I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. (Philemon v.12 NIVUK)
Philemon was a Roman nobleman who lived in Colossae, whom Paul had led to faith in Jesus on a mission trip there. He was wealthy and, as was common at that time, he had several slaves in his household. One of these slaves called Onesimus, who’s name means ‘useful’, had run away, probably stealing some things from his master. In a twist of providence, Onesimus came across Paul who also led him to faith in Jesus. Having discovered that Onesimus was a runaway slave, who had stolen from Paul’s friend Philemon, Paul sends him back to his master to turn himself in with the letter we have preserved in the New Testament bearing the nobleman’s name.
The question that comes to my mind when I read through this personal letter Paul wrote to Philemon is, what happened next? What did Philemon do when Onesimus showed up? Unfortunately, having asked the question, I have to acknowledge that I don’t know the answer. Onesimus is also mentioned in
Colossians 4:9, but not in a way that gives us much of a clue about how the matter was resolved, especially as the likelihood is that the letter to the church at Colossae was written before Onesimus went back.
We do have a possible clue from decades later that might tie up the loose ends. The early Christian writer Ignatius, wrote to Christians around AD110, about 50 years after Paul’s letter to the Colossians, saying how fortunate they were to have such a wonderful bishop over them. That bishop’s name was Onesimus(1).
Yes, it’s some years after Paul’s letter, and Onesimus was not an uncommon name at that time and Ignatius never says this person used to be a slave. It could easily have been a different person with the same name, but I like to believe that Paul’s trust in both Philemon and Onesimus was justified: that Philemon graciously welcomed back this runaway slave as a brother in Christ, and that he went on to serve the church.
Did Onesimus the slave, who was once deemed useless for stealing and then running away from Philemon, become a useful and treasured servant as a spiritual leader in the Christian community? Possibly – but even if this is speculation, it is not speculative to realise that this is what Jesus does for all of us when we come to faith in him. We are no longer slaves to fear but are transformed in our relationship to God as his children
What happens next for us? Let’s pray that our stories conclude with us being useful children of God as we allow Jesus to live in and through us.
Loving Father, thank you for your loving grace that forgives all our sins and changes us to be more like your Son. May we rest in him as we live in that grace, for his glory,
Have a useful week,
- CHURCH FATHERS: Epistle to the Ephesians (St. Ignatius) (newadvent.org)