A Reflection on Philemon 1:1-7

Have you ever forgiven someone who didn’t deserve it?  Have you never forgiven anyone? 

Regardless of which category you fall into, this post is for you. 

In many respects, our culture has come to reject the idea of forgiveness.  According to the Bible, however, man is in great need of forgiveness.

Paul wrote to Philemon during his imprisonment and his letter focuses on the gift of God’s forgiveness and our corresponding responsibility to forgive others.

In these verses, Paul lays groundwork before asking Philemon to exercise forgiveness.  Paul cites five “building blocks” for forgiveness that apply to us as much as they applied to Philemon.

1. The foundation of the Gospel (1:3-4).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (4) I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers,

Grace—that is, the mercy of God—enables us to have peace with God.  “Grace” is the traditional Greek greeting, and “peace” (shalom) is the traditional Hebrew greeting; combined, it is a thoroughly and uniquely Christian concept. 

The Gospel alone brings grace and peace.  God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, came to earth and lived a perfect life, which He then laid down as a sacrifice for our sins.  God vindicated Jesus and demonstrated his acceptance of that sacrifice by raising Him from the dead.

Christians experience great unity in being able to call God “my God” and “our God.”  Refusing to forgive others shows a lack of belief in the gospel. Unforgiveness is not an obedience issue—it's a belief issue. Reflect on the beauty of these statements and the unique nature of our claim to know God personally.

2. The context of the church (1:1-2).

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker (2) and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:

These are members of the church in Colossi.  Because of many overlapping names, many believe this letter was sent along with the letter we know as “Colossians”.

The church is more than a building or location—it’s the believers who gather together.  It is those who congregate to worship, read God’s Word, and pray.

This letter opens to the church generally.  Paul then speaks to Philemon specifically, but Paul has already invited the church to listen in on his message.  Paul is wise here; he’s encouraging accountability so the church can watchfully care to see if Philemon obeys and forgives.

Godly relationships help you prepare for the trials you don’t know are coming.  This is why intentional membership in a local church is so important. Failure to participate in these relationships hurts you and prevents you from being an encouragement to others or obedient in forgiveness.

3. The practice of prayer (1:4-5).

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, (5) because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,

Regular practice of intercessory prayer—asking God for things on others’ behalf—is necessary step for Christians.  We’re often tempted to only pray for ourselves or those who are just like us.

Thanksgiving is an important part of praying for others.  It characterizes Paul’s prayers.  Does it mark your prayers?  Do you thank God for what he has done in your life and in the lives of others?  Thanks to God acknowledges Him as the author of good in the world, both generally and specifically.  Do you only ask God for things or do you also thank Him?

Every prayer of forgiveness is immediately followed by our prayer of thankfulness for what God has done for us in Christ. Thankfulness helps change our attitude by recognizing how much we have received and how much more there is to be thankful for.  

4. The necessity of love (1:5-7).

Because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, (6) and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. (7) For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

Faith without love is dead (1 Cor. 13).  Faith appears to us as love.  Paul is talking about sharing faith and love with fellow Christians.  As we act in faith, we come to understand it more.  The experience of the Christian encounter with God’s love changes the way we respond to others.  We could think of many examples of love and forgiveness, but none surpass what God has done for us in Christ.

Paul is refreshed just by knowing of Philemon’s love for his fellow believers and how that promotes his forgiveness to them.  Christians around the world share stronger bonds than physical families or countrymen because the same spirit dwells in us and will do so for eternity.

As famous theologian Francis Shafer said, “If a Christian doesn't show love toward other true Christians, the world has a right to judge that he is not a Christian.”

5. The example of a pastor.

If elders and other ministers of the Word don’t practice forgiveness, they shouldn’t hold that position.  This is the only time Paul introduces himself as a “prisoner of Christ.”  Paul is setting an example: humble, joyful, thankful, and full of praise even in extremely difficult circumstances.  This character should be mirrored in every father in every family and in every elder of every church. It should also be true of all Christians.

Can you forgive?  Do you know yourself to be forgiven by God?  If you can’t forgive, you have not experienced God’s forgiveness.  Have you taken forgiveness for granted, or thought too little of it?  Come to Christ.

What more significant thing can be said of us that that we are forgiven by God?  Those who know themselves to be forgiven, forgive others.

How does God's Word impact our prayers?

God invites His children to talk with Him, yet our prayers often become repetitive and stale. How do we have a real conversation with God? How do we come to know Him so that we may pray for His will as our own?

In the Bible, God speaks to us as His children and gives us words for prayer—to praise Him, confess our sins, and request His help in our lives.

We’re giving away a free eBook copy of Praying the Bible, where Donald S. Whitney offers practical insight to help Christians talk to God with the words of Scripture.