Monthly Archives: September 2013

Lessons From a Jail Cell…


I just spent the afternoon in our local jail! With three groups of incarcerated men openly and frankly talking about forgiveness. I truly wish I could have recorded the discussions, the comments and the questions that came out of this afternoon’s chapel services were insightful and revealing at best. From the oldest to the youngest of these men the concept of forgiveness was obviously foreign to them. Just the thought of forgiving someone for a hurt done to them was unthinkable. I do give these men credit, they listened intently and they wrestled with the issue at hand…and hopefully…God will one day do a work of reconciliation in their hearts and lives and they will be able to forgive those who have hurt them. And let me tell you their stories are heart breaking.

Together, we looked at the letter of Paul to Philemon.  When Paul wrote the letter to Philemon in 62 AD he was incarcerated in Rome. What was so fascinating this afternoon was that they were identifying more with Paul being in prison than they were with Philemon. These men today couldn’t understand why a pastor such as Paul would “only” be in prison because of merely preaching about Jesus.  “That ain’t right!” said one. “That’s just not good!” said another. And yet they wanted to know how a guy in prison would dare suggest forgiving someone who has hurt them. Why do we prefer to hold on to hurts and grievances and nurse them? Is it easier to be bitter than it is to be forgiving? Is there more satisfaction in holding on to wounds than it is to allow them to heal?

More than one man this afternoon acknowledged the fact that they were where they were because of hurts that they have never forgiven. One fellow even acknowledged that what he was carrying around was “seething bitterness” and it had caused repeated altercations with the law. Needless to say Paul’s letter to Philemon appealing for the forgiveness and restoration of Onesimus was quite appealing to these men. How is it possible that Philemon or anyone for that matter can forgive?

It is easier to preach about, speak about, and blog about than it is to actually do. There are three things that Paul appeals to Philemon with in the main body of this letter…three things that are necessary ingredients to forgiving others who have caused us hurt. First of all,

1. WE ARE TO FORGIVE….for the sake of loveA key word in this letter is the word “agape“…one of the Greek words for love.  It is a word that describes the love that God has for us. It is an unconditional love, there are no strings attached kind of love, it is a sacrificial kind of love, it is giving even at the expense of the giver. Forgiveness needs this kind of love. Did Philemon “feel like” forgiving Onesimus? Probably not. Forgiveness and love is not dependent on feelings,…because feelings fluctuate all the time. Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus for the sake of love. God loves us and demonstrates it by sending His Son to die for our sins…sacrificial, unconditional intentional. He didn’t do it because He felt like it…He did it because He loves us. True forgiveness is really a matter of love. Love those who hurt you, love those who persecute you.  That’s what God did for us in Christ. So we too must forgive because we have been forgiven.

2. WE ARE TO FORGIVE…for the sake of Christ’s work…Onesimus had unwittingly made his way to Rome where somehow he came into contact with Paul who shared with him the opportunity for a second chance, how he can be forgiven by a loving God and be restored.  This was good news for Onesimus who accepted it by faith and became a believer. He was made new.  But he still had a past to deal with. So Paul convinced him that he needed to return to Philemon and make things right with his boss. Thus the occasion for the letter.  Paul appealed to Philemon that Onesimus has been changed , no longer was he useless, but now he was useful.  Paul told Philemon to receive Onesimus back because he is needed for the sake of the Gospel. What a tough situation for Philemon, but a necessary thing for him. What would have been the outcome had Philemon carried a grudge? Not only would Onesimus have been crushed but the church that was meeting in Philemon’s house would have had a different perspective of their host who had been known for his love. True forgiveness is an act of the will that chooses to be obedient to the will of God and not the will of self.

3. WE ARE TO FORGIVE…for the sake of God’s plans and purpose…The first word in v.15Perhaps” suggests a mystery…he is not dogmatically saying this is how God works…but Paul does suggest for Philemon that just maybe…Philemon was hurt for God’s purpose of bringing Onesimus to faith in Jesus Christ.  Ouch! The possibility that God uses our pain, inflicted by other people, for His own plans and His own purposes?  This is not new in the working of God. Genesis 50:20 records what Joseph said to his brothers after many years of being mistreated and then sold into slavery…he said to the ones who had hurt him deeply “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” And then there’s   Romans 8:28 “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.”  Everything includes even our pain and our hurts. Trusting God’s plan and His purposes in the midst of our hurt and pain helps us to forgive those who have hurt us and who meant it for evil.

