THINK: My son Jimmy knows that swiping a credit card is the means of purchasing things. He has seen us do it enough times that it clicks for him that when we want to buy things we pick them out, take them to the register, swipe the card, and then take them home. What hasn’t clicked for him at the age of 4 is that there has to be money somewhere to back that credit card up. We couldn’t use the card if there wasn’t an account with sufficient funds to cover what was charged. But for a 4 year-old a credit card is the equivalent of a magic wand that gets waved and then we get whatever we want.
Philemon was a wealthy man from Colossae who had come to know Jesus and opened up his home for the gatherings of the ekklesia – the church – there. He was also a slave owner whose rights had been violated when Onesimus ran away. And he had every legal right to punish Onesimus severely. But Paul pleads with him, in this letter, to do something different. He goes so far as to say, in verse 18 “If he has wronged you or owes you anything, put that on my account.”
The truth is, and it’s fairly evident in the reading of this letter, that this is a somewhat disingenuous offer from Paul. He writes it knowing full well that Philemon will not charge him a cent. He writes on behalf of his new friend and brother in Christ Onesimus with the knowledge that the debt has already been paid. The debt had been paid because Paul had plenty in his account with Philemon. Whatever the actions of Onesimus had cost Philemon paled in comparison to what Philemon had gained through the message of Jesus which Paul had shared with him and his family.
By God’s grace, Onesimus met Paul in Rome after running away and accepted the gospel. And after coming to know Jesus, both he and Paul agreed that it was right for him to return to Philemon. But Paul’s boldness in writing this letter and making the request that he does is predicated upon the idea that Onesimus owes a debt he cannot pay…but so does Philemon.
This entire story is a picture of what happens at salvation. Every single one of us owes a debt that we cannot possibly pay. Our sin and our rejection of God leave us in a completely broken place facing death. But because Jesus came and lived a perfect life he was able to pay our massive debt by giving his life on the cross. His blood was the only sufficient payment. And by faith it’s available to us all. In this way, as Martin Luther wrote, “We are all his Onesimi.”
That is, we are all like Onesimus. Messed up. Wrong. Lost. Hopeless. Carrying a debt we cannot possibly pay. But with one who has an account sufficient to cover it for us! Jesus paid a debt he didn’t owe because it was a debt we could not pay.
PRAY: Today, come before God and thank him for salvation. Spend some time in confession, admitting the depth of your own sin and failure and the greatness of the debt you owe God. And then thank him for paying it for you and experience the incredible peace and joy that forgiveness brings.