The gentleman whom we are studying this morning, is one of those behind the scenes guys. And quite unlike our other heroes of faith, there is not one significant accomplishment recorded about him in history or in Scripture... well, not significant as the world measures significance. But in many respects, this man Onesimus became a model and an example for us all.
The story of Onesimus is the sole subject of one entire book of the Bible, the New Testament book of Philemon. If you have trouble finding the book of Philemon in your Bible, that is understandable. It is so short, it takes up only one page. It is only one chapter long. The whole book consists of only 25 verses. Some have referred to Paul's letter to Philemon as one of the New Testament postcards.
Who is Philemon? And who is Onesimus? Most of what we know about either
of them is right here in this letter. Philemon is not mentioned anywhere
else in Scripture. But Onesimus is...
And it seems he has a pile of parchment, because he dictates at least
letters: One to be sent to the church in the church in the city of Colosse.
A second letter was as a private letter to Philemon, whose home served
as the meeting place of the Colossian church. And the third letter was
sent to the church in nearby Laodicea. Now we have preserved in Scripture
Paul's letter to the Colossians, and his private letter to Philemon. But
what about that third letter, the one to the Laodiceans? There is a very
good chance that that letter also is in the New Testament, although you
won't find it titled by that name.
After an initial greeting and affirmation of Paul's love and respect of Philemon, Paul comes to the point and purpose of the letter:
The Christian congregations which Paul started were often made up of a large number of slaves, and occasionally slave owners. And he made it abundantly clear that before the cross of Jesus, the ground was level.
COLOSSIANS 3 [Remember the context of Onesimus' situation in Colosse
as Paul write this:]
11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.
23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,
24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.
4:1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
Paul often identified himself with the slave-class of society, when he described himself as a bond-servant, and indentured slave, of Christ, which alludes to one of the two ways a person usually became a slave:
The first way to become a slave was to be captured in battle. We read about such a one in last week's Old Testament lesson was about one such Jewish girl captured by the Syrians and taken as a slave for Naaman, where she brought her faith in God and healing to that house.
The other way to become a slave was to find yourself or your family so deep in debt that you contracted your service for a specific length of time. And when your time of service was up, you were free from your obligation. Under Jewish law, slaves had to be freed after seven years of service. And while they served, they had many of the same rights and privileges as other members of the family whom they served. After all, said God, remember when you yourselves were slaves, building Pharaoh's cities in Egypt.
We don't know how or why Onesimus was a slave. Unlike the way slavery was practiced in this country 150 years ago, one did not automatically become a slave because one was born to a parent in slavery. Whether he was captured in war, or he was working off the payment of a debt, we do not know.
Regardless, Onesimus was driven by his sense of injustice that had been perpetrated against him. And given the opportunity to steal and run, he found ample justification in his own mind for doing just that, just as we often do when we are faced with unfair circumstances and we remedy the situation by our own clever, less than honest means.
Onesimus didn't live in Israel. He was not protected by Jewish law, but was subject to Roman law, which meant for his crimes of stealing and escape, he could be punished with death.
In his letter to Philemon, Paul indicates that Onesimus left has master's house as an unbeliever. He is returning as a Christian, seeking forgiveness, and restoration of his relationship with Philemon. And he carries in his hand the letter which Paul wrote to his master, appealing to Philemon's heart as a Christian.
As I read this, I can't help picturing a similar scene from the Old Testament, 1000 years earlier, where an army officer is carrying a letter given to him by the king whom he loves and trust, to deliver to the general in command, unaware that the contents of the letter were instructions for arranging the soldier's murder. The letter Uriah delivered for David to Joab was Uriah's own death sentence. What a contrast was the letter that Onesimus carried, on whom legally was the sentence of death, but the letter he carried was very literally for him the word of life. And so it is also for us, the Word of Life. What Onesimus experienced that day was pure grace... and so do we.
There are several reasons I like working in the church. (1) I get to
tell people about Jesus. (2) I get to connect them with His Word, as it
applies to specific situations in their lives. (3) I get to see the transforming
power of God's Word work in people's lives. (4) I get to see forgiveness
applied in restored relationships. (5) I get to experience forgiveness
for the times I mess up.
You may have a footnote in your Bible which alerts you to Paul's play on words in that verse. The name "Onesimus" means in the Greek language, "useful."
Paul says to Philemon, [v.16] "Onesimus is not your slave any more. He is your bother in Christ." And it is as if Paul robs Philemon of any right and opportunity to harbor bitterness against his runaway slave who stole from him.
Commentators generally point out that Onesimus' return to Philemon was to "make restitution" for the wrong he had done. But notice that Paul never once suggested that Onesimus pay back his master for what he stole. Paul says, rather, that Philemon can hold Paul responsible for paying it back [v.18]. Then Paul, in good Jewish fashion tells Philemon, "Oh, by the way, I could remind you that you owe me your very life.... but I won't." It was Paul who first introduced Philemon to Jesus. Now, several years later, Paul has the joy and privilege in introducing Philemon's runaway servant, Onesimus, to Jesus. And Paul has the joy of restoring the two to fellowship, not as slave and master, but as equals, as brothers in Christ.
Did Philemon forgive Onesimus? Did he receive him back into his fellowship? The Bible doesn't say. But would we today be having this very public reading of this very private letter if Philemon had failed to respond by doing the Christian thing?
Luther wrote in his preface to Philemon:
Yet he does this not with force or compulsion, as lay within his
rights; but he empties himself of his rights in order to compel Philemon
also to waive his rights. What Christ has done for us with God the Father,
that St. Paul does also for Onesimus with Philemon. For Christ emptied
himself of his rights [Phil. 2:7] and overcame the Father with love and
humility, so that the Father had to put away his wrath and rights, and
receive us into favor for the sake of Christ, who so earnestly advocates
our cause and so heartily takes our part. For we are all Onesimuses
if we believe. (Luther's Works, vol. 35, p. 390)