Three times in Philemon (verses 12, 15, and 17) Paul appeals to Onesimus’s master to “receive” the runaway slave and accept him back as a Christian brother. The three usages of “receive” have some interesting connotations.
In verse 12 Paul states that he is sending Onesimus to him and appeals to him: Therefore receive him.” “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart” (RSV).What love the words convey! It was not easy for Paul to part with the slave, whom he had learned to love dearly as a Christian brother.
Later the apostle appeals again “Receive him as myself” (verse 17). Translators of the New International Version and the New English Bible render it as “Welcome him as you would welcome me.” Here is the measure of his hopes for a favorable reception for Onesimus. Philemon, a good friend of Paul’s, no doubt would prepare a royal welcome should the man of God himself come to visit. “Welcome him [Onesimus],” Paul writes, “as you would welcome me.”
What an appeal—made on behalf of a repentant sinner who at one time had been a thief, a family deserter, an ungrateful slave! If this was expecting much of Philemon, it also is a measure of Paul’s affection for Onesimus.
Here Paul is saying, “Receive him unconditionally. Don’t hold anything against him.” Then comes the christlike appeal:
“If he has done you any wrong or is in your debt, put that down to my account. Here is my signature, Paul; I undertake to repay” (verses 18,19, NEB).
To carry the already superlative a step higher, Paul also implies, “When Onesimus comes to your door, don’t look at him. Look at me. Don’t think of him as your renegade slave worthy to be punished—perhaps even by death. Think of me and what I have done for you.”
It is but an imperfect illustration of what Jesus has done for sinners. But, thank God, Jesus is our Mediator, our High Priest. He appeals to His heavenly Father to welcome the penitent sinner as God would welcome Him. “Thou. … hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17:23).
"Of course, that man—Pierson, Brown, Smith, or Jones—is a sinner,” the Saviour, as my Advocate declares to the watching universe. “He doesn’t deserve to be saved, but the gospel has done something for him. He has confessed his sins, has accepted my death as substitute for his. His faith is strong. Receive him.” In a sense Christ is saying,
“If he hath wronged thee, … put that on my account.” “If he oweth thee ought, … I will repay” Philemon 1:18, 19).
Our dependence is not what man can do; it is what God can do for man through Christ. … Thank God we are not dealing with impossibilities. We may claim sanctification. We may enjoy the favor of God. We are not to be anxious about what Christ and God think of us, but about what God thinks of Christ, our substitute” E.G. White, in General Conference Bulletin, April 23, 1901).
When we seek to be right with God, we need not worry about how he views us. If we come to God as penitent, Jesus accepts our guilt and stands before the Father in our stead.
There is no question regarding God’s infinite love for His Son or His acceptance of the penitent who approaches Him through Jesus. “Receive him, welcome him, as you would receive Me and welcome Me,” Jesus says.
Our Saviour “is able. …to save to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25). The Philemon letter makes this clear. Onesimus had defrauded and deserted his master, left his home and family, and broken God’s law and Roman law. He deserved punishment. On his own, he could never have made things right with Philemon. Possessing no means to make restitution, he could never have paid the debt he owed. He must have help. And help was gloriously and amply provided. This is the good news of the Philemon story.
It matters not what heinous deeds you or I may have committed. We cannot atone for our misdeeds. Alone we are helpless before God. But, praise the Lord, we are not alone. “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). He assumes the awful debt. “Put that on my account," He says to the Father, “I will repay. Receive him.”
There is yet another “receive him” in the epistle to Philemon. “Receive him forever,” Paul asks (verse 15). Here Paul is saying, “Philemon, receive and accept Onesimus not only now, but receive him forever. Keep him—always! Help him to be all the he ought to be. Help him to continue to live a pure, honest, upright life from now on.”
I am thankful for a Saviour who not only receives me as a sinner and puts me right with heaven, but also makes me an overcomer—victorious over sin. He receives, saves, and keeps. Not only does he forgive the sins of the past, but Christ also has power to make me an overcomer victorious in Him. He can and will, if I cooperate, make it forever. “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). Our yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows all are in His hands—forever. This is the precious gospel we find in Philemon, as well as the four gospels of the New Testament.
Praise God, this gospel will do for you and me what it did for Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.
Robert H. Pierson, Love Come Home, pp. 115 – 117.