still need relational forgiveness. For example, if I sin against my wife, it doesn’t change our judicial position. She is still my wife. We married before God and according to the judicial system. However, if I sin against her, it disrupts our intimacy, and I need to repent and ask for forgiveness to restore it. Likewise, all sin, and unforgiveness specifically, hinders our relationship with God. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had harbored sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” If we are harboring unforgiveness towards a friend, co-worker, or relative, then we will find our devotions and prayer life dry. We will find sermons unedifying, and part of the reason will be because we have allowed a wedge to separate us from God and that is unforgiveness.
Christ also taught this in Matthew 5:23-24. He said if you go to the altar with a gift for God and realize somebody has something against you, leave the gift, go reconcile with the person, and then return to the altar to offer the gift to God. Again, we must forgive others to protect our intimacy with and worship of God. Otherwise, we’ll experience dryness in our spiritual life and consequences that come from it.
3. We should forgive others simply because Christ commanded it.
In Luke 17:3-4, Christ said to his disciples: “Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” When he said seven times in a day, he was simply using an exaggeration to say we should always forgive others, no matter how many times they fail us. In Matthew 18:21-22, he says we should forgive even as many as seventy-seven times. We practice forgiveness because Christ commands it.
4. We should forgive others to protect ourselves from God’s discipline.
In Matthew 18, Christ gave the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. In the parable, a master forgave a servant a debt he could never repay. But then that servant imprisoned a fellow servant for a much smaller debt. When the master heard about this, he imprisoned the fellow servant and had him tortured until he paid all the debt he owed (which was impossible). At the end of the parable, Christ said this to his disciples in verse 35: “So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.” Being handed over to torturers, probably refers to being attacked by Satan and demons as a discipline from God—potentially bringing sickness, discord, depression, anxiety, habitual sins, and/or other negative consequences (cf. 1 Sam 16:14, 1 Cor 5:5)
If we hold grudges towards others and don’t forgive them from the heart (no matter how bad the crime), it could lead to God’s discipline in our lives. Certainly, as mentioned, both justice and forgiveness can exist at the same time. A person can forgive a criminal in their heart and at the same time tell the authorities about their wrongs, so there can be justice for the criminal’s benefit (as he learns good conduct), to protect ourselves and others, and to honor God.
5. We should forgive others to protect ourselves and others from Satan’s attacks.
This goes along with the last point. In Ephesians 4:26-27, Paul said: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on the cause of your anger. Do not give the devil an opportunity.” When we harbor grudges, it opens a door for Satan to attack us and others. Satan is always looking for doors into families, churches, communities, and nations. He ardently seeks to cause conflict and then try to destroy people from that stronghold.
6. We should forgive others to not hinder evangelism.
In John 17:23, Christ prayed, “that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.” Therefore, when believers and churches are in conflict, it hinders people from accepting Christ (and pushes believers away from God). We must keep this in mind since people are always watching us and judging our Savior based on our lives and interactions with one another.
7. We should forgive others because it’s the loving thing to do.
The greatest commands in Scripture are to love God and love one another (Matt 22:36-40). One of the characteristics of loving someone is forgiving them. First Corinthians 13:5 (NIV) says this about love: “It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” After we experience God’s forgiveness, he doesn’t keep bringing up our failures and holding them against us. In Isaiah 43:25, God says this about Israel, “I am the one who blots out your rebellious deeds for my sake; your sins I do not remember.” God does not remember our sins in the sense that he doesn’t allow our past failures to hinder our relationship with him or affect our intimacy. He doesn’t keep a record and keep throwing it in our face and condemning us every time we slip up. Likewise, we are called to love others in the same way. When we forgive others, we are loving them—seeking their best interest instead of ours.
Paul could have commanded Philemon to do what was “proper” or what he “ought to do” (NIV) because that was in line with the New Testament’s teaching. Likewise, if we don’t know what Scripture teaches about forgiveness, we will hold grudges and therefore disobey God’s commands and receive a myriad of consequences for doing so.
Application Question: What biblical reason for forgiving others stood out most to you and why?
