Paul sent the Colossian letter in the hands of Tychicus and Onesimus (Col. 4:7-9). At the same time, he sent a letter to Philemon. It deals almost entirely with Philemon’s relationship to Onesimus. As we read, it emerges that Onesimus was a slave, and Philemon his master. And that Onesimus had run away. And, though this may shock you a bit, that Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon!
Sometimes, we get upset to discover that slavery is not flatly condemned in the New Testament. The word of Jesus paved the way for the abolition of slavery, the founding of nations in which all are treated as social equals in God’s sight. But the gospel was not primarily designed to bring about political revolution or economic justice; its concern is eternal salvation despite earthly circumstances. Thus, God’s message to slaves was to be godly slaves (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-25, 1 Tim. 6:1-8, 1 Pet. 2:13-24). God’s message to slave owners was to treat them fairly, as children of a heavenly Master (Eph. 6:9, Col. 4:1).
It may mitigate our disappointment to learn that slavery in first-century Rome was different than our American experience. Some historians estimate that about 30% of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire were slaves. They came from conquered peoples, or from the ranks of the poor, who sometimes indentured themselves voluntarily. While most slaves performed manual labor, some also were highly educated, did secretarial work and accounting, played music, taught children, and served as doctors. I’m not by any means suggesting it was a desirable life—a slave was the property of the master, and Romans could be very harsh to their slaves. Paul urges Christians to become free if possible, and never to indenture themselves, for it would make it more difficult to serve God (1 Cor. 7:21-24). The attitude of racial inferiority, upon which our American experience of slavery was often rationalized, is condemned in Scripture (Mark 16:15-16, Acts 10:34, 2 Cor. 5:16, Col. 3:11, Rev. 5:9). In a nutshell, Christ’s message to Roman slaves was to not worry about changing things they could not change, rather to glorify God through their service.
Thus, in his historical context, Onesmius had defrauded his master by running away. And so, though it may run counter to our sense of justice, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. But Paul sent him back with a plea.
I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me… For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (Philemon 10-16).
It seems that Onesimus ran away from Philemon, bumped into Paul, learned the gospel, and became a Christian. Paul suggests that there many have been more going on than mere chance. Paul is careful to use “perhaps,” the language of providence (cf. Esther 4:14). God sustains the world, but not every occurrence should be chalked up to the direct action of God. He changes things as big as the movement of planets (Josh. 10:13) and as small as the meal of a worm (Jonah 4:7), but the world largely operates on rules of physics, chemistry, and biology that God established. Sometimes God enters the world miraculously, in obvious “signs and wonders,” designed to draw man’s attention to His word (Heb. 2:3-4). He fulfills prophecy (John 19:11), and He changes lives (Gal. 1:15). But not every red light or green light, not every flight delay, is a direct act of God. Some are just coincidences (Eccl. 9:11). We go astray when we try to assign meaning to everything. How many times have we credited God with “opening a door” to allow us to buy a car that proved too expensive, or “directing out footsteps” to an activity that proved unhealthy? Some coincidences could even be Satanic. No vision, feeling, or odd circumstance trumps the revealed word of God (Deut. 13:1-5, Col. 2:18, Gal. 1:6-9).
Paul hoped that Philemon would receive Onesimus in forgiveness and kindness, thinking of his departure as a providential way for him to obey the gospel. This new relationship means that everything changes. Now he is a saint. Now he is a beloved brother. Now he is useful not just in the flesh as a slave, but in the Lord as a member of the body of Christ.
In fact, Paul purposefully plays on the meaning of Onesimus’s name. In Greek it means “useful.” Paul suggests that as a non-Christian slave, Onesimus wasn’t nearly as “useful” to Philemon as he would be now, coming back to Philemon as a Christian, who could edify him in the Lord. In Christ, he could truly live up to his name!
Paul makes another request of Philemon, that he would allow Onesimus to return to Paul to minister to him in his imprisonment (12-14). Paul didn’t presume to do this without Philemon’s permission. But if Philemon followed through, this would be a way that Philemon himself could have fellowship with Paul’s gospel work.
Let us see the true value of those in our circles of acquaintances. I’ve always thought it was a shame that Onesimus had to flee Philemon and bump into Paul to learn the gospel. Maybe I’m being too harsh on Philemon; maybe Philemon did teach Onesimus about Jesus, and Onesimus sought out Paul on purpose, who provided the extra nudge he needed to obey the gospel. Who knows! In any case, don’t shield your mechanic, your doctor, your teacher from the gospel, because you don’t want to “ruin” your friendly relationship. If you have employees, it’s counterproductive to coerce them into faith, but always think of them as prospects for the gospel. How much more wonderful it could be to have Christian employees! –John Guzzetta