“…not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.” With these words, Paul desired to motivate Philemon to display the reality of his faith in Jesus Christ. He was to receive Onesimus, the runaway slave who had become his Christian brother, as an equal partner in the gospel ministry and to forgive any debt Onesimus had incurred, considering it a payment against the spiritual debt Philemon owed to Paul.
The third test of Philemon’s faith involved doing what would bring joy to Paul’s heart in v.20-21. This meant more than simple obedience, but Paul was confident that Philemon would go above and beyond what was required of him in his response toward Onesimus. Knowing that these Christian brothers would be restored to each other and joined together in the gospel ministry was a source of encouragement and rejoicing for Paul. He had certainly experienced his share of conflict and division within the church, and I can imagine that he was quite weary of seeing brothers and sisters in Christ fighting with one another in such an uncharitable way. To see believers who were once at odds with each other reconciled and their friendship restored should be the desire of every Christian, but you have probably seen the opposite happen too often. Think of how much joy we could bring to our pastors, teachers, and to each other if we would model compassion and seek to restore fellowship with those who have been unkind to us.
And finally, Philemon was to prepare lodging for Paul, as he hoped to be released from prison soon (v.22). After instructing him to receive Onesimus graciously and forgive his debt, this request of hospitality might be asking too much. Certainly, we would think Philemon to be very forgiving indeed to have done so, but in fact, the opposite is true, as Philemon could only say when he had obeyed all of Paul’s pleadings, “I am an unprofitable servant: I have only done that which was my duty to do” (Luke 17:10). Acts of hospitality are an important demonstration of our Christian love, and Matthew Henry describes them as “our great Christian duty.” It would certainly change the landscape of our church if we put a premium on showing hospitality toward one another, and especially toward those who are our guests.
As we consider the nature of Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus, the question of slavery should not be ignored. Slavery has existed in one form or another for the entire history of mankind, and indeed it continues today in many places, even here in the United States. And while there is no prohibition of slavery in the NT writings, the principles in which Paul advised Philemon, if carefully applied and faithfully followed would invariably prevent Philemon from ever considering Onesimus as anything less than a brother. If men would learn and apply these truths, living out their Christian faith according to Paul’s instructions here, slavery would very naturally come to an end. That it does not is evidence, not of the Bible’s approval of slavery but of man’s refusal to obey the clear teaching of Scripture. Let us live in such a way that true liberty in Christ may be declared to all men.