Human beings naturally forget. We have developed techniques to increase and enhance our memory. The calendar, whether electronic or paper, helps us recall the important dates and events in our lives. The strength of the calendar is not in having a calendar, but using it to recall important details. The more we look at the calendar, the more we bring the calendar to our minds and therefore we remember. Reminders intentionally bring the important things to our minds so that we can remember them. We all have different techniques to remember. Whether you are Michael Scott trying to remember people’s names or a student creating an acronym to remember the parts of the circulatory system, we all use different reminders to remember important details of our lives. Regardless of the technique, the key is that we have reminders that force us to recall important details.
God has built in a weekly reminder for his people to recall and remember what he has done for us. Every week we remind our hearts of God’s goodness through the fellowship of the saints, and the singing, praying, and the preaching of God’s Word. God wants us to remember, so he has given us reminders so that we would never forget what has done for us. He has given us two physical reminders in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism where we actually get to participate in symbols that portray God’s love for us in Christ. There are also reminders in the natural world. Each day the sun rises declaring his glory over the earth. Every night the sun sets showing our utter dependence upon him. Our world is full of reminders of God’s sovereign power.
And yet, we are a forgetful people. Deuteronomy is full of references where God tells his people “take care, lest you forget.” Even the title “Deuteronomy” means “the law again”. The whole book is the retelling of the law so that the people would not forget. And with so many reminders, God’s people forget. The Apostle Peter summed up his ministry as one of reminding the people so they could recall the great works of God. 2 Peter 1:15, “And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.” The job of parents and pastors is that when we are gone, those under our care will be able to recall the things of God. The Apostle Paul is nearing the end of his letter to his friend, Philemon, and wants to remind him of his responsibility in the gospel to forgive his repentant slave Onesimus. I pray that as we look closely at Paul’s reminder to Philemon that we would be reminded of our responsibility in the gospel to forgive our repentant brothers and sisters.
Reminder of Partnership
Paul ends his letter by reminding Philemon of their partnership in the gospel. The most important aspect of Paul and Philemon’s relationship was their partnership in the proclamation and the spread of the gospel. Verse 17, “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” Paul reminds Philemon of their partnership in the gospel and then tells Philemon that Onesimus is one of us. Paul is saying that, “Onesimus holds the gospel as dear as we do Philemon. He is one of us.” And with that one sentence, Paul is bringing the crux of the whole letter to the forefront. Will Philemon act as a prosperous businessman or a partner in the gospel? What will be his main allegiance? What will be the driving force for his decisions?
It would be very hard for Philemon to remain a partner in the gospel if he did not live for the gospel. Philemon has sacrificed his money, his time and his resources so that people will know more about Jesus. He has opened his home to the church so that people will hear and believe the gospel. The question is not what has Philemon has done, but what will he continue to do? As Christians we do not live in past, we live in the present. We do not ask “Did I obey Jesus yesterday,” but rather “Will I obey Jesus today?”
It may be easier to pacify our consciences to think about all the things we have done in our life for the Lord, but God wants to know if we will remain with him? Will you abide with Christ? Paul again uses Greek word koinonia translated “partner” here. At very key points throughout this letter, Paul uses this word to highlight the importance of fellowship among believers. Christians are called into the fellowship of the Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the saints. How we interact and receive God’s people will be one of the greatest markers if we truly have fellowship with Jesus? If we have true fellowship or partnership with other believers, we should be confident that we have partnership with God. And if we do not have fellowship with others, how can we say we have fellowship with God?
The first command used in this letter is the word receive. Paul says if you are my partner in the gospel than you must welcome in, take in, gather together and bring along your fellow partner Onesimus. There is no exclusion from the receiving of a repentant brother. All sinners who turn away from their sin and trust in Christ as their Savior should be received into the fellowship of the church. Onesimus was a thief. He had taken from Philemon, disrespected him and his family, but he had repented. Onesimus came to Christ. He too was a partner in the gospel therefore Paul uses the imperative to show there is only one option for a true partner in the gospel…to welcome the errant brother. Jesus says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Forgiveness is an essential mark for Christians. It is a non-negotiable. If you want to be one who has fellowship with Christ and his people, then receiving the repentant brother is essential.
