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A Living Lesson on Forgiveness B

Grace To You / John MacArthur
The Truth Network Radio
April 6, 2021 4:00 am

A Living Lesson on Forgiveness B

Grace To You / John MacArthur

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Of all of the subjects that Paul could have written about, why in the world did he pick the subject of forgiveness? This is this tangential little letter to talk to one guy about forgiving one slave.

Why all this fuss? Because never is a believer more like God than when he or she forgives. Welcome to Grace to You with John MacArthur.

I'm your host, Phil Johnson. These days the medicines you buy typically come with, dare I say, an unnecessary amount of written information. You can find yourself wading through a huge amount of technical data when what you're looking for, what you really need, are the nuts and bolts, the practical directions. Well, you may know a lot of what could be called the technical information about forgiveness, the specific commands that say you are to forgive others. But perhaps you're not sure how to apply that information in your day-to-day life, so stay with us as John MacArthur considers a living lesson on forgiveness. It's part of his current series from Philemon, simply titled Forgiveness.

And now here's John. Now the priority of forgiveness is not only given in Scripture in principle, it's not only given in Scripture in parable, but it is given in Scripture in personal terms, and it's in the book of Philemon. Let's read the first three verses. Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy, our brother, to Philemon, our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia, our sister, and to Archippus, our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. And so it is then from Paul, along with the greetings of Timothy, to Philemon. Further, verse 2 addresses the letter to Apphia, our sister.

That no doubt is his wife. I think the King James says, Apphia, our beloved. The better reading is Apphia, our sister, our sister in Christ. And again, this is most certainly Philemon's wife and also a friend of Paul. Then he says, and to Archippus, our fellow soldier. Most likely this is their son, their son Archippus, an older son and a noble Christian who had come alongside Paul in the spiritual battle somewhere, fought valiantly in that war, and is commended for his spiritual life. Over in Colossians 4.17, Archippus is mentioned again.

Philemon is never mentioned anywhere else and neither is Apphia, but Archippus is mentioned there. As Paul writes to the Colossian church, he says to Archippus, take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord that you may fulfill it. So this young man was in the ministry. We don't know to what extent or in what specifics, but here was a father and a mother with a church in their house and a son who was in the ministry.

He had served, no doubt, in Colossae and had served also in Laodicea as the note at the end of the letter to the Colossians indicates. So this little family is very important in the life of Paul and with the issue of forgiveness at stake becomes an opportunity for Paul to make a very important point the Holy Spirit wants him to make. The end of verse 2, the church in your house. Now Paul wanted the letter read there.

It was a private letter, but he wanted it read so that the whole church would hold Philemon accountable for this and so that they would all learn the lesson of forgiveness and so they would all know how to treat the forgiven man. Now I need to note for you that when you go back in ancient times, most churches would have met in a home if they were not meeting outdoors. Church buildings didn't start until the third century. They were meeting in homes.

This was very typical. Still there are places in the world where churches even today still meet in homes. There's nothing necessarily sacred about that. But church buildings didn't really develop until about the third century. So at this time, before church buildings were built as such, they were meeting in homes and here was a house church in his house. In verse 3, we find the standard greeting.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on it. He says, "'Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.'" There is the typical standard Christian greeting, grace, the means of salvation, peace, the result of salvation. And may I also note, I can't resist saying that when it says, "'From God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,' the union of those two together would be blasphemous if Jesus were a man or an angel."

Can you understand that? This must be understood as an affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ. If Jesus were a man, to make that kind of combination would be blasphemous.

If Jesus were an angel, to make that kind of combination would be blasphemous. For it is saying that grace which saves and peace which is the result of it comes as its source from God and the Lord Jesus Christ and therefore they must be divine both. And thus does Paul introduce his letter, the only one of his prison letters to an individual. Now there has been much written about the purpose of this letter, and I don't want to spend a lot of time on it, but I want to give you a little feel for how this letter has been approached. Some think the purpose of this letter is to demonstrate the nature of Christian love, and certainly that is present here. Some suggest that the purpose is to reveal the working of God's providence, and certainly there is that element.

Some suggest that as an example of proper manners in Christian courtesy, there are no commands, there is nothing offensive, just the pleadings of love, and certainly that's true. Some think its purpose is to give principles for the maintenance of good Christian relations. In fact, I was talking to a man writing a book on Philemon and that's the approach he's taking.

