Onesimus Had a Big Problem. It’s the Same One YOU Have!

As we make our way through the last of Paul’s epistles, we encounter the curious case of Paul’s letter on behalf of Onesimus, a slave who ran away from his master, a man named Philemon. According to Roman law and cultural dictates, Philemon had the right to demand severe punishment for Onesimus (even the death penalty). Both the law and society were on his side. He could ask for the ultimate penalty upon his escaped slave, and no one would question it. But apparently Onesimus became close to Paul, who was under house arrest. Now Paul, writing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, asked him to reconsider the penalty and forgive his former slave.

A Heart-felt Plea

“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.

I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.

He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow-man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (Philemon, Verses 8-17, NIV)

Turning Slavery on Its Head

This interesting and touching story reminds us that Paul lived in the real world. Apparently while he was in Rome, he encountered a runaway slave from Colossae named Onesimus (whose name translates as “profitable” or “helpful”) and led him to belief in Christ. After his conversion, Onesimus realized he might have been wrong for running away and was willing to return to Colossae to go back to his master, Philemon.

Apparently Paul counseled him to do so even though Philemon could demand judgment–possibly even capital punishment–for his runaway slave. (Paul was asking Onesimus to take a big risk. But, as his new spiritual father he encouraged Onesimus to return to Colossae because he had become a changed man in Christ, and because Paul believed Philemon would now see him not just as a slave, but as a fellow believer.)

Tough Choice

Even though he could face the death penalty for running away when he carried Paul’s letter back to Colossae, Onesimus was willing to risk Philemon’s wrath because Paul interceded for him. Martin Luther believed that this letter mirrored the one Christ wrote to the Father on OUR behalf: that we were all slaves facing the death penalty. In our fallen state, as “runaways”, if we stood before our Master without any help, we would face his wrath.

Ok, so this is more than a story. While we have rightfully left the institution of slavery far behind, all of us have been touched by slavery. As a social ill, slavery has been a blight on mankind. But bring it closer to home! Forget Onesimus and Philemon! This is your life. What have you been enslaved to? How far away have you run? Are you willing to allow yourself to be adopted into the family? As an adopted family member, do you sometimes sit in judgment over those who are outside? And more than that, as an adopted child, does your gratitude for His mercy make you willing to serve the Father freely, not out of obligation but out of love?

Martin Luther pointed out that Christ made us sons and adopted us into the Father’s family. As a result, we could have the boldness to throw ourselves on his mercy and serve him again. It’s exactly what Paul encouraged Onesimus to do. What about you? Are you ready to take the chance to throw yourself on the mercy of the court? What will happen if you do? Go home, and see…

Philemon’s Choice

Onesimus escaped and ran from “home”.
Tired of being a slave, he risked it all!
He never dreamed he’d end up there in Rome,
Befriended by a prisoner named Paul.

Paul encouraged Onesimus to return,
And wrote Philemon, asking him to forgive,
To grant Onesimus what he could not earn,
To take him back. And yes, to let him live!

And every one of us had run away 
And faced the ultimate penalty, all alone.
The Judge had raised his gavel as if to say
“This trial is over, and the judgment’s done.”

But Jesus said that he would vouch for me,
And stepped into the dock, and took my place:
The law required I pay my penalty;
But Jesus paid my price. And offered grace.

No matter where you’ve been, or why you’ve run,
Your pardon has been given from above!
The Master now accepts you as a son:
Come home to Him in gratitude and love.

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