Have you ever been rejected?
I mean really, fully, and entirely rejected. Maybe it was by an authority figure, a family member or a close friend. I think at one point or another in life we’ve all been there. My experience has taught me that rejection seems to feel the worst when it comes as a surprise by someone we’d never expect it to come from. There’s a good reason why people describe rejection as being “stabbed in the back” because when you or something you’ve said or something you’ve done is rejected you can almost feel the betrayal (treachery), you can almost see the faces of your peers disregarding you, counting you as useless, and casting you out as worthless and no…longer…welcome. Rejection is something, which sadly, is felt too often inside the Church of Jesus Christ by those who think that in order to be a true Christian you have to look entirely respectable, have it all together, and never break the rules. When I first became a Christian a college I felt this when I stepped into church for the first time in years. I didn’t know what the “rules” as it were and from it many people who’d been believers for years made me feel like I was an outsider.
Think about where we’ve been in Philemon over these past 2 weeks. A runaway slave out on the loose, somehow meeting up with Paul while he’s in prison for preaching the gospel, becomes converted under Paul’s ministry, and heads back home to be reconciled with his master because the gospel demands it. Talk about worry and fear of rejection! The words of v17-20 would have been soothing to Onesimus and are soothing for any sinner who reads these words.
Held within each verse of this passage are two statements. The first statement in each verse is a truth statement, stating a certainty Paul is conveying. The second statement is each verse is an effect statement, stating the effect the truth Paul just stated leads to. Four verses, four pairs of statements, forming Paul’s main appeal to Philemon concerning his slave Onesimus.
v17: Truth Statement
“So if you consider me your partner…” The word for “partner” here in this statement is from the same word in Greek “koinwnos” which is translated in v6 as “sharing your faith.” That this word could be translated as “partner” here in v17 and as “sharing” in v6 means what Paul has in view is more then a mere business contractual relationship, but a unified, team work, co-laborer partnership in the gospel whereby these two men have linked arms sharing the load of the gospel whatever the cost. Certainly Paul would’ve seen Philemon as a partner in the faith, and you can count on it that Philemon saw Paul in this manner too. Paul and Philemon had both been chased down by Christ and redeemed, and through them Jesus was building His Church. They were truly partners, they not only shared their faith with others, but they shared the same faith with each other.
v17: Effect Statement
“…receive him as you would receive me.” Paul has alluded to this very request many times throughout this letter but here in v17 Paul finally makes it known. The fact that Paul and Philemon were partners in gospel ministry naturally leads to a result. The result is that Philemon is to extend the same level of grace he treats Paul with to Onesimus.
Paul is not asking Philemon to merely tolerate Onesimus, like some of us do with each other. Paul asks more of Philemon, not only tolerate him, but receive Onesimus in the same way you’d receive me into your home. You notice what Paul is doing in v17? He’s already has showed that he is not using his apostolic authority by only appealing to Philemon as a friend rather than commanding him to obey, and here Paul lowers himself even more by putting a slave on the same level as himself. This is what it means when Paul says ‘receive him as you would receive me.’ Was this just a nice thing for Paul to do for Onesimus? Sure, but for Paul it was reality. Though Paul is an apostle and Onesimus a slave, they both were once slaves of sin and have both become slaves of Christ through the gospel. How would Philemon receive Paul is he were coming to visit? He would do so with honor, dignity, respect, admiration, and submission because Paul is his Father in Christ. Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus in the same exact manner. Here in v17 we learn how far we should go to help sinners who show signs of repentance and acknowledgement of guilt.
v18: Truth Statement
“If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything…” with the effect statement being “…charge that to my account.” Here we learn that though we don’t know for sure, Onesimus likely stole from Philemon during his flight. This was customary in these days, because slaves were so unreliable and deceitful they often stole from their masters. You may think that Paul is being very generous here and simply is showing us an implication of the gospel by being so gracious. Wrong. Paul is being very generous here, but he is not showing us an implication of the gospel, Paul is showing us the GOSPEL ITSELF by saying “…charge that to my account.” This is language of satisfaction, of a debt being paid in behalf of another who cannot help himself. The glory of v18 is that “…charge that to my account” is not only what Paul says to Philemon in behalf of Onesimus, it is more importantly what Jesus Christ says to God the Father in behalf of sinners. Paul is making satisfaction for the debt of Onesimus and in that action we see a reflection of Christ making satisfaction for our debt on the cross.
This is the glory and the wonder of the cross, that “For our sake God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ bearing the penalty for our sin, in our place as our substitute, making full atonement on our behalf makes us want to cry out “Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, spotless Lamb of God was He, full atonement can it be?! Yes it can! Yes it can!” In the cross we see the wisdom of God, the love of God, the wrath of God, and the justice of God perfectly interwoven by God for our great good and His great glory. How? John Piper says it like this, “The wisdom of God, has ordained a way for the love of God, to deliver us from the wrath of God, without compromising the justice of God.”
v18: Effect Statement (in v19-20)
“I Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it…” Paul usually wrote his letters to the churches by means of an amanuenses. This means that as Paul spoke someone was there to put his words down on paper. Paul does no such thing here to Philemon, to show again, how personal this letter was. This is Paul’s concluding thought on v18, the debt he see’s present between Philemon and Onesimus he will pay, and you can hold him at his word. How can Paul repay this debt? Isn’t Paul a simple tent-maker who has asked many for financial support in many of his other letters? Well yes, he is just a tent-maker, and yes he has asked for financial support in lots of his other letters. But Paul is able to repay this debt, because Philemon is actually in Paul’s debt. How? The rest of v19 says, “…to say nothing of your owing me even your very own self.” The truth is that Paul will repay, the effect of that statement is a reminder from Paul to Philemon that Philemon is in Paul’s debt for leading him to Christ, therefore, Paul won’t have to pay this debt, rather, Philemon is being encouraged to simply put the debt away, to strike it off the books.
v20: Verse 20 ends crystal clear: the truth Paul means to convey is “Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord…” and the effect of that statement is a command from Paul, “…Refresh my heart in Christ.” As Philemon is known to have been refreshing to those in the Colossian church (see v7), Paul similarly wants to be refreshed by Philemon, and if he welcomes home his runaway slave (who is now useful to him again, who is now another brother in Christ and fellow son of Paul), Paul would surely be refreshed. The word for ‘benefit’ in Greek is ‘oninemi’ which is the very word that the name Onesimus comes from, thus Paul’s pun continues in the letter. See the pun? I want to some benefit from you in the Lord, what is the benefit I want? What is the oninemi he wants? Onesimus.
Think for a second, what’s the opposite of rejection? WELCOME! Look at v17. One of the most encouraging implications of this text is just as Philemon was to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul because Paul removed the debt that stood between them, so too God will welcome sinners like us as He would welcome His own Son, because His Son, the Lord Jesus, has removed the debt that stood between us.
Sinner beware. You every reason to fear God’s judgment if you have never turned away from your sin and come to Christ. This is eternal rejection.
Sinner be boldly encouraged. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead you will be saved. This is eternal welcome.