- “Receive the slave as myself,” and “2. Put that [whatever he stole from you] on my account.” This is an illustration of what Jesus Christ has done for us as believers. We are so identified with Jesus Christ that God receives us as He receives His Son! Plus He paid our debt!
Here are the last verses of Philemon:
A Partnership with Paul (17-25)
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.NRSV
|In this verse Paul stated his request: welcome him. Like the father of the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, Philemon should open his arms to welcome Onesimus back to his household and, as a new believer, to the church. God had welcomed Onesimus; so should Philemon.
The word partner is koinonon from the word koinonia, meaning fellowship or sharing.
Philemon and Paul shared the koinonia described in verse 6. Paul wanted Philemon’s attitude toward Onesimus to be based on his attitude toward Paul. If Paul and Philemon had fellowship, then Philemon would have to include Onesimus as well. Paul was relying on his relationship with Philemon (their fellowship and partnership) to cause Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul (v. 12).
|LIFE APPLICATION – PARTNERS|
|Paul called Philemon his “partner,” but he did not mean a partner in the business sense of the word. Philemon was a partner in grace. Paul and Philemon shared the same experience in Jesus Christ of being saved; in that sense, they were equals. Too often our relationships in the church don’t possess true partnership but reflect merely tolerance of one another. Do you have room in your heart to welcome other believers warmly? Treat them as companions in God’s grace and love, not just fellow workers. Let your common interests in Christ and your common feeling of gratitude for Christ’s love knit you together with others.|
18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.NIV Onesimus may have confessed some such act to Paul. The only way Onesimus could have financed his flight was to have stolen from his master money or possessions that he could sell. Even if not, he still would be in debt for the work that had not been performed in his absence. This would cause Onesimus to be extremely afraid to return to his master. It was bad enough that he had run away, but if he had also stolen money or possessions or had wronged his master in any other way, he would be in deep trouble. Thus Paul’s letter served as a buffer—giving Onesimus courage to return and giving Philemon the entire picture so that he might deal kindly with his slave.
Any money or possessions that Onesimus had taken certainly were long gone. Onesimus had no means to repay. Paul asked that any money stolen be charged (elloga is an accounting term) to his own account; in other words, Onesimus no longer would owe Philemon anything, but Paul would. Paul was not suggesting to Philemon that he simply forgive Onesimus’s debt; the wrong needed to be righted. Instead, Paul took on that debt on Onesimus’s behalf. Onesimus would never know whether the debt was actually demanded and repaid. All he knew was that a debt needed to be paid because of his wrong actions—but that someone else was going to pay it for him. Onesimus got a dose of true Christian love through Paul’s action.
|LIFE APPLICATION – WORTHY INVESTMENTS|
|Paul genuinely loved Onesimus. Paul showed his love by personally guaranteeing payment for any stolen goods or wrongs for which Onesimus might be responsible. Paul’s investment in the life of this new believer certainly encouraged and strengthened Onesimus’s faith. Are there young believers who need you to demonstrate such self-sacrifice toward them? Be grateful when you can invest in people, helping them with Bible study, prayer, encouragement, support, and friendship.|
19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.NRSV Often Paul would use a secretary to write his letters as he dictated them (see Romans 16:22). But sometimes at the end of the letters, he would take the pen and write a few words in order to authenticate the letters (see, for example, Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18). Most likely this entire letter was written in his own hand, for it was a personal letter to a personal friend. This letter was short, not filled with doctrinal teachings; it would be more effective if written by Paul. For Paul to write again the words I will repay it emphasized that he was placing himself under legal obligation to do so. Paul was not “just saying” this to placate Philemon; he meant to do so by putting it in writing. If Philemon had demanded repayment, Paul would have had to do it.
I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.NRSV It seems that Paul knew his friend well enough to know that he would not demand repayment (vv. 19-21), but this does not lessen Paul’s generous action toward Onesimus, who knew only that someone else was paying for his wrongdoing. While Paul told Philemon to put Onesimus’s charge on Paul’s “page” in the accounting book, Paul also reminded Philemon that he (Paul) had a huge credit already, in that Philemon owed himself (that is, his conversion, his true self in Christ) to Paul. Once Onesimus’s debt was put on Paul’s page, it would be cancelled. As Philemon’s spiritual father, Paul was hoping that Philemon would feel a debt of gratitude that would cause him to accept Onesimus with a spirit of forgiveness.
|LIFE APPLICATION – REFRESH THEIR HEARTS|
|Have you benefited from the ministry of others? Has there been a pastor, youth worker, or Sunday school teacher whose guidance and faithfulness stimulated you to grow in Christ? Consider how you may refresh their hearts with some word of encouragement or some thoughtful gift. Let them know that you have followed their examples by being faithful to Christ.|
20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.NIV Again Paul called Philemon brother. In the matters of ledgers and debts, once Onesimus’s debt was repaid, Paul would still have a credit, for who can ever repay someone for bringing him or her to eternal life? Thus Paul asked that the balance be paid in kindness to Onesimus. The Greek word translated some benefit is onaimen, a word sounding much like Onesimus. Onesimus had benefited Paul (v. 11); Paul hoped that Philemon would do likewise. And as Philemon had refreshed the hearts of the saints (v. 7), he could hardly do other than refresh Paul’s heart as well. The word my is emphatic in the Greek. It is as if Paul were saying, “It is my turn to be refreshed by you.”
