The letter that Paul wrote to Philemon is a strange inclusion in the New Testament. It’s short. Just one chapter and 25 verses. It seems to simply be Paul intervening on behalf of a new friend who has had a conflict with his master (Onesimus was Philemon’s slave).
But try reading it as if it were Jesus’ letter to you personally, and it takes on new meaning:
Therefore, although in I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. I appeal to you for my son/daughter who became my child as a result of their trust in my death and resurrection. Formerly (s)he was not much use to you, but now (s)he has become useful both to you and to me.
So if you consider me as a partner, welcome him/her as you would welcome me. If (s)he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me…I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart as you show your faith in me. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
I think Philemon was included in the Bible to remind us of our need to forgive our Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus is reminding us that we have been forgiven of so much more than we will ever need to forgive someone else. He admonishes us that we owe Him our very lives and suggests that until we forgive, we are not much benefit to Him. The parable of the unmerciful servant comes to mind.
Unforgiveness breaks our fellowship with God. At the end of the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35), the man who wouldn’t forgive is released to the jailers (tormentors) to be tortured until he has paid back everything he owed. That sounds like hell, but it can’t be, because the unmerciful servant is a picture of a believer, who has been forgiven for all his sins.
The torture that Jesus is talking about in this parable is the torture we go through when we have unforgiveness in our hearts. We are separated from God and lack His protection and His favor. We suffer from stewing anger and resentment, jealousy and sometimes hatred. The good news is that it’s so easy to pay back everything we owe and get out of this prison. All we have to do is forgive. That’s what we were given. That’s what we owe.
Jesus ends his letter to us in Philemon asking us to prepare a room for Him (in our hearts). He wants to restore the relationship we’ve lost in our unforgiveness. He’s ready to return His protection and His favor to our lives. All we have to do is pay what we owe, and it’s no more than we’ve been given.
Remember when Peter was asked about paying the temple tax? He didn’t have the money to pay, but when he went to Jesus about it, Jesus sent him fishing. The first fish Peter caught had a four-drachma coin inside – enough to pay the tax for both of them. God won’t ask us to give more than we have. He will supply everything we need. We just have to be willing to be obedient. If you are struggling to forgive someone, don’t try to find it in yourself. Ask God to supply what you need. You are just moments away from restoration.