In 1905, Thedore “Teddy” Roosevelt, became the first sitting president to visit the post-Civil War South. Roosevelt was raised in New York and the impact of the Civil War had a drastic impact on his life. His father sided with the Union while his mother, Georgia born and bred, leaned towards the confederacy. Teddy’s Uncle James Roosevelt was a prominent leader in the Confederate army. Growing up as a child during the Civil War helped shape Teddy’s future bravado in dealing with foreign affairs, but not for the reason many may think. Teddy Roosevelt had a deep respect for his father. In his 1913, autobiography, Roosevelt wrote,
My father … was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness.
His sister Corinne later recounted how Teddy said that he never made a serious decision for the country without first thinking what step his father would have taken. Although he dearly loved his father, there was one thing for which he probably never forgave him.
His father, Thedore Roosevelt Senior, was a wealthy businessman and paid $300 for someone to take his place in the Union Army. It was a common practice of the day and Roosevelt Sr. was probably convinced by his wife, Mattie, not to fight in the conflict against her family and to risk losing his life, leaving her distraught. Regardless of the reasons for Roosevelt’s decision not to fight, it deeply affected young Teddy. His sister Bamie wrote that Teddy, “felt that [father] had done a wrong thing in not having put every other feeling aside to join the fighting forces.” And his sister Corrinne added that he was determined to build a strong military reputation for himself to compensate, “for an unspoken disappointment in his father´s course in 1861.
” It would not be a stretch to say that Teddy’s unforgiveness of his father’s decision shaped his political life. One act of unforgiveness changed the direction of Teddy Roosevelt’s life.
I wonder how many of us are like Teddy Roosevelt. We may be appear well-adjusted and successful, but in reality are driven to make a name for ourselves because of our own unforgiveness. Maybe our lives have been controlled and shaped because we have been unable to forgive or maybe because we feel unforgiven? Are there people in your life you have not forgiven? I heard a story this past week of a man whose whole life was shaped by his anger towards God. He lost a child and for years could not forgive God for allowing it to happen. Friends, forgiveness, or the lack there of, will have a dramatic impact on the direction of your life.
The Apostle Paul knew that, which is why he penned this brief letter to his friend, Philemon. Paul loved Philemon dearly and wanted him to forgive for his own good, for the good of the church and for the glory of God. I pray as we look at Paul’s friendly appeal for forgiveness that you would be challenged to pursue forgiveness with the people in your life.
Paul begins this plea by not appealing to his status as an apostle, but rather on the basis of love. Philemon 8-9, “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.” Paul was not afraid to command Philemon to obey his words. There are times throughout Paul’s letters that he uses his position as an apostle to command obedience, but here he appeals on the basis of love. He wants Philemon to make the right decision for the right reason. God cares why we do what we do. If Paul commanded Philemon, Philemon could have begrudgingly obeyed, but that would not be complete reconciliation. As we will see, Paul wants Philemon to be fully reconciled with Onesimus.
Paul is giving Philemon an opportunity to show him love as well. He writes, “I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus.” These words would have been weighty for Philemon. The impression is that he does not have a lot of time left on the earth. He is an old man facing the end of this life stuck in a Roman prison. Philemon’s love for Paul should encourage him to honor Paul’s request. I know of many stories within this church when a father looked at his child and said, “Take care of your mother when I am gone.” The love that a child has for their father motivates the child to care well for their mother. Paul is appealing to Philemon’s love for him as an old man who has labored well for the gospel even to the point of imprisonment.
This is instructive for us because we also should want people to love others from the heart rather than out of mere duty. We obey the Lord out of love. It is a joy and a privilege to be able to obey God. We should not obey begrudgingly, but should delight in honoring our Master and our Savior. We cannot make anyone do anything. We cannot control a man’s will. We, therefore, should not try to constrain a man’s will by force, but appeal on the basis of love: love for one’s fellow man, love for one’s fellow brother or sister in Christ and love for our Savior. The basis of our Christian obedience is love. We love God and others, because He first loved us. When we were sinners deserving of wrath, God gave us mercy in Christ. Love should be the motivation for the entire Christian life.
