DAILY WORD 3/17/21
18. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me.
19. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it. And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul!
Philemon 1:18–19 NLT
Today’s Passage takes us back to the story of Philemon and Onesimus and shows us Paul’s ability to bring a great level of influence to bear when it comes to persuading his followers to do the right thing, even if they are not naturally predisposed to do so.
Paul has just sent Onesimus, a runaway slave back home to Philemon’s house, carrying a Letter requesting that he be accepted back into the household. He asked the wronged party, Philemon, “If you count me a partner, receive him as myself.”
This is a big ask because Onesimus has presumably stolen from Philemon, not to mention the insult of his running away in the first place. We won’t even get into the fact that the runaway went directly to Philemon’s higherup to, I imagine, complain about his situation.
Now, Paul exercises his influence and authority in a way we have not seen before, though it is not the first time in this Letter that we have seen him do this. Before I get to that, you may be wondering why Paul would do something like this.
Why would the Leader of the entire fledgling Christian Church exert his sway, and for all intents and purposes, throw his weight around, to help our one new Christian, who was obviously in the wrong in the first place? First of all, he was striking a blow at the unethical, though legal system of slavery that persisted in that day.
The Church had many individuals that likely supported and practiced slavery within it; it was a legal practice, so why not? The reason why is because it was wrong then, just as it is today. To own another person and force them to do a job that they should be getting paid for is not something that we would argue is criminal today but then it was just commonplace.
Paul had to dismantle the system of slavery in whatever way he could, and a direct assault at the time, from jail, with Rome still in charge, was simply not an option. He had to be shrewd and calculating in his approach, hence this Letter to Philemon. But that was not the only reason that Paul did what he did in today’s Passage.
In Verse 18 he said, “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;”. (KJV) This is a powerful statement on several levels. Paul knew that Onesimus had wronged Philemon legally, if not morally, and he was well within his legal right to have him punished, which at the time included putting him to death.
But still, Paul knew that he couldn’t allow a Christian Leader to put another Christian brother to death, for any reason, wronged or not. Such an action ran directly counter to Christianity’s Foundational Tenets. Jesus’s Doctrine was one of Forgiveness, and to allow Philemon to act on his very real emotions in this situation, would have destroyed the Church as quickly as an overt attack on slavery would have.
But there was still the fact that Onesimus had wronged another Christian to deal with, even if he had done it before being converted himself. Given that, Paul had to ensure that whatever wrong had been committed had to be covered. He told Philemon that whatever Onesimus had taken from him to get to Rome, he would pay it back himself out of his own pocket.
There are two things to remember when we look at this Verse. The first is that Paul was sitting in prison when Philemon received this letter. He may have been angry at the situation, especially upon the return of Onesimus but once he read the Letter that he carried, written in Paul’s own hand, he had to acquiesce.
The other thing is that there was a real debt that needed to be paid. Even if Philemon had decided not to kill Onesimus, he easily could have required that he pay off the entirety of the debt he owed, with interest, and that would have completely undermined the point Paul was trying to make here.
The point was that Christian brothers and sisters owe each other a debt of Forgiveness. Not to Paul, or even really to each other but to God Himself. He Paid the debt for any wrongdoing we may commit against each other by the Shedding of His Blood, just like Paul was offering to pay off Onesimus’s debt out of his own pocket.
This is a powerful symbolic move on Paul’s part and yet another example of the reason he was the Leader of the early Church, and why we still study his lessons today. However, there is another reason for that and it is displayed by what he writes next.
In Verse 19 Paul says, “I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.” Wow…talk about pulling rank! How is this okay?
Why is it alright for Paul to use this kind of manipulation as a Leader to impel Philemon to do something he was legally well within his rights to do? Isn’t that an erroneous and improper abuse of his power?
My simple answer is; not in the least! But that requires a deeper dive, so here we go. Consider what it is that we’re talking about here for a moment. This is Christian Values and Morals versus the widely held and legally supported laws of the day.
Bottom line; the law was wrong, we’ve already agreed to that point, right? So, how do you, as a Christian Leader, compel someone that has a legal right, to forego that right and do what is Right in the Sight of God? It was much more important for Philemon to let go of his offense and forgive Onesimus than it was for him to exercise his legal rights.
There are a few reasons for this, not the least of which is what we discussed before. Slavery was wrong and Paul had to make a stand against it. However, just as importantly, maybe more so as far as Christianity goes, is the fact that doing what is right, and following God’s Law over the law of the land, had to be established as what was expected from all Christians, even those that had been wronged.
Yes, there was a debt that Onesimus owed that had to be paid but that was not what was really important. What was important was that Forgiveness and Redemption be displayed, especially by one of the Churches’ Leaders.
How would it have looked if Paul had allowed Philemon to do as he pleased and he’d killed Onesimus? It would have sent a clear message to the entire Church that the law reigned over the Gospel, and it would have destroyed any chance that any other slaves would ever have become Christians. What would have been the point? That would have caused more damage than any slight Philemon felt over what Onesimus did, or how Paul acted.
Paul pulled rank in a powerful way in the very same manner that Jesus did. Jesus said, “I died for you. You owe Me your Loyalty!” Paul is not unethical in his actions; he is Modeling Jesus! As Christians, and Christian Leaders, we have to be wise in our decisions when we engage in disagreements between the saints.
That being said, there is no better Pattern that we can Model than that of Christ’s Sacrifice, and that is exactly what Paul did here. However it looks, he did exactly what was right, by compelling Philemon to do what was Right in God’s Eyes, not what was legal. Now there’s something to consider as you take on the mantel of Christian Leader!
Have a Wonderful Wednesday and Remember, It’s Not What You Feel, It’s What’s Right That Really Counts!