Phm 1:18-20 “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; 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. Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.”
Going on the scholarly supposition that Onesimus was a servant who had run away from Philemon’s household, there is no question that he had wronged Philemon. Onesimus had wronged Philemon according to the law of the times simply by leaving. Add to that the phrase “oweth thee ought” and we have the possibility that he may have stolen money or goods when he left. With the wrongs being so obvious, why did Paul begin his statement with “If”?
Paul was not questioning whether or not any wrong had been done. He was questioning whether or not Philemon was going to hold it against Onesimus or forgive him. Onesimus had done an injustice to (transgressed against) the house of Philemon. If Philemon was going to require retribution, then Paul was ready to stand for the debt.
Paul made it very evident here that he bore in his body both the death and the life of Jesus (2Co 4:10). For the love of one he referred to as both a son and a beloved brother, Paul was willing to give himself up and be counted as the transgressor. He was willing for Philemon to attribute to him whatever debt Onesimus owed. Our Lord Jesus stood before God the Father and made the same plea on our behalf, becoming sin for us.
Paul wanted Philemon to understand how important this was to him. He called attention to the fact that he had written this with his own hand rather than dictating it to someone else. He did not leave any room for Philemon to doubt that it was Paul who had pledged “I will repay it.” How much greater assurance did Jesus give when he had “by himself purged our sins (Heb 1:3)”?
It appears that Paul is trying to strong-arm Philemon a bit when he appears to say “I’m not going to remind you how you owe me your life.” We see this sort of thing all the time when one person is trying to get another to do what they want: you should do this for me because I did that for you. This attitude seems to me to be out of character with the overall tone of Paul’s letter.
Taken in the context of the rest of the sentiment, it seems to me more likely that Paul is telling Philemon that he is not asking this of him as a result of some debt on Philemon’s part. Instead, he is asking it of Philemon because it is right. He does not want Philemon’s reasoning to be based on what Philemon might owe Paul, and he wants Philemon to know that he is sincere in his offer to pay whatever debt there may be. Paul’s aim was to stir up Philemon’s pure heart to mirror to Onesimus what Christ had done in Philemon’s life.
We see the heart of Paul’s desire when he asks Philemon to “let me have joy of thee in the Lord.” Paul was not seeking advantage for his own sake, nor was he seeking advantage simply for Onesimus’ sake. He was also seeking Philemon’s good by encouraging him to manifest the mind of Christ in his actions. Paul was seeking to have his inward affection (see Strong’s definition for “bowels”) eased (refreshed) in the Lord.
May we encourage our brothers and sisters always to do what is right before the Lord, not out of debt to each other but out of our deep inward affection in Christ!