Crossroads: Burying the Hatchet – Philemon


Philemon 12-17

Stats on Philemon and Onesimus

• Philemon – rich slaveowner in Colossae in Asia Minor; Christian, leader of the Colossian church
• Onesimus – probably a young man or teen, stole from Philemon and ran away, sought out Paul in prison and served him there
• Paul urged Philemon to free Onesimus, promising to pay for what Onesimus had stolen
• Tradition says that Philemon set Onesimus free and that Onesimus became the bishop of Ephesus (Ephesians was written to the people of Ephesus)

My Story

Many years ago when I was in elementary school, my family and I visited the Native American reservation in Cherokee, N.C. I remember many things about that trip, but there was one story I heard on that visit that has always been my strongest memory. One of the Cherokee, who was leading us on a tour, asked me this question: “Young man, do you know why we shake hands with our right hand instead of our left?” I told him I didn’t know, so he told me this story.

The truth is there are many reasons, but one historical practice goes back to the Native American tribes. They developed the practice of symbolically making peace with their enemies by throwing a hatchet into the ground. The right hand was the “hatchet hand,” so if the right hand was extended toward another person with an open gesture, that symbolized there was no hatchet present – the hatchet was buried. Basically, an empty or open right hand was a symbol of forgetting and forgiving—the person had buried the hatchet.

There are many people today who need to bury the hatchet. Forgiveness is so important, and the ability to forgive is one of the most important things a Christian can do. Burying the hatchet enables forgiveness to be real and sincere.

Your Story

Tell a story about a time in your life when you needed to forgive another person.
• What did the person do to you? How did he/she hurt you?
• How did you feel? Name as many specific feelings as you can.
• What did you want to do to the person? What did you actually do?
• Why is forgiving another person so difficult? What would make it easier?

The Bible Story

In the Bible story for this week, Onesimus is a runaway slave. He is the offender here because his actions have brought brokenness and pain into his relationship with his owner, Philemon. Philemon represents the person who was offended and hurt—he had been wronged. This situation creates several questions: What needs to happen to bring reconciliation to this broken relationship? What will it take for Onesimus and Philemon to ‘bury the hatchet’?

In verse 14, Paul says to Philemon, “Look, Onesimus has repented. He is now a Christian. But I am not going to force you to do anything. If you do it by force, you will always have bitterness in your heart. You, Philemon, must willingly forgive Onesimus. It is your decision.” Philemon needed to have a receptive heart for forgiveness—burying the hatchet—to occur.

As Christians, we are to be people who bury the hatchet. In our relationships with others, Christians are those who take others back (forgive them) even as God has taken us back. Forgiveness actually brings out the very best in us. It makes us Christ-like in all our relationships.

Discussion Questions

• What did Onesimus do to hurt his relationship with Philemon? Why do you think he acted this way?
• How do you think Philemon felt about Onesimus running away? How would you have felt if you were Philemon? How would you have felt if you were Onesimus?
• Why did Paul tell Philemon that he should forgive Onesimus? Do you think Philemon felt like forgiving Onesimus? Would you have forgiven him? Why or why not?
• Why didn’t Paul force Philemon to forgive Onesimus?
• Who has hurt your feelings recently? How did the person’s actions make you feel? Did you forgive him/her? Why or why not?
• What can we learn from the story of Onesimus and Philemon?

Prayer and Action

– Thank God for being with us when other people hurt our feelings.
– Ask God to help you forgive someone even when it’s very difficult to forgive them.
– Talk as a family about why ‘burying the hatchet’ is sometimes very difficult. What can you do as a family to make forgiveness easier?

Jessica Asbell is currently serving as the Minister to Children at First Baptist Church of Roswell, GA. She has worked with children in various capacities at several churches, including Winter Park Baptist in Wilmington, NC, First Baptist of Decatur, GA, and Highland Hills Baptist in Macon, GA. She has a Master of Divinity from McAfee School of Theology and a BBA from Mercer University. In her spare time she loves to read, watch movies, and of course spend time with her sweet kitty, Lucy.

Kevin Head began serving as Minister to Young Families at First Baptist Roswell, Georgia, in February 2012. He has pastored three churches in Kentucky and more recently served as Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Lumberton, North Carolina. In 2007, Kevin and his wife, Amy, began a ministry-based counseling practice called New Perspectives for Life in East Cobb, Georgia. He is a graduate of Furman University (B.A.) and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ph.D., M.Div.) in Louisville, Kentucky. Kevin was ordained by the First Baptist Church of Belvedere, South Carolina. His model of ministry is based on John 8 and the amazing, continual grace of Jesus Christ. Kevin and Amy have two children, Jenna and Joshua.

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