Let me tell you about a great unknown. Not only do we not hear a lot about him from the pulpit, but we don’t know a whole lot about him in the first place. His name is Onesimus.
Onesimus is the slave of a wealthy man named Philemon. Almost everyone has heard the name of Philemon, even if you know nothing about him. It’s the title of one of the books in the Bible. But it’s not really a book. We can barely even call it a chapter. It’s a letter, and a very personal letter at that. As we look at Paul’s letter to Philemon we learn a little bit about the story of Onesimus, and a little bit about ourselves as well.
This is Onesimus’ story. This story has to do not so much with theology as it does with the application of Christian truth to life. That is to say, how does our Christian faith play out in reality? It’s one thing to say that you’re a believer in Jesus – it’s another thing to let your beliefs influence how you behave. It’s in this letter that Paul writes to his friend Philemon and shows him how a Christian ought to behave and what it looks like to practically love your neighbor as yourself.
One time Jesus was approached by a scholar of Torah and the scholar asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the law and prophets can be summed up in those two words about love. Love God with everything we are, and love others the way we love ourselves. In this great big world of ours people are always searching for meaning, for purpose. But everyone has a purpose – every church has a purpose.
If there is anything that is supposed to give us meaning, that is supposed to be part of our purpose, our very reason to exist, it’s these words of Jesus – Love God, and love others. This is one of the reasons the church exists. If the church is not doing this, if we are not loving God and loving on people, we are missing part of our God-given purpose!
As Paul is writing to Philemon, he’s telling Philemon part of God’s purpose for all believers – that we love people in a way that goes beyond what the world considers “normal.” Let me break it down for you. Paul is a traveling evangelist. He goes from town to town telling people about the good news of Jesus Christ. He’s had a good bit of success preaching to the Colossians, and he starts up a church in their town. The patron of the church, the man in whose house they meet and one of the chief benefactors of the young church, is Philemon. Paul says that he keeps “hearing about your love and the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (v.5) Paul goes on to say, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective as you fully acknowledge every blessing that is ours in Christ.”
The term “fellowship” or “sharing” was often used for business partnerships or for sharing possessions. Philemon acts as a patron for the church. The sharing of the faith is a reference to the extending of material resources. Paul is talking about the generosity which springs from Philemon’s faith.
Often times when we become Christians we turn our hearts over to God but not our wallets and checkbooks! Even though all of us are not blessed to give support the way that Philemon was, or the way other wealthy Christians are, there is a reminder here that we recognize that we are stewards, not owners, of all God has given us. It is because of his faith that Philemon is able to be generous with the church and with other believers. Are our hearts generous, or are we bound up by material possessions?
But that isn’t Paul’s main concern. His main concern is about a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus has received a bad rap from a lot of people for a long time. He’s been accused of being a thief and a runaway slave. Have you ever been accused of something that you didn’t do but you couldn’t convince anyone that it wasn’t true? How does it make you feel to be unjustly blamed? Christian writers and preachers have accused Onesimus of being this scoundrel, a runaway slave who stole from Philemon before heading out. And while he was on his way he comes across Paul and Paul leads Onesimus to Jesus. Hallelujah, isn’t God good!? But that is just conjecture. We are not told anything about the circumstances that brought Paul and Onesimus together. There are clues, however, in Paul’s letter. These clues point us to see that Onesimus wasn’t a runaway, and he wasn’t a thief. And then Paul’s letter points us to the right way to live as Christians.
8For this reason, although in Christ I have complete freedom to order you to do what is proper, 9I prefer to make my appeal on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an old man and now a prisoner of Christ Jesus, 10appeal to you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.
First of all, Paul shows us that true Christian behavior is not about authority, who is right, or who has the best way to do something. #1: Christian behavior is motivated by love. Have you ever had a conflict with someone over something and you know they should be doing it your way? Even if you have the freedom to order that they do it your way, Paul would say, “make an appeal on the basis of love.” Look at how you act towards people. Is it loving? Look at how you talk to people. Is it loving? Look at how you talk ABOUT people. Is it loving? One of our purposes as Christians is to love people. Are we doing it?
Paul has been spending time with Onesimus, and now Onesimus has become a Christian. Paul led him to faith. That’s what he means when he writes, “Whose father I have become….” Paul is a spiritual parent and considers all of his converts his children in the faith. What a heart of a shepherd! He cares about the people with whom he comes into contact.
11Once he was useless to you, but now he is very useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel. 14Yet I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be something forced, but voluntary.
