By Rev. Saumiman Saud
“Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”
(Philemon 1:1 – NIV)
If Philemon was not a true follower of Christ, then his problem could have been
solved easily. One of his slaves stole something. According to the law, his slave was
supposed to be killed. If Philemon couldn’t do it himself, then he could pay someone to
do it for him.
What makes it difficult is that Philemon is a believer, or a “Christian” by today’s
standards. He had no other choice. He had leaned to love, so he must put that to practice.
He even learned to love his enemies, so he did that too. So if we meet someone who
claims to believe in Jesus, we must question his faith if he is still vengeful.
Now the question is, what did Philemon do to his slave? He forgave his slave. On
what basis did he forgive his slave?
1. Philemon must forgive him, because Jesus Christ had forgiven him first
God’s Word teaches us to forgive our enemies, even those who torture us. Jesus’ life
is an example of this. He lived as normal human being on earth. One day Peter asked
Jesus how many times we must forgive others. Jesus’ answer implies that we must
continually forgive others. Matthew 18:22 (KJV): “Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto
thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”
Thus Philemon really struggled and prayed for this case. If he made the wrong
decision, one that’s against Jesus’ teaching, then he will be a bad example for other
believers at that time. That would look bad at least for the people in his household.
According to Greco-Roman custom, there was no need to treat the slave nicely.
The owner has absolute freedom to do whatever he likes to his slave. The fact that
Philemon did not punish his slave does not mean that he was afraid of his slave. There
was no need to fear his slave. But he did fear the Lord. Therefore Onesimus, Philemon’s
slave was not given capital punishment.
Philemon was not like any other Christians, but he was active in church ministry
at Colosse. Thus Apostle Paul called him, his ‘loyal friend’ and ‘fellow soldier.’ This is
an honor for Philemon. He was indeed a good person. Not all Christians are like
Philemon. Sometimes, Christianity’s bad image comes from Christians, not from
Besides Philemon, his wife Apphia, his child Archippus, some women and other
church members were active in ministry. Philemon’s personal struggles would have been
shared with his friends. One’s faith becomes stronger when they hear testimonies that
glorify God. On the other hand, other events could weaken the faith of the people around
him. As a servant of the Lord, he was looked upon by many people. Therefore,
Philemon’s problem must have been thought out well. If he made the wrong decision, his
ministry will be greatly affected.
As the slave of Philemon, Onesimus was very lucky. There was no question that
he was treated well by Philemon. But we don’t know either why Onesimus decided to
steal from Philemon. Apparently Philemon was rather lenient that Onesimus managed to
run away. Onesimus went to the right person, Paul, who was at the time a house prisoner.
It was actually prohibited to hide a fugitive, but Paul hid him. Paul probably felt that
Onesimus could still be saved. He might have remembered how he was changed by God,
and he certainly wouldn’t take away that opportunity from Onesimus.
2. Philemon must forgive, because his slave’s life was transformed.
Onesimus was able to meet Paul, because probably Epaphras introduced him to Paul.
Epaphras was the founder and head of the Colossian church (Colossians 4:12). They met
in a house rented by Paul in Rome (Acts 28:30). Paul led Onesimus to believe in Christ at
that place. The meaning of Onesimus is ‘very useful’. But this usefulness has become
useless when he stole from his lord. (Philemon 1:11). So Philemon did not have any
reason to judge Onesimus, because the forgiveness that Philemon received from Christ
preceded his confession.
Onesimus was loyal and became Paul’s close friend. Paul even considered him as
his own son. (Philemon 1:10). Paul felt that it was time to return Onesimus home,
because that was the law. Rome demands all slaves that escaped to return to their lords.
Paul felt that it was the right time, so he went with Tychicus to Colosse. Paul used this
opportunity to send Onesimus back.
Paul never forced Philemon to take Onesimus back, because for Paul it’s useless
if Philemon did not receive Onesimus frankly. Paul could have forced Philemon if he
wanted to, because Philemon was a disciple of Paul (1:19). So Philemon actually owed
We must understand how Philemon felt. It was not easy for him to accept
someone who hurt him. More than that, Paul told him to think of Onesimus as a brother,
not a slave. (Philemon 1:16; KJV): “Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother
beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the
Lord?” Onesimus who once hurt Philemon not only lived with him, but also went up in
status from a slave to a brother of Philemon. If Philemon had not remembered God’s
grace that he had received, he would not be able to.
On September 10, 2005 an evening newsletter published my short testimony
entitled: “The meaning of Forgiveness.” The content is pretty much as follows:
“What happened last Saturday will never be forgotten. I won’t remember the date,
but I’ll remember the year, 1982. At that time, I was teaching Religion for sixth graders
in a Christian school. The class was not fun to teach, so it was very easy to get upset.
