He paid a debt He did not owe! Philemon 15-25

Points Covered: A very practical message on the action needed for forgiving others and the right motivation to forgive our offender based on the epistle of Philemon.

Complete series on Philemon

We all go through offenses and hurt from time-to-time in life. Maybe things have been said about you or others actions have pained you and you are hurt. Most of the time people do not talk and get over it, but we keep the hurt with us to pull it back at a later date. If you are married you have been there. When we are offended the last thing we want to do is let it go. However, if you desire a healthy relationship, that is exactly what we have to do. We forgive because we look at Jesus who paid our debt he did not owe.

Well I am going to speak to you on the subject: He paid a debt He did not owe!

Open with me the epistle of Philemon. Now, this little teaches us a living lesson on forgiveness. It is about Paul asking Philemon to forgive his runaway slave. Today I want to complete this series by speaking on the action needed to forgive and the motive we forgive.

1. Three actions to render forgiveness.

a. Receive.

The first thing in offering forgiveness is just to open up your life and take the person back. The whole epistle of Philemon is talking about receiving Onesimus back. Now that Onesimus is changed, receive him back. You find genuine change in a person, accept the person back. Always give people a second chance. Remember God has given you umpty number of chances.

b. Restore.

Paul says that not only should you receive him back, but put him back into service. Now that you have seen the change, forgive. Continue to do what you were doing to your offender.

Philemon 1:15-16 15Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. Paul says, “What Onesimus did was wrong, but I just want you to consider that maybe God had a purpose for it. God was using the evil against you to produce good.”

Genesis 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

God has a plan behind every hurt and he will turn it for our good. God can overturn any evil. So Paul says, “All along when Onesimus left you bitter, God had planned that he would come back a better person.”

Philemon 1:16 ….no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. God allowed it. So, take him back. You lost merely a slave; now you get back a more faithful slave, a believer who will operate for the glory of the Lord.

Forgiveness means I open my heart; I take the person in relationally. I take him back in terms of restoration to service. Reception, that’s personal. Restoration is to service.

3. Restitute.

Now the loss caused to Philemon had to be dealt with. If Onesimus was bought for 600 dinarii, Philemon would have to spend another 600 denarii to buy himself another servant which means it cost him dearly. Not only that, Onesimus took some of the possessions and money of Philemon. So there is loss that has incurred in this whole betrayal. It has to be replaced.

The Bible has very straight-forward principles of restitution. Numbers 5:5-7 5The Lord said to Moses, 6“Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty 7and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged.

Onesimus probably comes back with empty pockets. See what Paul is telling: Philemon 1:17-18 17So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Restitution is always an essential component of forgiveness. But just to take any pressure at all off Philemon, Paul says “Whatever he owes you I’ll pay because he has no money.

Philemon 1:22 Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. The assumption would be when Paul gets there he would settle this account.

There needs to be restitution. Sometimes the restitution is to pay back if a person is able to do that. It would have been right for Philemon to say, “I’ll take the money out of your wages, work overtime. But, sometimes the best kind of restitution is just sheer forgiveness. In this case, there is someone paying the price for someone else’ fault.

Listen, Paul is playing a very familiar part in the life of Philemon and Onesimus. Philemon is like God. He has been violated and defrauded. Onesimus is like the sinner who ran from God, who wasted his life. And if the sinner is to be reconciled to God, somebody must pay the price, right? It was Christ. Paul played the part of Jesus Christ to reconcile a sinner from his master. Here, Paul is saying, “I want to be like Christ. I want to take on the debt of Onesimus so that he can be reconciled to you Philemon.”

Paul said on several occasions, “Be ye followers of me as I am of Christ?” Never are we more like God than when we forgive. Never are we more like Christ than when we carry the debt so that forgiveness can take place.

Moving on, in versus 19-25, Paul opens to us insight into the motives for forgiveness.

What then motivates a person to forgive?

2. Motivation to forgive

a. I forgive because I owe a debt I can’t pay.

Philemon 1:19a I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back. Paul’s custom was to dictate his letters to a secretary. Today you to dictate a letter and have your secretary write it all down and then sign your name and add a PS (postscript) in your own hand. But it was also Paul’s custom at the end of many of his letters to pick up the quill and to write in the end and sign his own name.

Paul is saying I will pay for the loss. Obviously, Paul must have had some money. Remember that he had received some gifts during his imprisonment from the church at Philippi?

