It seems likely that Onesimus had stolen from Philemon to fund his journey to Rome (1:18). At least, he had stolen himself. Onesimus had no way to pay the debt he owed to Philemon Paul was willing to put Onesimus’ debt on his account. He was willing to put his money where his mouth was.
Likely, Paul knew that the debt might stand in the way of reconciliation. This letter was a legally binding note to remove the wall of separation (Phile. 18-19). Paul here is giving a promissory note, a signed statement of indebtedness (Gk cheirographon in Col. 2:14. “certificate of debt.”
Verses 17-18: Chuck Smith writes, “An Example of Intercession. Paul’s intercession to Philemon, for the benefit of Onesimus, is a beautiful example of intercession, and a glorious picture of the intercession of Jesus before the Father on our behalf. Paul said, ‘Receive him as you would me’, in other words, ‘I will stand in his place.’ Then he said, ‘If he has wronged you or owes you anything, put it on my account.’”
Like Onesimus, we needed someone to pay our debt. We were without strength to do so (Rom. 5:6). Christ had to put our debt on his account (1 Pet. 1:18-20; Isa. 53:6; 1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Verse 19: Paul usually used a secretary to write his letters for him; he signed them though. It appears at least in this verse that Paul wrote this with his own hand. This makes it even more private and personal.
This verse seems to imply that Philemon was a convert of Paul, probably in Ephesus, because it is believed that had never been to Colossae. John McArthur writes, “Philemon owed Paul something far greater than the material debt Paul was offering to repay, since Paul had led him to a saving faith, a debt Philemon could never pay.”
Verse 20: Paul is telling Philemon that it would bring great joy to him if he would forgive Onesimus.
Verse 21: “Even more than I say…” John McArthur writes, “The more than forgiveness that Paul was urging upon Philemon was either:
- To welcome Onesimus back enthusiastically (Luke 15:22-24) (Story of the Prodigal Son)
- To permit Onesimus, in addition to his menial tasks, to minister spiritually with Philemon or
- To forgive any others who may have wronged Philemon.
Verse 22: Paul expected to be released from prison (1st imprisonment) Acts 28.