This post is part of my bible in a year series.
Passage and Comments
There are three people in this story. Paul the apostle, Philemon the master and Onesimus the slave.
In the course of Paul’s ministry he has shared the gospel with Philemon and he came to believe.
Now Philemon had a slave named Onesimus and something happened between the two of them which made Onesimus flee.
Onesimus did flee and eventually he met up with Paul. Its possible Onesimus resorted to theft to feed himself which is why he was in prison.
Paul is in prison for the gospel.
Paul also shared the gospel (as he is want to do) with Onesimus in prison and Onesimus (praise God) believed.
Onesimus no doubt told Paul what the situation was between himself and his master Philemon. At this point Onesimus has been helpful to Paul in some way.
Paul doesn’t want to take Philemon’s property away from him so he sends this letter to him with the hope of reconciling the two.
Today’s passage says a bit about Paul’s concept of sin and payment of debts.
8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.
11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. (Phm 8-11)
Paul believes he has authority over Philemon. Is it because he is an apostle or because he is a father to him through the gospel (1 Cor 4.15; Phm 10)?
Regardless, Paul wants Philemon to know that he could order him but he wants to appeal to his sense of love instead.
Onesimus has now become useful to both of them.
12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel,
14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. (Phm 12-14)
Of the two options Paul prefers to send Onesimus back to him.
‘So your goodness might be of your own accord’
This decision may put Paul in a difficult situation of not having as many people to look after him, work with him and perhaps feed him.
15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Phm 15-16)
Hopefully now, since Onesimus is a brother to him they will have a better relationship.
17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.
20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. (Phm 17–20)
Paul refers to his account. The analogy is one of bookkeeping.
Because Paul has shared the gospel with Philemon and he has been saved. Paul believes Philemon owes him. Paul also understands what has happened between Philemon and Onesimus. Onesimus owes Philemon. If I were to mark a hypothetical quota for Philemon up it might look something like this.
- Paul -100
- Onesimus +20
Paul is saying, deduct what Onesimus owes you from what you owe me.
- Paul -80
- Onesimus – No debt
In the New Testament sin is comparable to monetary debts (Rom 6.23; Isa 40.1-2; 65.6-7). Sin increases the debt level.
(For an interesting read check out Sin, A History. By G.A. Anderson)
Normally debts are settled by punishment.
Jesus death on the cross wipes out all our sins.
Forgiveness wipes out debt (Mt 18.23-35). In some cases giving alms (Prov 19.17) and we see here sharing the gospel (Phm 18-19), accrue some sort of balance that can be used to pay off sins as debts.
Jesus worked with the same understanding as well.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Mt 18:23–35)
We are all indebted to God for the forgiveness of our own debts. He expects us to forgive others as he has forgiven us (Mt 6.6).