Forgiveness in Action

The Book of Philemon is about reconciliation and relationships between Christians. Onesimus (which means “useful”) was a slave of a believer named Philemon who lived in the City of Colossae. Apparently Onesimus had stolen from Philemon and then fled.

After some time while the Apostle Paul was under arrest by the Roman government, 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 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.

The theme of the epistle is forgiveness. What exactly is forgiveness? What does it mean to forgive and to be forgiven? Does it necessarily stand to reason that we forget when we forgive? Let me begin answering these questions by making the following two observations.

First, all followers of Jesus need to forgive someone. Somebody has hurt us in some way, at some time, somewhere. It may be a physical wound, or a psychological or even an emotional and relational wound. Regardless, it hurts! We hurt because someone hurt us.

Second, all followers of Jesus need to be forgiven. While it is true that we have been hurt, it is also true that we have hurt others. We may believe we were, or are, justified in what we did, or failed to do, but the Scriptures say otherwise.

Therefore, back to our original questions: what is forgiveness and what does it mean to forgive?

There are several meanings for forgiveness; found both in the Old and New Testaments. They provide us with an overall perspective of a fundamental truth.

In the Old Testament, the following words convey various meanings regarding forgiveness:

  • נָשָׂא [nasaʾ, nacah /naw·saw] means to take up and carry (Psalm 32:1) and to please (Genesis 50:17). It refers to both divine and human forgiveness.
  • סָלַח [calach /saw·lakh/] means to pardon (Psalm 130:4; Daniel 9:9). It also means to be indulgent towards. Lenient; tolerant; non-judgmental (Leviticus 4), and to ready to forgive; excuse; pardon; exonerate (Psalm 86:5).
  • כָּפַר, כָּפַר [kaphar /kaw·far/] כָּסָה [kacah /kaw·saw/] means to conceal and to cover. It refers to the making of amends (Deuteronomy 21:8; Jeremiah 18:23).

The New Testament Greek language also provides insight into the doctrine of forgiveness:

  • Charizesthai. Used by only Luke and Paul.  To forgive sins; the graciousness of God’s forgiveness; to show favor.  (2 Corinthians 2:1-10; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 2:13; 3:13.
  • Apolyein. To put away (Matthew 5:31); to forgive and to set free; (Luke 6:37).
  • Aphesis. To send away. Luke 17:1-3; James 5:15; I John 1:9; 2:12. To leave; Matthew 6:12-15. To leave; Matthew 6:12-15; To show favor; Forgiveness; pardon; pity; mercy; absolution; Ephesians 1:1-7; Colossians 1:14.
  • Paresis. Disregard (Romans 3:25).

In summary, forgiveness contains the idea of pardon, covering a wrong, showing favor, setting an offender free from any incurred obligation, to show mercy and to disregard a wrong.