To Reconcile Relationships, We Often Need a Mediator
I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—I, Paul, an old man and even now a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus—I am appealing to you concerning my child, whose spiritual father I have become during my imprisonment, that is, Onesimus,
Instead of using his authority as an apostle, Paul appeals to Philemon to reconcile with Onesimus based on their relationship. They were obviously good friends and fellow partners in kingdom work. Paul mentions that he is now an old man and a prisoner for the sake of Christ (v. 9). Paul was probably close to sixty years old, which may not seem old to us but back then people had shorter life spans. He was also probably physically older than his age because of all his suffering (cf. 2 Cor 11:16-33). In addition, Paul was under house arrest in Rome awaiting a potential death sentence. He seems to share these things to move Philemon’s heart to seriously consider the coming request. Onesimus had come to Christ through Paul’s ministry, and he considered him his child in the faith and partner in ministry (v. 10-13). He shared these things to help Philemon reconcile with Onesimus. He was willing to be a mediator, including being willing to pay any debts that Onesimus owed from him possibly stealing from Philemon or causing a loss in business (v. 18-19). The entire letter of Philemon is Paul being a mediator in their dispute.
Similarly, we see Paul being a mediator in his letter to Philippians, though he only clearly addresses the situation in a few verses. In that church, there were two prominent women having conflict. It was not a doctrinal dispute because if it was, Paul would have simply said who was right. It was some type of personal dispute that was probably causing the church to divide into rival groups. Therefore, Paul addresses the dispute at the end of the letter and also asks for a person in the congregation to help them reconcile. In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul said:
I appeal to Euodia and to Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I say also to you, true companion, help them. They have struggled together in the gospel ministry along with me and Clement and my other coworkers, whose names are in the book of life.
Likewise, we will at times need to be mediators in disputes within our family, at church, or work. Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Sometimes, we may even need to ask others to intervene in our conflicts.
Application Question: What are some wise principles for mediating conflicts between others?
Certainly, throughout the rest of our study of Philemon, we will learn principles to help us with reconciliation, but here are some practical ones we must do in addition to those.
1. As mediators, we must carefully listen to each side of the story—seeking to understand each person and the root of the conflict. We should withhold judgments until we’ve heard each side and asked questions to get the clearest picture. Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first to state his case seems right, until his opponent begins to cross-examine him.” Someone said there are always three sides to every story. There is what he said, she said, and then there is the truth. Wise mediators withhold judgment and any emotions until hearing all sides of the story. Unfortunately, because of bias, our best friends or parents may not always be the best mediators.
2. As mediators, we should emphasize what the people have in common instead of their differences. Often when husbands and wives or co-workers have conflict, they want the same thing—to help people or do things more efficiently—but are coming at the same goals from different angles. Reminding them of their shared goal or interests and not just the differences they are focusing on can help cool tempers. In Philippians 2:1-2, Paul sought to do this when seeking unity in the Philippian church. He said,
Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, complete my joy and be of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose.
Because of all they had in common in Christ, they should work for unity. We should help others see their commonality as well so they can pursue reconciliation.
3. As mediators, we must constantly pray for those in conflict and for God to give us wisdom on how to help them reconcile. James 1:5 says, “But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him.” We may also need to ask wise people for counsel on how to minister to those in conflict. Proverbs 11:18 says, “there is success in the abundance of counselors.”
4. As mediators, we must continually emphasize biblical truths related to forgiveness and reconciliation as mentioned in the first point of this study. Unforgiveness hinders our relationship with God. If we don’t forgive others, he will not forgive us (Matt 6:15). In fact, God promises to hand us over to demonic torturers if we don’t forgive (Matt 18:34, cf. Eph 4:26-27, 1 Cor 5:5). Unforgiveness and conflict between fellow believers also pushes people away from Christ (cf. John 17:21, 23). These truths must be taught to emphasize the importance of reconciliation. Often, people will feel no need to reconcile or forgive apart from these biblical realities being reemphasized.
5. As mediators, we must offer wise solutions, including the possibility of providing a forum for the two to share separately and then together with the mediator to present grievances and consider solutions. While meeting together with the mediator, it’s often good to set ground rules, like not raising one’s voice or interrupting while the other is speaking, listening to one another, recognizing there will be differences in one’s stories which is natural, being willing to listen to the mediator, and giving a good faith effort to work things out including sacrificing and humbling oneself. To start, it’s often good for the two in conflict to first focus on sharing positives about the other person—what they do well and not just what they don’t like. Next, have each person share their problem and a potential solution and allow the other to respond. Then, begin to graciously and prayerfully work from there, including addressing discrepancies, potential solutions, and applying Scripture to the circumstance.
