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Forgiveness and Reconciliation

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Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal, who was interned at a Jewish concentration camp from 1941-1945 and survived tells the story of a Nazi SS office whom he was brought to at a German hospital was taken to this officer
Simon Wiesenthal was a holocaust survivor. He was held at a German concentration camp from 1941-1945. During this time, he was assigned to duty at a German military hospital when he was taken to the bedside of a Nazi SS officer. When he arrived at the young officer’s bedside, all he said was he wanted to speak to a Jew. This officer was critically injured. His entire midsection from his head to his waist was completely covered in blood-soaked bandages. Wiesenthal quickly noticed that this man was facing certain death. As he got to the bedside, the office asked if he was a Jew and said that it was important that he speak to a Jew. Wiesenthal told him that he was, in fact, a Jew. The officer then proceeded to tell his story. The officer’s story took the better part of two hours to tell, and in this time, he told that he was born and raised a catholic, and how he had joined the Hitler Youth at fourteen, and how he bought in to all the Nazi propaganda. This officer believed that he was racially superior to most all people, especially Jews, and it was now that he desired to speak to a “sub-human.”
Two years before this moment in these men’s lives, the officer had raided a town of Jews, and they arrested and sent all the Jews they could find into one house. The troops then proceeded to lock the doors so that no one could get out of the house and poured gasoline all around the house. The officer talked about looking into one of the windows of the upper floor of the house and how he remembered seeing a family in the window. The officer remembered seeing a mother, father and two children sitting in the window. As the flames got higher and higher, the family made a life or death decision to jump out the window together. As they jumped the onlooking troop began to open fire on the family trying to jump for their lives. As more and more people tried the same thing, they all met the same fate. Relentless machine gun fire met these men, women, and children as they tried escaping certain death.
Now the officer finds himself facing certain death as well, and according to his catholic upbringing, he needed to find a Jew to absolve him of the things he had done. He desired to be forgiven. When the officer finished his story, he asked Wiesenthal, “Would you forgive me?” and without hesitation, Wiesenthal got up and left the room without saying a word.
For thirty years he carried this around with him. He says in his autobiography that he sensed that this man was truly seeking to be forgiven for what he had done, but Wiesenthal was not sure at the time how to really approach that issue. He shared this very same story with other theologians about this issue, and what they would have done, and the responses were practically the same that they all would have done the same thing. One man was even quoted as saying, “He should have died right then and gone straight to hell.”
Philemon 1–25 ESV
1 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: 3 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, 5 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. 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 bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 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. 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
To quote Denny Autrey he says, “Forgiveness is something everybody needs, and everybody wants, but often times few are willing to give.” Scripture is laced with forgiveness. In fact, it was for forgiveness that Jesus died.
It is said that the only thing the church produces eternally is relationships. The church produces people with a relationship with God and other people, and those other people produce relationships with others. In the course of these relationships, they can become fractured. Mankind’s relationship with God became permanently fracture in the garden of Eden when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, but that fracture was healed at the cross.
There is a small book in the New Testament by the name of Philemon, and this short, personal letter shares a powerful lesson on forgiveness and reconciliation. What precipitated this letter is Paul who is in his 60’s at the time he wrote this was in prison in Rome, and he comes into contact with this runaway salve Onesimus. After doing what Paul does best, which is share the gospel with him, and Onesimus becomes a Christian, Paul finds out that he has run away from his master for whatever reason (scholars seem to lean to the idea that he may have stole some money from Philemon) Paul learns that his owner is also a convert under Paul’s preaching. Paul tells Onesimus to return to Philemon with this letter, and Paul presents his case for Onesimus, and we see how the gospel plays a part in the reconciliation of the two.
The text:
This letter is headed differently than most of Paul’s other letters in that he says he is a prisoner for Jesus (v. 1). He includes Timothy in the letter because more than likely Timothy is very close by him at this point. This letter is addressed to Philemon (whom he calls a beloved fellow worker), Apphia (who more than likely Philemon’s wife), Archippus (which some believe may be Philemon’s son, but we have no evidence to support this claim), and the church that is in Philemon’s house.
Early churches did not meet in buildings as we know them now, many of them met in houses, and what would usually happen is whoever had the largest house, would usually host the church body meetings, so this leads us to believe that Philemon was either a prominent member of the community, or a leader in the church, or possibly both.
