LTRJ Note: In the Bible, there is a small book called Philemon, which tells the story of a slave, his owner, and an apostle of Christ who defended this slave. Today, with our current protests and demonstrations against racism (much of it resulting in looting and violence), many believe these are the things that will bring about change. But lasting change and true freedom can only come through Jesus Christ. Below, we have posted the story of Philemon (the slave owner) and Onesimus (the slave) and how the apostle Paul intervened, as told by Harry Ironside. Also, there is a sermon with some worthwhile insights and reminders by an Oregon pastor who discusses our current situation. Plus, there is an interview on Epoch Times with civil rights veteran, Bob Woodson that is worth listening to (*see note below) in order to gain some perspective of current events.
“Charge That to My Account”
By Harry Ironside (1876-1951)
If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it; albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. (Philemon 17-19)
Someone has said that this epistle to Philemon is the finest specimen of early private Christian correspondence extant. We should expect this since it was given by divine inspiration. And yet, it all has to do with a thieving runaway slave named Onesimus who was about to return to his former master.
The history behind the letter, which is deduced from a careful study of the epistle itself, seems to be this: In the city of Colosse dwelt a wealthy Christian man by the name of Philemon, possibly the head of a large household, and like many in that day, he had a number of slaves or bondsmen. Christianity did not immediately overturn the evil custom of slavery, although eventually it was the means of practically driving it out of the whole civilized world. It began by regulating the relationship of master and slave, thus bringing untold blessing to those in bondage.
This man Philemon evidently was converted through the ministry of the apostle Paul. Where they met, we are not told; certainly not in the city of Colosse, because in writing the letter to the Colossians, Paul makes it clear he had never seen the faces of those who formed the Colossian church. You will recall that he labored at Ephesus for a long period. The fame of his preaching and teaching was spread abroad, and we read that “all . . . in Asia heard the word.” Among those who thus heard the Gospel message may have been this man Philemon of Colosse, and so he was brought to know Christ.
Some years had gone by, and this slave, Onesimus, had run away. Evidently before going, he had robbed his master. With his ill-gotten gains, he had fled to Rome. How he reached there we do not know, but I have no doubt that upon his arrival he had his fling and enjoyed to the full that which had belonged to his master. He did not take God into account, but nevertheless God’s eye was upon him when he left his home, and it followed him along the journey from Colosse to Rome. When he reached that great metropolis, he was evidently brought into contact with the very man through whom his master, Philemon, had been converted. Possibly Onesimus was arrested because of some further rascality, and in that way, came in contact with Paul in prison, or he may have visited him voluntarily. At any rate, God, who knows just how to bring the needy sinner and the messenger of the Cross together, saw to it that Onesimus and Paul met face to face.
“He Delighteth in Mercy”
God was watching over Onesimus. He saw him when he stole that money, and as he fled from his master’s house. He watched him on his way to Rome, and in due time brought him face to face with Paul. Through that same precious Gospel that had been blest to the salvation of Philemon, Onesimus, the thieving runaway slave, was also saved, and another star was added to the Redeemer’s crown.
Then I can imagine Onesimus coming to Paul and saying, “Now, Paul, I want your advice. There is a matter which is troubling me. You know my master, Philemon. I must confess that I robbed him and ran away. I feel now that I must go back and try to make things right.”
One evidence that people are really born of God is their effort to make restitution for wrong done in the past. They want a good conscience both before God and man.
“Paul, ought I to go back in accordance with the Roman law? I have nothing to pay, and I don’t know just what to do. I do not belong to myself, and it is quite impossible to ever earn anything to make up for the loss. Will you advise me what to do?”
Paul might have said, “I know Philemon well. He has a tender, kind, loving heart and a forgiving spirit. I will write him a note and ask him to forgive you, and that will make everything all right.”
But he did not do that. Why? I think he wanted to give us a wonderful picture of the great Gospel of vicarious substitution. One of the primary aspects of the work of the Cross is substitution. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself paid the debt that we owe to the infinite God in order that when forgiveness came to us, it would be on a perfectly righteous basis. Paul, who had himself been justified through the Cross, now says, “I will write a letter to Philemon, and undertake to become your surety. You go back to Philemon and present my letter. You do not need to plead your own case; just give him my letter.”
We see Onesimus with that message from Paul safely hidden in his wallet, hurrying back to Colosse. Imagine Philemon standing on the portico of his beautiful residence, looking down the road and suddenly exclaiming, “Why, who is that? It certainly looks like that scoundrel, Onesimus! But surely, he would not have the face to come back. Still, it looks very much like him. I will just watch and wait.”
A little later, he says, “I declare, it is Onesimus! He seems to be coming to the house. I suppose he has had a hard time in the world. The stolen money is all gone, and now perhaps he is coming to beg for pardon.”
As he comes up the pathway, Onesimus calls, “Master, Master!”
“Well, Onesimus, are you home again?”
“Yes, Master, read this, please.”
No other word would Onesimus speak for himself; Paul’s letter would explain all.
Philemon takes the letter, opens it, and begins to read: Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ.
“Why Onesimus, where did you meet Paul? Did you see him personally?”
“Yes, Master, in the prison in Rome; he led me to Christ.”
Unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer.
“Little enough I have ever done, but that is just like Paul.”
And to our beloved Apphia. (That was Mrs. Philemon.)