Some suggest that the purpose of the letter is to reveal the effect of conversion on culture and society. Some believe, and many believe this, that it's an attack on the institution of slavery and the purpose of Philemon was to tear down slavery. Well certainly the principles of Philemon will have an effect upon the abuses of slavish relationships, no question about that. But it must be noted, because this last one is the most popular approach, seemingly, that no place in Scripture is there any effort ever made to abolish slavery. And at no time did any prophets or preachers or teachers or apostles of the New Testament ever attack slavery.

But any call to righteous living, any call to holy love will eliminate the abuses that are in any social system. In fact, quite the contrary, there are throughout the New Testament many, many texts where slavery becomes a model of Christian principle. Slavery becomes a picture, as it were, of how we are related to God as His slaves and His servants. And repeatedly, whether Ephesians 6 or Colossians 4 or 1 Timothy 6, 1 and 2, or 1 Peter 2, 18, slaves are told to be obedient, submissive, and loyal, and faithful to their masters no matter how they act, and masters are told to treat their slaves with love and equity and kindness and fairness no matter what they might do.

So while nothing attacks the institution of slavery, everything in Christian principle attacks the abuses of any social system, including slavery. Slavery was so much a part of the Roman Empire, the whole society was built on it. And by the time of Christ, slavery wasn't necessarily what we think it is today. It had been modified, there had been some laws passed, and in very many cases slaves were treated very well. In fact, if you read any of the ancient literature around the time of Christ, you will find that most writers will say a man was better off a slave than he was a runaway slave, very often better off a slave than he was even a free man because as a slave he was assured of care and food and a place to sleep, and if he had a good and kind master, life was very prosperous for him. Slaves by the time of Christ could be fully educated in every discipline, many of them in fact went into medical professions. Slaves could take the benefit of owning their own property and developing their own economics and their own economy.

Slaves could leave their estates to their own children. So by the time of Christ, slavery had moved away from many of the earlier abuses, though those abuses still in some cases did occur. And we'll see that even in the book of James where some Christians who must have been as slaves or servants were treated in a very unkind and physically abusive way. But slavery was changing and the Christian gospel coming into that world and the Christian preachers were not about to change the focus onto a social issue from a spiritual one. You can only imagine that if Jesus and the apostles had begun to attack slavery, what would have happened in the Roman Empire? Sixty million slaves revolting would have been an unbelievable situation.

Society would have been thrown into such chaos and disarray and even you can imagine that when such a rebellion would have begun, slaves would have been crushed and massacred savagely. So there was some reason in the changing mood of the Roman Empire to see some hope for abolishing slavery and that hope would come through changed hearts. The seeds of the end of slavery were sown in the Roman Empire by the Christian gospel and eventually slavery died.

Just as everywhere in the world slavery has died when the Christian gospel came, it certainly was true in America eventually. Christianity, you see, introduces a new relationship between a man and a man, a relationship in which external differences don't matter and we are one in Christ. You are Gentile, slave or free.

There's neither Greek nor Jew, said Paul, circumcision or uncircumcision, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free man. This does not attack the institution of slavery. In fact, it does the very opposite of that. It tells a slave to go back to his master and be the kind of slave he ought to be to a faithful and loving master. Its theme then is forgiveness. That is its message. That is its intent. The story behind the letter makes that absolutely clear. Let me read you the story.

We're going to make just a few comments on it. Verse 4, I thank my God always, always making mention of you in my prayers because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints. And I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do that which is proper, yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you since I am such a person as Paul the aged and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus, I appeal to you for my child whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus, who formerly was useless to you but now is useful both to you and to me. And I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart whom I wish to keep with me that in your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel. But without your consent I didn't want to do anything that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will. For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while that you should have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you both in the flesh and in the Lord? If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me, but if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account."

We'll stop there. This is an incredible story. Philemon was led to Christ by Paul, probably during Paul's three years in Ephesus, as I said, though he lived in Colossae, he met Paul. He had a slave and the slave's name was Onesimus. And the relationship of these two people, Philemon and Onesimus, is really the context of this call to forgiveness.

The story is fascinating. This had passed since Philemon's conversion. Paul is now a prisoner in Rome. Philemon is active in ministry in his church. He's got the church meeting in his house.

He's busy serving, refreshing the brethren by his usefulness. His slave, Onesimus, not a believer, probably felt the heat of a believing family, Apphia his wife having been converted and Archippus their son. Onesimus decided that he would be better off to run away even though his family that he was employed by was a good family, and so he ran away. As the text indicates, when he ran away, took some money, he stole from his master. Now slavery was changing, but it wasn't changing so much that a slave could steal, wasn't changing so much that a slave could run away. Some would tell us that in some places the death penalty for such activity was still in place and that slave could lose his life. Others would say the punishment was a severe imprisonment, or even physical corporal punishment. Onesimus had committed by all Roman law a crime, a felony, a major crime, and had left and tried to hide. Sometimes when a slave ran away and was caught, they would put an F, burn an F into his head, F for fugitivus, fugitive.

