Duration: 365 days
THE SURROGATE DEBTOR
When Philemon heard about Jesus and his love, he believed—opening his life to God and his home in Colossae to God’s people. Paul begins his letter to Philemon by appealing to the fact that he and Philemon are in a partnership; together they are advancing God’s kingdom, spreading his love.
Paul has a request. Philemon owns a slave named Onesimus, who has run away. Onesimus fled to Rome and found his way to Paul, who is there under house arrest. Onesimus has not only become a believer but has loved and served Paul so well that Paul refers to him as “my son” and “my very heart” (Philemon 10, 12).
Paul is riskily sending Onesimus back to his owner, Philemon, who has every legal right to punish him severely. Under Roman law, Onesimus has committed a capital offense. But Paul presses against the culture with God’s kingdom culture and appeals to his fellow kingdom-advancer Philemon not to punish Onesimus but to accept him as a brother in the Lord, and perhaps—audacity of audacities—set him free altogether, doing “more than” Paul asks (Philemon 21).
In addition to running away, Onesimus had evidently stolen from Philemon before his escape. Onesimus owes Philemon a huge debt. But Paul appeals, “Charge it to me” (Philemon 18).
The King’s Heart
Philemon has every right to punish Onesimus, who is his slave, his property; Philemon has the authority of ownership over him.
But Paul stands in the gap for Onesimus. Philemon owes Paul his very life because Paul shared the gospel with him. And Paul appeals to Philemon on account of his good standing with him: “Onesimus owes you a great debt, a debt that will cost him greatly. Because I love him deeply, charge his debt to me.”
Here is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. We too were slaves, held captive by the sin debt that we owed. We would pay for our sin with our very lives. But because of his infinite goodness and his great love, Jesus steps in the middle of the debt we owe and the darkness that claims authority over us because of it.
The blood that poured from Jesus’ wounds at Calvary was a declaration to us, to the forces of darkness, to all the watching world. “I love them,” Jesus was saying. “They are my very heart. Charge their debt to me.”
Most likely, Paul’s letter to Philemon was carried with another important letter—the letter to the Colossians. And Onesimus himself, along with Tychicus, was the courier!
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