17So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it – to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
The nature of Christianity is one of transformation. Transformation of the heart that demands the transformation of society. Each believer is freed from death and sin to life and grace. It is this transformation that inspires Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:16 and Galatians 3:28, explaining that Christians no longer separate people according to the cultural and societal distinctions of this present life. Christians identify people simply as believing or non-believing. If they are believers, then they have been taken from the kingdom of darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of Light. The exchange of kingdoms has wrought a change of citizenship. A citizenship that takes precedence over the powers of this earth. A citizenship that changes our perspective.
Society expects that everyone stays in the position in which they are assigned. Slaves are to be slaves, the poor are to remain impoverished, aristocracy is supposed to remain wealthy, and authorities are supposed to remain in power. Consider for a moment stories that inspire us – the slave who escapes slavery, the poor man who overcomes poverty, the chronicles of changing power. These stories are so inspiring because they fly in the face of expectation. The alteration of societal norms surprises us and as a result, we are in awe of defiance of societal expectations.
Christianity demands that positions are leveled and everyone is treated with equity. Those who have confessed Christ and have been transformed by the Holy Spirit are brought into a family of faith that is connected through grace. It is through grace. Grace – unmerited favor. Grace – an undeserved gift. Grace – the great equalizer. If one has received grace, then they must behave accordingly. Slaves can no longer remain slaves when they are family. The class divisions are ended and those who have need are connected to those who have means. Injustice remains in the world yet Christian community defies the world.
Paul models the truth of Christian transformation by connecting himself to a slave who is indebted to his master. He challenges Philemon to think the same way. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge it to my account” (18). Paul takes the debt of the slave upon himself and determines to answer Philemon’s frustration by paying the debt. He does not deny that there may be some debt owed, in fact, he concedes the debt. Paul recognizes the pain that Philemon may have felt and the reparations that may be owed and becomes the slave on behalf of Onesimus. Philemon has been wronged in some manner by Onesimus. The slave has rebelled against the master. So, Paul exemplifies the gospel to Philemon by taking the punishment or debt upon himself. Just as Jesus has taken upon Himself the debt of rebellious slaves (Romans 5:8-10). Grace has leveled the class structure and Paul models that leveling. Christian, if grace has been so extended to you by the Almighty, so you must extend such grace to each other.
As a part of the family of God, Paul addresses Philemon directly, in his “own hand.” In doing so he passively reminds Philemon of the debt that Philemon owes to Paul. Indeed, Philemon was given the gospel of Jesus by Paul and no doubt owes Paul his very soul for such a gift. Whether or not Paul has any other debt that could be required of Philemon we are not told. The gift of the gospel and the salvation of the soul ought to be enough to compel Philemon to submit to Paul’s request.
Consider this carefully Christian. Those who have taught you the Word of God and have brought you to the throne of the Lord are owed a debt that you are never REQUIRED to pay. It is a debt of love and fealty that compels grace extended living. Once grace has been granted to us, we are compelled to grant grace to the brothers in faith, even to the world.
Paul is right to ask such a favor from Philemon. He has labored to teach the gospel and Philemon reaps some eternal benefit from Paul’s temporal labors! So he states plainly that he expects some reward from Philemon. Though Paul need not demand the reward and certainly would trust the Lord and eternal reward beyond any material good in this life, Philemon’s acquiescence will validate the gospel and prove grace.
The reputation of grace and transforming power of Jesus is what is at stake here. This is not merely a matter of debts and forgiveness of one slave. Philemon’s actions either prove or invalidate the gospel. So many Christians fail to realize that our social interactions are incredibly important testimonies for Christ. By our actions, we either validate the gospel, or we give reason to the skepticism of the world. To be clear: the truth of God does not depend on the actions of man. The gospel is true in spite of Christians’ willingness to live it out. However, the communication of the truth is certainly hindered through the wickedness of Christians who refuse to live grace-extended lives.