Opheilo: Dealing with Debts

Word of the Week

April 20, 2024

Opheilō: Dealing with Debts


Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the Law.

Romans 13:8 NASB


My Dad had a very simple system for keeping track of his bills: a small enclosure at the back of his desk, something like a corral just the right size for the envelopes he received from the bank and the power company.  Every time he got paid, he would thumb through the pile of bills to select the ones he could pay that time.

Most of us today go online to check the balances due on credit cards or insurance premiums, but the basics are unchanged.  We need some kind of system to keep track of our obligations.  Otherwise, we risk interest penalties, repossessions, or worse.

Wise is the money manager who knows the difference between writing a check to pay off your credit line at Kohl’s and flashing your debit card to pick up a new pair of shoes!  There is a big difference between debt payment and discretionary spending.

The Bible talks about debts and obligations – and not all come with a dollar sign attached.  In the eyes of God, we have some non-optional responsibilities that we don’t want to overlook.

To discover our obligations in the spiritual realm, let’s look at the Greek word for “owe.”

In Greek, the word for “to owe” is opheilō [aw-FAY-loh].  It occurs 35 times and is usually translated “to owe, to be obligated, ought, should.”

What does it mean to “owe” something?  At the root, it means that we have an obligation that we must honor, whether or not we feel like it.

In secular Greek, opheilō came from the law courts.  If you borrowed money or signed a contract, you had to pay up.  Failure to do so could have serious consequences.  You could be thrown into a debtor’s prison until you paid the bill!

Jesus referred to this system in his parable of the unforgiving servant.  This man owed an impossibly large sum to a ruler, who took pity on him and cancelled the debt.  The rascal went right out and grabbed a guy who owed him a small amount.  When the small-time debtor couldn’t pay, the first man threw him in jail.  Later on, the ruler found out about his shameful behavior.  He called him in, reinstated the debt, and turned him over to torturers until he could pay it off (Matthew 18:28-30).

There are other New Testament uses that refer to financial debts.  For example, Paul wrote to Philemon, a Christian who owned a slave named Onesimus.  Onesimus had run away and had evidently stolen some money in the process.  The runaway encountered Paul, became a Christian, and eventually went back to make things right with his old master.  In Philemon 18, Paul tells Philemon, “If he owes you anything, put it on my account!”

Not all debts are financial, however.  If you swore an oath promising God that you would do something, you were obligated to keep your promise.  Jesus once scolded the Pharisees who used technicalities to sidestep this debt, claiming that it all depended what you swore by.  According to them, if you swore by the temple, you were free to disregard the promise; if, however, you swore “by the gold of the temple,” you owed it to God to follow through (Matthew 23:16).  Jesus pointed out that any vow to God is a binding obligation.

Not all obligations were legally binding matters.  Many of our obligations carry no legal penalty.  Instead, they rest on personal relationships.  You keep your promise to another person because you respect the relationship.  Failure to carry out your obligations won’t land you in prison, but it can damage the relationship.

That’s the case with many of the instances of opheilō in the New Testament.  The Lord is quite clear about His expectations.  Here is a list of some of the things that believers are “obligated” to carry out:

  • Forgive those who owe us (Luke 11:4)
  • Wash each other’s feet (John 13:14)
  • Do not think that God’s nature is that of a gold or silver idol (Acts 17:29)
  • Bear the weaknesses of the weak (Romans 15:1)
  • Share material things with those who have contributed spiritual things (Romans 14:27)
  • Honor those who are legitimate leaders (2 Corinthians 12:11)
  • Love your wife like your own body (Ephesians 5:28)
  • Give thanks to God for other Christians (2 Thessalonians 1:3; 2:13)
  • Walk as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6)
  • Lay down our lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16)
  • Love one another as God has loved us (1 John 4:11)
  • Support Christian workers so we can be fellow workers with the truth (3 John 8)

Paul summed it up very well in Romans 13:8 – “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another, because love is the fulfilling of the Law.”

Let’s note that God is not going to send you to debtor’s prison – or to hell – if you fall short of His expectations in these things.  Mercy is one of His grandest characteristics.

At the same time, these are not just suggestions.  They are vital parts of a believer’s walk with God, and we will thrive in our relationship with Him as we pursue faithfulness in these basic areas of life.


Study Hint:

Here are a few other uses of the word “owe” that are worth closer study:

John 19:7 – The Jews told Pilate, “By our law he ought to die.”

1 Corinthians 5:10 – To be separate from sinful people of the world, you would be obliged to leave the world.

1 Corinthians 9:10 – The Old Testament says a plowman ought to plow in hope of reaping.

1 Corinthians 11:7, 10 – A man ought not to have his head covered . . . a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.

2 Corinthians 12:14 – Children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but the opposite.

Hebrews 2:17 – Jesus was obligated to be made like his brethren so he could be a merciful high priest.

Hebrews 5:3 – A priest was obligated to offer sacrifices for sin for the people and himself.

Hebrews 5:12 – By this time you ought to be teachers.

Coming Up

We hear stories of intense persecution for Christians in many parts of the world, and we can be sure that they read their Bibles with a different mindset than those of us who live comfortable lives.  Next week we will take a closer look at the New Testament’s primary word for persecution.

©Ezra Project 2024





2 Responses

  1. Awesome word(s) study. As a student of 1st year Greek, I’m reaping the benefit of the Ezra Project. My continued desire to learn is a gift from The Lord.

    1. Thanks man of God this kind of inspiring sermons and teachings be blessed i remain Bishop Mugabi George William from Uganda East Africa God’s Holy Assembly ( GOHA) keeping on following you shalom!

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