Forgive One Another

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about extending forgiveness to one another.

Christ is the Example:  Colossians 3:12-13.

[12]  Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, [13]  bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

In Colossians 3:1-4, Paul has called on us to take a heavenly perspective on all of life, a perspective that emerges naturally from our new identity as those who have died with Christ and been raised with Him. The specifics of this heavenly perspective are spelled out in a mainly negative fashion in verses 5-11, where Paul focuses on those vices that we are to put to death [5] and put off the old self [9]. But at the end of this paragraph, Paul comes back to the positive side of our new identity: we are people who belong to the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator [10]. In verses 12-17, Paul enumerates positively some of the attitudes and behavior that should typify the new self. And in keeping with the collective significance of the new self, the focus in these verses is on those virtues that foster community identity and cohesion. The new self brings together people from different ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds, and believers should put aside the prejudices that might arise from those backgrounds in order to facilitate the unity of the body. This new self alludes fundamentally to Christ Himself. Through faith, we are joined to Christ; we become His body. The basic theological truth that undergirds Paul’s commands in verses 12-17 involves just this point: we are members of one body. While the paragraph unfolds without major breaks, four basic parts can be identified. Three of the four explicitly maintain the strongly Christological focus of this letter. Paul begins by reminding us of our privileged position as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, and urges us to put on five virtues that will enable us to live together harmoniously in one body. These five virtues may be deliberately contrasted with the five vices in verse 8 that hinder such unity. The call in verse 13 to bear with one another and to forgive each other shows how these virtues are fleshed out. The call to live in verse 14 is the second basic part of the paragraph. Paul pictures love as the garment, or coat, that goes on over all the other virtues and enables them all to work together.

[12]  Then (or therefore) connects the paragraph that begins here in verse 12 with what Paul has just said about the new self. This new self, the Christian community formed by and in Christ, transcends the boundaries of religious background, ethnicity, and social status – and any other boundary drawn from this world that we might like to draw. Whatever our worldly background or status, we all now have our fundamental identity determined by Christ and the people of Christ to whom we belong. But this new identity, while given in Christ, also must be achieved in practice. The barriers erected by our identity in this world must be overcome in reality as we live out the new relationship in the body of Christ. The new self is the new Israel. This identification is clearly indicated in the description of the Colossians as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. All three are standard ways of describing Israel in the Old Testament and the church as the people of God in the New Testament. The word holy suggests the notion of being set apart for God and it not surprisingly therefore often occurs with the idea of election. God’s love for His people is often featured in the Old Testament, sometimes as a response to the people’s obedience but often also as the fundamental basis for God’s election of the people. Paul also brings together God’s love and His election of His people. In this verse, then, as holy designates the result of God’s election, so beloved may suggest its basis. Nowhere else in Scripture do we find together in a description of God’s people the three Greek words used here: chosen, holy, beloved. Paul uses the clothing imagery that he has employed earlier to urge the community of God’s people in Christ to cultivate virtues that will foster that community in practice. Paul names five specific virtues, almost surely intentionally paralleling the five vices of verses 5 and 9. A significant aspect of these virtues is that they are often attributed to, or associated with, Christ. It is as if Paul is saying, in the words of Romans 13:14, that we are to put on Christ. And, of course, this Christological focus neatly elaborates the key idea in verses 10-11. Having put on the new self, identified with Christ Himself, it is necessary at the same time to put on those virtues that characterize Christ. Compassionate hearts translates a phrase that can be rendered literally “bowels of mercy.” Thus in this verse it means “love characterized by mercy,” “heartfelt compassion,” or “tenderhearted mercy.” Kindness sometimes denotes God’s own goodness, especially as it is expressed in His gracious acts. Here the reference is to the human attribute of kindness. Humility is a typically Christian virtue, which was often viewed negatively in the ancient world, where it was understood in terms of servility or cowardice. The call to humility in the New Testament is based on the supreme act of humbling, Christ’s taking on human form and going to death on the cross on our behalf [Phil. 2:3,8]. The Philippians text also provides a nice commentary on humility, as involving valuing others above yourselves and not looking to your own interests but to the interests of others. Paul wants the Christian community to display this true humility toward one another. A fourth community-fostering virtue is meekness or gentleness, which refers to the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance. The model is again Jesus, who claimed to be gentle and humble in heart [Matt. 11:29]. The New Testament letters frequently call on Christians to follow Christ’s example in this self-giving. The final virtue in the list, patience, is once more an attitude that both God the Father and Christ display toward sinful creatures, and that we, as His people, should display toward one another. If kindness refers to our basic approach to people, so patience refers to the kind of reaction we should display toward them.

