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. – Philemon 1:17-20 ESV
It’s quite easy to give advice to others. In fact, it comes naturally to most of us. Sharing our opinions and providing free counsel to our friends and family members just seem like good things to do. We can even back up our good intentions from the “Good Book.”
Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. – Proverbs 11:14 ESV
But even the best counsel, motivated by the best intentions, doesn’t always produce the best outcomes. Telling someone what they ought to do, without providing them any hint as to how to do it, can be demoralizing and even damaging.
Paul was asking Philemon to accept his runaway slave back with open arms. Not only that, but he was also advising Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother and not as a slave. And everything Paul wrote to Philemon was biblically sound and spiritually appropriate. It was wise counsel coming from a godly and well-meaning friend. And yet, from Philemon’s perspective, it was all “easier said than done.” Paul, under house arrest in Rome and with plenty of time on his hands, could write Philemon a hundred letters full of godly advice on a wide range of topics, but at the end of the day, it was Philemon who would have to turn Paul’s rhetoric into reality. And that was not going to be easy.
And Paul was quite clear in expressing how he expected Philemon to treat Onesimus.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. – Philemon 1:17 NLT
Philemon was to show Onesimus the same courtesy and respect he would extend to Paul if he were to walk in the door. That was a tall order. Paul was asking Philemon to respond in a manner that was antithetical to logic and social protocol. For him to treat any slave with that kind of respect and honor would have been unheard of in civil society. And yet, Paul was asking him to extend this kind of courtesy to a runaway. Remember, Paul told Philemon that Onesimus was “no longer like a slave to you” (Philemon 1:16 NLT). That was easy for Paul to say. But in Philemon’s social circle, everyone would have known that Onesimus was his slave. And when he returned, they would have expected Philemon to deal with him according to Roman law. To not do so would have set a dangerous precedent. If Philemon failed to punish Onesimus for running away, it might encourage other slaves to follow his example. Other slave owners in the community, and possibly in the church, would have viewed his kind and gracious treatment of Onesimus as unacceptable behavior.
And Paul was fully aware of the gravity of his request of Philemon. He knew his request would not be easy to follow, and it could also prove costly. Paul was cognizant of the fact that Onesimus represented a financial investment for Philemon. In the economic system of Rome, Onesimus had a monetary value that was greater than his human worth. He was a commodity whose appraisal was based on his production capacity or resale value. So, when Paul asked Philemon to set Onesimus free, he was asking his friend to take a substantial hit to his bottom line.
But look closely at what Paul wrote next: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Philemon 1:18 ESV). You might say that Paul was putting his money where his mouth was. He was backing up his wise words with the promise of action. Paul was personally investing himself in the process of reconciliation between these two men.
When Paul told Philemon, “charge that to my account,” he was essentially saying “impute the debt of Onesimus to me.” It was like saying, “put it on my tab.” Paul was committing himself to make up any financial liability Philemon might face as a result of following his advice. Paul was willingly putting skin in the game. And Paul’s model for this kind of selfless and sacrificial commitment was Jesus.
For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT
Jesus had come to earth so that He might reconcile sinful men to God. And in order to do so, He took on their debt. He bore their sins on the cross and died the death they deserved to die. And because those who place their faith in Christ enjoy a renewed relationship with God the Father, they have the capacity to view things from a totally new perspective. Consider Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth.
So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. – 2 Corinthians 5:16-19 NLT
Philemon and Onesimus had both been reconciled to God through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. But Paul deeply desired to see Philemon and Onesimus reconciled to one another. They had both been set free from slavery to sin and death, and now they could live in newness of life together. And Paul was willing to invest himself in the process of reconciling their differences – even to the point of underwriting the financial debts of Onesimus.
And Paul made his commitment clear, telling Philemon, “I will repay it” (Philemon 1:19 ESV). And Philemon knew he could trust Paul to keep his word. And Paul added a little extra incentive for Philemon that basically stated, “You owe me.” This should not be viewed as a threat but as a gentle reminder that Philemon owed his new life in Christ to the ministry of Paul. He had sacrificed his life in order to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to Philemon’s community and, as a result, Philemon had been reconciled to God. By placing his faith in Jesus, Philemon’s debt had been paid in full.
Nothing would make Paul happier than to hear that Philemon and Onesimus had been reconciled. And he let Philemon know his decision to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ would be all the payment he needed.
Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. – Philemon 1:20 ESV
Telling others what they ought to do is easy. But how willing are you to commit yourself to help them follow your advice? What cost are you willing to pay to see that your wise words are followed? Paul was willing to put his money where his mouth was. Are you? Are you committed to walking alongside the ones with whom you freely share your counsel and dedicate your time and resources to see that they have what they need to succeed?
This all reminds me of the story of the chicken and the pig. In debating the degree of their commitment to a typical breakfast of bacon and eggs, the chicken bragged about how some brave chicken willingly made provision for the eggs. But the pig responded by pointing out that while the breakfast required the chicken’s participation, it demanded a pig’s total commitment. Paul wasn’t content to simply wise counsel. He was totally committed to seeing that it was followed, regardless of the personal cost.
Paul could have easily said to Philemon what he wrote to the believers in Philippi.
But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. – Philippians 2:17 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.