Paul wrote to Philemon about Onesimus and had this to say: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (1) You see, Onesimus was a thief and a runaway slave. He fled to escape sure punishment because he had stolen from his owner Philemon. And it just so happened he ran into Paul in Rome. And what do you know—Onesimus became a believer! A changed man and a help to Paul! As a matter of fact, Onesimus had become so valuable that Paul told Philemon this: “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.” (2)
But instead of keeping him, Paul announced, “I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.” (3) Hmm. 🤔 I wonder how Onesimus felt about this. Going back to his previous owner . . . after having stolen from him . . . after having run away from him. Surely he felt nervous about it, maybe even fearful. Why would Paul do this? Why not just exonerate him and let him stay and serve the Lord there in Rome? Why not write to Philemon to let him know of his conversion, to offer payment for whatever he stole (which he does!)—but to keep him there where he had become useful in Paul’s ministry? Philemon had plenty of other slaves; he was a wealthy man and certainly did not need him back. So why send him back?
Because we cannot run away from our past. Because our past follows us. It can haunt us. It can impede our going forward. And we need to make restitution. All true—but not Paul’s reasoning. It’s about relationships—people who serve us and people whom we serve. Paul explains it in Colossians, the city where Philemon lived and held church meetings in his large house. To slaves he writes: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” (4) Onesimus had to go back because he was Philemon’s slave, his property. No matter that he was now a follower of Jesus and becoming useful in ministry—he had to return to his rightful owner and be prepared to serve the Lord as a slave. It was a matter of obedience.
But Paul also gave Philemon instructions as well: “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” (5) The idea is that slaves have masters and masters have masters and all of us have the same Lord: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” (6) Paul encouraged Philemon to treat Onesimus “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.” (7) It was a matter of grace.
So, did he? Did Philemon forgive him and release him as a slave? We don’t know for sure but I think he probably did. Paul was quite sure he would because he wrote “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” (8)
The truth is we followers of Christ are all useless sinners saved by grace who long to become useful in service to God. Therefore, when given the opportunity to be gracious and help someone become useful, we should. How wonderful it is to become useful. And by the way, the name Onesimus actually means useful! 😀 So by the grace of God and the grace of Paul and probably the grace of Philemon, Onesimus lived up to his name and became useful. 😄
1) Philemon v.11 2) Philemon v.13 3) Philemon v.12 4) Colossians 3:22 5) Colossians 4:1 6) Colossians 3:23 7) Philemon v.16 8) Philemon v.21