Do you recall the story of Onesimus? He was the runaway slave of a man named Philemon. Through a strange series of events this runaway ended up in Rome in Paul’s company. Exactly how this occurred (whether it was intentional or unintentional) is never spelled out. We know that Paul had a relationship with Philemon prior to this event. It also appears that Onesimus came to faith through Paul’s witness while he was in Rome. In Paul’s letter to Philemon he informs him of Onesimus’ whereabouts and conversion. He also appeals to Philemon to engage the circumstance with Christ-like behavior.
It is easy to miss the fact that Paul is putting himself out there for Onesimus. When slaves ran away in the ancient world “the lost time of an escaped slave was lost money and was legally viewed as stolen property” (Craig Keener, The Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, p.643). Recapture for a runaway slave “normally meant severe punishment” and possibly even death (Keener, p. 644).
In this context, Paul makes this incredible statement. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it…” (Philemon 18-19). Paul assumes the debt of Onesimus. He is willing to absorb any punishment that Onesimus has earned through his actions. Paul puts his signature in the letter, which would legally bind him to paying the debt if Philemon so demanded (Keener, p. 646).
Paul is exemplifying the heart of forgiveness in this text. He incurs the debt of another so that they may go free. He mimics the Son of God who transfers our debt into his account, pays it off at his own expense, and in return for our debt gives us grace and freedom. Everyone one of us is in the situation of Onesimus before God—debtors. Christ alone is the only hope for the condemning debt we are buried under.
Throughout the New Testament debt cancellation is one of the primary ways forgiveness is explained. In the next two posts we will look at the key texts that flesh out this aspect of forgiveness.