Paul offers a unique perspective on grace in Philemon.
Philemon 1:24-25: “and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (ESV)
If you are tempted to overlook the short closings of letters like Philemon, don’t!
If we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, then we must believe such closings are there for a reason. In this case, both the beginning and closing of Philemon emphasize how we should start and end everything with grace. Without the grace of Christ, it would be impossible for Philemon or any person on this planet to do what God asks of us.
To recap this short, Paul is appealing to Philemon to receive, forgive, reconcile, and restore his runaway slave Onesimus on the basis of agape love in the fellowship (koinonia) of faith.
Let’s look at how grace functions in and through the fellowship of believers so that they can offer and receive forgiveness in order to be reconciled with each other.
Evidence of Grace
Both of our conduct, which is our daily living, and how we handle temptations show the work of grace in our lives. A famous illustration used by pastors for decades provides a helpful perspective to this point.
Dr. William Henry Houghton, who was a pastor of my former church, Calvary Baptist Church in New York City, in the 1940s at one point became the pastor of Baptist Tabernacle in Atlanta. A man in that city hired a private detective to follow him and report on his daily conduct. After a few weeks, the detective was able to report to the man who hired him that Dr. Houghton’s life matched his preaching. As a result, that man became a Christian.
Please do not hire someone to follow me. I promise they’ll be bored very quickly. I only leave the house to come to church or go to Costco. But seriously, what would happen if someone decided to follow you?
What would they say about your beliefs and practices? Would they arrive at the same conclusion as the man converted to Christianity because of the exemplary living of Dr. Houghton?
Church, when our conduct does not match with what we say we believe, that is hypocrisy. It pushes people away. Most people have no problem with Christ, they have a problem with Christians.
When we cause others to stumble, or our lives become a stumbling block for others to come to Christ or grow in Christ, then Jesus has something to say to us: “And he said to his disciples, ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin’” (Luke 17:1-2).
All temptations of the flesh and this world begin as a trial, which is an opportunity to become more like Christ. But if we fail to conduct our lives according to the word of God in the midst of a trial, then the trial becomes a temptation. Temptation brings forth death and destruction.
Paul affirms that so far Philemon’s Christian conduct has been exemplary. We see that Philemon’s active faith has comforted and encouraged the imprisoned Paul who can see the fruit of his labor in Philemon flourishing.
As a pastor, I can relate. Nothing brings me more joy and comfort than when I hear about how you have been sharing the gospel with other people, and how people are being saved because you are preaching what you believe and learn here.
Hearing the reports of Philemon’s good conduct has also probably encouraged Paul to have confidence that he will respond to his appeal regarding Onesimus favorably. Still, Paul is asking Philemon for something that can only be done through God’s grace.
By Onesimus running away, God has sent a trial Philemon’s way to grow him in a new area. Now the question is, would Philemon, a co-worker of Paul the apostle, a relatively mature believer, a leader in the church, be a stumbling block for a young believer like Onesimus, or would he offer a complete pardon and absolute forgiveness?
Do We Deserve Forgiveness?
Offering and asking for forgiveness is difficult. On one hand, we don’t ask for forgiveness because either we do not feel that we have done anything wrong, we are embarrassed, or we are being prideful.
On the other hand, we struggle to forgive because we are hurting. We want to hold on to the hurt so we will have grounds for being angry at the person we believe does not deserve forgiveness.
However, forgiveness is not about what the person deserves. It is something that, by definition, the person does NOT deserve but still receives. This is grace.
Every believer knows and believes that the Bible teaches forgiveness, yet how often do we struggle with forgiveness, and how often do we hold grudges against others, including fellow believers? Sometimes, we do this without any appropriate reason because we decide we do not like the person. This does not hurt the person only, it hurts the fellowship of believers, and it hurts the Lord. May the Lord forgive us, but what made us gods over our brothers or sisters in Christ to declare them unworthy of our fellowship?
The closing of this letter reminds Philemon, his household, and us of how we were reconciled with God. We did not get what we deserved—God’s wrath—instead we received what we did not deserve, God’s free grace.
Are you struggling to forgive or ask for forgiveness? Remember God’s grace is his unmerited favor toward you. God in His sovereignty enables us to do what is otherwise humanly impossible, whether that is to believe in Christ alone, or live according to the profession of our faith in Christ alone. There is nothing we can contribute or not contribute to increase, limit, or remove His grace.
God’s decision to forgive, reconcile and restore us by offering salvation, and securing it in Christ is his and his only. If Philemon understands that, he cannot deny a fellow believer forgiveness and reconciliation. We cannot either.