Some of them we know in history were crucified, some were tortured. Running away was a serious offense. He ran where I would suppose you would think he would run. He ran to Rome because that was the biggest city.

The estimate is the population was about 870,000 at this time, and he thought he could hide himself in the underworld of Rome and try to survive. We talk about street people today. We talk about the homeless.

He would be one of them. He would be living in the underground, sleeping in back alleys, holes in the ground. One study of the sacred treasury of the Romans for the years 81 to 49, that would be B.C., included taxes for manumission. Manumission means the releasing of slaves. Slavery was changing so fast that people were releasing their slaves. Every time they released a slave, five percent of the value of that slave had to be paid to the government. In finding this ancient study of the years 81 to 49, and using the amount of money that is recorded in the records, the conclusion is that in that 30-year period, 500,000 slaves were freed, just in that 30-year period. The records of Augustus Caesar show that when masters died, typically, slaves were freed wholesale. If a master died, all his slaves were free.

This became such a problem. You've got 500,000 slaves and they all are moving toward the cities that they've been freed. You've got people dying and freeing all their slaves, and the number is so great that the government made a law, and in the time of Caesar Augustus, the law was that when a man died, he could never free more than a certain percentage of his slaves. If he had five, he could free one. If he had ten, he could free two.

Why? Because there was a glut of homeless unemployed running all over the place in the Roman Empire. Even though slaves had gained most of the rights of free men, even though they could be educated on all fields, even though they had better living conditions than the free men when they stayed in the place where they were employed by their master, they had better food and better clothes, they were treated better, they were part of a family, they were used to teach the children, provide medical care for the children, they took care of the finances, they were allowed to marry, they were allowed to own property, they could develop their own life, they were allowed in every religion. Still, many of them ran.

The dream of freedom. And they ended up in a worse situation. Who knows what kind of mess Onesimus was in. And by the amazing providence of God, think of it, in a city of somewhere around 870,000 or nearly a million people, he ran into the Apostle Paul. Now you've got to imagine that he had some personal needs, right? And maybe he knew that Paul was preaching there and he wanted to hear this man preach. Even though Paul was a prisoner, he must have had some access, such an imprisonment. It may have taken different forms which gave Paul not only access to his friends which are shown having some relation to him, but even to unbelievers. Paul persuaded Onesimus to become a Christian and he was converted. His life was transformed. Not only that, he became a help to Paul. Tells us, as we noted in the text, that he became a very encouraging servant to Paul in his confinement. Maybe he cooked meals for him and brought them to give him proper nourishment. Maybe he provided information to him.

We don't know. But as much as Paul loved him and as much as Paul wanted to keep him, Paul knew that something had to be settled. He was a criminal, this man. And the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was not right. And you know Philemon was still holding this bitterness against a very close friend for Onesimus even though a slave would have been a household slave and a very close companion. Onesimus was at fault. Philemon was a good Christian master.

Philemon had been greatly wronged by Onesimus because financially he had stolen from him and also losing your employee like that would mean you'd have to hire someone else and you'd have to pay another price for another one. So Paul knew he had to go back. He had to go back with an attitude of repentance and he had to go back and ask Philemon for forgiveness. And the opportunity posed itself to send him back.

Why? Paul had finished Colossians and he had finished Ephesians and he was going to send them back to those two churches with a man named Tychicus. So it was just the perfect opportunity to send Philemon his runaway slave. In Colossians chapter 4, just a note, as to all my affairs, he says, Tychicus our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bondservant in the Lord will bring you information. Then verse 9, and with him Onesimus. So he's sending Tychicus with these two letters and with Onesimus. Now there's risk here because Philemon would have the right to punish Onesimus, but Paul decides to send him back anyway, but not without a letter.

So he sends this letter. And what it basically says is you've got to forgive this guy. You've got to be willing to be merciful. You've got to treat this slave the way Christ treated you. Same principle that he put in Ephesians 4.32, Colossians 3.13, forgive as you have been forgiven. And that's basically the background of this story.

What's going to happen when he goes back? Well, the rest of the book from verse 4 on splits into three parts. I'll just mention them. It splits into three parts. The first part, verses 4 to 7, basically deals with the spiritual character of one who forgives. What kind of person is a forgiving person? We're going to see that in verses 4 to 7. Then the second part of the book is the spiritual action of one who forgives. First we look at the character of a forgiver, and then we look at the action of a forgiver, verses 8 to 18. And then from verses 19 to 25 is the spiritual motivation of one who forgives. Now by the time we're done with this book, we're going to know what a forgiving person is like in character, in action, and in motivation.