Appealing for a
Paul appeals on the basis of love for someone he loves and who has become like a son to him. The English translations of the text change the word order to make it sound more like we speak today, but the original Greek places Onesimus’s name at the end so it would read, “I appeal to you for my child, whose father I became in my imprisonment – Onesimus.” It appears that Paul kept Onesimus’s name out of the letter until he had sufficiently appealed to Philemon. You can almost imagine a collective sigh or gasp among the people when his name is mentioned. It is like the buildup of the NFL Draft when the commissioner walks to the podium and says, “With the first pick of the NFL Draft the Carolina Panthers select out of the University of Manitoba, Onesimus Smith.” Sounds of shock and disbelief would most likely fill the room. With the calling of Onesimus’s name, things just got a lot more interesting.
Remember the congregation would be listening to this letter and they would have known the back story of Onesimus. Onesimus was one of Philemon’s slaves who appeared to have stolen from Philemon (we see that alluded to in verse 18). We do not have exact details on why Philemon left, but we can assume that he left because he desired a reconciliation with his master. There was a law in the 1
century Roman Empire that a slave could appeal to a friend of their master if they believed they were being mistreated. The Apostle Paul would have been well-known to Philemon as he would have heard his name often during their church meetings in the house. It appears that Onesimus left Philemon’s house in search of Paul, for if he was looking to escape with Philemon’s money or goods, he would have pulled a Jonah and gone in the opposite direction of Paul. Although it is possible that Onesimus randomly and by Divine coincidence ended up in the same prison cell as Paul in Rome with God orchestrating his steps. It is possible, but unlikely. Onesimus went in search of Paul so Paul could help bring about an earthly reconciliation with Philemon.
Onesimus met Paul and was reconciled to God. Paul says that Onesimus became my child clearly referring to him becoming a child in the faith. Onesimus wanted reconciliation with Philemon only to discover his reconciliation with God. Friend, before we move on, have you been reconciled with God? Do you know of your need to be reconciled to God? The Bible says that everyone has stolen from the Lord. We all have robbed him of His glory and therefore deserve to be punished for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Isaiah 42:8, “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” God has to rightly punish those who steal his glory. It is a matter of His justice. And yet, God meets the demands of our thievery by sending his Son to die between two thieves on dark Friday afternoon. Jesus called out on the cross, “It is finished,” and gave up his spirit. He paid for our sin in full. And we know God accepted that payment for our sin by raising Jesus from the dead. Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on High ready to forgive anyone who would turn from their sins and trust in Christ alone for salvation.
Friend, Onesimus was a thief, but he was a forgiven thief. Jesus paid for this theft on the cross so Onesimus could be a free man. So Onesimus, a slave, had to go to prison to find freedom. Friend, you can find freedom from your sin today by trusting in Christ. Let me appeal to you as a friend: for love’s sake come to Christ. Come to Christ and experience freedom.
We know that Onesimus truly believed because of the change that happened in his life. Onesimus literally means useful. It was a common name of a slave so Paul is using a play on words in verse 11, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is useful to you and to me.” Something happen to Onesimus when he heard the gospel. He believed and his life was changed. He was serving Paul in the same manner Philemon was known for serving Paul; with love. Roman prisons were awful during the 1
century. Our prisons today require three meals a day for every prison. A Roman prison did not offer food or blankets to its prisoners. If they did not have someone on the outside to care for their needs, they would starve or freeze to death. So Onesimus is one who is no longer stealing, but giving back to those in need. Reminiscent of Ephesians 4:28, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Onesimus was changed.