In each of the sessions this afternoon the men wanted to know how the story ended. God doesn’t provide it in His Word, But if Philemon had not forgiven Onesimus and had remained entrenched in bitterness and unforgiveness it is doubtful that God would have included the letter in His Word. So, I would suggest that Philemon forgave Onesimus for the sake of love…for the sake of what Christ had done and for the sake of the plans and purposes of God.  And so should we.

Until then.


The Forgiveness Deficit (Part 1)

A Call to Forgive!”   (i.e. What does it take to forgive someone who has hurt me?)

How do you react when someone you love hurts you in some way? Or they let you down? What is your course of action when someone says something about you that’s not true? Do you respond with understanding, patience and kindness…or do you react with anger and retaliation?

It is unavoidable. We live in human relationships which have never been perfect since before the Fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden…hurts happen. You can’t avoid them. It is part of the pain of the fallen human condition. In every relationship there is risk of hurt. In every relationship. And then the closer you get to someone actually increases your chances of pain caused by that person. Words said or not said, actions that disappoint or hurt…

In The Letter of Paul to Philemon…we have a message of forgiveness…second chances… mercy…reconciliation…equality in Christ and the power of the gospel to transcend social boundaries; a message of grace needed today…especially when hurts happen.

We live in a world with the mentality of “It’s all about me”. Our world knows and cares very little about forgiveness. Those who forgive are considered weak and spineless. We celebrate heroes who get vengeance on the bad guy…the unforgiving is seen as strong and independent, stable and manly. Think Clint Eastwood in his movie “Unforgiven” (1992) Retaliation is all over the place. “You hurt me I’ll hurt you.” Sometimes it is not even out in the open it is just remains unsettled, and many times even unspoken. Let me be very clear here…for the true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ…unforgiveness is NOT an optionHolding a grudge is unforgiveness…it is outright rebellion…a blatant act of disobedience against a holy God and His Word. Before you start thinking that having a grudge is a personal matter and won’t hurt anyone…you better you think again! John MacArthur in his commentary warns Christians about the unpleasant results of unforgiveness:

1. Unforgiveness… imprisons believers in their past…holding grudges keeps pain alive…it keeps the sore open, the wounds never heal…dwelling on the wrong feeds anger, resentment and robs one of the joy of living.

2. Unforgiveness… produces bitterness... “The longer believer’s dwell on offenses committed against them, the more bitter they become. Bitterness is not just a sin it is an infection. A bitter persons speech is cutting and sarcastic even slanderous. Bitterness distorts a person’s whole outlook on life….especially devastating in marriages…it shuts off affection and kindness that should exist between a husband and wife.”

3. Unforgiveness…gives Satan an open door…he can basically do what he wants due to unforgiveness.

4. Unforgiveness…hinders fellowship with God...If you forgive men their transgressions, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then you Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:14-15 It is a serious matter to know that one cannot be right with God if he is unforgiving to others.”

This is why the importance of forgiveness is a constant theme of the Scriptures.  This is why the Holy Spirit devotes an entire letter to forgiveness…it is a real life situation involving two real people…with real hurts, and real issues…So what does God have to say about forgiving those who hurt us?

Remember Paul is writing this letter from prison in Rome to a friend/fellow believer…approx. 62 A.D. Philemon lived in the city of Colossae. He was a man of wealth…he owned a large house big enough for a church to meet in and he had at least one slave. It is believed that Philemon had become a Christian several years earlier when Paul was in Ephesus…and now he was active in serving Christ. But now Philemon had been hurt. A crime was committed against him. His slave, Onesimus, had run away seeking freedom. Now this story probably would not have mattered much…except for the fact that Onesimus had run to Rome, where, by the sovereignty of God he crossed paths with the apostle Paul who was in prison, awaiting trial before Caesar. Although in prison, Paul was able to preach the gospel to those who came to him, including this fugitive named Onesimus.