6. As mediators, we must recognize that there might be times when separation is best. Certainly, this should be the last option. However, it is possible to have true forgiveness and yet a recognition that it might be best to go different paths or work separately at least for a season. With Paul and Barnabas, when they couldn’t come to an agreement over Mark accompanying them on their missionary journey, they decided to part ways. Paul went with Silas on missions and Mark went with Barnabas (Acts 15:37-39). God could still use that, as apparently, the separation was done without unforgiveness and bitterness. Eventually, they all worked together again. Right before Paul died, in 2 Timothy 4:11, he even asked for Mark to be brought to him because he was a “great help” to him in ministry. Sometimes, separation can be good for a season to cool tempers, provide a better perspective, or simply to protect one another in love.
7. As mediators, we must recognize our inability and depend on God to do the work of reconciliation at his own pace. We plant seeds and water them, but only God can make them grow (1 Cor 3:6-7). Understanding our role in reconciliation (and ministry in general) and God’s role is freeing. It allows us to serve others in hope and, at the same time, not be overburdened as though the responsibility to change hearts is ours. Changing hearts is God’s job. However, he often graciously uses us as part of that work. We must trust God with the outcome of our ministry, especially when seeking to do the ministry of reconciliation.
Are we willing to get involved with others to help them reconcile? Are we willing to allow, and potentially invite, someone to help us reconcile? Christ was willing to come between God and people to seek reconciliation. He paid the penalty we owed and changed our hearts so we would turn back to God. In a sense, we are all Onesimuses—sinners who have been forgiven. Likewise, we must be willing to get involved in restoring people with God and also with others. We must be willing to be mediators, like Paul was with Philemon and Onesimus and the two women in Philippi and like Christ with us and God.
Application Question: Which principle about mediation stood out most and why? How have you been involved with seeking reconciliation between two people or a group in conflict? How did it turn out? What are some other wise principles for mediating conflicts between others?
To Reconcile Relationships, We Often Need a Heart Change
I am appealing to you concerning my child, whose spiritual father I have become during my imprisonment, that is, Onesimus, who was formerly useless to you, but is now useful to you and me. I have sent him (who is my very heart) back to you. I wanted to keep him so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.
When two people are angry at each other, often more important than a change of circumstance, behavior, or location, a heart change is needed. For many who’ve been hurt, they want nothing to do with the other person. When Paul wrote Philemon, he let him know that Onesimus was not the same person—he had become born-again, and consequently his behavior changed. Since Onesimus had a heart change, whatever happened that caused him to run away no longer was an issue. Therefore, he willingly returned to his master and was even willing to pay the penalty for his wrong if necessary. Under Roman law, the penalty for a runaway slave could be crucifixion or being branded on the forehead with an “F” for fugitive, among other things. Since the empire had something like sixty million slaves, they needed strict laws to stop them from rebelling. Even while considering the potential consequences for his sin, Onesimus returned because obeying Christ was more important than any potential penalty, including his previously hurt feelings.
Likewise, believers should constantly forgive others because God has forgiven us and transformed our hearts. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul said, “Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.” We must forgive even as God forgave us. If we don’t, Scripture says there is a possibility that we might not even be saved. In 1 John 3:14-15, John says:
We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians. The one who does not love remains in death. Everyone who hates his fellow Christian is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
To continue to hate others and withhold forgiveness, especially with another believer, might prove that we remain in death. To God, hating is equivalent to murder because it’s the seed of murder (cf. Matt 5:21-23). John matter-of-factly says this, “you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” He doesn’t deal with the particulars of Christians slowly growing in maturity—falling and making mistakes. He spoke a general statement—that a continual withholding of forgiveness and hating others may demonstrate that we’ve never been born again—never experienced a change of heart, never experienced what Onesimus had.
According to 1 Corinthians 13:6 (NIV), as mentioned previously, a characteristic of true love which believers should demonstrate is that “it keeps no record of wrongs” by forgiving others. This is only possible because we’ve been born again and have new hearts—hearts enabled by God to love others, especially believers. Romans 5:5 says that for believers the “love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” God gives us the ability to love others, including our enemies, which is why he commands us to love and pray for them (Matt 5:44). Again, this means that if we habitually withhold forgiveness from others and are vengeful, we may have never been saved. By our inability to love and forgive, we might prove that we have never been forgiven by God and therefore never experienced the change of heart that comes from salvation. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul teaches that “… if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away—look, what is new has come!” This doesn’t mean it’s not hard to forgive. It often is. And, after we have forgiven, unforgiveness rushes back when we see the one who hurt us, or the person fails us again. But, in obedience to God and love for others, we forgive again in faith. This is possible because, like Onesimus, we received new hearts at our salvation. Ezekiel 36:26-27 says this about our salvation in the New Covenant:
I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes and carefully observe my regulations.
