Christianity and forgiveness go hand in hand and separating the two makes Christianity lose its meaning. Jesus taught us to forgive one another (Matthew 6:12, 14-15), and Paul expanded this teaches as well (Colossians 3:13). Part of the reasons Paul wrote to Philemon was to plead with him to his slave Onesimus with whom they had had a conflict that resulted in Onesimus leaving the household.
In his standard thanksgiving prayer, Paul appreciates Philemon’s faith and love for the saints. He also commends him for refreshing the hearts of the saints. In doing so, Paul is laying the groundwork for his plea of forgiveness on the basis of love (v. 9). Philemon must have been angry with Onesimus because of the loss he had caused him by being away from work. Also, Onesimus had made him look bad in the eyes of other believers due to his running away. Despite these important considerations, Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus.
Forgiveness conquers anger
As mentioned above, Philemon was angry with his servant Onesimus. It seems like he had stolen something in his running away, as some interpreters have argued. Whatever the case, Onesimus had caused his master great loss. Indeed, Jay Smith says, “Philemon was apparently angry with his absent slave.”2 This situation subjected both master and slave in an awkward and volatile situation where peace was lost between them. Yet Paul still asks Philemon to forgive his slave.
To be a Christian is to be committed to others. To be committed is to give ourselves to others so that they can call on us and ask us to do something we are not prepared to do.1 Paul was, indeed, asking Philemon to do what he was not prepared to do, something that went against Roman law. Paul makes his request not on hierarchical grounds but on mutual Christian love. We forgive because we love, not because it is convenient to us. We forgive even when it goes against social norms and practices.
Forgiveness Brings Love and Unity
Paul’s focus was to bring unity and love between Onesimus and Philemon, because Onesimus was now “not to be just a slave, but better than a slave, to be a dear brother. That’s what he is to me. And I know he will mean even more to you, both as your slave and as one who shares your faith in the Lord” (Vs. 16, ERV). We forgive each other because we share the same identity in the Messiah. The same way family members always find a way to forgive, so should be the practice of fellow believers. We are members of the same family, born from the same Father, saved by the same Lord, received the same Spirit, and follow the same King. It is on that basis that Paul requests Philemon to forgive Onesimus.
Dayton, Edward R. 1984. What Ever Happened Commitment? Michigan: Grand Rapids.
Jay, Smith. 2019. “Philemon Summary.” Bible hub. Retrieved February 14, 2020 (https://biblehub.com/summary/philemon/1.htm).