[13]  Paul now indicates what this fundamental attitude should look like in action: bearing with one another and … forgiving each other. There is a close relationship between the actions commanded in verse 13 and the attitudes in verse 12. Paul likely intends to present these actions as the natural outgrowth of the general attitude conveyed by all five virtues together. Bearing with one another is a first and necessary step in establishing community. The demand acknowledges that every Christian fellowship is made up of all kinds of people and that we will accordingly sometimes find ourselves in close fellowship with people who are very different than we are. For the sake of maintaining community, we will sometimes have to put up with people with whom we would not normally choose to associate. But, of course, more than this is ultimately called for. Not only must we bear with each other, we must also forgive one another. Forgiving others is an act of grace, freely offered, often not deserved. Paul frankly recognizes that in the Christian community there will be times when a person will have a grievance, a cause for complaint, against someone else within the fellowship. In such cases, believers are to imitate their Lord, who has graciously forgiven them. The formal structure of this last sentence in the verse suggests a comparative idea: we should forgive in the same way as the Lord forgives. But the construction might also include a causal nuance: we are to forgive because the Lord has forgiven us. Christ establishes not only the pattern but the possibility of forgiveness.

Love is the Motive:  Philemon 8-16.

[8]  Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, [9]  yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you–I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus– [10]  I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. [11]  (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) [12]  I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. [13]  I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, [14]  but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. [15]  For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, [16]  no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother–especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  [ESV]

The heart of the letter is Paul’s appeal for Onesimus. Paul, however, does not spell out the specifics of his appeal explicitly until verse 17, where he asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus. Paul delays this specific request until then because he is pursuing a rhetorical strategy of persuasion. Paul wants to persuade Philemon to act on his own, without compulsion [14], on the basis of love rather than because Paul commands it [8-9]. Paul’s means of persuasion focus on three relationships. (1) Paul’s relationship to Onesimus. Onesimus has become a Christian through Paul’s ministry [10] and is proving useful [11] to Paul in his imprisonment [13]. But, more than that, he is Paul’s beloved brother [16], his child [10], his very heart [12]. (2) Paul’s relationship to Philemon. Philemon has also become a Christian through Paul [19] and is a partner with him in ministry [17]. Significantly, Paul does not appeal to his status as an apostle in talking about his relationship to Philemon. Rather, he refers to himself in a remarkable series of personal references designed to win Philemon’s sympathy: an old man [9], a prisoner [9], in my imprisonment [10,13], partner [17],and a brother [20]. (3) Philemon’s relationship to Onesimus. For whatever reason, Onesimus had been useless to Philemon in the past [11]; in fact, in some manner, it would appear, he had defrauded Philemon [18]. Now, however, he is useful to Philemon as well as to Paul [11]. Most importantly, as one who, like Philemon, has been fathered by Paul, he is now Philemon’s brother in the Lord and therefore very dear to him [16]. These relationships, of course, flow from the fundamental fact that each of these men has a relationship with Jesus Christ, and this relationship brings them into intimate fellowship as members of a spiritual family. It is this fellowship built on faith that provides the fundamental theological grounding for Paul’s appeal to Philemon. This fellowship brings great blessing; it also imposes obligations. Paul has an obligation to treat his brother and fellow worker Philemon with love and respect. Onesimus has an obligation to defer to his master Philemon. And, though Paul is cautious about spelling it out, the central thrust of this letter is that Philemon also has an obligation: to recognize that his Christian family constitutes a far more fundamental consideration than the worldly relationships of household or society and that he must govern his attitude and actions toward Onesimus on the basis of this spiritual relationship. Paul interweaves references to these three relationships throughout the body of the letter. Paul is attempting to persuade Philemon to take a certain course of action. And because this course of action might not be easy for Philemon to take and because it might even be objected that Paul has no right to ask it of Philemon, Paul proceeds cautiously and indirectly. He does not come right out and make clear what he wants Philemon to do. He builds up to his request, waiting to make it explicit until verse 17.

Restoration is the Goal:  Philemon 17-22.

[17]  So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. [18]  If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. [19]  I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it–to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. [20]  Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. [21]  Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. [22]  At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.  [ESV]