This is what happened with Onesimus. He was willing to return to his slave master who he had possibly robbed and seek reconciliation because God had saved him and changed his heart. Has God given us a new heart? Are we willing to seek reconciliation—forgiving others and seeking forgiveness for wrongs done?
Further proof that Onesimus had a new heart was the fact that previously he was “useless” (v. 11). The name Onesimus was a common slave name. It meant useful or profitable. Slave masters would give their slaves that name in hopes that they would live up to it. However, previously, Onesimus was useless. Maybe, he habitually had a bad attitude, didn’t work hard, and couldn’t be trusted. But, after being saved, he changed. He had a new work ethic because he was now working for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He was now supremely useful to Paul as he probably served as his assistant (v. 11-13). In Colossians 4:9, Paul called Onesimus a “faithful and dear brother.” Following Christ can make a person who is useless, supremely useful. Following Christ should change us in many ways and not just in our relationships with others. It affects everything we do. First Corinthians 10:31 says, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward. Serve the Lord Christ.”
To forgive others, we must have a heart change. As mentioned, even after experiencing God’s forgiveness in salvation and being made new in Christ, it can still be difficult to forgive. Therefore, when we struggle with forgiving others, sometimes the best thing we can do is pray for them and, if possible, serve them which blesses them and changes us. Consider the following verses:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
If we know that we have been saved and yet still struggle with forgiveness, we must, in obedience to God, bless our enemy more. Pray for them to grow in the Lord and bear fruit in all that they do. If they are in sin, pray that God would rebuke them and set them free. As we pray for others and as God gives opportunity to serve them, we overcome the evil in our hearts by doing good, and often the good we do will change their hearts as well. To forgive others, we must have changed hearts.
Are we submitting our hearts to God so we can be reconciled with others or are we withholding love and forgiveness from others in disobedience to God?
Application Question: Why should salvation change our hearts in regard to being willing to forgive others? What should we do if we struggle with forgiving others who have hurt us? How have you overcome unforgiveness in your heart at times? Why is praying for those who hurt us and serving them so effective at changing our hearts and often theirs as well?
To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Optimistically Trust God’s Sovereignty Over the Conflict
I wanted to keep him so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. However, without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your good deed would not be out of compulsion, but from your own willingness. For perhaps it was for this reason that he was separated from you for a little while, so that you would have him back eternally, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a dear brother. He is especially so to me, and even more so to you now, both humanly speaking and in the Lord.
When convincing Philemon to reconcile with Onesimus, Paul says this in verse 15, “For perhaps it was for this reason that he was separated from you for a little while, so that you would have him back eternally.” It would be easy to look at the situation as only a loss. There was a financial loss for Philemon from losing a slave and possibly having money stolen. There was a loss for Onesimus in that he was a fugitive and could potentially receive the death penalty. There was a loss for Paul in having two dear friends in conflict. There was nothing good in this situation. However, Paul saw the possibility that God was using this situation for the good. The separation for a short time was possibly allowed so that Philemon could have Onesimus back eternally as a fellow believer and also humanly speaking as a profitable servant (v. 15-16).
It is a mark of spiritual maturity to be able to see God as sovereignly controlling all circumstances, including bad ones for the good. For some, trials make them angry at God and others, but for the more mature, they see trials including difficult relationships as opportunities for God to do something special. This doesn’t mean the trial or difficult relationship doesn’t hurt. It does. However, seeing God as sovereign over a situation gives us hope, helps us persevere, and also enables us to forgive when necessary.
Certainly, we saw this with Joseph and his brothers who had sold him into slavery. When they approached him asking for forgiveness, he responded this way in Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day.” Joseph could see God’s sovereign hand over the situation, including his brothers selling him into slavery. Since he was forced to live in Egypt, he learned the Egyptian language and excelled as a trustworthy slave. When in prison because of being falsely accused, God used that opportunity for Joseph to meet the king’s cupbearer which opened the door for Joseph to eventually be released and serve as Egypt’s governor—saving many people during a worldwide famine. God used the conflict between Joseph and his brothers and specifically their hate and greed for the good.