21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.NIV Paul’s use of the word obedience seems strong in contrast to how he had carefully worded his request throughout this letter. He may have been alluding to his apostolic authority at which he had hinted previously in the letter but had chosen not to use (v. 8), preferring instead to let Philemon’s act be voluntary (v. 14). But the word “obedience” is more flexible in Greek than in English and does not mean that Paul had been issuing orders. Instead, “obedience” here indicates a person’s response to God’s will. Paul wanted Philemon to obey in the sense of following God’s will.
Paul was not only confident that Philemon would welcome Onesimus back, but that Philemon would also do even more than Paul asked. This may have been a hint that Philemon would willingly free Onesimus so that he could return to Paul or be freed when Paul got to Colosse. We can be sure that Philemon welcomed Onesimus, but the “even more” is left unknown.
22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.NRSV That Paul would ask Philemon to prepare a guest room in his home indicates that Paul expected to be released (see also Philippians 2:23-24). Some feel that this was Paul’s way of reminding Philemon of his apostolic authority. Or it may have been a tongue-in-cheek way of securing a kindly reception for Onesimus because Paul hoped to eventually arrive to check up on what had occurred. It is more likely that Paul was simply hoping to eventually visit these friends who had been praying for him.
His freedom would be secured through these prayers. The words your and you are plural, focusing on Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church in Philemon’s house. Paul had never been to Colosse; the word restored in Greek simply means “granted” or “given as a gift” (the root of the word is charis, “grace”). For Philemon and the church in his home to have their prayers answered with a visit from Paul would indeed be a gift of grace. Paul was released from prison soon after writing this letter, but the Bible doesn’t say whether he went to Colosse.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you.NKJV The you in this verse is singular. These are personal greetings to Philemon. Epaphras was well known to the Colossians because he had founded the church there (Colossians 1:7), perhaps while Paul was living in Ephesus (Acts 19:10). Epaphras may have been converted in Ephesus and then had returned to Colosse, his hometown. He was a hero to this church, helping to hold it together in spite of growing persecution and struggles with false doctrine. His report to Paul about the problems in Colosse had prompted Paul to write his letter to the Colossians. Epaphras’s greetings to and prayers for the Colossian Christians reveal his deep love for them (Colossians 4:12-13).
It is unclear whether Epaphras was actually in prison with Paul. Paul’s words fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus may have been a metaphor of warfare or “captivity to Christ.” It is more likely that Epaphras was with Paul voluntarily and would return to Colosse.
24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.NRSV Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke are also mentioned in Colossians 4:10, 14. Mark had accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 12:25ff.) and eventually wrote the Gospel of Mark. Luke had accompanied Paul on his third missionary journey and was the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Demas had been faithful to Paul for a while but then had deserted him (see 2 Timothy 4:10). Paul had sent greetings from these same people in the letter to the Colossians. But in that letter, a man “Jesus who is called Justus” also had sent greetings to Colosse. Much speculation has been done as to why his greetings were not included here, but it may simply have been that he was absent on the day Paul wrote this letter to Philemon.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.NRSV The word your is plural, indicating that Paul sent this final blessing not to Philemon only, but to the entire church that regularly met in his home (v. 2). As Paul had begun his letter with “grace” (v. 3), so he ended it with the benediction that the believers would continue to experience God’s unmerited favor. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is with Christians’ spirits because the Spirit of Jesus Christ indwells the spirits (the inner selves) of believers (see Romans 8:9-11).
While this is Paul’s standard benediction, it certainly had special meaning to Philemon. It would take God’s grace working in Philemon to enable him to do something difficult, something unnatural—forgiving, welcoming, and accepting into the fellowship as a brother a slave who had, at least at a previous time, proven himself to be unfaithful and untrustworthy. It would be through God’s grace alone that this reconciliation would be possible. Yet the grace was available; Philemon only had to act upon it. If the entire letter was meant to be read to the church that met in Philemon’s home, then they too would, by God’s grace, also need to welcome and accept Onesimus. God’s grace, working in the spirits of believers, makes true fellowship and reconciliation possible within any body of believers.
|LIFE APPLICATION – TRANSFORMATION|
|Paul urged Philemon to be reconciled to his slave, receiving him as a brother and fellow member of God’s family. “Reconciliation” means reestablishing relationship. Christ has reconciled us to God and to others. Many barriers come between people—race, social status, sex, personality differences—but Christ can break down these barriers. Jesus Christ changed Onesimus’s relationship with Philemon from slave to brother. Christ can transform our most hopeless relationships into deep and loving friendships.|
The more we look at the book of Philemon, the more we see of the hand of God. Onesimus fled across the Roman empire trying to escape his master only to meet the very man to that his master owed his spiritual life—and found spiritual life himself! How he must have known this was no random accident.
The wrong things that you have done, the places that you have run away from, the things that you did, or that have been done to you, can be turned into the very things that bring you to Christ.
So what happened to Onesimus? Did Philemon grant Paul’s request? Church history records that about fifty years after Paul wrote this letter, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, wrote to the church of Ephesus and commended their bishop, whose name was Onesimus (Apostolic Fathers [Harvard University Press], translated by Kirsopp Lake, 1:166, 175). Most believe this to be the same Onesimus that was a runaway slave that met Jesus and was discipled by Paul and who did “become useful in the ministry.” It’s amazing what can happen when Christ changes lives!
Watch Messages: YouTube-Upwards Church
— Bible Exposition Commentary (BE Series) – New Testament
— Life Application Bible Commentary
— Preaching the Word