It seems that Onesimus had been considered useless to his master. Perhaps that’s why Philemon sent Onesimus away ~ he would be better put to use serving Paul than working back home. It’s in this passage that we really see that Onesimus isn’t a scoundrel, but a servant. He has been sent by Philemon to take care of Paul while Paul is in prison. And now it is time for Onesimus to return, but he is returning a new man. Paul is making a play on words here. He writes, “Once he was achrestos, useless, but now he is euchrestos, useful. Now, does anyone else like word plays and puns? I love them. The words Paul is using to call Onesimus useless and useful sound like the words for “without Christ” and “good Christian.” Before, Onesimus was without Christ and useless. Now Paul is sending him back useful and as a good Christian.
Here’s point #2 – it is only in Christ that we find real fulfillment of purpose and become useful. My friends, God has a use and a purpose for every individual here. God has a use and purpose for this church. It is in Christ that we discover that purpose and find real meaning to life. Have you ever wondered about your God-given purpose? Christ told us part of what that purpose is. The greatest commandment is to…Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
15Perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but better than a slave-as a dear brother, especially to me, but even more so to you, both as a person and as a believer. 17So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
Here we see a clear picture that Onesimus isn’t a runaway thief. Paul is using a passive voice, “he was separated from you” and is not saying that Onesimus separated himself, but that he was separated by someone else; that is, he did not run away but was sent away. Onesimus was acting as a direct agent for his master. And it is here we see the biggest theme of the letter ~ the insignificance of hierarchy within the Christian community. This request for a possibly wealthy slave owner to treat his slave as an equal would be not only uncustomary but also humbling. Think about Paul’s relationship to Philemon. Paul is the evangelist who brought the gospel message to Philemon’s city. Paul founded the church in Philemon’s home. Philemon could count Paul as a spiritual father. There was undoubtedly a bond of trust, of respect, of honor. And now Paul is saying, “Welcome Onesimus the same way you would welcome me.”
We’ve already seen how Philemon acts towards other Christians. The love which Philemon had for God was translated into loving actions toward others. Now Paul is asking Philemon to take that love to the next level. Here we see point #3: Love to the point of equality is necessary to the unity of the church. Social distinctions and past grievances should count for nothing. Does someone owe you anything? That shouldn’t affect how you treat him? Has someone wronged you in the past? That shouldn’t affect your Christian behavior. Does someone not show you proper respect? That shouldn’t change your own attitude or behavior. Jesus calls us to be better than that.
18If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. (I will not mention to you that you owe me your very life.) 20Yes, brother, I desire this favor from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ! 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you because I know that you will do even more than I ask.
This is a beautiful example of point #4: Christian love sacrifices self to serve others. When Jesus says that part of our purpose is to love people, he’s not talking about how we feel. He’s talking about how we minister to and how we serve other people. Paul takes Onesimus’ debt upon his own shoulders. That debt is probably why Onesimus was a slave in the first place – he was a debtor working off what he owed. Paul’s language is standard legal language for the ancient world, suggesting that when Paul says he will repay and notes that he is writing by his own hand, he seems to be accepting Onesimus’ debt as his own in a formal way.
The ultimate outcome would be Onesimus’ freedom from debt, therefore his freedom from slavery. It’s easy to say, “I love you.” But can you show it? Do your actions and your behavior confirm what you say? What Paul expects of Philemon actually undermined the dominant values upon which the whole structure of their ancient society was founded. Now, because of their religious convictions, masters were to treat their slaves like brothers or even as honored guests. In expecting a fundamental change in the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, Paul was actually asking for something far more radical than setting slaves free.
The outcome of Paul’s request is unknown. However, THE CONSTITUTION OF THE HOLY APOSTLES, written around A.D. 340-60, contains a list of all the men who had been ordained as bishops during the apostles’ lifetime. Within the list it says, “Of Colossae, Philemon. Of Borea of Macedonia, Onesimus, once the servant of Philemon.” Onesimus not only had been forgiven and freed but also eventually became a bishop. Christian love can take a man bound in slavery and turn him into a bishop.
So many people in life ask, “What am I supposed to be doing? What’s my purpose?” Just read the book. Jesus says, “Part of your purpose is this: love people.”
#1 ~ Christian behavior is motivated by love
#2 ~ It is only in Christ that we find real fulfillment of purpose and become useful
#3 ~ Love to the point of equality is necessary to the unity of the church
#4 ~ Christian love sacrifices self to serve others
How do you stack up?