In Bible times, many rich people owned slaves, and everyone recognized them because one of their ears was pierced to show they belonged to a master. The little book called Philemon near the end of the New Testament tells us about Philemon, a wealthy man from Colosse, who owned a slave named Onesimus.
The book of Philemon is actually a letter written by the Apostle Paul to this rich man. Philemon had come to know Jesus through Paul’s ministry, and, “through history we learn that he was a good master. Onesimus, however, was not a loyal servant and had acted dishonestly towards Philemon. Even though Onesimus’ name means “useful” or “helpful”, the Bible tells us he was a useless servant who ran away from his master. Onesimus ended up in Rome, over 1200 miles away from Colosse. He must have done something very wrong against Philemon to run so far away from him! There were no cars, buses, airplanes, or trains in those days, so can you imagine how long it took Onesimus to get to Rome? While he was there, he became friends with the Apostle Paul who was imprisoned by the Roman government. Onesimus soon came to know Christ through Paul’s ministry and became a great help and encouragement to him. Onesimus must have shared with Paul what he did to Philemon, which caused Paul to write this letter to Philemon. Paul wanted Philemon to know that his runaway slave, who had once been an unfaithful servant, was now a changed man.
Paul loved Onesimus so much that he called him a “brother” and he begged Philemon to take him back and to treat him as a family member rather than a slave. Paul even offered to pay back anything Onesimus might have stolen from Philemon. Onesimus had traveled far to escape the master he had wronged, yet Paul was encouraging him to go back to that master. I’m sure he wondered how Philemon would treat him when he returned. Would he be punished?
The Bible doesn’t record the end of the story, but we do know that Paul was confident Philemon would receive Onesimus lovingly and would forgive him of any wrongdoing. How relieved Onesimus must have been as he traveled back home, knowing he would be welcomed as family by the man he had dishonored!
How often are we like Onesimus? We sin against God, our loving Master, and we turn away from him at times as Onesimus did to Philemon. Yet, God is patient, loving, and ready to forgive us when we turn from our sin back to Him. In this letter to Philemon, the apostle Paul asked that if Onesimus owed Philemon anything, that he was to “put that on [his] account,” which meant that Paul would pay Philemon for any debt owed by Onesimus.
This is a beautiful picture of what Jesus does for us in salvation. The Lord paid our debts to God when He died on the cross for us. He took our sin on Himself, and He will wash us clean so that we no longer have to pay the price for our sin. What a wonderful lesson we learn from Onesimus the slave who returned back to his master as a beloved family member, no longer in bondage to sin but forgiven and made righteous.
Rachel Huffman (nee Hamilton) is a member of Greenville FPC. We congratulate Rachel and her husband Chanse upon their marriage on October 26, 2018.