Have you ever felt useless in life? Maybe you watch others around you, friends and family, and it seems they are successful, advancing, making a difference in the world, enjoying life. Then you think about your life, and maybe you see a past littered with failure, broken relationships, and poor choices. Even if that describes you a little bit, know that you are not alone. Today we meet a man with a broken past. In fact, he was described as useless. At the outset, though, let me give you a hint: there is hope!
So far in our study of Paul’s letter to Philemon, in verses 1-7 we’ve seen Paul profusely encourage Philemon to see himself as a lover of Jesus who also loves all of Jesus’ followers. Then in verses 8-9, Paul begins to make an appeal to Philemon, because there is a specific situation in which Paul wants Philemon to practice that love for Jesus and all his followers. Paul knows that Philemon has a broken relationship in his life, and in verses 10-21, Paul makes his appeal to Philemon to fix that relationship.
What relationship? Paul is writing Philemon on behalf of Onesimus who used to be Philemon’s slave. But something happened. We don’t know all the details, but in verse 18 Paul gives some clues. It seems that Onesimus not only ran away from Philemon, but may have even stolen from him. Onesimus then made his way to Rome where he met up with Paul. My guess is that one of three things led Onesimus to Paul.
First option: Paul had previously become friends with Philemon. It is possible that Paul would have also met his slave at the same time. As time goes by, Paul ends up in Rome on house arrest, and Onesimus runs away from Philemon, hoping upon hope that Paul will help him. If you’ve just committed a crime, and you don’t know where to go, you often seek a person you think will be understanding. In Onesimus’ mind, Paul fits the bill.
Second option: It could be that Onesimus and Paul hadn’t previously met, but Onesimus still seeks out Paul for help, simply because of Paul’s reputation.
Third option: Onesimus just so happens to end up in Rome and comes across Paul. Seems unlikely, but as we all know, unlikely things happen all time.
The rest of the story, Paul tells us. There in Rome, as he says in verse 10, Onesimus becomes his son. That is strong family language, right? Paul writes like this often, calling people his “son” in the faith. What he means is that he shared Christ with Onesimus, and Onesimus chose to place his faith in Christ, giving Jesus both his assent and allegiance. In other words, through Paul’s ministry on house arrest, Onesimus becomes a Christian.
In verse 11 you see Paul’s literary flourish as he uses a wordplay, and most of your Bibles will point to this in a text note. Almost certainly Onesimus was a difficult case for Philemon, and Paul knew this. If he hadn’t previously heard the story of Onesimus’ running away, he now heard it from Onesimus. Maybe Onesimus was a bad worker, maybe he was insubordinate, a back-talker, a slacker, we don’t know. As a result, maybe Philemon was hard on Onesimus, and that led to his running away. Or maybe Onesimus just wanted to be free. When Paul describes Onesimus as “formerly useless,” it could be all of the above. But here’s wordplay: Onesimus’ name means “useful,” and what does Paul say in verse 11? Onesimus has gone through a transformation from uselessness to usefulness. Through the work of Jesus in Onesimus’ life, a great change has happened. Onesimus is now as his name suggests, useful! And not just to Philemon, Onesimus, Paul says, is useful to Paul too. Apparently Onesimus was on fire for Jesus, serving, helping Paul.
So Paul has a tough decision to make. Do you send a runaway slave back to their master, knowing that it might not go well for that slave? Or do you keep him with you, especially considering the amazing change that has taken place in his life? There’s a lot riding on this. If Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, how will Philemon handle it? Philemon really seems to be a good man, but Onesimus had betrayed Philemon, and Philemon could have a bad reaction. Also consider this from Onesimus’ point of view. How much convincing did Paul have to do to get Onesimus to agree to this, after having wronged Philemon and run away? How scared was he to go back there? We can imagine Paul having a talk with Onesimus: “Now that you are follower of Jesus, there’s something we need to discuss. Philemon. Your master. How you treated him. Your broken relationship. Jesus is in the business of making things right. We’re going to need to deal with this.”
Now are you seeing why Paul gushes so much over Philemon in verses 1-7? All that talk about loving all Christians? Yeah. It’s because Paul is dropping a bomb right in Philemon’s lap. And that bomb is Onesimus. Paul chooses to send Onesimus back, as we read in verse 12, which is the right thing to do. In fact, under Roman law, it was the legal thing to do. Philemon owns Onesimus, and Paul chooses to submit Onesimus to that relationship, as he says in verse 14.
At this juncture we need to pause and talk about slavery in the Roman Empire. Even just saying “Philemon owns Onesimus” feels wrong. But that is what was going on. He was legally seen as property.
Doesn’t it seem really odd that Philemon, a Christian, owns slaves, and that Paul would send a runaway slave back to his master! Shouldn’t Philemon set his slaves free? And shouldn’t Paul say, “Onesimus, you are not going back there into slavery”? Yes, it seems like that should be happening, but none of it did. As we’ll see, Paul has a whole lot more to say, but for now I want to point out that slavery in the Roman Empire, while it was awful, as slavery always is, was not like slavery in our American past. Frankly, American slavery was worse. A horrible, racial, terrible evil. It was evil in the Roman Empire too, but it was not racial, and slaves actually had some measure of opportunity for freedom and advancement. What I do not want you to hear me saying, though, is that slavery was okay in the Roman Empire. It was different than American slavery, but it still was not okay. It was evil and wrong back then and went against God’s desires. I, too, wish Paul would have said more to denounce it.
So what did he say? Next if Part 3 we continue observing his flow of thought, which will have significant implications for not only Philemon and Onesimus, but so much more, including the practice of slavery.