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. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 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. 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
In 2006 I received the following email from Journey Films.
A week ago we sent an e-mail alert about our interview with Fr. Lyndon Harris, an Episcopal priest who is promoting the development of a Garden of Forgiveness at Ground Zero. We also offered an opinion poll asking “Would you support a Garden of Forgiveness at Ground Zero? The result was an overwhelming “NO.”
With more than 2,500 votes cast the vote was 98% against the building of a Garden of Forgiveness and only 2% in favor. We should also note that many of the people on the Journey Films’ mailing list include seminarians, church and synagogue leadership and people who have supported our nearly two dozen films on subjects of faith and spirituality.
“After I interviewed Father Harris about his proposed garden I went down to the Ground Zero site and spoke with many people on the street about their sentiments for a Garden of Forgiveness,” says filmmaker Martin Doblmeier. “My impression was people were almost evenly divided, so our own poll results were quite surprising. What has become clear in the making of a film on forgiveness is that the word “forgiveness” itself raises so many raw emotions in people. Many Americans, no matter what their mind tells them they should do, are simply not ready in their hearts to walk a path of forgiveness until some justice has been realized. Forgiveness always takes time, and in the case of 9/11 it may take a very long time.”
Forgiveness is a hard thing to offer, especially in the face of some egregious act of cruelty like what happened on 9/11. It should be said, though, that most human beings see any mere slight as an egregious act of cruelty and so are loathe to offer forgiveness even in the small things.
In Philemon 17-25, Paul ups the intensity of his words to Philemon. He is going to call on Philemon to accept and forgive his runaway slave Onesimus in the strongest possible terms. David Pao has pointed out that our text has three imperatives “(“receive,”…v.17; “charge,”…v.18; “refresh,”…v.20), whereas none is present in vv.8-16.” But it is not only the imperatives. It is also the fact that Paul is going to explicitly remind Philemon that he too has been forgiven and that he too is in another man’s debt.
Paul models substitutionary atonement.
One of the very interesting things to notice in the New Testament is the way in which great men of God end up modeling the words and actions of Christ. One of the most powerful examples of this is the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7.
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Twice in the martyrdom of Stephen he repeats the words of Jesus from the cross: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” These are analogous to two of the seven last words of Christ from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46) and “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
It is an amazing thing. In the most crucial moments of life the people of God take comfort in the words of Christ. More than that, in the most critical moments of life, those who are walking closely with Jesus identify with him on such a level that His life and words truly become their own, as they should.
We see the same dynamic happening in Philemon 17-19b. This is the key passage in the whole book.
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. 19a-b I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it
There are two elements that Paul is modeling here: substitution and atonement. The first, substitution, is seen in verse 17.
17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
In other words, “Philemon, when you look at Onesimus you are looking at me.” I do not mean, of course, that Paul had actually affected substitution in the way that only Christ on the cross could, but rather that Paul is appealing to that great truth of the faith in his handling of this situation. Just as God sees His Son when He looks upon fallen people who have called out to the Son in faith and repentance, so too Paul wants Philemon to see him when he looks at Onesimus.
This really is beautiful! Paul effectively substitutes himself for Onesimus, taking his place. Just as God will not judge the Son and all who come to Christ are safe in Him, so too Paul knows that Philemon will not judge him when he looks on Onesimus. Here is an amazing extension of the principle of substitution applied to a real life situation between Christians. “When you look at Onesimus, see me,” Paul says.
Our great hope for eternal life is that the Father sees the Son who substituted Himself for us on the cross. We are now hidden in Christ.
Furthermore, Paul uses the language of atonement when he says that he will pay for Onesimus’ crimes.
18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19a-b I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it
Twice Paul speaks of paying Onesimus’ debt: “charge that to my account” and “I will repay it.” The second is made more emphatic by Pauls’ revelation that he is personally writing these words “with my own hand.” In other words, Paul is pinning his own name and life to the promise of payment for Onesimus’ debt.
The name and the work of Christ cancels our debt, as Paul so powerfully says in Colossians 2.
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
So too, Paul is pinning Onesimus’ debt to his own name. Again, Paul could not literally offer substitutionary atonement for Onesimus. Only Christ can do that for any of us. But Paul had been to the cross and so it is not surprising that Paul’s approach to the issue of forgiveness would bear the aroma of Calvary.
Paul wanted Philemon to see him when he saw Onesimus. Paul wanted Philemon to know that he, Paul, would pay Onesimus’ debt. This is the cross in action in and through the life of one who had been redeemed there. What is more, Paul assumed that Philemon would understand the import of his language for Philemon too had been to the cross!
Cross people understand cross language.
What Paul was appealing to was what Elvina Hall would write in 1865.
I hear the Savior say,
“Thy strength indeed is small;
Child of weakness, watch and pray,
Find in Me thine all in all.”
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
For nothing good have I
Whereby Thy grace to claim;
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.
And now complete in Him,
My robe, His righteousness,
Close sheltered ’neath His side,
I am divinely blest.
Lord, now indeed I find
Thy pow’r, and Thine alone,
Can change the *leper’s spots [*leopard’s]
And melt the heart of stone.
When from my dying bed
My ransomed soul shall rise,
“Jesus died my soul to save,”
Shall rend the vaulted skies.
And when before the throne
I stand in Him complete,
I’ll lay my trophies down,
All down at Jesus’ feet.
