17 If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. 19 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. 20 Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. (Philemon 17-20; NKJV)
The good deed and importance is found in Philemon receiving Onesimus. Before I start with Philemon, please recognize the Onesimus is returning. He is determined to reconcile with Philemon though the worst outcome for him could be that Philemon doesn’t reconcile and he lose his life…a punishment that was given to slaves who were disobedient. This was in the realm of possibility but Onesimus had a heart to go and to reconcile. As much as Philemon had to receive him, Onesimus had to go. This cannot be overstated.
Paul urges Philemon to receive him like he would receive Paul. It seems they shared a close relationship so the picture here is of two dear friends reuniting. That is what Paul is expecting for Onesimus despite the fact that he had caused Philemon harm. This shows us what reconciliation looks like. Forgiveness is not just a lack of retaliation but restoration. It is about how we receive one another in all circumstances and how we build and develop relationships with one another.
This is how God receives us when we are forgiven. We do not simply escape the wrath we deserve but He FULLY restores us into a relationship with Him. Paul paints a clear picture of what this looks like for Philemon and we can glean what it needs to look like in our lives. Receive one who has wronged you the same way that you would receive one of your closest and dearest brothers or sister.
Paul is a catalyst in this restoration and we can be too. Philemon might have had a long list of grievances or wrongs and it might have caused him a great internal struggle with what Paul was asking. But Paul steps in and offers himself to take that debt on. He doesn’t stop there though. He doesn’t want a list of wrongs from Philemon that are now a debt on Paul. What Paul wants Philemon to remember is that we are all indebted to our Lord Jesus and in this case to the one who taught and led us to Him. Paul simply wants to bring to mind how desperately Philemon needed salvation at one point in time and to return the same offering of grace and forgiveness and restoration to Onesimus which Paul offered to him. Again, we all can understand what that looks like and at different points play our part as a Paul (catalyst for restoration), Onesimus (willing to go and restored), and Philemon (willing to receive and to restore).
We forgive because we are forgiven. We erase other’s debts because we have a record of debts that others have against us and a debt we can never repay our God and Father. We owe our eternal spiritual life to God. We understand that, then it will be easier to forgive. We forgive because we are forgiven and we work for restoration in whatever role or situation we find ourselves in. We work because that is the action we must take in our faith and love for Jesus and each other.