This tiny, easily-overlooked, single chaptered book contains within it such a beautiful parallel to the plan of redemption. And it’s such an incredible testimony of the power of the Spirit when allowed full access to the heart of a sinful man.
Paul, himself once a persecutor of Christianity, has been so fully converted that his character reflects that of Jesus to everyone with which he comes in contact. His life is wrapped up in ministering to the needs of the people, praying for the workers who are meeting discouragement, temptation and strife, and encouraging each to fasten their eyes on the prize.
He was snatched from the hands of the deceiver and given a great and mighty work to do. And we see clearly that he put his hand directly to the plow.
In his letter to Philemon, we hear his petition on behalf on Onesimus, a runaway slave who Paul shared the gospel with while in prison. He was converted to the faith from pagan darkness and Paul counted him as a brother and son. Paul had directed Onesimus back to Philemon, from whom he had escaped, and we hear him appeal to the tenderest places of Philemon’s own Christian experience so that he might receive his servant as he would Paul…
If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. (verse 17)
But Paul goes further than just making the appeal to Philemon to receive Onesimus kindly. He freely offers to assume the debt Onesimus may have incurred in his unexcused absence.
If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on my account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: (verse 18, 19)
Do you see it? The parallel here between what Paul has offered and what Christ has done? Because it’s incredible and such an example to us even today.
The servant (Onesimus) had robbed his master (Philemon) of his service and had nothing with which to repay him. So also does fallen man rob God of years of service while he dabbles in sin and the world, and when he finally sees the error of his way realizes he has no way to cancel his debt. But then Jesus stands between fallen man and the punishment he is due and tells the Judge (God) that He will pay the debt. In full.
And He pays it so thoroughly that the sinner is cleansed of his guilt and set free to serve willingly. No punishment or restitution is required because the debt has been cancelled. In like manner, we see Paul reflect the love and character of Christ in his intercession between Onesimus and Philemon.
But notice how he carefully appealed to the very heart of the frustrated slaveholder. Picking back up in the rest of verse 19…
Albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.
Paul simply reminded Philemon that God had used himself as the instrument through which Philemon had come to Christ, as well. Gently reminding him that he also was ransomed at a price. And Paul encourages him that he fully trusts and expects that he’ll respond to this petition for Onesimus to be received with Christian kindness.
Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say. (verse 21)
Because taking a peek back, starting with verse 14, we see Paul point out that their should be a transition from the servant-master relationship to one of brotherhood…
For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him forever; Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a beloved brother, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord? (verse 15, 16)
What a gift for encouragement this aged Apostle has chosen to foster. He is speaking to a converted slaveholder, gently and carefully and with the tenderest discretion, of the abhorrence of slavery. He didn’t kick the practice out from under him, because he knew the damage to the gospel that might do if not handled with care. Instead he entreated this master to lean into his newfound faith in the one who came to loose chains rather than tighten them.
We are given a pattern here, and if we’re wise we’ll be careful not to miss it. Let’s break the lessons from this chapter down real quick in closing…
- Forgive one another our debts.
- Take it a step further and pay (or assume) the debt of another. In simple terms, we should make it our mission to see as many won to the gospel as is possible without regard for how we’ve been wronged or what we are owed. Our work is for Christ and He’ll settle all balances.
- Be careful to not elevate ourselves above anyone else. We are a brotherhood (or sisterhood)
- Exercise tact and discretion when addressing evil in the established order of society. God likes it even less than we do but He needs colaborers in the work, not wrecking balls who undo what He’s doing in their passion for reform.