Certainly, we have many promises in Scripture that God uses all trials, including conflicts, for our good. Romans 8:28-29 says,
And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
God is using all things, including trials and conflicts, to make us into the image of his Son. God wants to develop our character through difficult situations. He wants to make us more patient, loving, and wise. As we go through conflicts and respond biblically, God makes us wise so we can help others navigate other conflicts and difficult situations in the future. He also stretches our love. It's totally normal to love those who are lovable, but God loves even his enemies. Therefore, through conflict, God stretches us to love like him including loving, forgiving, and even serving our enemies.
Likewise, James 1:2-5 says,
My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him.
This is hard to do when dealing with conflict, but God calls us to rejoice in faith during them because we trust his sovereignty. He is using conflict to test our faith in the sense of making it stronger by getting rid of weaknesses—things that displease him like impatience, anger, and unforgiveness. He uses it to make us perfect and complete—meaning spiritually mature. In the process of dealing with conflict, he promises to help us. He commands us to ask him for wisdom, and he’ll give it—wisdom to persevere, wisdom to grow through it instead of becoming bitter and unforgiving, and oftentimes wisdom on how to reconcile. What is true of trials in general is true of how God uses conflict. God used the conflict between Philemon and Onesimus, and Onesimus’ crime, as a runaway slave and possibly a thief, for the good. It led to Onesimus becoming a follower of Christ and assistant for the apostle Paul. If the speculation is correct, fifty years later, Onesimus may have become the pastor of the Ephesian church after Timothy and later John left. God certainly used it for the good, and God, in some way, is using our conflict for the good, as we submit to him in it.
Are we willing to trust God while in conflict? One of the ways we do this is by not seeking revenge or trying to get even with those who hurt us. It’s also by seeking to do them good as the Lord allows. Romans 12:19-21 says if our enemy is thirsty, we should give him a drink. If he is hungry, we should give him food, and by doing this we place fiery coals on their heads and overcome evil with good.
If we are going to reconcile with others or help others reconcile, we must believe in God’s sovereignty over the situation. When Pharaoh would not let Israel go, Moses interpreted the event in two ways. He said Pharaoh hardened his heart by disobeying God (Ex 8:32), but he also said God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:12). He saw God as in control of that conflict using it for the good. In Romans 9, Paul interpreted the event as God allowing it to show his power and glory to the world. Romans 9:17 says, “For the scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may demonstrate my power in you, and that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’” We see that when Israel entered the promised land of Canaan, the people in Jericho were scared because they heard about what God had done to Egypt to set them free. God’s judgment on Pharoah and the Egyptians essentially led to evangelism—people hearing about God and some becoming saved like Rahab. Not only was God changing Israelites and Egyptians through the conflict between Pharaoh and Moses, but he was changing the nations around them as well. Certainly, we must remember that people are watching how we handle conflict, and how we respond may be the witness that leads them to Christ or to reconcile with others. God’s plans are bigger than our plans. And we must trust that his ways to handle conflict with a spouse, child, church member, or co-worker are best, even over the negative feelings and thoughts in our heart and mind. God is in control and using it for the good, especially as we submit to him and trust him in the process.
Are we willing to trust God’s sovereignty over difficult relationships which will help us reconcile with them or help others reconcile?
Application Question: How have you seen God work out a personal conflict for good? Why is it difficult to trust God’s ways during personal conflict? What can help us trust God more during personal conflict?
To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Be Willing to Provide Restitution
Therefore if you regard me as a partner, accept him as you would me. Now if he has defrauded you of anything or owes you anything, charge what he owes to me. I, Paul, have written this letter with my own hand: I will repay it. I could also mention that you owe me your very self.
Paul was aware that restitution was needed to truly reconcile the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. This was a principle outlined in the Old Testament law, and it’s foundational to any just law system even today. In Numbers 5:6-7, God said this to Moses:
Tell the Israelites, ‘When a man or a woman commits any sin that people commit, thereby breaking faith with the Lord, and that person is found guilty, then he must confess his sin that he has committed and must make full reparation, add one fifth to it, and give it to whomever he wronged.
