Heart of the Story: Paul called a runaway slave his son, and begged his owner to treat him as a Christian brother.
Onesimus was a runaway slave who belonged to Philemon, a wealthy Christian who lived in Colosse. The story of Onesimus is told in a letter from Paul to Philemon. Paul never visited Colosse; but, on his third missionary journey, Paul spent several years in Ephesus. There, Paul met Philemon, who he led to saving belief in Christ. The Bible is silent on whether or not Paul encountered Onesimus in Ephesus. Assuredly Onesimus knew about Paul and the new Christian faith his owner embraced.
Paul was in Rome under house arrest (59-61/62 AD) when Onesimus ran from Philemon. Apparently, Onesimus stole money, or valuables, which he used to pay for passage on a ship bound for Rome. Rome was a frequent destination of runaway slaves. In a population of one million people, it was easy to remain hidden; however, Onesimus didn’t remain hidden from his destiny.
In Rome, Onesimus heard Paul, or another missionary, preach. He converted to Christianity. Soon Onesimus began to help Paul with his ministry. Onesimus and Paul became so close that Paul described himself as Onesimus’s father and Onesimus as his child. Although they wanted to stay together, both agreed that Philemon had a prior claim on Onesimus. Onesimus must make restitution to Philemon. Onesimus returned to Philemon in Colosse. With him, Onesimus took a personal letter from Paul, begging Philemon to be lenient toward his runaway slave.
In the Roman Empire, slaves were property. The master of a runaway slave could treat the slave anyway he desired. Normal procedure was for owners to brand captured slaves on the forehead, maim them, or force them to fight wild beasts in a Roman arena. Being a Christian, Philemon wouldn’t have subjected Onesimus to such extreme punishment; however, he would have punished Onesimus, e.g., flogging, poor food and housing, or the worst jobs.
Paul didn’t deny or negate the seriousness of Onesimus action when he ran from Philemon; yet, Paul saw the hand of God in Onesimus’s flight. Now, Philemon will have Onesimus back, no longer as a slave, but as a dear brother. Tactfully, Paul asked Philemon to forego punishment of Onesimus. Paul used a lighthearted play on Onesimus’s name in the request. The name Onesimus meant “useful” or “profitable.” When Onesimus ran away from Philemon, he was “useless.” Now as a Christian brother, Onesimus is “useful,” both to Paul and to Philemon. Paul offered to reimburse Philemon for any money or valuables that his son stole from Philemon.
Essentially, Paul repeated in the Onesimus example an earlier message that he wrote to the Galatians: individuals who believe in Christ are all children of God. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male nor female.
The Bible doesn’t mention the outcome of Paul’s request of Philemon. Apparently, Philemon was lenient with Onesimus. Likely, he gave Onesimus his freedom. Ecclesiastical tradition represented Onesimus as the first Bishop of the Berean church. He was martyred, along with Philemon, during the general persecution of the Christian church under Emperor Nero.
Reflection: Given Onesimus treatment of his master, Philemon, was Paul’s request to Philemon for leniency just or unjust? Explain your answer.
Copyright: June 2, 2015; Carolyn Adams Roth