Paul desired to keep Onesimus with him, but preferred rather to send him back to Philemon. Verse 12-13, “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.” (Philemon 1:12-13) First notice, how Paul speaks of Onesimus, “sending my very heart.” Have you ever led someone to the Lord or watched someone grow tremendously before your eyes? Have you seen someone grow and development from immaturity to maturity? If you have, you probably know what Paul is talking about here. Paul dearly loves Onesimus as he dearly loves Philemon. He has seen them both come to Christ and grow in their love for Jesus and his people. Paul notes that the care he has received from Onesimus is similar to the service he would have received from Philemon himself.
Isn’t it remarkable that a wealthy businessman and a slave have become equal through the cross? The cross is the great equalizer. The cross does not value the wealthy over slaves, but all can be useful in the kingdom. This equality makes Christianity revolutionary. Mrs. Lavinia Bartlett was a lay teacher at the historic Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. She began her ministry with 3 prostitutes that she met on the street. After six months her class grew to over 600 people. Women with social and moral problems were repenting of their sins and coming to Christ. After 16 years of labor, Lavinia Bartlett died leaving scores of her students in her wake. Her faithful teaching led countless women to the mission field and to become teachers. Metropolitan Tabernacle was known for their young gifted preacher, Charles Spurgeon, but the women were drawn to the humble wisdom of Mrs. Bartlett. Over a thousand people attended her funeral showing their appreciation of her influence on their lives. Mrs. Bartlett did not look at people’s worldly value, but their value in God’s kingdom. Man looks at outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. Are you seeing people like Paul saw Onesimus or how Mrs. Bartlett saw those prostitutes? Are you seeing people through the lense of the cross?
Appealing for the
Paul wanted to keep Onesimus, but instead sent him back to Philemon. This may appear strange in our understanding of slavery. If one escaped from slavery, why would they be sent back their master? Is Paul affirming slavery? Paul did not outright oppose slavery, but he undermined its practice. The reputation of Christians among the world was that of insubordinate rebels. Christians were characterized as those who stir up trouble in towns and bring social unrest, seen repeatedly in the book of Acts. Paul wanted Christians to honor the government so that there could be a great spread of the gospel of Christ. Paul encouraged slaves to submit to earthly masters so that they could adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. And yet, although Paul did not directly oppose the institution of slavery, he undermined it in this letter to Philemon.
Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon so that Philemon could act out of his own accord by the Holy Spirit. “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. (Philemon 1:13-14) Paul wanted Philemon’s goodness directed towards Onesimus to be done freely without compulsion. The goodness shown from Philemon would have been a sign of the Spirit’s power at work in his life. Only the power of God can change someone’s heart to extend true mercy and grace to someone that does not deserve. Onesimus was a thief and a useless one at that. How could Philemon welcome him back? He could only do it by the power of the Holy Spirit. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7) Those who are born by the Spirit of God love one another.
Paul was giving Philemon an opportunity to show the goodness of his conversion freely asking him to love a repentant brother in Christ. Onesimus is no longer a bondservant, but a brother in Christ. Do you view conflict and reconciliation as an opportunity or trial? I think most people view conflict as something that is only negative, but conflict in the church always comes with an opportunity. Peter makes this point in his first epistle in that how we experience trials now prove our faith in Christ, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7) Philemon is given an opportunity to show his faith in how he handles this conflict with Onesimus, and the church has been given the opportunity to witness a display of the Spirit’s power. By keeping Onesimus with him, Paul would have robbed the church of sweetness of seeing true reconciliation.
Paul is giving Philemon a chance to show what really matters in his life. What matters more: his runaway slave or his repentant brother? How about you? What matters most in your life? Maybe the conflict in your life is giving you an opportunity for you to learn what really matters in your life and to show that to the watching world. Friend, if you have the Spirit of God, then you have the power of love! I appeal to you to be reconciled to those in your life so that you can display the manifold wisdom of God displayed and the power of the Holy Spirit.