A person who committed a sin needed to make full restitution, including adding a fifth to it. When it came to livestock, sometimes restitution would be as high as four or five times what was taken. Exodus 22:1 says, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and kills it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox, and four sheep for the one sheep.” The logic behind this is if a person stole a donkey, he shouldn’t just return it, he should pay extra to cover the lost work and profit. Therefore, in seeking to reconcile Philemon with Onesimus, Paul promises to make restitution. Partially, he does this by returning Onesimus since according to Roman law, Onesimus was property. But, he also requests that if Onesimus stole something to charge him for it. He promised to repay it (v. 18-19). In fact, to further confirm his commitment to repaying the debt owed, Paul, who typically had someone write his letters while he dictated them, declared in verse 19, “I, Paul, have written this letter with my own hand: I will repay it.” Instead of just writing the conclusion which was customary for him (cf. Col 4:18, 2 Thess 3:17), Paul said he wrote the entire letter or at least that portion of it. By saying this, he essentially wrote an I.O.U.—a promise to repay Philemon any debt incurred by Onesimus.
Likewise, if we are going to reconcile with someone or help others reconcile, it is often not enough to simply say, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” We need to wisely make restitution. If we stole, we must return what we took. If we gossiped, we need to apologize to the person we gossiped about but also apologize to those we shared the negative information with and correct it if we were wrong. A great picture of how God changes a heart and leads them to make restitution with those wronged is the story of Zacchaeus. In Luke 19:8, when he gets saved, he says this to Christ, “Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!” This was in keeping with the maximum restitution required by the law. We must do the same with others when reconciling with them or helping others reconcile. We should ask, “Is there any restitution that needs to be made?” Sometimes, it may be wise to get counsel on this. In 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, when there were disputes within the Corinthian church, Paul encouraged them to select a few wise people in the church to arbitrate between them instead of taking their situation to court before unbelievers.
Therefore, in seeking to reconcile with others or help others reconcile, we may need to make restitution or encourage others to. If restitution is not made, then the repentance often appears cheap to the wronged party and may hinder true reconciliation.
Application Question: Why is restitution important when reconciling people? In what types of situations might restitution be needed?
To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Recognize That We Owe an Unpayable Debt
I, Paul, have written this letter with my own hand: I will repay it. I could also mention that you owe me your very self.
After committing to repay Philemon for Onesimus’ debt, Paul reminded Philemon that he owed Paul his life. This probably referred to how Paul led Philemon to Christ. In a sense, Philemon owed Paul a spiritual debt for his contribution to his life. Likewise, this principle is important for us to remember as well when people owe us a debt by hurting us. We must remember that we have hurt others as well and therefore owe them a debt. We owe debts not only from failing others but also from receiving blessings from others. Our parents birthed and raised us and invested in our lives in countless ways which we cannot fully repay. Teachers, coaches, and mentors have invested in us, and we owe them a debt. Most of all, we owe Christ a debt for all he has done for us in saving us. If we owe debts that we can never pay back, how we can withhold forgiveness for those who owe us?
This was the same principle that Christ taught in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:23-35. Again, in the parable, a master, representing God, forgave a servant an unpayable debt. But, then the servant was unwilling to forgive or show leniency to a fellow-servant with a lesser debt and therefore threw the servant into jail. When the master heard about this, he imprisoned the unforgiving servant until he could pay all his debt. The unforgiving servant didn’t forgive because he forgot (or didn’t truly consider) all that he owed and was forgiven. Because he forgot about his debt, he pridefully and mercilessly punished others.
Therefore, if we are going to reconcile with others, no matter how much they have hurt us, we must remember that we owe many debts that we’ll never be able to fully pay back. There are friends, parents, teachers, coaches, co-workers, etc., who have invested in our lives and never even asked for a return. Even though they haven’t asked for repayment, we still owe them a debt. Most of all we owe God an unpayable debt; because of Christ, God forgave our sins, delivered us from judgment, gave us eternal life, and adopted us into his family. If we owe so much and have been forgiven so much, how can we hold back forgiveness from others? Remembering our debts, should, in fact, make us quick to forgive others when they fail and encourage us to generously help people in need.
Application Question: Why is remembering our debts so important for helping us forgive and serve others? Who are those that you owe a tremendous debt and why? How is God calling you to show grace and mercy to others even as you have received?
To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Seek to Bless Others Over Ourselves
Yes, brother, let me have some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Since I was confident that you would obey, I wrote to you, because I knew that you would do even more than what I am asking you to do.
