Philemon 18-21 Commentary: Conflict with Onesimus

18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

New Revised Standard Version Updated edition

Philemon 18 Commentary

The idea that Onesimus may have “wronged” Philemon (v. 18) suggests there was a conflict between them. Paul’s talk of “owing,” “charging,” and “repaying” (vv. 18-19) suggests the conflict involved money.

Paul’s use of a conditional sentence in v. 18 (“If he has wronged you…”) suggests he doesn’t really think Onesimus has wronged Philemon. If Paul really thought Onesimus had wronged him, Paul would simply have said, “Charge what he owes to me.” Thus, it seems likely Paul is acknowledging, here, that Philemon thinks Onesimus has wronged him and owes him compensation, even though Paul and Onesimus disagree.

The fact of the conflict suggests that part of Paul’s objective with the letter is to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus. This objective, in turn, suggests that what Paul felt bold enough to command Philemon to do in v. 8 was to forgive Onesimus whatever wrong Philemon perceived him to have committed. Forgiveness was a teaching Jesus frequently emphasized (e.g., Mark 11:25, Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:21-35, Luke 17:3-4), explaining why Paul would feel bold enough to command it (v. 8).

The fact of the conflict further suggests that Onesimus’s “separation” from Philemon (v. 15) did not arise because Philemon sent Onesimus to serve Paul in prison. Philemon would not have sent a slave he perceived to be disobedient, especially to serve a person as important to Philemon as Paul. In light of the reasons (given in commentary on Philemon 15) for thinking Onesimus didn’t seek Paul out to mediate his conflict, the traditional explanation for Onesimus’s separation seems most plausible: Onesimus fled his enslavement.

The conflict may explain why Paul doesn’t want to force (v. 14) or command (v. 8) Philemon to do what he wants, and why Paul is subtle in his request for Onesimus’s freedom: the situation is delicate, Onesimus is at risk, and he doesn’t want to anger Philemon.

Philemon 19-21 Commentary

Paul’s offer to pay Onesimus’s perceived debt (vv. 18, 19) echoes the way the sin of humanity was charged to Jesus’ account when he died on the cross.

Paul’s phrase, “…owing me even your own self” (v. 19) seems to refer to Philemon’s conversion under Paul’s influence. Here Paul applies subtle pressure, reminding Philemon of how much he owes Paul. Paul’s phrase, “…benefit from you in the Lord” (v. 20) seems to have a similar purpose of pressuring Philemon: Paul connects the benefit he requests with “the Lord,” thereby making the request a matter of Philemon’s faith. Perhaps Paul here puts reconciliation and Onesimus’s freedom among the good things (“benefits”) he hopes to share in Christ (v. 6) with Philemon.

Paul’s imperative, “Refresh my heart…” (v. 20) recalls Philemon’s refreshing of the hearts of the saints from earlier in the letter (v. 7). Philemon has done it before, and Paul is asking him to do it again.

Paul is confident Philemon will do as he asks and “even more” (v. 21). Some scholars think the “even more,” here, may be a request for legal manumission. On this view, not only is Paul asking Philemon to treat Onesimus as a free person (v. 16), but he’s asking him to free Onesimus legally.

Looking for more? Try this excellent free Bible study on the book of Philemon. Or, read commentary on Philemon 4-9, Philemon 10-17, or Philemon 22-25.


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