This is the continuation of a study on Philemon 17-25. You can review Part 1 here.
Shoulder the Debt
Paul went on to say, “If [Onesimus] has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it” (Philemon 18-19) In essence Paul said, “Don’t worry about what Onesimus owes you. I got it covered. I am good for this. Trust me.” Paul didn’t have much, but he was prepared to draw from his own tent-making funds to make things right between his friends. He was willing to pay for whatever Onesimus stole or whatever fractured their relationship. Whatever it cost.
Now Paul didn’t shoulder the entire burden; he shared it. Onesimus took responsibility for his sin by coming to Philemon, but he didn’t have the means to repay what he owed. He was a slave. He had nothing. Everything was his masters. All that Onesimus had he held in his hand—the letter and Paul’s promise to shoulder the debt.
Paul even took the pen in his hand and signed the letter. He made it official. The letter was his IOU. Now Paul took more than the financial or legal debt, he also took upon himself the emotional debt—the hurt, the pain, the injury, the betrayal. That was an immense burden, but it is the weight of the burden your shoulder when you put yourself in-between. Restoration takes you to the place of shame and pain and death. That’s what makes restoration so uncomfortable and difficult.
Does that bring an image to your mind? It should. You and I had a debt we could not pay. Jesus stepped in-between and paid it. He stood in your place. He was rejected and despised. He took your pain and suffering. He took the eternal consequence for your sin. Theologians call this the doctrine of imputation or “to put on one’s account.” Jesus puts your debt on his account. He shouldered the debt, the pain, the shame, the injury, and betrayal. And he says to the Father on your behalf, “[Justin] no longer owes You a debt because I paid it fully on the cross. Receive [Justin] as You would receive Me. Let [Justin] come into the family circle!”
We, like Onesimus were disobedient and useless servants. But by God’s grace and forgiveness, we became useful again—to him, the church, and the kingdom. While Paul sealed the promise with his signature, Christ sealed it with his own blood. Interestingly, Philemon is the only letter where Paul doesn’t talk about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because he is acting it out. It is the gospel in real life—in a real relationship.
Paul became like Jesus to Philemon and Onesimus. And this is what you look like when you help restore. You become an image of Jesus and the gospel when you bring two people together who need to be restored.
Restoration ministry is not just for pastors or professionals. If you’ve been restored to God, then you are equipped to restore people to God and others too, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:18-19; cf. Colossians 1:13-22) The implications of the gospel are very personal, never private.
Paul makes it as personal as one can get. He says, “—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” Wow! Boom! Knockout punch! Paul isn’t saying he is Philemon’s Savior, but that he led him to the Savior. He says “Philemon, your eternal life is indebted to me. And by comparison, Onesimus’s debt is pretty puny.” Paul puts his relationship on the line here. He pushes all the chips to the center of the table. He’s all in. He blows the roof off what we tend to think of Christian friendship or fellowship. Biblical friends are willing to get uncomfortable, press in, poke around, even land a loving punch so that their friends are right with God and others. As Solomon said, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” (Proverb 27:6)
Good friends are a rare find. We all appreciate the friend who helps steer us from hurt and danger. Biblical friends are present in the difficult seasons, share burdens, speak the truth in love, and are gentle like Jesus (cf. Gal. 6:1-5).
Paul’s true motivation comes out, “Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.” (v.20) Jesus wants Philemon and Onesimus restored. Paul wants it too. Paul can’t think of anything more refreshing to his heart (lit. “guts”) than see them restored. He simply wants Philemon to do what he is so good at doing—loving Jesus, others and Onesimus.
Do you need to act like Jesus and put yourself in-between two people? What resources do you need to free up to shoulder the debt of someone who needs to be restored?
Trust God will help Make it Right
These final verses show us how to encourage, motivate, follow-up, and ultimately trust God with the results. Restoration can’t be forced. All you can be is faithful.
First, Paul says, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (v.21) Paul is confident in the work God has done in Philemon, confident in his love for Christ, confident that “love believes all things,” confident in what God can do through the fruit of obedience, and confident Philemon will do “more.” Possible referring to Onesimus’ freedom or sending him back to Paul. Could this confidence be said of you?