[17]  Paul finally comes out in the open and makes a direct request of Philemon: receive him as you would receive me. This request is built on the argument of the letter to this point as the so that introduces it indicates. This conjunction also marks the transition to the third part of the body of the letter [17-20]. Here Paul pulls together the threads of his argument, an argument that focuses on relationships. Onesimus, through his conversion, stands in a new relationship to Philemon. Paul prefaces his appeal to Philemon with a reminder of their partnership. In setting the stage for his appeal, Paul refers to the fellowship based in faith that he and Philemon share. The if language in this clause does not call into question the reality of this fellowship, but puts the onus on Philemon to acknowledge it. And if he acknowledges it, suggests Paul, Philemon will do what Paul asks and receive Onesimus. The sense of the verb receive is to fully accept one another as fellow members of Christ’s body. Having stated his request, Paul now turns to practicalities: If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. Paul wants nothing to stand in the way of Philemon’s welcome of Onesimus. And so he offers to pay any debts that Onesimus might owe to Philemon. This offer is the other side of the exchange that Paul mentioned in verse 13: as Onesimus has discharged Philemon’s debt to Paul by serving the apostle, so Paul now offers to discharge Onesimus’s debt to Philemon and thus return the favor. But what is the nature of Onesimus’s debt to Philemon? Of how has he wronged him? These questions can be answered only in the context of our general understanding of the situation that has brought Onesimus and Paul together. On the supposition that Onesimus is a fugitive slave, the wrong and the debt may both refer to Onesimus’s having robbed his master as he fled. Runaway slaves, not unnaturally, would often finance their flight by such robbery. Or the wrong Onesimus did may have been simply his running away and his debt what he owed to his master in compensation for the time of his service that had been lost. But it is not even clear that Onesimus has done anything wrong. The particular way that Paul frames the condition simply assumes the reality of the situation for the sake of argument. It begs the question whether Onesimus had really wronged Philemon. Paul simply indicates what he proposes to do if, in fact, Onesimus has wronged Philemon and owes him something. Paul’s emphasis on his personal investment in the Onesimus affair reaches its climax in verse 19 as Paul gives Philemon a type of promissory note in Paul’s own handwriting. Paul is writing this verse in his own hand in order to underscore his promise in verse 18. Paul then presents in the latter part of verse 19 a reminder of what Philemon owes to Paul as a means of persuading Philemon to do what Paul is asking. What Paul means by saying that Philemon owes him your own self is that Philemon is in debt to Paul for his eternal life. Paul was used by God in Philemon’s conversion. In light of this infinite debt that Philemon owes Paul, he should have no hesitation in accepting Paul’s offer to cover Onesimus’s debts. Perhaps, indeed, this reminder is a subtle suggestion that it would be a bit crass on Philemon’s part even to accept Paul’s offer. His gratitude to Paul for his spiritual wealth should more than cancel any debt that Onesimus, Paul’s child, has incurred. Verse 20 concludes the body of the letter. And it makes a very appropriate conclusion to Paul’s appeal, echoing with three key words the conclusion to the opening of the letter in verse 7: brother … refresh … heart. Paul adds no new request here; he is simply strengthening, with a final personal appeal, the request he has made in verse 17. The tone of this final appeal is evident from the fact that Onesimus is not mentioned again: the focus is entirely on the relationship between Philemon and Paul and what the obligations of the former are within that relationship. In the last words of the verse Paul becomes a bit more direct, shifting from the language of “wish” or “polite request” to command: Refresh my heart in Christ. Philemon, who refreshes the hearts of God’s people [7], is to refresh Paul’s heart by giving a full Christian welcome to Onesimus. Philemon is to respond to Paul because he, Paul, and Onesimus are all in the Lord … in Christ. The fellowship that is created among those who have faith in Christ brings with it obligations to one another. Obedience in verse 21 strikes an odd note in a letter in which Paul has expressly declined to appeal to his apostolic authority. Perhaps it is better to think of this obedience as directed not to Paul personally but to what may be called the “gospel imperative.” Paul does not use the word obedience often, but when he does he often speaks about the general demand that accompanies the gospel: what Paul calls the obedience of faith [Rom. 1:5; 16:26]. By this phrase Paul indicates that faith in Christ is always accompanied by the call to obedience. The fellowship created by faith [6] carries with it obligations. To believe in Christ is to come under His law, the law of love. Philemon, Paul suggests, is faced with a situation which, however much he should act voluntarily and on the basis of love, really has only one course of action open to him. And, of course, this obligation is one that Paul has himself suggested to Philemon. Paul’s request that Philemon prepare a guest room implies, of course, that Paul will be visiting Colossae – and perhaps sooner rather than later. This functions as a subtle encouragement to Philemon to respond as Paul hopes he will. Paul’s coming to visit Philemon and the rest of the Colossians is, however, contingent. He writes, of course, from prison, and so he can only hope to be able to visit soon. His request that Philemon prepare a room suggests that a release from prison is a strong possibility, but nothing in Paul’s language suggests that it is a certainty. Therefore, if Paul is to come to Colossae, it will be through the prayers of the Colossian Christians.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is the new identity every believer has in Christ? How does Paul say we are to put this new identity into practice? Ask God to help you put these five attitudes into practice this week.  

2.         Describe the three relationships Paul uses in Philemon 8-16. How does Paul use these relationships in his desire to have Philemon receive Onesimus back into his home?

3.         Why did Paul attempt to persuade Philemon to receive Onesimus instead of commanding him as an apostle?


The Message of Colossians & Philemon, R.C. Lucas, Inter Varsity.

Colossians, Philemon, Richard Melick, Jr., NAC, Broadman.

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Douglas Moo, Pillar, Eerdmans.

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