Philemon: Repentance & Reconciliation

Read the Bible in 2011Week 38: Sunday

If then you regard me a partner,
accept him as you would me.

Philemon 17

Sunday’s Bible reading is one of Paul’s prison epistles (verse 1), written to Philemon, about Philemon’s returning slave, Onesimus. Onesimus is mentioned in Colossians 4:9 as a fellow Colossian who along with Tychicus (Colossians 4:7) brought letters and news from Paul. From this it’s logical to conclude that Philemon was also a Colossian.1

As you read the letter you learn Paul is appealing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, a slave who had not only runaway from his master, Philemon, but also appeared to have stolen something of Philemon’s (vv. 18–19). At some later time Onesimus met Paul and became a Christian (v. 10).

Repentance, restitution (cf. Luke 19:1-10), forgiveness and reconciliation are all taught in this real-life scenario. Paul states that now Philemon would have Onesimus, “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.” In verse 17 Paul uses a word translated as accept that means:

To take to oneself…or to receive…signifying a special interest on the part of the receiver, suggesting a welcome.2

To receive, i.e., grant one access to one’s heart…3

That’s the extent of the reconciliation Paul desires.

Reconciliation involves both Onesimus and Philemon. Onesimus has acknowledged the wrong he had done and wants to do what he can to make things right (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:9–12). Full restitution seems to be beyond his abilities, so Paul has stepped in (verse 18).

I think it’s important to realize that repentance involves not just regret and sorrow over the wrong, but a recognition of the harm done and a zeal to undo that harm as much as possible (again: cf. 2 Corinthians 7:9–12). Now Philemon must forgive Onesimus from the heart (cf. Matthew 18:21–35, Ephesians 4:32).

Forgiveness can be terribly hard, and sometimes harm cannot be undone, but must be borne; however, I think the repentant person who is truly zealous to restore and reconcile  does much to ease bearing of consequences by the one wronged when he understands the extent of the harm he did. I’m obviously not talking about backhanded, self-righteous apologies such as, “I’m sorry you took things the way you did,” that make it appear as if the whole matter was the fault of the person wronged, but rather an active desire to restore and reconcile.

It can help to have someone like Paul step in. William Hendriksen has insight into Paul’s words in a discussion on tactfulness. Surprising topic to find in a commentary, isn’t it? But I was impressed with Hendriksen’s thoughts and interested to find that he pulled in the book of Proverbs, the current Bible reading for Thursdays (emphasis added):

In the various textbooks of the biblical sciences this subject is generally neglected. Yet it is by no means of minor importance. Tactfulness is definitely a virtue….in its noblest form it is a product of special grace. Its parents are Love and Wisdom. It is that skill which, without any sacrifice of honesty or candor, enables a person to speak the right word at the right time, and to do the proper thing in any given situation. It is premeditated prudence…The tactful person does not shirk his duty even when he is convinced that he must admonish or rebuke. But he has learned the art of doing this without being rude. He is humble, patient and kind. The apostle Paul draws his picture in I Cor. 13.

…In fact, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons for Paul’s almost unbelievable success as a missionary was his tact in dealing with men. [Hendriksen gives examples from 1 Cor. 9:22; Acts 13:16–41, 17:22–31; 1 Thess. 2:11, 2:9, 2:5]…and in his epistles would be careful, whenever possible, to speak words of praise and encouragement before presenting his reprimanding admonitions. Yet, he never used words of flattery (I Thess. 2:11), and was able, when the occasion demanded this course, to say, O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”

Before taking leave of this subject of the use of tact it should be pointed out that this application of discretion or prudence in practical matters is as it were a theme that runs through the book of Proverbs from beginning to end. See especially Prov. 1:4; 2:1-5; 2:11; 3:1-12; 3:21; 5:2; 8:12; 10:19; 11:22; 15:1, 17, 28; 19:11; 22:24, 25; 25:11.4

Paul’s sincere love and wisdom shine in his help to Onesimus and his appeal to Philemon:

Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.
Philemon 20–21

Isaiah 42 Photograph: – Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publications
1Donald Guthrie, “Colossians,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds., p. 1153.
2W. E. Vine, Old Testament edited by F. F. Bruce, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1981, Vol. 3, p. 255.
3Blue Letter Bible. “Dictionary and Word Search for proslambanō (Strong’s 4355)”. Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2010. 20 Oct 2010. (Expand Thayer’s Lexicon).
4William Hendriksen, “Appendix: Scripture on Tactfulness,” New Testament Commentary: Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, pp. 231–232.

Original content: Copyright ©2011 Iwana Carpenter

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