Second, Paul adds, “At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.” (v.22) What does Paul mean? Is he hinting that he will come to follow up on Philemon? As if Paul says, “I am coming to check up on you.” It seems that way. We don’t know this for sure. We do know that Paul cared about both of these men. He loved them. He wanted to see the fruit of their restoration with his own eyes.
Third, Paul connected Philemon to people they both knew, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.” (vs.23-24) Paul mentions five men in these verses calling them “coworkers”. The list is identical to the list as the of the letter to the Colossians. Presumably, each of these people would vouch for Onesimus and concur with Paul’s request for restoration.
These men were assistants to the gospel. They were no less important than Paul, they are essential team players who know their role on the team. They are often selfless, not ball hogs. John Stockton holds the record for the most assists in the NBA. Over his 19 seasons he had 15,806 assists. His record is seen by many as one of the most untouchable records in any sport. He has early 4,000 assists more than #2. He has half the amount of assists as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has points (38,387) over 20 seasons.
What is ironic about this list of assistants is that Paul had problems with many of them, yet he includes their names nonetheless. Relationships are plagued with problems, but as Paul would attest this doesn’t make them less or more valued. They are all brothers.
Epaphras founded church in Colossae. He pastored a church with a lot of problems and was in prison with Paul (Col.1:7-8; 4:12-13).
Mark was the writer of the second Gospel. He had a falling out with Paul on their first missionary journey (Acts 12:12). Paul hinted that Mark couldn’t hack it because the mission was too hard so he bailed on Paul. Before his second journey, Paul, urged Mark stay back, but Barnabas took Mark and split from Paul. Like Onesimus, Mark had been useless, but was now useful to Paul, Barnabas, and Christ (Acts 15:38; 2 Tim. 4:11).
Aristarchus was loyal to Paul and went to prison for his association with Paul (Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2; Col. 4:10). Demas had a good start to his ministry, but ended badly. 2 Timothy 4:11 informs us that Demas deserted Paul, “because he loved the present world.” Paul was deeply hurt by Demas (Col. 4:14).
Luke was “the dearly loved physician” (Col. 4:14) who penned the third Gospel and the book of Acts. He traveled with Paul, helped care for him, and became a dear and faithful friend. He was the only person with Paul in his last days before his execution (2 Tim. 4:11).
Paul and Philemon had some pretty important friends. Each of them were one in Christ. And they backed Paul on behalf of Onesimus.
Finally, Paul ends this letter in the same way he began: with Jesus, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (v.25) Now with the context of this letter in the rear view mirror, this verse makes a lot of sense. Paul opened and closed the letter with a prayer for God’s grace to be upon Philemon, not to simply hear the information, but to do it—to reconcile—to restore, and serve the health of God’s family by mending a broken relationship. This word grace in Greek is karis. It speaks of God’s power and ability to do what he said he would do.
How do you think the story of Philemon and Onesimus ended? We don’t know for sure. The evidence points to a “happy ending.” The fact, that we have the letter gives some proof. Ignatius wrote in the first century about a “loving” pastor in Ephesus by the name of Onesimus. Is this the same Onesimus or a guy who shared his name? Because of the date and proximity to Colossae it makes sense that this could be the same Onesimus. We’ll never know, but I bet he ended up with a far better result than if Paul had never wrote the letter to begin with.
It is likely that the Spirit of God has put someone or more people on your mind that need restoration—two friends, parents, former members of the church. You may be the only emissary that God has put into their lives to help them make things right.
Will you put yourself in-between them? Would you be willing to shoulder their debt? Will you trust God to do the the ultimate work of making it right? Can I pray for you to be a friend, brother, and peacemaker he has called you to be?
Questions for Reflection:
What was Paul’s IOU? What significant point is he making when he says “charge it to my account”? How should that effect how we deal with conflicts within our church?
Do you think you have played a pivotal role in certain relationships in your life? How can God use you to bring a godly influence on the people and relationships around you?
What lessons can you draw from Paul’s efforts as a peacemaker as you consider how to be a peacemaker yourself?
Are there any Christ followers that you personally know who are at odds with each other? Is there anything that you could do to help them reconcile?
Why does grace play a key role in all that is going on in this book? How do you need to have more grace for people around you?