“Come here, Apphia. Here is a letter from Paul.” When Mrs. Philemon sees Onesimus, she exclaims, “Are you back?”
One can imagine her mingled disgust and indignation as she sees him standing there. But Philemon says: “Yes, my dear, not a word. Here is a letter for us to read—a letter from Paul.”
Running on down the letter he comes to this: Yet for love’s sake, I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. I beseech thee for my son Onesimus.
“Think of that! He must have been putting it over on Paul in some way or another.”
Whom I have begotten in my bonds.
“I wonder if he told him anything about the money he stole from us. I suppose he has been playing the religious game with Paul.”
Which in time past was to thee unprofitable.
“I should say he was.”
But now profitable to thee and to me.
“I am not so sure of that.”
Whom I have sent again.
“Paul must have thought a lot of him. If he didn’t serve him any better than he did me, he would not get much out of him.” He goes on reading through the letter.
“Well, well, that rascally, thieving liar! Maybe Paul believes he is saved, but I will never believe it unless I find out he owned up to the wrong he did me.”
What is this? If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on my account, I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.
Oh, I think in a moment Philemon was conquered. “Why,” he says, “it is all out then. He has confessed his sin. He has acknowledged his thieving, owned his guilt, and, just think, Paul, that dear servant of God, suffering in prison for Christ’s sake, says: Put that on mine account. I will settle everything for him. Paul becomes his surety.” It was just as though Paul should write today: “Charge that to my account!”
A Gospel Picture
Is not this a picture of the Gospel? A picture of what the Savior has done for every penitent soul? I think I see Him as he brings the needy, humble sinner into the presence of God and says, “My Father, he has wronged Thee, he owes Thee much, but all has been charged to My account. Let him go free.” How could the Father turn aside the prayer of His Son after that death of shame and sorrow on Calvary’s Cross when He took our blame upon Himself and suffered in our stead?
But now observe, it is not only that Paul offered to become Onesimus’ surety, it was not merely that he offered to settle everything for Onesimus in regard to the past, but he provided for his future too. He says to Philemon: “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.”
Is not that another aspect of our salvation? We are “accepted in the beloved.” The blessed Savior brings the redeemed one into the presence of the Father, and says, “My Father, if thou countest Me the partner of Thy throne, receive him as Myself.” Paul says, “Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” He is to take the place, not of a bondsman, but of an honored member of the family and a brother in Christ. Think of it—once a poor, thieving, runaway slave, and now a recognized servant of Christ, made welcome for Paul’s sake. Thus our Father saves the lawless, guilty sinner and makes him welcome for Jesus’ sake, treating him as He treats His own beloved Son.
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain:
He washed it white as snow.
And now every redeemed one is in Christ before God—yea, “made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Oh, wondrous love! Justice is satisfied. What a picture we have here then of substitution and acceptance. The apostle Paul epitomized it all for us:
Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. (Romans 4:25)
We are accepted in the Beloved. The Lord Jesus became our Surety, settled for all our past and has provided for all our future. In the book of Proverbs (11:15), there is a very striking statement, “He that is surety for a stranger shall smart for it; and he that hateth suretiship is sure.” These words were written centuries before the Cross, to warn men of what is still a very common ground for failure and ruin in business life. To go surety for a stranger is a very dangerous thing as thousands have learned to their sorrow. It is poor policy to take such a risk unless you are prepared to lose.
But there was One who knew to the full what all the consequences of His act would be, and yet, in grace, deigned to become “Surety for a stranger.”
Meditate upon these wonderful words:
For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
He was the stranger’s Surety.
A surety is one who stands good for another. Many a man will do this for a friend, long known and trusted, but no wise man will so act for a stranger unless he is prepared to lose. But it was when we were strangers and foreigners and enemies, and alienated in our minds by wicked works, that Jesus in grace became our Surety.
Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. (1 Peter 3:18)
All we owed was exacted from Him when He suffered upon the tree for sins not His own. He could then say, “I restored that which I took not away” (Psalm 69:4). The clergyman Robert Lowth’s beautiful rendering of Isaiah 53:7 reads: “It was exacted, and He became answerable.” This is the very essence of the Gospel message. He died in my place; He paid my debt.
How fully He proved the truth of the words quoted from Proverbs when He suffered on that cross of shame! How He had to “smart for it” when God’s awful judgment against sin fell upon Him. But He wavered not! In love to God and to the strangers whose Surety He had become, He “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2).
His sorrows are now forever past. He has paid the debt, met every claim in perfect righteousness. The believing sinner is cleared of every charge, and God is fully glorified.
Savior, Surety, Lamb of God,
Thou hast bought us with Thy blood;
Thou hast wiped the debt away,
Nothing left for us to pay.
None other could have met the claims of God’s holiness against the sinner and have come out triumphant at last. He alone could atone for sin. Because He has settled every claim, God has raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His own right hand in highest glory.
Have you trusted “the stranger’s Surety”? If not, turn to Him now while grace is free.
*Warning: There is a short 1 or 2 minute video clip of the protests during the interview that contains profanities (not by Woodson or the interviewer). You can fast forward this short piece and continue with just the interview.
To read more by Harry Ironside, visit www.harryironside.com.
(Painting is in the public domain; taken from http://thebiblerevival.com/clipart.htm.