Paul loved both Philemon and Onesimus, and therefore, it, no doubt, hurt him to have them at odds with one another. He pleaded with Philemon to let him have “some benefit” (v. 20). “Benefit” in Greek is the root word for Onesimus’ name which means useful or profitable. Paul essentially says, “Let me have some profit from you by your reconciliation with my son, Profit.” Though Philemon was probably still hurting from the financial loss, emotional pain, and shame from Onesimus running away, Paul asked him to not think about the loss but to instead think about blessing Paul. The reason we withhold forgiveness is for our self-benefit. Sometimes, it is to punish the other person or to further protect ourselves. We withhold forgiveness because of selfishness. However, to reconcile, we have to think selflessly by considering the benefit of others more than our own. In an estranged marriage, forgiveness leads to the benefit of the spouse, the children, and the couple’s shared friends. In a church, forgiveness leads to the profit of the offender but also all the friends who are hurt by their discord. Likewise, Paul asked Philemon to give him some benefit and refreshment by reconciling with Onesimus. To reconcile, we often have to think more about others and their benefit than our own. In Philippians 2:3-4, Paul said this to a congregation with discord in it to help them become unified:
Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well.
By considering others’ profit more than our own, we’ll be moved to forgive and seek reconciliation. Are we considering the benefit of others as more important than our own? Pride and selfishness typically are the roots of discord even as humility and selflessness are the foundation of reconciliation.
Application Question: In what ways are pride and selfishness common roots of discord? In what ways are humility and selflessness the foundation of reconciliation? Why is it so hard to think of others’ benefit as more important than our own (cf. Phil 2:3, Phm 1:20)? What is the proper balance between thinking about others’ benefit and our own, especially in the context of reconciliation?
To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Have Godly Accountability
At the same time also, prepare a place for me to stay, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given back to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you. Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my colaborers, greet you too. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
At the end of the letter, Paul asked for Philemon to prepare a place for him to stay. Because of Philemon’s prayers and others’, Paul trusted that God would deliver him from his imprisonment in Rome (v. 22). The fact that Paul would visit Philemon soon in Colosse provided strong accountability for Philemon’s response to Onesimus. In addition to that, Paul mentions greetings from five men who knew both Philemon and Onesimus. If Philemon did not reconcile, it would have grieved them as they loved both men as well.
Epaphras is called Paul’s “fellow prisoner in Christ” (v. 23). It’s not clear if he was imprisoned in Rome with Paul or just supporting him and bearing his burdens while visiting him. Epaphras was probably the founder of the Colossian church (Col 1:7-8), and therefore one of its pastors and probably a good friend of Philemon. Certainly, as one of Philemon’s pastors, Philemon was accountable to him, as all believers are to their spiritual leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says this, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work.” Mark is the author of the Gospel named after him (v. 24). He was Barnabas’ cousin and a disciple of Peter (Col 4:10, 1 Pet. 5:13). Aristarchus was a Jew from Thessalonica (Acts 20:4, 27:2), and one of Paul’s travel companions. He was with Paul at the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:29) and was on the ship with Paul to Rome that was shipwrecked (Acts 27:4). Tradition says, like Paul, he was martyred in Rome. Demas, likewise, was one of Paul’s travel companions and coworkers; however, eventually, he deserted Paul, probably apostatizing from the faith. Second Timothy 4:10 says, “For Demas deserted me, since he loved the present age, and he went to Thessalonica.” Luke is the author of Luke and Acts and was also a common travel companion of Paul. Throughout the book of Acts, he often uses the pronoun “we” which demonstrates how he was with Paul on many missionary journeys (cf. Acts 16:10-13). He was a doctor by trade (2 Tim 4:11) and probably ministered to Paul when he was dealing with physical ailments, including potentially his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7; cf. Gal 4:15). He also was with Paul during his second imprisonment before he died (2 Tim 4:11).
All these men were with Paul in Rome and were friends of Philemon and Onesimus. By mentioning them and asking for a room for a near visit, Paul provided accountability for Philemon and his relationship with Onesimus. It’s been said people do 100% of what you check. Often, we need accountability in our lives, including in our friendships, families, and work relationships. We need people asking us, “How things are going at home and work?” We need people committed to praying for us and holding us accountable when we are harboring wrong attitudes or practicing actions not in line with our faith. Though Paul had a great confidence in Philemon’s commitment to Christ and therefore willingness to forgive (v. 21), accountability only helped ensure Philemon’s faithfulness.
