“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1:1-3 ESV).
Forgiveness is about choices. It is about choosing to forgive or not choosing to forgive. It primarily involves an act of one’s will, rather than how one feels. When we choose to forgive someone, or we choose to seek forgiveness, we make a conscious choice often in spite of how we may feel.
The Book of Philemon is about reconciliation and relationships between Christians. Onesimus (which means “useful”) was a slave who belonged to a believer named Philemon living in the City of Colossae. Apparently, Onesimus had stolen from Philemon and fled the city. At some time while Paul was under arrest in Rome, Onesimus met him, was converted and became a Christian: a follower of Jesus.
Paul apparently wrote this letter at the same time as The Letter to the Colossians and gave it to Onesimus to carry back to Philemon (see Colossians 4:9). Paul appealed to Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household, but as a brother in the Lord rather than as a slave. In Paul’s estimation, Onesimus was far more “useful” (v. 11) now that he was a Christian. Paul even promised to pay whatever debt Onesimus might owe Philemon.
Our choice to forgive is predicated upon a preceding choice God made in choosing to save us from the penalty, power and eventual presence of sin. In short, our choice to forgive others their sins is based upon the prior choice God made in forgiving us our sins. We witness these two coordinating truths first in Philemon 1-3, and secondly in Ephesians 4:31-32.
Paul begins his letter to Philemon with the usual greeting of his day. He identifies himself as the author of the letter and includes his young protégé Timothy in the greeting.
Of all the titles to which Paul could refer, he identifies himself as a prisoner for Christ Jesus. The Epistle of Philemon is known as a prison epistle. Paul wrote it during his first imprisonment in Rome. Other so called “prison epistles” by Paul include Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Paul is in prison for preaching the gospel.
The recipients of this letter include Philemon, who Paul describes as our beloved fellow worker, Apphia, a sister in Christ and most likely Philemon’s wife, Archippus, probably the pastor of the church Philemon and Apphia attend, and the house church itself which meets in Philemon’s home.
God’s choice to forgive is contained in Paul’s standard salutation which is as follows: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1:1-3 ESV).
Forgiveness is based upon God’s grace. God chose to extend His unmerited favor to sinners rightly deserving of His condemnation. He chose to give them the ability to trust, commit, depend and worship the Lord Jesus Christ by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:1-8). God’s gracious act results in the sinner’s salvation which brings peace.
Peace is not only of God, but also with God. The tranquility of being in a right relationship with the One, True Holy God is the result of grace, not the other way around. Sinners do not make their peace with God; God makes His peace with sinners.
Grace and peace come only from God: not only the Father but also the Lord Jesus Christ. This sovereign choice by God results in forgiveness. It is the basis for the believer’s act of forgiveness. Soli deo Gloria!