“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—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” Philemon 1:18-19 ESV
Paul’s short letter to Philemon centers on the case of Onesimus, a slave who had run away from Philemon. Onesimus, like his former master, had become a believer in Christ and began to serve alongside the Apostle Paul. Knowing both Onesimus’ background and Philemon’s faith, Paul sends Onesimus back, but pleads with Philemon to receive him “not as a slave, but as a brother.” Paul goes even further to bridge the fissure between Philemon and Onesimus–he says that if Onesimus owes Philemon anything that Paul himself will repay it; he will take responsibility for making it right.
In so doing, Paul is a Christ-figure for Onesimus. To mend the fissure between ourselves and God, God the Son gave Himself as a perfect sacrifice to please the Father on our behalf. He took responsibility for giving what we did not and could not in order to bring reconciliation. And so we see in Paul a picture of how Christ brings us back into relationship with God.
We also see in this letter a picture of how wrongs committed amongst believers can be made right by peacemakers such as Paul; and also by the Lord Himself.
If we ever feel wronged by a fellow believer, we can remember that Christ already died for their sins and lived the perfect life they have not lived. If they have been embraced as God’s son or daughter, then the Lord Himself is their ransom and has taken responsibility for righting their wrongs. Paul, like Christ, says, “Charge it to me. I’ll take responsibility for whatever wrong they have done to you. I’ll be the one to repay you.”
The biblical model of forgiveness is that when a brother (or sister) sins against us, that we go to that person and tell them of the wrong. If they will not hear, then we ought to bring another believer in to hold them accountable. And if they still will not hear, we are to treat them as a tax collector. I wonder if Jesus was not perhaps being a little ironic in saying that, for He chose a tax collector (Matthew) to be one of His apostles, and picked a tax collector (Zaccheus) out of the crowd (a sycamore tree to be exact!) to have dinner with. Of course, both Matthew and Zaccheus became disciples of His, but even so, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told us to bless those who curse us and to do good to those to spitefully use us. Whether someone acknowledges the way they have wronged us or not, we are always to bless them and to do good to them.
But many times, when people are called to forgive, they want to know how that’s fair–where’s the justice? Why should the person who did the wrong receive a blessing when we have suffered because of them? What would happen if, when we felt like someone owed us something, that rather than demanding every bit from them, we simply recognized that all of their sins have been charged to Christ’s account? What if, instead of holding onto our estimation of what we’re due, we went to the Lord and said, “You have already taken responsibility for this person. They belong to You, and they have wronged me. I look to You to restore whatever I may lack because of them.” I’m not suggesting that we demand anything of God, only that we recognize the work that the Lord has already done on their behalf.
Believers must forgive unbelievers as well, but I believe Paul’s letter to Philemon is more an example of what takes place when a person does know Christ, but may have done some things that hurt others. Paul didn’t oblige himself for just any runaway slave–he did so for one who had become a disciple of Christ. If the Father can accept Christ’s sacrifice to atone for sins against Him that we are not yet aware of, then certainly we can do the same. If our Lord’s sacrifice is good enough for God, it should be good enough for us.