Paul then leads into the normal apostolic greeting of grace and peace (v. 3) and then into his prayer of thanksgiving for Philemon. In verses four through seven Paul speaks to Philemon’s character in that he had a great love in his faith to Jesus, and all of the Christians, and speaks to how he refreshes the hearts of the saints around him. The word here for refresh gives us the idea of an army returning from a march and taking a rest. Philemon seems to be a place of refuge for those worn out from the work of the ministry.
Paul then jumps right to the heart of the matter in verses eight through twenty-one where he begins his plea for Onesimus. He starts out in verse eight by saying, I could command you to do what I am about to ask you, but instead I will appeal to your love for the saints. Paul could have used his apostolic authority to tell Philemon what was expected of him, but instead he pleads with him by saying, “do an old man this favor.” In verse ten, we see what Paul is going to get to here as he says, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus.” Paul considered those who came to know Christ under his teaching children, just as he considered Timothy his child in the faith. This gives us the idea that Paul had a very influential and intimate relationship with those he won to Christ.
Paul inserts a parenthetical statement in verse eleven by saying, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.” This becomes a play on words for Paul since Onesimus means “useful one” and Paul tells him that in spite of what has transpired, he is now worth something to both of the men. Paul then tells Philemon that he is sending Onesimus back, but Paul could use him but he wont keep Onesimus without Philemon’s permission.
Paul then starts to get to the heart of the matter here in verse fifteen where he tells Philemon that there is a reason for all of this happening, and now he is asking that Philemon accept him not just as a slave, but as a brother in the faith as well.
We must digress here for a moment and discuss the issue of slavery. Paul is by no means asking for Philemon to release Onesimus, in fact Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon because it was the right thing to do. Slavery was considered a social norm at that time. One could be born into slavery, be taken as a slave because of a debt, or perhaps brought into slavery because of being conquered. Salve could buy their freedom if they were able to raise the money and pay off their master. Some even received educations at their master’s expense and pick up a trade to make them more useful and profitable. The issue of slaver was not even on the church’s radar at this point because, and most of these slaves were considered part of the owner’s family, and many were even taken care of. There is nothing in the text to lend to the idea that Paul is urging Philemon to release him.
Social justice issues become a by-product of Christianity. The gospel changes people, and by extension, the social justice issues are handled because of the mindset change. The gospel is not necessarily politically driven, but causes political change because of the mindset change.
Paul now gets to the focal point of the letter in verses seventeen and eighteen:
Philemon 17–18 ESV
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.
Paul is dealing with a runaway slave at this point, and by law, Onesimus was to be punished and perhaps executed for running away, but Paul intercedes here on Onesimus’ behalf. Paul tells Philemon, “if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” What Paul is saying here is that he is appealing to Philemon to accept Onesimus just as he would Paul. In verse eighteen, Paul tells Philemon that if there is a debt to be paid, to charge it to Paul. Paul promises in verse nineteen, and is specific about saying that this portion he is writing with his own hand and says he will repay the debt. What Paul did here was make a promissory note on Onesimus’ behalf. He is offering to pay a debt that he does not owe. This is how Paul modeled Christ in his life and ministry.
Paul then tells Philemon in the second part of verse nineteen, “to say nothing of your owing me even of your own self.” What Paul is saying here, that through his conversion to Christianity that Philemon should have a debt of gratitude to Paul because he shared the gospel with him and due to that his eternal soul has been saved.
Paul then says in verse twenty that there is a perk for Paul in this situation and that through Philemon’s forgiveness, it will refresh Paul’s heart. Paul then makes an interesting statement that should be noted here in verse twenty-one. In it he says, “Confident in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Paul is counting on Philemon’s love and obedience to Jesus’ commands in this situation. Philemon faced a peculiar situation by accepting Onesimus back. If he didn’t punish Onesimus in some aspect, those that owned slaved faced the risk of their slaves turning to Christianity and just doing whatever they wished and using their faith as an excuse to get away with whatever. On the other hand, if Philemon punished Onesimus without hesitation, then he stood to loose the character qualities that Paul had applauded him for at the very beginning of the letter, yet Paul says he is confident in Philemon’s obedience to do the right thing.
Paul then begins to close out his letter to Philemon by saying that he is praying to get out of prison and come visit to check on things there in the Colossae area so Philemon was to prepare a guest room for him for his stay.
So what?
Paul makes a very impassioned plea on behalf of Onesimus in this situation, and there is one key element that binds these three men together and that is the gospel. Paul was acquainted with Philemon, Onesimus was Philemon’s slave who ran away possibly with stolen money. He ends up a thousand miles away from home in Rome hoping to blend in with the crowd and just disappear, yet by divine providence, He runs into Paul. Paul shares the gospel with him, and he accepts Jesus as his savior. This one moment changed the whole dynamic of the trio’s relationship.
Paul becomes a spiritual parent of sorts to not only Philemon by the ministry Paul had in Ephesus, but through his Roman imprisonment, he managed to bear more spiritual children.

