Read verses 17-20
Q: Does Onesimus owe Philemon something? Has he wronged Philemon?
A: Yes. Slavery was quite different in that time from its practice in the New World. Very often the designation “slave” was given to someone who sold themselves in order to repay a debt they legitimately owed. There were a variety of ways to ultimately pay off the debt and regain freedom. Onesimus therefore could be reneging on payment, depriving Philemon of further income, and it is implied that in his flight he may have stolen goods or money from his master to finance the escape. This was NOT an escape effected by a slave under inhumane and intolerable circumstances, but more like a debtor both failing to live up to his bargain and stealing even more.
Q: Does anything come to mind in Paul’s provision in v.18, “But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account”?
A: It certainly sounds like the work of Christ on the cross on all our behalf. It’s the application of Christ’s grace to Paul, passed along to others.
Q: How does Paul’s mention of Philemon’s personal debt to Paul remind us of another of Christ’s teachings?
For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.
― Matthew 6:14-15
It’s the practical application of Christ’s teaching in every day life.
Q: How does Paul tie this request in with the beginning of the letter on a personal level with Philemon?
A: “...refresh my heart in Christ”. (v.20) It’s both the acknowledgment that Philemon, a spiritual leader who has already demonstrated the quality of His faith and love because “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother” (v.7) as someone Paul knows will seek higher spiritual benefits even at the expense of worldly repayment. Philemon’s reconciliation with Onesimus will pay back greatly in spiritual dividends for everyone concerned. Paul is confident Philemon sees “the big picture”.