Onesimus: From Slavery to Sonship

Onesimus was a slave (Philemon 16), owned by Philemon. Though his master was a Christian and hosted a house-church in Colosse (Philemon 2; Col 4.9, 17), Onesimus was still a heathen (Philemon 10).

Why Onesimus had left Philemon is not stated. We need not infer from Philemon 18 and 19 that Onesimus had stolen money from his master. He was not a runaway slave in the traditional sense of being a fugitive or deserter. What we can say is that some serious domestic grievance destroyed the relationship between Onesimus and his master Philemon. Having known his civil rights, Onesimus went to Rome believing that Paul could mediate between him and his master.

Under certain conditions of the Roman law governing slavery, it was possible for a slave to seek out an intercessor or an advocate to mediate a grievance with the master. Often a close friend of the master was chosen by the slave for this purpose. Since he was asking for mediation or intercession, he was not considered fugitive or runaway slave. His intention was to return to the master’s house and to continue to serve his master in changed conditions. Exactly what the misdeed of Onesimus is not clear, but it did some damage (Philemon 18-19), so that he needed a mediator.

Interestingly enough, the pagan slave Onesimus went to the Christian apostle Paul, who was imprisoned, for help against his Christian master. Onesimus would have known Paul from the contacts that Philemon had with the apostle. While he was with Paul Onesimus became a believer in Jesus Christ (Philemon 10). Paul, then, wrote this “letter of intercession or mediation” trusting that Philemon would forgive the “wrong” and cancel any debt (Philemon 18, 19), and to accept him again with love. Paul stressed his appeal by pointing out that he was instrumental in the conversion of Onesimus into a Christian while he was with him (something that the master could not do). Onesimus, therefore, deserved to be welcomed as a “beloved brother” in the Philemon’s house-church, leaving no more room for anger (Philemon 10, 16, 17).

We see how conversion to the Christian faith broke down all social, racial and economic barriers. A new relationship and partnership has been formed in this situation where master, slave and apostle (i.e. Philemon, Onesimus and Paul) are all part of one family in Christ (Philemon 16). In Galatians 3.28 Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The existing social difference between slave and master no longer had relevance in the Christian community (I Cor 12.13), where all should treat one another as equally worthy and with love. Existing worldly social differences should not be used to the disadvantage of the lower classes. In the church “free” and “slave” were no longer relevant social terms. All those who believed in Jesus Christ are the children of God (Gal. 4.4-7).

As a Christian, Onesimus was now “useful” for Paul and his master (Philemon 11). In his letter, Paul asked Philemon to send Onesimus back so that Onesimus could “serve” the apostle (Philemon 12-14). This “service” probably refers to being a co-worker with Paul in the gospel work for a time in place of Philemon himself (Philemon 13). Lending a representative by a church to serve another in mission (Philemon 14) is known elsewhere (2 Cor 8.23; Phil 2.25-30; I Cor 16:17; Col 1.7). Through these workers, the churches shared actively in Paul’s mission work. Since Philemon represented a house-church, he could lend Onesimus as a representative of his church to participate in Paul’s mission work. Other mission helpers were already present with Paul when Paul wrote his letter to Philemon and even sent their greetings (Philemon 24). From Colossians 4.9, it can be concluded that Philemon indeed released Onesimus for temporary service to Paul’s mission.

Interestingly enough, Onesimus means “profitable” or “useful”. The one, who was “useless” to his master when he was a pagan (Philemon 11), became “useful” after his conversion.

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2 Responses to “Onesimus: From Slavery to Sonship”

  1. Bro.T.Olivegreen Says:

    Thank You Brother for giving convincing explanation on run away slave. glory to God for this revelation. Bro,we use this in our Bible lesson teachings. Praying for you and God bless you.
    -Olivegreen

    • kamalakarduvvuru Says:

      Thanks for the comment. As long as my articles are used for the benefit of people and the furtherance of God’s kingdom of justice, peace, compassion and equality, I feel honored and blessed! Please feel free to use my articles in your ministry.

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