Paul finally gets to the heart of the matter in his letter. He is making an impassioned plea on behalf of a man he has come to care deeply about; Onesimus.
Onesimus was a runaway slave. As such, he could have legally been put to death if caught. He took his life in his hands every day while walking the streets of Rome. We don’t know how long he had been on the run or even how he came across Paul, but his life changed when he did. We are not even told if he left Philemon before or after Philemon’s becoming a believer.
What we can infer from Paul’s letter about Onesimus’ history is that he was “useless” to Philemon as a servant. I’m assuming that Onesimus conveyed this valuation of himself to Paul during their time together. He was apparently very discontent being a slave. You would have to be to be willing to risk your life by running away.
I’m curious to know how Onesimus’ service began. Was he a slave sold at auction, born into service, or self-sold by incurring a debt to Philemon? In Jewish society, a bondservant and a slave were two different levels. A bondservant willingly chose to stay on as a servant after their compulsory service term ended. A bondservant was a servant for life where a slave served a specified term. Did this distinction apply to Onesimus?
I’m also curious to know what motivated him to run away. Was Philemon a hard master? Did he simply hate being a servant? Was he rebelling against Philemon’s conversion? What changed in his life that made him so miserable that he would risk death rather than stay?
This was the Onesimus of before he encountered Jesus. What do we know of him afterwards?
First of all, we know that he willingly served Paul in anything that was asked of him. I don’t believe Paul treated him as a slave. But Onesimus was of great value to Paul, not only as a “son in Christ” but as a physical helper. Paul doesn’t specify the tasks that Onesimus performed but whatever they were Paul was grateful for the help.
Secondly, we see that Onesimus had more than a master change, he had a heart change. He refused service to Philemon’s family but willingly served Paul’s needs. This change of attitude wasn’t because Paul was a much nicer “master” but because he met the TRUE Master. He met Jesus. As his relationship with Jesus grew, his heart changed. No longer was he discontent. He became a willing AND obedient helper.
His obedience is the last BIG change I want to focus on. Onesimus was so obedient to Paul’s, and Jesus’, direction that he put his life in their hands. Onesimus willingly returned to Philemon. He didn’t have any guarantees how he would be received. He had no promise of safety. All he had to go on was faith in Jesus and Paul’s assurances that everything would turn out alright. I wonder which of those two factors tipped the scale for him to return. I wonder how long Paul and the Holy Spirit had to work on him before he was willing to go.
Philemon was not getting back the same slave he lost. He was getting back a true bondservant instead. He was getting back a changed man. He was getting someone who willingly came to him, with no guarantees of acceptance. Philemon was receiving back someone who shared his faith and purpose; to promote the spread of the gospel through service to others.
We don’t get to see how Philemon reacted to Paul’s letter. I would love to have read one from Onesimus to Paul sharing the details of his return. But we can be pretty sure that Philemon welcomed Onesimus back. Paul wouldn’t have sent him if he wasn’t sure of the outcome.
Paul sent Onesimus to a man whom he had heard great things about. All the reports were glowing as to Philemon’s growth in Christ. Philemon demonstrated love at every turn. But Paul left the ultimate decision in Philemon’s hands. Paul could have ordered Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery and give him his life because Paul held the rank of apostle.
Paul’s offer to repay Philemon for any debt owed reminds me of Jesus’ payment of our debts. Paul personally guaranteed to make good any accounts as Jesus did with His Father on our account. Philemon and Onesimus were free to begin a new relationship without the baggage of the old one hanging over them.
Lord Jesus, thank You for Your substitution work. I don’t owe a debt any longer because You paid it. Thank You for the faith to follow wherever You lead. Thank You that You fully changed Onesimus and me! I was rebellious until Your Holy Spirit breathed in me a new spirit. Thank You for growing faith in me too. Onesimus must have had great faith to willingly walk into the “lion’s den.” Thank You for shutting those lion’s mouths too. Faith in You is NEVER misplaced!