The Most Shocking Letter in the Ancient World? (Philemon 1–7)

When one reads through the Bible each year, while Exodus lasts a matter of weeks, and Ezekiel seems to never end, Philemon is mist soon forgotten. It is read one day a year and with a few other chapters from another book. But what we are so quick to pass over might have been one of the most shocking letters in the ancient world.

The nature of one’s slavery in the Roman Empire depended on the nature of their lord. A slave’s lot might be such that he is envied by many free men, or, it might be horrid beyond our comprehension. The slave/lord relationship would most often be dominated by fear. Lords fearing their slaves and slaves their masters. Slaves comprised upwards of a third of the Roman Empire. Most were owned by few, and no double many of the non-elite would side with the slaves. Though over a century past, Spartacus’ slave rebellion was an indelible cultural memory. Once that rebellion was quelled, some six thousand captives were crucified lining the Appian Way, the major highway to Rome, for over a hundred miles. Roman men were taught to dominate their households and ensure the submission of their slaves by whatever force necessary.

A runaway slave being returned to their master could expect the harshest of treatment and likely death. But, here is Philemon, returning, not by force, but willingly, with a letter from Paul, asking that his lord receive him as a brother.

This kind of thing can only happen in Christ. Paul doesn’t attack slavery head on. He attacks no social evil in this way. Sinners gotta sin. Outside of Christ, all is Babel. In Christ, there is Pentecost. Outside of Christ, man doesn’t understand man, man is fearful of man, and man is against man. Outside of Christ fear rules the relations of men. Outside of Christ, the powerful enslave the weak in a multitude of ways. Outside of Christ, even brothers kill one another. But in Christ, Pentecost has brought the different together. In Christ, Jew and Gentile, slave and free sup around one table as brothers with their Lord serving them. In Christ, we are speaking and hearing one message—Jesus. Only in Jesus do we see reconciliation and forgiveness of this magnitude and we see it in Jesus because it is dwarfed by that which we have received in Him.

Tolle Lege: Unpacking Forgiveness

Unpacking ForgivenessReadability: 1

Length: 193 pp

Author: Chris Brauns

Sometimes forgiveness is hard. Some people make it too easy. I don’t mean easy to forgive them, they make the act of forgiveness too easy. They say forgiveness is to be automatic and unconditional. I like Unpacking Forgiveness because no matter which side of the teeter-totter the big kid has you stuck on there is solid Biblical wisdom for you here. Forgiveness can be extended in the hardest of situations, and it shouldn’t be automatic, and sometimes there are consequences to actions even after forgiveness. This book is Biblically faithful, incredibly practical, illuminatingly illustrated, and deeply needed.

[God’s] forgiveness can he defined in the following way.

God’s forgiveness: A commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences.

God’s forgiveness is gracious. He offers forgiveness freely. This is not because forgiveness is free in terms of cost. It is a very expensive gift that can be offered freely because, motivated by love, God sent his one and only Son to pay the price for it.

God’s forgiveness is a commitment. When God forgives us, he makes a commitment that we are pardoned from our sin and that it is no longer counted against us.

God’s forgiveness is conditional. Only those who repent and have saving faith are forgiven.

God’s forgiveness lays the groundwork for and begins the process of reconciliation. When God forgives us, our relationship with him is restored.

Not all consequences are immediately eliminated. God disciplines his children as a father disciplines his children (Proverbs 3:12).

God expects believers to forgive others in the way that he forgave them.

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Busted Myth # 1: Forgive and Forget – Impossible!

The virtue of slogans is brevity. Their vice is ambiguity. So they are risky ways of communicating. They are powerful and perilous. So we should exploit the power and explain the peril.  – John Piper in Desiring God

The danger of a cliché or slogan is that they can make the unintelligent seam brilliant. This is often the route to accepting stupidity and heralding it as wisdom. I believe such to be the case with “forgive and forget.” Perhaps there is some individual who meant this simply to say that you must not bring up the incident of offence, that is, you refuse to prosecute anew. Alas if he could behold his cult. Humanly it is impossible to forget some things, especially the worst of things, the things that call for amazing forgiveness. To put such a burden upon a rape victim, or a molested child, and say that they have not truly forgiven their enemies unless they forget that wretched event is to play the Pharisee and heap heavy unbearable burdens upon such persons, a burden that they, if in the same position, surely could not, would not carry (Matthew 23:4).

“Ah, but God forgets! …Right?” This is the issue that I really want to address. God does not forget – ever! God does not forget – anything! He is omniscient; this is never compromised.  God does not forget our sins, He remembered them on Jesus. He removes our sins, washes us from our sins, forgives us of our sins, and takes away our sins, but He does not forget them. If God could simply forget sin, what need is there for an atonement where sins are paid for? We wouldn’t need an atonement; God simply need perform a lobotomy on Himself.

On this John MacArthur said:

I’ve heard people suggest that God forgets our sins when He forgives. They usually cite Hebrews 10:17: ‘Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more’ (cf. 8:12). Or Isaiah 43:25: ‘I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.’

But those verses don’t say God forgets our sins. They say He will not remember them. What’s the difference? To forget something is to have no memory of it. Obviously God, who is omniscient, has not lost His memory of our transgressions. Rather, He refuses to call them to mind. He promises not to bring them up.

Wayne Grudem states:

Someone may object that God promises to forget our sins. For example, he says, ‘I will not remember your sins’ (Isa. 43:25). Yet passages like this can certainly be understood to mean that God will never again let the knowledge of these sins play any part in the way he relates to us: he will ‘forget’ them in his relationship to us. – in Systematic Theology

I’ll wrap this up by dealing with the two oft cited texts, Hebrews 10:17 and Psalm 103:12.  In Hebrews 10 the single offering of Christ is being contrasted with the plethora of sacrifices under the Old Covenant. Under the old system there was a reminder for sins every year (Hebrews 10:3). Every year at the Day of Atonement all Israel was reminded of their sins.  Now under Christ a decisive payment for sin has been made once for all. God will not bring our sins up against us because they have been paid for. This is not the language of memory loss, but redemption. When I pay a bill the creditor doesn’t remember it anymore, against me. This means not that they wiped every record it from their databases; but that they have marked it as paid. I don’t want to hear my creditor ever say they have lost record of previous bills, I want to hear them say they have received payment. I don’t want God to forget my sins, for all eternity I want the Son to remind Him that my sins are paid for.

Finally Psalm 103:12 says nothing about forgetting but removing. My sins are removed from me, where are they placed? Into some abyss of forgetfulness? No they are placed on Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Again, God does not forget our sins, He remembered them all on Jesus, once for all.