I’m a sucker for a good story. And the Bible is full of good stories. There are a few tucked away in places that are not widely as studied or preached on, and one of my absolute favorites is the story on Onesimus. WHO? He is in the Book of Philemon. WHO? Stay with me. Philemon is the last letter from Paul listed in the Bible, right before Hebrews. And it’s a letter that Paul writes to a man named Philemon about a problem they have. We are literally reading someone else’s mail here. It feels at times like I’m committing a misdemeanor as I read it.
I want to tell the story because it’s an amazing short story that really needs more publicity nowadays. And it is largely a hidden story for many reasons. But the story is so loaded that I could preach for a month on it. So allow me to just tell the story, and I’ll let the reader discover all of the “preaching points”.
We have probably all read Paul’s letter to the Colossians. At that time, these churches did not meet in big buildings like we are used to today. They met in homes, and generally in homes of a church member that was wealthy enough to have a large home big enough to fit everybody. The Colossian church met in Philemon’s home.
Philemon was saved at some point during Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, possibly hearing the gospel directly from Paul himself. Slavery was common in that era, and Philemon had a slave named Onesimus. One day, Onesimus ran away. Onesimus is often portrayed as a young, rogue slave who escaped, but I tend to think he was probably trying to escape mistreatment. Maybe Philemon was furious with the runaway; after all, he paid a high price for a slave. Maybe he thought Onesimus wasn’t that helpful anyway.
So where could Onesimus go at that point? He owns nothing. He has no transportation. How would he survive? To anyone who sees him, it is probably very obvious by his appearance that he is an escaped slave. Who is going to help him? This is what we often call “rock bottom”.
Onesimus travelled a thousand miles, from Philemon’s home in Colossae to the big city, Rome. He travelled roughly the distance between Chicago and Houston. And in this massive, sprawling city, Onesimus somehow runs into probably the only man in the world that would even give him the time of day. The Apostle Paul, who was in chains and under house arrest.
Paul must have looked past how desperate, messy, and downtrodden Onesimus was. Paul spent time with him. He listened to Onesimus’ story, eventually figuring out that he knew Onesimus’ master. Paul discerned how God was at work in Onesimus’ life, and he promptly led Onesimus to Christ, discipled Onesimus, and put Onesimus to work to help his ministry. How incredible is it that God’s grace was most available to the most forgotten man in society when that man was at his lowest point?
Onesimus quickly became very significant and close to Paul. While Paul was in chains, he was still able
to write letters, and he used Onesimus, who was mobile, to help with his ministry. One day, Paul must have felt a nudge from the Holy Spirit. Something was wrong in the Body of Christ; it had to be fixed, and Paul had to make a valuable sacrifice. Two brothers in Christ were at odds. Paul decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon, along with a letter on behalf of Onesimus. Onesimus shows up one day, and nervously hands Philemon the letter.
In that letter, Paul didn’t treat Philemon as Onesimus’ legal owner. He was not trying to make things right legally.
Paul boldly declared, in spite of any legal rights Philemon may have had, that Onesimus was not a slave and he was not useless. Onesimus was a dear brother and a partner, and Philemon should receive Onesimus as if he were receiving Paul himself into his home. Paul offered to repay any wrongs Onesimus might have ever done. But of course, Paul reminded Philemon that he owed Paul his very soul for bringing the message of salvation to Philemon. So at the very least, they were even.
Philemon must have done what Paul asked. While Onesimus was a fairly common name, there is a strong belief amongst scholars that this Onesimus became a leader in the underground church during a period of intense persecution. Onesimus is, in some historical accounts, called Onesimus of Byzantium and as Holy Apostle Onesimus. And Ignatius of Antioch referred to Onesimus as the bishop of Ephesus that succeeded Timothy following Timothy’s martyrdom. Only in Christ could a slave become a bishop, and only in Christ could the societal gap between slave and owner be bridged.
My wife knows of my affinity for this story. A couple years ago, when my wife and I discovered that we were pregnant with our first child, we started discussing possible names for either gender. When we got to possible boy names, I suggested a few biblical names, some half-jokingly. I said, “Hey, how about… Onesimus? That would be unique and God-honoring!”
My wife said no. She said a lot of other things in response too, but the basic message was that she was vetoing that name. I doubt anyone in our culture will be honoring Onesimus and his story by naming their son after him. However, Onesimus and his story speaks to us today as we have experienced much conflict involving race, economic status, and power in our country recently. My hope and prayer is that his story would speak louder than ever to us.