We must ask ourselves, “Who holds us accountable? Who do we confess our sins and struggles with? Who is praying for us and challenging us when we’re in conflict with others?” We all need godly mentors and friends in our lives who hold us accountable. This is especially true when it comes to maintaining peaceful relationships and dealing with conflict. Satan is always seeking to sow seeds of discord to get a stronghold in our lives and the church (Eph 4:26-27). Godly accountability helps keep him out and protect us from our flesh which is so prone to discord (Gal 5:19-21).
Application Question: Why are accountability relationships so important to our Christian faith in general but especially when it comes to dealing with conflict? Who are your accountability partners and how do you hold one another accountable?
To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Rely on God’s Supernatural Grace
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
When Paul ends his letter with “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit,” this was really a prayer for Philemon, his family, and the church, as the “your” is plural. No doubt, by the end of this letter, Philemon felt convicted of his need to forgive Onesimus; however, he might have felt weak in his flesh to do so. Paul’s benediction would have reminded him (and others) of the grace—the unmerited favor of God—that was available. The flesh seeks vengeance and self-preservation; however, God’s Spirit enables us to love God and others selflessly, even at great cost to ourselves (v. 18-19). Therefore, as we struggle with a desire to reconcile with others, we must remember our need for God’s empowerment. In John 15:4-5, Christ said this:
Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing.
Apart from abiding in Christ, we can do no spiritual good. However, by abiding in Christ through deep prayer, time in the Word, fellowship with the saints, and service, God produces abundant fruit in us. These fruits include peace, patience, self-control, gentleness, endurance, and other fruits of the Spirit needed for peaceful relationships (Gal 5:22-23). However, apart from a thriving relationship with God, we will find ourselves acting in the flesh. Galatians 5:19 reminds us that the acts of the flesh are: “hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder…” Therefore, our natural default apart from a thriving relationship with God is conflict, even with those who love us most. Apart from abiding in Christ, we’ll often find no desire to forgive others and only a desire to self-preserve or harm others. We’ll have no fruits of the Spirit such as patience with others, self-control over thoughts, gentleness towards those who fail us, and peace of mind. These fruits only come from abiding in Christ; otherwise, conflict and its fruits will be our lot. Philemon, his family, and the church needed to be reminded of their divine enablement. Grace was available to them through their relationship with Christ as they took advantage of it—God’s grace to love, forgive, and serve those who hurt us. God will also give us grace to help others reconcile around us. Matthew 5:9 says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” God blesses those who labor for peace. May that be us, in Jesus’ name. Amen!
Application Question: Why is it so important to rely on God’s grace to reconcile relationships? How should we rely more on God’s grace to reconcile broken or strained relationships? How have you experienced God’s supernatural grace in helping you reconcile with others?
The book of Philemon does not end here. As mentioned previously, fifty years later in AD 110, the bishop of Ephesus was named Onesimus. Many speculate that this was the same Onesimus. This would give credence to why this small personal letter to Philemon was included in the Canon. It truly is a miraculous story. If this is true, it means that Philemon did forgive Onesimus, accepted him as a brother, and eventually allowed him to return to Paul to serve as a missionary and eventual pastor. God truly used the difficult circumstances and the heart pain that came with it for good. Philemon did not just get a slave back but more than a slave, a true brother in Christ committed to building God’s kingdom with him. Lord, may you use all our difficult relationships for such an end!
How can we perform the ministry of reconciliation—seeking to reconcile strained or broken relationships?
1. To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Forgive Others in Obedience to Scripture
2. To Reconcile Relationships, We Often Need a Mediator
3. To Reconcile Relationships, We Often Need a Heart Change
4. To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Optimistically Trust God’s Sovereignty Over Them
5. To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Be Willing to Provide Restitution
6. To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Recognize That We Owe an Unpayable Debt
7. To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Seek to Bless Others Over Ourselves
8. To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Have Godly Accountability
9. To Reconcile Relationships, We Must Rely on God’s Supernatural Grace
Application Question: What stood out most in the study and why, and what applications or questions did you take from it?
• Pray for God’s grace to reconcile hurting and broken relationships in our family, church, and friendships.
• Pray for God’s grace to generously love others and be peacemakers—people who reconcile with others and help others reconcile.
• Pray for God’s grace over our nation and the nations to be reconciled—that God would bring peace and righteousness between races, political parties, and countries.
• Pray for God’s kingdom to come on our earth—that the King of Peace would return and bring ultimate peace and healing to people and the earth.