What sin is unforgivable? What action would restrict fellowship in the church? There are all sorts of horrific sins that we can imagine, but if someone truly repents, they, too, can be forgiven and restored to fellowship of the church. The church welcomes into fellowship repentant sinners. Friend, if you are in sin, as Christ’s ambassadors, we implore you to be reconciled to God. Turn from your sin and trust in Christ. Christian, if you are in sin, turn to Christ and be restored into fellowship of the saints.
Reminder of Payment
Paul continues to charge Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but does something profound; he offers himself up for the sin of another. Verse 18, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.” (Philemon 1:18-20) Most of Paul’s letters were written by someone else, so scholars believe that when he says, “I, Paul, write this with my own hand,” that would have been a contractual arrangement. The reader of the letter would have seen the handwriting change putting additional weight and force upon the reality of Paul’s statement.
Paul offers up himself to pay for Onesimus’s crimes. Friend, this is exactly what Jesus Christ does for us. We are the ones who have sinned and rebelled against God. We are the ones who have robbed God of his glory by living for ourselves and our agendas. We are the ones who deserve to pay. We are guilty. And yet, Jesus steps forward and stands before the father saying, “If they have wronged you at all or owe you anything, charge that to my account.” Jesus paid the full price for our sin on the cross. He died in our place. He became our substitute paying for our crimes. And upon his death, God raised Jesus from the dead accepting his sacrifice on our behalf. So now we have hope because Jesus gave himself up for us. Paul is acting in the way of Christ. He is laying his life down for Onesimus.
Christian, are you willing to act like Paul here? Are you willing to pay the price for someone else’s sins? There is a story of a good king who cared well for his people. He was kind and fair and always did his best to provide for his people. One day, one of his men informed him that someone stole food from the palace. He gathered the whole town together and pleaded with them for the person to confess, saying, “I have always provided for your needs. If you needed anything all you had to do is ask and I would have provided it for you. But because I am a just king, anyone caught stealing will receive 10 lashes.” A week went by and someone stole from the treasury again. The good king again pleaded with this people to not steal, but bring their request to him again pleading with them to confess. He increased the lashes to twenty for the one caught stealing. A week went by and a servant came to the king and saying, “The thief has been caught, but it is your own mother.” Pain gripped the king’s heart. What was he to do? He promised that anyone caught stealing had to be punished.
The day arrived when his mother was to be punished. The whole town was wondering what the king was going to do. Would he let his mother go free or would he have her punished? His mother was walked into the center of the town and tied to a pole. The guard looked at the king and the king nodded his head for him to begin. The guard looked on in shock, but right before the first lash was struck, the king yelled, “Stop.” The king walked over to his mother wrapped his arms around her and said, “Now you may begin.” The guard began to whip the back of the king to pay for his mother’s crime. Friend, this is what Christ has done for us. He was beaten in our place. He was whipped that we might go free. And this is exactly what Paul is doing for Onesimus.
Paul is asking to credit Onesimus’s thief to Paul. Would you be willing to do the same? Would you be willing to pay someone else’s debt? Why would Paul do that? Because he knows how he was forgiven. Paul writes of himself, “formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:13-15) Never forget that you have been forgiven, for this is what Paul reminds Philemon of, saying, “your owing me even your own self.” Paul reminded Philemon of how he came to Christ under Paul’s ministry and encourages him to repay him be welcoming Onesimus.
Philemon should forgive Onesimus, but that does not make it easy to forgive. Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is supernatural. We need divine help to forgive. Would you readily forgive someone who stole $20 from you? What about $20,000? Forgiveness is hard, but worth it, for we have been forgiven of a great debt. Here this story from Jesus,
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)
Friend, we forgive because we have been forgiven.
