If you are a Christian, then you are in debt. No, I am not trying to get you to “plant a seed” of prosperity by sending me money so that you can reap a great harvest in your own life. I am speaking of Paul’s words to Philemon, “not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides” (v.19). This statement, at first glance, seems to be nothing more than emotional manipulation on Paul’s part in an attempt to coerce Philemon, and, as such, it seems quite inappropriate for a minister of the gospel. Is Paul offering us a ministry model of manipulation, or is there some other explanation of this phrase? As we consider the surrounding verses, it becomes clear that this is a test of Philemon’s faith in Christ, rather than a manipulative abuse of authority by the apostle Paul.
In v.16 Paul indicates that although Onesimus had left Philemon as an unprofitable, indeed quite costly slave, he was returning as a Christian brother. Since he was now a brother in Christ, Onesimus had become a partner in the gospel ministry, and as Philemon would never refuse the apostle Paul, he must now receive his runaway slave (v.17). This is the first test of Philemon’s faith, that he receive one who had previously wronged him as an equal partner in the ministry, indeed even as the apostle Paul himself. And so we must also receive those who have found faith in Christ as ministry partners, especially if they have previously sinned against us. Following Jesus’ example, we should pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12), realizing that he was speaking of personal offenses rather than financial debts. Indeed we must recognize the magnitude of our forgiveness in Christ and forgive one another according to the same measure.
Philemon was to receive Onesimus as a fellow ministry partner, but the genuineness of his faith would also be proved by his willingness to forgive the other’s debt (v.18-19). Instead of viewing this as forgiving Onesimus’ debt, however, Philemon was to consider it a payment on his own debt to the apostle Paul. That one might repay a spiritual debt by forgiving a monetary one may seem strange to us, but we must remember that even the temporal, material things of this world have an impact in the spiritual realm. Consider Jesus’ exhortation concerning money: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21). For Philemon, the financial cost of forgiving Onesimus was negligible when compared to its eternal reward, and we must learn to use the resources of this life to invest in that which is incorruptible. Instead of trusting in this world’s fleeting wealth, we ought to “be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for [ourselves] a good foundation for the time to come, that [we] may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:18-19).
(To be continued next week.)