Spiritual Debt, Part 1

…not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.” With these words, the apostle Paul introduces an uncomfortable reality into his letter to Philemon, the reality of spiritual obligation. This brief letter brings up several topics which are controversial, not the least of which is the issue of the Christian’s response to slavery. Paul wrote the letter to his friend and sent it in the hand of Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who had run away and providentially came into contact with Paul, resulting in Onesimus’ salvation. And so Paul, wishing to preserve his friendship with Philemon and encourage his faith, plead with the slave-owner to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ, and indeed he said, “…receive him as you would me” (v.17).

Setting aside the issue of slavery for the moment, consider that Philemon had likely suffered some significant financial loss as a result of Onesimus’ desertion, and it was unlikely that the runaway-slave-turned-fellow-Christian would be in a position to right that wrong. Instead, Paul says something quite amazing in v.18, “…if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.” Although Paul had no part in it personally, he took the responsibility for Onesimus’ debt to Philemon. This is, itself, a wonderful picture of the grace of Christ on behalf of each one who trusts in him, for we owed a debt to God which we could not pay. In fact, our debt was incurred in much the same way, by our rebellion against his claim of ownership, and so, like the Roman slave, our very lives were forfeit because we foolishly declared our independence. But Jesus Christ became a man, so that he might take our place and pay our debt. It is as Martin Luther said, “Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also doth Paul for Onesimus with Philemon. We are all his Onesimi, to my thinking.” And so the slave enters his master’s family, but we have enjoyed something greater as guilty sinners entering God’s family!

It is in this context that Paul declares to Philemon how great was his obligation to the apostle, that he owed Paul even his own self. But now this is uncomfortable, because we are not ones who like being indebted to others, yet that is exactly how Paul frames his relationship with Philemon. No doubt, Paul had been instrumental in Philemon’s own faith in Christ, so that this slave-owner was compelled to agree that he was greatly indebted to Paul for every spiritual blessing he enjoyed. His debt was so great, that Paul could be confident that Philemon would forgive him whatever he had laid on his account on behalf of Onesimus, and even more besides. Do you and I owe our brothers and sisters in Christ a debt? Clearly, yes. In the case of those who faithfully preached the gospel to us as lost sinners, we owe them our entire lives and all of eternity. Why then are we so often unwilling to forgive each other in things which are merely temporal? Can we refuse our brother who comes seeking forgiveness?

(To be continued next week.)

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