So what do you do when someone you cared for hurts you? Stabs you in the back? Treats you harshly, unfairly, Maybe the hurt goes back years ago, maybe it is a parental hurt…maybe a friendship blown out of the water by words…maybe it was marital strife, or infidelity. Lack of forgiveness is probably the leading cause of marriage and family breakdown. Go into bookstores…to the “self help” sections you can find entire books on who to blame and how to take a strong stance against those that have hurt you. As a result there is increasing hurt, bitterness, anger, hate and hostility.

In Philemon though we find something very different…the importance of forgiveness is a constant theme throughout…it begins with God Himself who is a forgiving God. Moses wrote:“…the Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness and truth; who keeps loving-kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.” Exodus 34:6-7 When we think of God as a forgiving God we always think of the story of the prodigal son. (Luke 15) Someone has stated:  “God is never more like Himself than when He forgives.”  In the same way, we are never more like Him when we choose to forgive. Prov 19:11The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression.

The entire letter to Philemon is really a CALL TO FORGIVE! Paul is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus. Are you able to forgive the one who has hurt you? Let’s look at the text and find out what it takes to forgive. The first part of the letter Paul praises Philemon…not with empty flattery…but with solid encouragement about his character. And the first requirement of forgiveness is a love for the Lord Jesus.

1. FORGIVENESS REQUIRES…A REAL LOVE FOR THE LORD JESUS…(v.4-5)  “…I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers…hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints…”

The apostle knew that Philemon loved the Lord Jesus.  Philemon knew that he had been forgiven much. Philemon knew that God had demonstrated “…His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8  So when you have been forgiven much, like Philemon had, you have a solid foundation for the need to forgive. So on that basis, Paul appeals Philemon to forgive Onesimus.


Not only did Philemon love the Lord Jesus …but he also loved God’s people. Paul had heard of Philemon’s love for all the saints. The word love is “agape”…it is a willful love, a volitional…a choice, a sacrificial love, a humble love, an unconditional…it is the fruit of the Holy Spirit kind of love. Philemon loved Jesus and he also loved people…Every believer has this love.  It is a love that comes from God…Romans 5:5Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.So the next time you don’t feel like loving someone…you choose to love them because God’s love has been poured into you. When you have a love for other people…you have the ability to forgive. Bet on it…if you don’t have that love for people…forgiveness is out of your vocabulary…because it is all about you.

3. FORGIVENESS REQUIRES A REAL CONCERN FOR THE COMMUNITY OF FAITH (v.6) “…that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.”

It seems Philemon is concerned for the effectiveness of the fellowship of the believers. The Greek word for “sharing of your faith”…is a very familiar Greek word koinonia=fellowship  (also translated: sharing…community…gathering around a common purpose) The word “effective” is the Greek word energies…which basically means powerful. Philemon was concerned for the power of the Gospel….especially as it was then in the first century…for a slave owner to forgive a slave…culturally it would have been unbelievable. Slaves were considered property, a commodity…you don’t forgive them you destroy them or sell them or beat them. You certainly did not forgive. But for the believer…the testimony of forgiveness is a powerful example of what Jesus Christ has done for us.

By the way…forgiveness sends a powerful message…to a watching world and a believing congregation. When a brother forgives another brother…when a sister forgives another sister…forgiving a fellow believer no matter what they have done sends a powerful message about the power of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. God forgave me…I forgive you.

4. FORGIVENESS IS PART OF A REAL PEACE MAKING CHARACTER…v.7 “For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.”

Philemon was not only known for his love for the Lord Jesus…and not only was he known for his love for the people and for being concerned for the community… Philemon also refreshed the hearts of the saints. People who struggled with life, people suffering from hurts and tragedy, people hurting emotionally…Philemon was known for bringing troubled people rest and renewal…in short Philemon was a peace maker.

Without forgiveness the peace making character will be missing. If believers know there is a spirit of unforgiveness there will be no peace.

What the church needs today are more and more people with the character and the heart of men like Philemon. By the way, this guy was not an elder, probably not a deacon or a Sunday School teacher, nor was he an apostle, and probably didn’t have any high importance in the community of faith.  He probably was a business man who simply loved the Lord Jesus, loved God’s people, loved the community and wanted to be a blessing.  That is the kind of person that Paul knew would forgive a hurt committed against him. The challenge is for us to be that kind of person too.

Until then.