The gospel is the change that changes everything

By the three men having their faith in Jesus in common, they were able to see eye to eye in this situation. Here we have a runaway slave that, once returned to his master, was subject to harsh punishment and possibly death, yet Paul pleads on his behalf that Philemon not do that, and simply forgive him and accept him back not only as a his slave, but as a brother in Christ. This is what changed the dynamic. The gospel became the catalyst for the reconciliation process.
Jesus reconciles us to God through the cross. That heals the broken relationship caused by sin. When we become reconciled to God, it then becomes necessary to understand how that forgiveness and reconciliation affect us now.

By showing forgiveness, we can be a model of Jesus

By showing forgiveness, we model Christ

Jesus forgave over and over. Jesus exemplified forgiveness even at the point of death as He was being nailed to the cross he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (cf. ). In the middle of his execution, He asked forgiveness for those that were putting Him to death.
Paul told Philemon that whatever Onesimus owed him, to charge it to Paul’s account and tells him that it will be repaid. Paul is modeling Christ by taking on a debt that he doesn’t owe, and he is calling Philemon to model Christ by forgiving the runaway slave of his wrong doing.
This is the model we are called to exemplify in our lives. When we show forgiveness, we model Christ for others and we practice what we preach., and this is the model that Paul set forth for those that believe and what he was speaking of when he wrote to the Corinthian church:
1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV
1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
Paul did what he needed to do in order to be the example he wanted people to live like, and that was to be a living example of Christ for others.

Forgiving others is an act of obedience

Peter asked Jesus in Matthew chapter eighteen, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus’ response was, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus expects us to forgive others, and he specifically commanded us to be reconciled with others before we even make an offering to God:
Matthew 5:21–24 ESV
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Jesus requires that those that follow Him be reconciled with others before we can move forward. This is important because lack of forgiveness will hold us back and become a stumbling block for us, and there is a risk that we run of possibly not being forgiven for things when we show a lack of forgiveness.
Matthew 5:14–15 ESV
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
Matthew 6:14–15 ESV
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Ultimately God decides what is forgiven and what is not, but it would appear that there is a risk of not being forgiven if we are holding something over someone’s head.
Ultimately God decides what is forgiven and what is not, but it would appear that there is a risk of not being forgiven our daily sins if we are holding something over someone’s head and withholding forgiveness.

We must forgive because Jesus has forgiven us.

This is the message Paul is presenting to Philemon. He reiterates this point to the Ephesians:
Ephesians 4:32 ESV
32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
God did not withhold forgiveness from us, and therefor we should not withhold forgiveness from others. This is our duty as Christians, and it is an act of obedience, and a model of Christ.
The Christian life is not about what you say, it’s about what you do in relation to other people. Forgiveness in a modern world is hard to come by. We live in a society where we believe that it is ok to do as you please and there are no consequences for it. We build relationships and sometimes those relationships get fractured. Whether it be because of what we have done or what others have done, there must be forgiveness involved in some way.
Onesimus was a runaway slave, and that fractured the relationship between him and Philemon. When he became a Christian, Paul encouraged him to make things right with his master, and sent him back with this simple letter. Paul did not demand that Philemon accept Onesimus back and forgive him. Paul appealed to Philemon’s heart in this scenario. He appealed to his love for people to encourage him to forgive Onesimus.
People hurt us, and the one thing we tend to withhold is forgiveness. We may say, “I have forgiven, but I don’t forget.” While that is natural, it would seem that by using that statement, there may actually be an issue of lack of forgiveness in our lives. The gospel changes how we relate to people, and that is what happened in this situation.
In order to truly give forgiveness, we must first be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. If we have not gotten to that point, then we will never truly be able to give or even receive forgiveness from others. Have you placed your faith in Jesus? If you haven’t, I encourage you to do that today.
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