And this is essential. You are never more like God than when you forgive. And you have been forgiven and therefore because of the forgiveness of God in Christ, you ought to forgive one another. And if you don't forgive one another, then God relationally is going to keep His distance from you and put His hand of chastening on you rather than His hand of blessing. You ask yourself the question, of all of the subjects that Paul could have written about, why in the world did he pick the subject of forgiveness? This is just this little isolated kind of odd, out of sync, obtuse, tangential little letter stuck in the middle of these great sweeping epistles to talk to one guy about forgiving one slave.

Why all this fuss? Again I say, because never is a believer more like God, more like Christ than when he or she forgives. Because that's the nature of God and the nature of Christ, which is most wonderfully applied to us in salvation.

We read throughout the New Testament, don't we? Be like Christ. Be like Christ.

Walk like He walked. Remember Jesus Christ. Be ye followers of me as I am of Christ. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ.

Well, what does that mean? We're to be like Christ. What does it mean to be like Christ?

Well, for sure it means to be what? Forgiving. Because that's how we know Him, as the One who forgave us all our sins. The character of God's forgiveness is seen in the parable of the prodigal son. Eager, lavish, loving forgiveness. And the severity of chastening for one who doesn't forgive is seen in the parable of the king and the servant. This is a central theme in all of Scripture. That's John MacArthur, Chancellor of the Masters University and Seminary, with what he calls a living lesson on forgiveness.

It's part of his current series on Grace to You, simply titled Forgiveness. John, as you continue this series from Philemon, you're going to get practical. You're going to look at all the ways to apply this short letter to daily life. But right now, talk about how you identify the application when you're reading a book like Philemon. What does that aspect of Bible study look like? Well, fortunately, Phil, in the case of the book of Philemon, you don't need to look for an illustration, because the book is an illustration. The book is about forgiveness, and the book ends with Paul telling Philemon to forgive the runaway slave.

So you have the built-in illustration. That is an amazing book in the sense that it confronts the current culture. All this talk about slavery and past slavery and reparations and, you know, the oppressed people and how we've got to get involved in the reconstruction of old American history. We've got to get involved in reversing traits in the old American history of slavery. And here's the Bible, and Paul finds a slave who ran away and tells him to go home to his master. He tells him to go back to his master, and he tells his master to embrace him and forgive him. Two Christians, one a master and one a slave, are told to come together in an act of love and forgiveness. That's how the kingdom approaches slavery. That's not how the world approaches slavery. I'm very sorry to say that the evangelical world today has crossed out of the kingdom of light into the kingdom of darkness, and it is approaching social problems from the darkness rather than the light.

This is disastrous. So the story of Philemon is incredible, one of the most magnificent stories in all of Holy Scripture. You'd have to ask yourself, wouldn't you, why would the Lord, if he only had 66 books, pick that little tiny book and put it in there as if it was deserving of that?

Because forgiveness is all about everything. If you don't have some of the MacArthur New Testament commentaries, why don't you start by ordering the one on Colossians and Philemon? You'll love it, and you may want to get all 34 volumes in the New Testament.

So much is there, particularly in that volume. Colossians and Philemon, what a package. You can order them from grace to you. You can buy one or the whole set. Place your order today.

That's right, friend. Both Philemon and Colossians can radically change the way you worship and serve Christ. And again, both of these books are covered in a single volume of the MacArthur New Testament commentary series. To order your copy, contact us today.

Call our toll-free number, 800-55-GRACE, or log on to Each volume in the MacArthur New Testament commentary series is available for the same affordable price, or you can purchase all 34 books at once, and you'll get a significant discount on each volume. Again, to order the Colossians and Philemon commentary or the entire commentary series, call us at 800-55-GRACE or go to Also, let me recommend one of our most popular resources, the Study Bible app. It includes multiple translations of Scripture, and it lets you link from the passage you're studying to corresponding sermons by John MacArthur. It also gives you immediate access to the resources of our website, blog articles, devotionals, and much more. The Study Bible app is just one of thousands of resources available free of charge at our website, That's our website one more time, Now for John MacArthur and the entire staff, I'm Phil Johnson, encouraging you to be here tomorrow when John looks at why forgiveness is crucial. If you want to know the blessing of God in your life, don't miss the next 30 minutes of unleashing God's truth, one verse at a time, on Grace To You.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-12-06 12:54:15 / 2023-12-06 13:04:45 / 11

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