"I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment."
(Philemon 10, ESV)
This appeal was made to a close friend of Paul, a man named Philemon in the only extant personal letter from the Apostle Paul. No other personal correspondence from the Apostle exists today. This very personal letter gives the church some tremendous insight into the personality of this great Apostle.
The historical narrative that we know as "The Acts of the Apostles" informs us that Paul once he was transported to Rome due to his appeal in Casarea, was placed under house arrest in Rome. As a matter of fact Paul lived in this house under arrest for two years while awaiting his hearing before Caesar. While he was under house arrest Paul was permitted to receive guests, visitors, fellow and co-laborers into his rented house. Paul is a prisoner of Rome yet our God has seen fit to allow Paul the freedom to preach, teach, write, and minister to all who came to the house.
While Paul was under house arrest he was able to write letters to the Colossian and Ephesian churches. Near the end of this period of house arrest he wrote a letter to the Philippian church. Of course near the beginning or sometime after he arrived he wrote a letter to his good friend Philemon.
During the time of Christ and the life of the Apostle Paul it is estimated that approximately half of the population of Rome consisted of slaves. Many of these slaves were highly educated and engaged in professional roles such as teachers, doctors, and even lawyers. A good many were engaged in industrial laborer including farming, ranching, and husbandry.
One such slave was Onesimus. He was owned by Philemon. Onesimus decided to run away and he robbed from his master possibly to finance his escape. For reasons unknown to us after leaving the city of Colosse and the province of Asia, Onesimus traveled to Rome. Again, unknown to us how or why is the fact that he came into contact with the Apostle Paul. Whether he was arrested or heard of Paul and was curious, or he sought out Paul because of Paul's relationship with his master is totally unknown to us. All we know is that God providentially arranged for Onesimus to come under the teaching of Paul while Paul was under house arrest. At some point, under the teaching of Paul, God opened the heart of Onesimus and he became a believer.
Paul knew he had to do the right thing. However, the right thing was going to be, or could be very difficult and very delicate. Paul wanted to reconcile Onesimus with his master Philemon. We don't know how long Onesimus spent with Paul nor do we know what kind of relationship developed. Listen to what Paul wrote of his new "son" in the faith. "Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has take place here."
(Colossians 4:7-9, ESV) (Emphasis mine) In the letter to Philemon Paul speaks of Onesimus as "of his very heart," and the was dear to Paul. This slave went from a runaway thief to one who is now worthy of the utmost trust. Paul said he was "profitable."
When converted to Christ Onesimus became a new man. He became the spiritual son and brother in Christ to Paul, to the Colossian Christians, and of course to his master Philemon. Now, becoming a Christian did not automatically give freedom to slaves who became Christians.
Slaves at this time were bought and sold as property or similar to livestock. Slaves were taken captive in world, some were born into slavery. Many sold themselves into slavery for debt they couldn't pay. A slave had no legal personality. They had no rights.
Let me digress for a minute: Paul never called for, marched for, sought legislation against, or demanded an end to slavery. A war did not have to be fought nor did civil rights activists have to commit civil disobedience in order to bring an end to slavery. First, the change in Onesimus - sinner to saint; thief to trustworthy - was a result of the influence of the Holy Spirit. Second, that relationship in Christ as an equal brother to his master were the things that undermined slavery. When Christians truly believe that we are equal in Christ, when they care for another more than themselves, when they think properly of themselves as they ought, when we bear one another's burdens, love one another, and recognize that we as Christians are one in Christ, slavery will end. The way to destroy prejudice, slavery, oppression, and crimes against people is to alter the heart of both slave and master, by perfecting heart motives, by softening the heart of the master, and by creating a sense of justice by the preaching of the gospel.
Listen, I know I am preaching/meddling, but you don't need to develop legislation, picket or worse, bomb abortion clinics to eliminate abortion. You just need to change heart of a woman and an abortionist by sharing the gospel and seeing the Holy Spirit transform lives.Will that effectively end abortion as we know it? No. But it will go along way to reduce the numbers of aborted babies. Look at the number of abortions today. We have Roe vs Wade, we attempt to elect politicians who are pro-life, we picket, and we even are guilty of civil obedience. Yes, we can do all we can through our legal and legeslative process to help protect the unborn, since we have these tools, but it will be the change of the heart by the gospel that makes the difference.
Here we have a slave whose heart was changed and he crucified his flesh and crucified his thieving tendencies, his disobedience, and etc. and he became a new man who was now loyal, truthful, honest, and trust worthy. Paul now had to gently nudge and nurse Philemon into taking Onesimus back and not put him to death or severely punish him. Paul knew restitution had to take place for the theft and loss wages, so Paul offered to Philemon those on Onesimus's behalf. Paul sends Onesimus back and begs Philemon to act as a real Christian. Yes, Onesimus might remain a slave, but look very closely and study very intently I Corinthians 7:17-23.
We need to worry less about what we think we deserve and spend less energy on trying to improve our lot and climb social ladders and spend more time and energy using our current condition and status to honor Christ and share the gospel. Most us would prefer to ignore I Corinthians 7:17-23.
There you have it! Onesimus, a slave who became a thief and a runaway - ran into the Apostle Paul and the gospel. The Holy Spirit transformed Onesimus into a man who became loyal, trustworthy, and very profitable to Paul. A man who was willing to face the music and return to his master. Paul wrote a wonderful personal letter to his dear friend basically asking Philemon to act like a Christian and treat Onesimus as a fellow brother in Christ.
Join the Gospel-driven Disciples each Friday as we take a look at various men and women who have been used by God to shape Christian thought, theology, and teachings. (Subject to change by the Holy Spirit and my schedule)