Sunday School Lessons

Returner or Returnee?

Have you ever gotten on bad terms with someone else, and later realized that you were mistaken or had made a bad choice in how you handled it?  Or, maybe you and someone else fought, but they realized that they were wrong?

When this happens, we sometimes still remain apart, with one – or both – parties knowing that they said or did something that they shouldn’t have, but being too proud or afraid to take the first step towards reconciliation.  Other times, though, one person will decide that the relationship is more important than their pride, and reach out with an olive branch (probably not a real branch, but some other overture that offers the other person a chance to continue healing the rift).

When someone returns after offending another person, though, there’s a choice to be made.  The person who has been wronged has the option (and often a legitimate legal opportunity) to exact justice or punishment.  An apology may need to be shared.  An explanation may need to be offered.  A replacement may need to be provided for a household item that was broken while being loaned out.  A hard decision may need to be made, in order to balance the scales again.

It can be tough to forgive, even when the other person apologizes.  However, as we see in the story of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-24), God’s example is the total opposite.  Here, the father welcomed the younger son home again with open arms, despite this son’s previous rudeness and offensiveness to his father.

However, for us to be restored back to the family of God, after we chose to rebel against Him and separate ourselves from Him, it wasn’t as simple as a hug and a handshake.  We owed a debt of sin.  The problem was, we could never pay back God for what we had taken from Him and spoiled.  Because God loved us so much, though, He Himself paid for what we owed.  God didn’t ignore justice, but Jesus (God the Son) chose to pay the price, so that we can be welcomed back (Galatians 4:5).

In the book of Philemon, Paul is reminding Philemon (the letter’s recipient) that a runaway named Onesimus is no longer just another person who works for him (Philemon).  Instead, Philemon and Onesimus are now fellow brothers, both adopted into the family of God.

It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever.

Philemon 1:15 NLT

The short book of Philemon describes how we should react when we are given the chance to reconcile.  When someone returns to us, seeking forgiveness and peace, we can choose to accept their apology (or even reach out to start the healing process before then), or we can remain offended and stubborn.  For the follower of Jesus, though, who has been brought back from a situation that was not self-fixable, there really isn’t a choice, here.  We cannot – in good conscience – having received overwhelming forgiveness for our sins, not extend that to others (see Matthew 18:21-35).

On the other hand, we can also learn about Onesimus’ obligations from the book of Philemon.  As someone who was seeking restoration, after learning the truth about Jesus and finding forgiveness from God, Onesimus doesn’t necessarily get a free pass.  There is no place for him to take advantage of Philemon’s faith, now that they share the same faith.  Just as Onesimus helped Paul (out of love and gratitude), Onesimus can choose to serve Philemon in the same way, as a fellow believer.  This would honor both Philemon and God in the process.  (See 1 Timothy 6:1-2.)

In the same way, when we receive God’s forgiveness, we’re expected to not just keep offending God.  While Christians still stumble sometimes, it would be downright rude (and worse) to receive such an amazing gift and continue to insult God by willfully sinning when we know better.

So, whether we are the returner or the returnee, may we handle broken relationships in the way that Paul outlined in the book of Philemon: with love and grace.  Is there someone whose relationship with you has been broken, and you need to go back and restore it (whether or not you were at fault)?

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

From Sunday School lesson prepared for (and delivered on) November 29, 2020.


  • Christian Standard, Volume CLV, Number 11, pages 89-90. © 2020 Christian Standard Media.
  • The College Press Commentary, Philippians, Colossians & Philemon, by Anthony L. Ash, Ph. D.  College Press Publishing Company, © 1994.
  • Encyclopedia of the Bible, via
  • Theology of Work Bible Commentary, via
  • Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete). Matthew Henry. 1706, via

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