Once I had just reminded them to be quiet, but then I heard two girls at the front row kept
talking and laughing. I lost my temper, and I punished them.
They were such cry babies, they cried right away. The story didn’t end there; one
of them went home and told her older brother. At about two in the afternoon, her brother
went to my house. He threw rocks to my house. When I stepped out of my house, he
punched me. I tried to explain to him what happened, but he was furious and would not
listen. I was a bit dizzy from the punch, but I had no intention to retaliate. My younger
brothers behind me were ready to surge him, but I told them: “Stop!”
After that, my house crowded, because everybody wanted to know what
happened. Some wanted me to report it to the police, while others told me to ask for
damage compensation. I was wondering what I should do. Should I charge them for the
damage costs? But I teach Religion at school; I’m a Christian. It’s not like me or my faith
to ask for compensation. So I decided to not pursue the case any further.
Two hours later his dad came to school, and met me. On behalf of his family, he
apologized. I accepted his apology, even though it was difficult for me to forgive them.
As a Religion teacher, I taught the Word of God and told others to forgive. I couldn’t
demand anything even though I had the right to. I cannot imagine what would have
happened if my two brothers had jumped in; how could I maintain my status as a teacher
I am grateful for what happened, because it taught me patience and self-control.
For me, that event was a victory. I have no vengeance or hatred towards them, bcause I
know Jesus had first forgiven me. He also enabled me to forgive others, like what is
written in Colossians 3:13 (NLT) “You must make allowance for each other’s faults and
forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must
3. Philemon had to forgive, because as a believer he must reflect God’s Grace.
Philemon faced quite a big problem. Paul asked him to accept Onesimus, live
together with him, and take him as his brother, not as slave. That means Philemon had to
forget everything that had happened in the past. Philemon had to accept Onesimus back.
That means Philemon had to humbly welcome Onesimus. Philemon had to force himself
to tame his human nature unwillingness to forgive him. Jesus hated our sins, but He never
hated us. On that day Philemon was able to forgive him, only because of the Grace of the
Lord Jesus that had given him the strength.
Once again we often hear complaints from those who have sinned and repented;
they tell us how Jesus has forgiven them, but the people in public and even at church still
cannot accept them. An example of this was apostle Paul. After he repented and changed,
he also felt not welcomed by the congregation in Jerusalem. But Barnabas believed in
Paul, and Barnabas accepted Paul (Acts 9:26-28). This is similar to the crowd that
dragged the woman who caught for adultery. Jesus asked those who considers themselves
as sinless to stone her. One by one, they left. They all realized that they are all sinners
Lewis B. Smedes in his book, “Forgive and Forget” writes about the four stages in
the process of forgiving.
The first stage is pain. When someone hurts you, then you feel very hurt.; you
then cannot forget about it. You are at the first crisis in giving forgiveness.
The second stage is hatred. You cannot repress your memory about the pain, and
your feeling of hurt. You cannot wish for the well-being of your enemy. Sometimes you
wish the person who hurt you to suffer like you.
The third stage is healing. You are given a “miraculous view” to see your enemy
who hurt you in a new point of view. You are then healed. You refuse to feel hurt, and
you are free again.
The fourth stage is walking together. You ask the person who has hurt you to
enter into your life again. If that person truly accepts your invitation, then you two will
experience a renewed relationship.
Philemon entered the fourth stage. His relationship with Onesimus had to be
renewed. He invited back the person who has hurt his heart, back into his life. Once
again, Sola Gratia, only Grace makes that possible. If today you and I realize that we are
sinners, we will surely not look down upon those who fallen into sin. The only difference
between us and them is that “Their sin has been divulged, but our sins are still
When Jesus was on the cross, one of His glorious statements was: “Father, forgive
them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34; KJV). Are you ready to open your
heart, and welcome those who have hurt you? I don’t know who they are. Maybe they’re
your parents, or your kids. Maybe they’re your nephew, or your loved one, your ex. I
don’t know who your enemies are. If Philemon was able to forgive Onesimus, then we
should be able to do it too. Let’s be like Philemon. Let’s learn from Christ also. Before
we come to Him for forgiveness, He has actually forgiven us. If so, why is it then so hard
for us to forgive others?
1. Forgiveness is a gift. Blessed are they who can forgive others, especially those
who receive that forgiveness. But we find more people having a hard time
forgiving others. Imagine this: what if you were too late to forgive someone that
they passed away before you had the chance to forgive them? How do you feel?
You will miss that opportunity forever.
2. What’s your obstacle in forgiving others? Have you been forgiven by someone?
How did you feel? Now, have you forgiven someone else? How did you feel?