Philemon 1:19b I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I know Onesimus owes you a debt. But may I remind you that you owe me a greater debt than he owes you?

Here’s Paul’s plan. Put his debt on my account, then cancel it because you owe me so much. Philemon is not just a man who is owed the payment of a debt. Philemon is also a debtor who owes a far greater and unpayable debt to Paul. Onesimus owes Philemon a material debt. Philemon owes Paul a spiritual debt. Onesimus owes Philemon a temporal debt. Philemon owes Paul an eternal debt. Why? Paul had given him the gospel. How is he ever going to pay that back? So, he says Onesimus’ debt should be put on my account and then cancel because you owe me so much, because I was used by God to deliver you from death and hell.

Now, the principle is just that simple. Somebody does something against you, offends you, owes you something, remember this: You owe such unpayable debts to others who have generously and lovingly benefited you with the richest of spiritual blessings.

I’m in debt to many people. I’m in debt to my parents who led me to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. They loved me, supported me, and educated me. I could never repay my debt to my parents. I’m in debt to my wife for her friendship, for her love, for her support, for her wisdom, her correction. I could never repay the debt that I owe Glory. I’m in debt to my children for loving me, for their concern, for their care for their father, for their obedience to the things I ask of them. I’m in debt to my friends who have ministered to me. I am in debt to my teachers. I am in debt to men who have written books, books that have shaped my life and my thinking and my ministry. I’m in debt to my co-workers and co-pastors. I’m in debt to you as a congregation because you have so consistently given me your love, prayers, wisdom and your fellowship.

I am so deeply in debt to so many people for so much spiritual blessing that I could never repay. Can I then who owe so much, to so many, not forgive someone who owes a simple earthly debt to me? So, Paul seeks to motivate us to forgive by reminding us of how much we owe.

b. I forgive because I can become a blessing to others.

Philemon 1:20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 

Philemon had been a blessing to many. Philemon 1:7 You have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. Paul says, “You have blessed so many people, now it’s my turn. If you’ll forgive him you’ll bless me.”

How is it going to benefit Paul? Give him joy. Apostle John: 3 John 1:4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

Philippians 2:2 Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Philemon, if you will forgive that man you will bring me joy. In other words if you forgive your offender, it will give joy to your loved ones. It will bless others.

c. I forgive became I am obedient to the Lord.

Philemon 1:21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. Paul says, “Look, I have confidence in your obedience to God.” Philemon knew that God commanded forgiveness Paul is sure Philemon will obey God.

Philemon 1:21b ….knowing that you will do even more than I ask. Maybe you’ll do more than just take him back and restore him to service; you’ll give him opportunity to minister alongside of you. Maybe the more might be that you’ll not only forgive him but you’ll forgive some other people you ought to forgive. There are many possibilities for what the more might be.

d. God’s grace enables me to forgive.

Philemon 1:25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. This familiar and general benediction is very specific here, that divine grace be upon Philemon to forgive Onesimus. We can never forgive others without the grace of God.

Illustration: Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, after having been tried at Westminster and condemned to death without any just cause, spoke to his judges, “As St. Paul held the clothes of those who stoned Stephen to death, and as they are both now saints in heaven and shall continue there friends forever, so I verily trust shall therefore most heartily pray, that though your lordships have now here on earth been judges to my condemnation, we may nevertheless hereafter cheerfully meet in heaven in everlasting salvation.”

Look at the beauty of forgiveness. Stephen in God’s grace said as he was being stoned: Acts 7:60 Lord, do not hold this sin against them. Jesus looked at His crucifiers and said: Luke 23:34 Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. We forgive because we operate on God’s grace.

That’s the end of the book. But I have no doubt Philemon forgave Onesimus. Paul was released from that imprisonment and went to the house of Philemon. And just as a footnote, history records that some time after this, a man became the pastor of the church at Ephesus and his name was Onesimus. Could it be the same man? If so, we certainly know the wonderful power of forgiveness.


Forgiveness is a promise. It’s a promise never to take revenge. Forgiveness says, “I hold no anger, I hold no hatred, I hold no bitterness against you. No matter what you have done to me, no matter how you have offended me, I make a promise never to seek revenge. I hold no anger, I hold no hatred, I hold no bitterness, I won’t ever bring it up to you, I won’t ever bring it up to anybody else, and I won’t ever bring it up to me. That’s forgiveness. We forgive because God forgave us. He paid a debt he did not owe!