Paul calls for the extension of grace received.
Paul makes yet a further point to Philemon: he should forgive because he himself has been forgiven.
19c —to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.
This is an intriguing statement: “to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” In some way, Philemon apparently came to know Christ through the ministry of Paul. As a result, Philemon “owed” Paul his very self. This is not to suggest that Paul saw himself as Philemon’s savior. It is only to say that through the ministry of Paul Philemon came to know the Savior.
Again, this is cross language between two men who understand the cross. If you truly understand the cross you understand that you should forgive as you have been forgiven. In other words, Philemon must offer Onesimus the same grace and forgiveness and mercy that Philemon received from Jesus Christ. To do anything else would be the height of hypocrisy.
R.C. Sproul has written of grace:
It is impossible for anyone, anywhere, anytime to deserve grace. Grace by definition is undeserved. As soon as we talk about deserving something we are no longer talking about grace; we are talking about justice. Only justice can be deserved…God never “owes” grace….God reserves for Himself the supreme right of executive clemency.
Had Philemon responded to Paul that Onesimus did not deserve mercy and grace, he would have been caught on the horns of a most dire dilemma! Had Christ not show Philemon mercy? Then should Philemon not show Onesimus mercy? Had Christ not shown Philemon forgiveness? Then should Philemon not show Onesimus forgiveness?
This point was brought home memorably and forcibly by Jesus Himself in Matthew 18. He communicated this truth through a powerful parable.
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Philemon was the brother who had been forgiven much. Onesimus was the one who had offended but a little. To withhold forgiveness when you have been forgiven is to risk the anger of the Master!
For this reason, Paul tells Philemon to forgive as he has been forgiven. This, he says, will bring him, Paul, great benefit and refreshment.
20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
“It is often noticed,” write James W. Thompson and Bruce Longenecker, that the Greek verb onaimen, translated here as ‘let me have this delight,’ has strong convergence with the name Onesimus, so that Paul might yet again have constructed a play on words.” Maybe that is so. Regardless, the meaning is clear: nothing brings joy to a believer quite so much as seeing the gospel begin to change the lives of those within whom it has taken root.
On the other hand, there is nothing quite so distressing as seeing a believer miss the point of grace and of his or her own salvation and refuse to offer grace to others. There is something monstrous about the non-graceful recipient of grace! D.A. Carson writes:
I recall meeting a young and articulate French West African when I was studying in Germany more than twenty years ago. We were both working diligently to improve our German, but once a week or so we had had enough, so we went out for a meal together and retreated to French, a language we both knew well. In the course of those meals we got to know each other. I learned that his wife was in London training to be a medical doctor. He himself was an engineer who needed fluency in German in order to pursue doctoral studies in engineering in Germany.
Pretty soon I discovered that once or twice a week he disappeared into the red light district of town. Obviously he went to pay his money and have his woman. Eventually I got to know him well enough that I asked him what he would do if he discovered that his wife were doing something similar in London.
“Oh,” he said, “I’d kill her.”
“That’s a bit of a double standard, isn’t it?” I replied.
“You don’t understand. Where I come from in Africa, the husband has the right to sleep with many women, but if a wife does it, she must be killed.”
“But you told me that you were raised in a mission school. You know that the God of the Bible does not have double standards like that.”
He gave me a bright smile and replied, “Ah, le bon Dieu; it doit nous pardonner; c’est son metier [Ah, God is good; he’s bound to forgive us; that’s his job].”
So this man wanted to be the flippant recipient of grace but the cruel dispenser of justice. For his sins, he expected mercy. For the sins of his wife, he demanded justice.
Are we not like this? Is it not a serious thing to mock God by presuming to take grace that you will not offer? Is there not something profoundly blasphemous about this?
Have you received grace? Then give grace!
Paul assumes that Philemon will do more than the minimum.
Paul has one more point to make, and he makes it in his conclusion.
21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 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. 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
“I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Wow! What a masterpiece this letter is! What a carefully constructed and surgically precise point Paul is making. If Philemon is truly in Christ, if Philemon has truly bent his knee before the Christ, he must now demonstrate it in the most concrete of circumstances. He must now show that Christ is more than merely theoretical for him, that the cross now changes everything! He must show that he is a man of the cross more than a man of his times, a man of the empty tomb more than a man of the vengeful mind. He must show that he knows the Savior and not just the law.
Philemon must now do what Paul would call on the Philippian Christians to do in Philippians 2:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Paul is calling upon Philemon to do nothing less than have the mind of Christ within himself. The mind of Christ looks upon rebellious sinners and forgives. The mind of Christ is quick to extend mercy. The mind of Christ is a mind of compassion and understanding.
This was the challenge Paul presented to Philemon. It is also the challenge the book of Philemon presents to us. Who is your Onesimus? Who do you need to forgive?
Look at the cross and forgive! Forgive completely and forgive now!
Is this not what Christ has done to you?
 An email from Journey Films.
 David W. Pao, Colossians and Philemon. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Ed., Clinton E. Arnold. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), p.402.
 R.C. Sproul, Holiness (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1998), p.127.
 James W. Thompson and Bruce Longenecker, Philippians and Philemon. Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament. Eds., Mikeal C. Parsons, Chares H. Talbert, Bruce W. Longenecker. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), p.167.
 D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Kindle Edition. Loc. 573-582.