18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). 20 Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.
I know Paul is the one writing this letter, but if you reread this passage, doesn’t it seem like something Jesus would write? My next question is: would we ever do this for someone else? We can understand the petition for forgiveness and even Paul’s attempt at making everything right by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, but to repay the debt? That’s just crazy, isn’t it? This of course is with the notion that Paul being able to pay Philemon back would refresh him. Would it refresh you to pay off someone else’s debt?
This letter of forgiveness has been taken to a whole new level. In Matthew 18, Jesus has a conversation with Peter about forgiveness that seems directly linked to Paul’s letter to Philemon:
21 Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 "When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 "But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 "So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.' 27 "And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 28 "But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, 'Pay back what you owe.' 29 "So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you.' 30 "But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 "So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 "Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 'Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?' 34 "And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."
The refreshing of Paul’s heart would come from knowing that Philemon has fully forgiven Onesimus. By taking him back and accepting the payment for his debt, Philemon would be acting with obedience to the principle Jesus taught about forgiveness. It isn’t really about doing what Paul thinks he should do, it is about being obedient to Christ and living in the freedom of forgiveness that He offers us. Paul is merely giving Philemon an opportunity to forgive with the expectation he will do so.
In verse 19, Paul reminds Philemon of a similar situation between the two of them. Paul had forgiven Philemon of something that otherwise he did not have to. Paul is hoping that Philemon does not act like the unmerciful slave Jesus talked about. If anything, we should forgive others because God has forgiven us. As a caveat to the Lord’s prayer, Jesus clarified the forgiveness part by saying,
14 "For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 "But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.
This might seem a bit cruel, but the truth is that both receiving and giving forgiveness work hand-in-hand. If we ignore this point, we might miss it. At first thought, we might believe that everyone wants to receive forgiveness. Yet if we look deeper, we can see that pride, self-hatred, and even the condemnation by the world around us can harden our hearts enough to refuse the forgiveness offered to us from others! Our main thought would be, “I don’t deserve to be forgiven.” No, receiving forgiveness isn’t about if you deserve it or not. It’s about recognizing the love, grace, and mercy of others towards you. We have been cultured in a world where nothing is for free and we would rather live with guilt, shame, and regret than receive free forgiveness (because if the forgiveness isn’t free, it really isn’t forgiveness).
We have been poisoned with the notion that everything and everyone must “pay”. We have been conditioned by society to keep to our own, hate everyone else, expect nothing good from anyone, and trust nobody. When we are presented with Jesus’ message of eternal forgiveness, mercy, and love, we don’t know what to do with it because we think somehow it’s a trick. We’d rather sell our soul to the devil now and enjoy it while we can instead of try to understand what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.
How can you better embrace and give forgiveness today?