Text: Philemon vs. 17-25
If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord.
Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
Is it good to be an imitator? We might initially say no, as we are regularly taught to be our own person and to not be afraid of just being ourselves. While that advice is partly correct, I think that if we’re honest, we will all admit that we imitate other people all of the time. When we’re young we want to be like our mom or dad. When we get older we also tend to have role models and sources of inspiration. Most teenagers follow the pack, and even adults tend to imitate certain people in their lives. Imitation is just a part of being human, which makes sense when you remember that humans are image-bearers. The real question is not should you imitate but who should you imitate?
In our study of Philemon, we have been highlighting the role or persuasion. Paul does not want to force Philemon to do anything, but instead seeks to persuade him to freely do the right thing. We have shown how Paul used prayer to shape the desires and build a living bond between Christians. We have also examined how Paul used rhetoric to suggest what Philemon ought to do while still letting him embrace it as his own idea. This week we will again talk about persuasion as we see how imitation fits in. Paul models the behavior that he wants to see out of Philemon, and he wants him to be moved by it. In doing this, Paul is himself imitating Christ, as he plays the mediator between Philemon and Onesimus and offers to pay everyone’s debts. What we learn is that if we would like for other Christians to imitate us in love and charity, we must first show that to them by imitating Christ.
Paul as Mediator
The first thing we should notice is that Paul is playing the role of mediator between Philemon and Onesimus. This has been true throughout the whole letter, but it becomes especially obvious in verses 17-19. Notice these lines, “receive him as me” (vs. 17), “if he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (vs. 18), and “I will repay it” (vs. 19). Not only is Paul serving as the go-between for the purpose of communication, he is also promising to make things right between the two men. If there’s any outstanding debt, Paul is willing to pay it.
If we recall what else we know about Paul’s theology, vs. 18 really stands out. Paul says, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” The last expression “charge that to my account” is sometimes translated “reckon it to me,” and the verb there should sound familiar. Paul uses the word elloga, which is related to the more famous logizomai, the verb we translate as “impute.” Logizomai is used when the imputation is of a legal or forensic nature, when the person is given a status or sentence. While Elloga, the word Paul uses in Philemon 18, is usually refers to the actual paying of a financial debt, it can also have the legal or forensic meaning, as we see in Romans 5:13 when Paul mentions that the law is necessary to “count” sin. And so there is a connection between the paying of a debt and the imputation of sin, and this kind of language is used to describe what Jesus has done for us in salvation. Jesus had to die because we had broken the law and deserved to die. He paid our debt by bearing our punishment, and he had our status imputed to him while we had his status imputed to us. Paul is imitating this kind of substitution here in Philemon by offering to pay Onesimus’ debts and asking Philemon to forgive anything that Onesimus did wrong against him. Onesimus will not be able to pay the debt himself, and so Paul is writing a sort of IOU until he can come in person. This is why he goes on to say “I will repay” (vs. 19). Paul’s word is expected to be “good enough” until he can come in person.
This promise shows us that Paul is not only facilitating conversation between the two men, but, as we said, he is actually mediating between them in such a way that he will right the wrongs and pay the debts. This should remind us of someone else. It should remind us of the work done for us by Jesus Christ. Paul is applying the gospel by being a mediator.
Paul is Imitating Christ
Martin Luther said that the letter of Philemon was an illustration of the drama of redemption with Paul playing the part of Christ. This doesn’t mean that the letter is an allegory. It really happened. But it means that Paul was so inspired by what Christ had done for him that he imitated Christ in his own relationship to others. Luther puts it this way:
Here we see how St. Paul lays himself out for poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleads his cause with his master: and so sets himself as if he were Onesimus, and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also St. Paul does for Onesimus with Philemon… We are all His Onesimi, to my thinking.
Even though Paul doesn’t take the time to explain his theology in this letter, there are several loaded concepts. Since Philemon was likely a pastor, he would have picked up on this right away. Paul is touching on basic Christological ideas, and he is acting like Jesus in the way that he pleads on behalf of Onesimus and how he substitutes his name, reputation, and credit for Onesimus’. Beyond this he also talks about the union and communion the men share, he offers to take on Onesimus’ debt, and he even promises a future visitation where he will pay that debt but also, it stands to reason, evaluate how Philemon responded to the letter and how he and Onesimus are getting along. In summary Paul’s argument runs likes this—“We are all united in the gospel, and so you should treat Onesimus like you treat me. In fact, I will stand in his place and pay his debts, and so whatever you do to him you do to me. Also, you owe me too, and I will be coming to see you all soon.” So we have communion, reconciliation, and a coming judgment.
