Paul’s Plea for Onesimus – Philemon 1:17-21

17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it. And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul!

20 Yes, my brother, please do me this favor* for the Lord’s sake. Give me this encouragement in Christ.

21 I am confident as I write this letter that you will do what I ask and even more! 22 One more thing—please prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that God will answer your prayers and let me return to you soon.

In this verse 17, Paul stated his request: give him the same welcome you would give me. Like the father of the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11-32), 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, translated as generosity. 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.

In verse 18, 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 harmed 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 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.

In verse 19, 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 his own handwriting to authenticate the letters (see, for example, Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18). For Paul to write 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. But it seems that Paul knew his friend well enough to know that he would not demand repayment. 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 his very soul (his conversion and eternal security) to Paul. Once Onesimus’s debt was put on Paul’s page, it would be canceled. 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.

In verse 20, 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 as a favor to Paul. Onesimus had been useful to Paul (1:11); Paul hoped that Philemon would find the same. And as Philemon had refreshed the hearts of the saints (1:7), he could hardly do other than refresh Paul’s heart as well.

In verse 21, 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.

Paul, harboring a runaway slave named Onesimus, begs Philemon to offer peace to the troubled renegade. Our service to others is to preach peace to those who have the power to create it. According to Roman law, Onesimus deserved death for his actions, but his confidence in his master’s forgiving grace is great. So he carries Paul’s letter, which will bring him either peace or execution. Paul declares in this letter that he has a confidence that Philemon will forgive his renegade slave, Onesimus. The apostle believes that his own inner turmoil, as well as Onesimus’, will be rewarded by peace when Philemon offers forgiveness to his errant slave.

            We do not know the outcome of this story, but even as we read this letter, the shortest of all Paul’s letters, we feel Paul’s confidence that Philemon will indeed forgive and reinstate Onesimus. The tone of Paul’s plea is confidence. And confidence itself is the grand porch before God’s holy Mansion of Peace. Philemon could not serve those to whom God had called him until he lived up to Paul’s positive expectation. Then peace would be evident to all who were watching. It is a good thing to desire to live up to the expectations of other believers. Others count on us. They believe in us. We see God’s expectations a little at a time, but we do know what others expect of us. And in our good example to them, we will have gone a long way toward pleasing God.

            Let’s place this longing to fulfill the positive expectations of others in the center of our own lives. The good things they expect of us can be accomplished. when we are living peacefully and as a good example before others, then we will find it easier to minister to others, for it is hard to serve when own lives are in turmoil. The way to a life of joyous service is to surrender the turmoil, embrace the peace of Christ, and move confidently into the ministry to which God has called us.

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