Reminder of Preparation
Paul adds another reminder to Philemon as he closes this letter. Paul tells Philemon to prepare for his coming. Philemon would eventually have to look his dear friend Paul in the face and explain how he handled Onesimus. It may be subtle, but knowing that Philemon would have to confront Paul most likely encouraged Philemon’s obedience. This was not a threat, but a reality. Philemon would be held accountable for his decision to forgive Onesimus. Paul was confident based on Philemon’s character and partnership with the gospel, but this is no slam dunk case of forgiveness. Philemon would eventually have to explain his decision to an elder brother in Christ and a dear friend.
In this way Paul is modeling how one day we are going to stand before God. As Philemon had to prepare for Paul’s coming, we have to prepare for the Lord’s coming. Have you ever had projects around the house that needed to get done, but you never quite had the motivation to complete? Then you discover your in-laws are coming in town for a visit in a month so you scramble to finish all the unfinished projects in preparation for their coming. When anybody of importance comes to your home, you want to be prepared for their arrival. Friend, this is how we should be for Lord’s return. We should be prepared for the coming of the King. We are going to be held accountable for the decisions in this life. Philemon will be held accountable for his forgiveness as we will be held accountable for our own. Are you prepared for the coming of the King?
Reminder of Perseverance
Let me encourage you to pay attention to the names Paul highlights as he closes this letter. Verse 23, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (Philemon 1:23-25) We have the benefit of the hindsight. We can look at these names and know if they persevered in their faith.
Did Philemon forgive Onesimus? We cannot be sure for the New Testament does not explicitly tell us, but we can assume since the letter was preserved that he did. Church tradition states that Philemon eventually would become the pastor of Colossae, and along with his wife Apphia, was martyred for the Gospel. He persevered until the end.
A man named Onesimus eventually became the pastor of Ephesus a couple of decades later. We cannot be sure this was the same Onesimus, but we know that this Onesimus also laid his life down for the gospel dying for his faith. This Onesimus persevered until the end.
Paul, the peacemaker, would also lose his life for the gospel being beheaded during his last Roman imprisonment, but blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Paul persevered to the end.
Luke would go on to write half the New Testament and according to tradition died at the age of 84. Luke persevered to the end.
Mark, the author of the gospel that bears his name, was reconciled to Paul. He was with Paul and Barnabas during their first missionary journey only to leave and return home. On the second trip, Mark wanted to rejoin the mission and Paul refused. The disagreement became so sharp that Barnabas and Paul split company and went in opposite directions. We know that Paul reconciled and forgave Mark at the end of his life as he wrote in 2 Tim 4:11 that Mark was, “very useful to me in ministry,” asking Timothy to bring Mark to him. Mark would eventually travel to Alexandria and became the pastor there before also being martyred for his faith. Mark persevered to the end.
Epaphras, a fellow prisoner with Paul, was most likely the pastor of Colossae. Tradition says he was released from his imprisonment only later to be arrested and martyred for his faith. Epaphras persevered to the end. Aristarchus mentioned here and in Acts endured persecution for the gospel. He later became the pastor in modern-day Syria and he too was martyred for the gospel. Aristarchus persevered to the end.
Do you see a trend here? These men held the gospel so dear that they would rather face death than deny the gospel. In persevering to the end, they persevered in forgiveness. They chose to die rather than to withhold the forgiveness of the gospel.
There is one more name on the list that should serve as a warning to us all. Demas, once a partner in the gospel laboring for the forgiveness of the saints, is said to have fallen in love with this world deserting Paul and the gospel. His love did not persevere. It has been said of the two thieves at Calvary, “One was saved that none might despair, but only one that none might presume.”
We have been studying the story of another thief who was reconciled to God by Calvary. Onesimus is a reminder of God’s offer of forgiveness. Philemon is a reminder of one who extended forgiveness. Paul is a reminder of one who encourages forgiveness. Demas is a reminder of one who walked away from forgiveness. What do you need to be reminded of today? We all need reminders to persevere in the gospel. And I pray that this short letter has reminded you of the beauty, the power and glory of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and would remind you to persevere until the end.