Christian Obedience is Imitation
People have also noticed a parallel with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In both cases we have a potentially awkward social situation, with a master and a slave in the one case and with an ethnic divide in the other. Both cases involve one person paying the other’s debts, as well. Luke 10:35 sounds almost identical to what Paul is saying, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.” Paul is asking Philemon to be a Good Samaritan towards Onesimus. This means that he wants him to love him as himself, and in doing so he will fulfill the law. But before he asks this of him, Paul acts like the Good Samaritan himself, and he offers to pay the bill. “Charge it to me,” he says.
Now a little over a year ago a famous pastor from South Florida made the claim that the Good Samaritan was a picture of Christ. This wasn’t terribly newsworthy at first, but this pastor went on to say that since the Good Samaritan was a picture of Christ, we shouldn’t try to apply the parable to our own lives by calling people to be like the Good Samaritan. To his mind, telling people to be like the Good Samaritan would be a confused sort of legalism, with us trying to do what only Jesus can. Instead, he said, we should let the parable remind us of the gospel. This caused a bit of controversy, partially because it was just a little bizarre and partly because Jesus himself applies the parable to people by saying “Go and do likewise.” The pastor’s mistake was in setting up a false dichotomy. We don’t have to ask whether the Good Samaritan is a picture of Christ or whether we should tell people to be like him. No, we should tell people to be like the Good Samaritan because he is a picture of Christ. We can and should call Christians to be like Christ, and the reason that they should do this is because of what Christ did for them. Christians cannot do the exact work that Christ did on the cross, it is true, but they can imitate it by sacrificing themselves for others.
This business of reenacting the gospel in your Christian life is exactly what Paul is doing in his letter, even if he doesn’t explain it all in detail. He is using words, concepts, and images which remind us of the work of Christ, and then he offers himself up as an example. Then he calls Philemon to do the same sort of thing.
Imitation is the normal way that Christian obedience happens. Older and more mature Christians are called to model appropriate behavior for younger Christians, and those younger Christians are taught to pay attention. In fact, this is like a father-son relationship, where the son imitates the father. Consider these verses from 1st Corinthians:
I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Cor. 4:14-16)
Notice that Paul again puts himself in the position of a father to the members of the Church. As their father, he wants them to imitate him. And he also sends another son, one who has learned to imitate him, to see them and set an example for them locally. This is the same kind of thing that Paul is doing in Philemon, setting his own example and calling the other men to be like him.
This is how imitation works towards persuasion. God wants us to imitate Him, and so He models this behavior in how He deals with us. Even more than that, He sends His Son who also models that behavior and calls us to imitate Him. Then, that Son sends ministers who imitate Him, and those ministers call on us to imitate them as they imitate Christ. This is still the way in which we should persuade people today. We do teach people and call upon them to live a certain way, but we must first model that behavior and be able to ask people to imitate us in our imitation of Christ.
Imitation is good, as long as the person you are imitating is good. This means that we need to be both imitators and imitable. Are we living the kinds of lives that we could call others to follow, or are do we fall back into that old line of “Do as I say, not as I do?” If we are not practicing what we preach, then we are not actually living lives of Christian obedience at all. This is true for our little and understandable sins as well. Few if any of us would consider it a possibility for a Christian to continually engage in murder, sexual immorality, or idolatry, even if he apologized for it and admitted it was wrong. Yet we often do consider it “perfectly normal” to be habitually angry, anxious, jealous, and even proud. These are sins which we admit as sins and perhaps even repent of, but we often do not really try to put them to death. We simply accept them as how we are. But if this is the case, then we cannot hope to persuade others with our lives and actions. We cannot call people to imitate us in these areas. Take a look at your life. What sins keep you from being an example for others to follow? This has change.
One key to being able to improve our sanctification in this area is to surround ourselves with people whom we can imitate. This is why Christian community is so important. We have to have other people around us who are imitating Christ so we can imitate them. Sanctification wears off on other people. The same is true for sin, of course, which is why Paul also says, “evil company corrupts good habits” (1 Cor. 15:33). We will imitate the people in our lives. There’s no way to avoid this. So we need to be very careful who we place around us and put in positions of influence. We need to imitate those who are imitating Christ.
In fact, one of the best ways to persuade others of the goodness and truth of Christianity is to let them see an actual living and loving Christian community. This does not happen by piling up rules. A community built upon coercion will not inspire others to be like Christ. Instead it will create resentment, bitterness, and competition. This is why we have to maximize persuasion. We need to show one another the grace of Christ so that others can see it in us as a group. We must work to create a loving, free, and holy Christian community where we support each other and joyfully help one another grow in Christ. We need to pay one another’s debts. We need to do what we don’t have to do. We need to volunteer and take the initiative. We need to imitate one another as we all imitate Christ.
Let us pray.