There are always things happening that we do not understand. Although we may not always understand, we can trust that God is moving in ways far greater than we can imagine. We do not always know the why, but we do know that God is working for our good, for He works all things for the good those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Paul doesn’t give a definitive reason on why Onesimus stole from him, but he gives him a “perhaps.” Paul writes, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 1:15-16) Paul reminds Philemon to have an eternal perspective. Forgiveness has eternal ramifications. Paul encouraged Philemon to look past what he lost in Onesimus’s sin, but rather what he gained in his repentance. Philemon may have lost Onesimus’s labor temporarily, he may have lost the money Onesimus stole temporarily, so that he could have him back forever. Do you see how Paul is encouraging him to think with an eternal perspective? How many times do we need this reminder?
Beloved, we do not always know the plan and purposes of God. God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Paul cannot give Philemon the exact reason for the conflict with Onesimus, but he says that “perhaps” something far greater than you can imagine is going on. Friend, can I encourage you to dwell on the “perhaps” in your life? No one can give you the exact reason why you are dealing with relational conflict, financial problems, marital strife or physical pain, but “perhaps” God is using your struggles for eternal purposes. Perhaps you may be suffering temporal loss so that you can receive eternal rewards. Jesus Christ suffered temporal loss as he gave up his spirit that dark Friday afternoon. And yet, looking back we know his temporal loss brought eternal gains. His temporary death led to eternal life. His temporary pain led to eternal payment. His temporary struggle led to eternal salvation for all who would trust in Him.
Friend, you may be struggling today, but perhaps God is using your temporary pain to bring eternal pleasure. As Spurgeon said, “God is too good to be unkind. He is too wise to be confused. If I cannot trace His hand, I can always trust His heart.” God is good and He is moving in ways we cannot imagine. Let me encourage you to trust God’s heart. We will face temporary trials, but God promises an eternal resurrection. Perhaps God wants you to view your struggle today in light of the God’s promise of tomorrow. Charles Bridges writes, “That which should distinguish the suffering of believers from unbelievers is the confidence that our suffering is under the control of an all-powerful and all-loving God. Our suffering has meaning and purpose in God's eternal plan, and He brings or allows to come into our lives only that which is for His glory and our good
.” Our pain is not pointless, but under the sovereign power of Almighty God. Will you look at your pain through the “perhaps” lenses of God’s sovereign all controlling power? We do not live in the temporary, but set our hearts on the eternal. Jesus did not come to solve our temporary problems, but to give us His eternal presence.
Following South Africa’s Apartheid, Bishop Demond Tutu established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During the Commission’s hearing, both blacks and whites testified to their crimes of murder and torture. The crimes recounted were horrific and heart-wrenching to hear. Two of those people who came to share their stories were Mrs. Calata and her daughter. One writer recounts her testimony,
Mrs. Calata's husband had been an advocate for black South Africans in rural communities. Because of his work, he'd been arrested, detained, and tortured by the police numerous times. But one day he disappeared. On the front page of the newspaper, Mrs. Calata saw a photograph of her husband's car on fire. She cried so loudly during the hearing, describing the autopsy's report about his torture, that the commission had to be adjourned.
When they reconvened, her daughter testified. It had been years since her father’s murder and she had become a young woman. She pleaded with the commission to find her father’s killer, but not for the reason you may think. She said, “We want to forgive, but we don't know whom to forgive.” Rather than seek out vengeance and revenge, Mrs. Calata and her daughter were looking to forgive.
Paul wanted Philemon to do the same. He appealed to him as a friend not to look for vengeance, but to extend mercy. He wanted him to do what God had done for him in Christ. An eternal perspective, which brings our minds to the reality that one day we are going to stand before God to give an account for our own forgiveness and how we have forgiven others, should lead us to look for an opportunity to forgive. Paul appealed to Philemon and I appeal to you. Will you look not to vengeance but to show mercy? Will you choose to follow Christ? Will you forgive?
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