Onesimus: A Slave Who Became a Brother

KEY VERSE: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” —Galatians 5:1


PHILEMON seems to have been a Christian of some prominence, residing at Colosse. He probably had been converted as the result of the Apostle Paul’s ministry. When the apostle was imprisoned at Rome, Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, left his master and fled to Rome, a distance of several hundred miles. Some commentators have thought that Onesimus may have been guilty of some dishonesty. We think it more probable that he was motivated to run away simply by the desire to be free. When he arrived in Rome, something impelled him, undoubtedly the drawing of the Lord, to contact the Apostle Paul. After being under the apostle’s ministry for a time, Onesimus was moved to give his heart to the Lord and he made a full and unreserved consecration.

Under the apostle’s guidance he became an extremely faithful and useful brother in the ministry. Paul was so impressed with him, he called the young man his son in the Lord. After he had given satisfactory proof of his constancy, the apostle felt it was not proper to longer harbor Onesimus who had left his master without permission. According to the law of the land, the young man was still the property of Philemon and, therefore, the only Christian thing to do was for Onesimus to return to his master and rely on his mercy and the overruling providence of the Lord to work things out to his best spiritual advantage. It was the apostle’s hope that Philemon would recognize his former slave as now being a brother in Christ. It was this circumstance that occasioned Paul’s letter to Philemon.

In verses one and two, the apostle did not speak of himself as one having authority in the church but rather as “a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” This introduction of himself was intended to give Philemon a feeling of warmth toward Paul, and in his introduction he included Timothy to give added weight to his appraisal of Onesimus. All of this might seem to have been contrived but we do not believe this is so. We believe rather that Paul was genuinely concerned about the fate of a very dear brother in Christ who was about to face a difficult experience and Paul was putting everything at his command in the best light in order to plead his cause. Some commentators believe that Apphia was Philemon’s wife and that Archeppas was his son.

The letter continues (vss. 4-7) and the apostle indicates that he was quite familiar with the activities of Philemon in the Gospel. The account reads, “I thank my God always when I mention you in my prayers, for I hear of your love and faith towards the Lord Jesus and towards all God’s people. My prayer is that your fellowship with us in our common faith may deepen the understanding of all the blessings that our union with Christ brings us. For I am delighted and encouraged by your love; through you, my brother, God’s people have been much refreshed.” (NEB) It is difficult to conceive of a more adroit introduction to the very delicate subject that was to follow.

In the following verses (8-11), the apostle enters on the immediate design of the epistle, stating, “Accordingly, although in Christ I might make bold to point out your duty, yet, because of that same love, I would rather appeal to you. Yes, I, Paul, ambassador as I am of Christ Jesus—and now his prisoner—appeal to you about my child, whose father I have become in this prison. I mean Onesimus, once so little use [unprofitable] to you, but now useful [profitable] indeed both to you and to me.” (NEB) It is interesting to note that in the Greek, Onesimus means ‘profitable,’ and the apostle used the play on words to strengthen his argument.

Paul concludes his appeal to Philemon for one who had found the liberty that is in Christ but whose person was legally in bondage to another. “If, then, you count me partner in the faith, welcome him as you would welcome me. And if he has done you any wrong or is in your debt, put that down to my account. … Now brother, as a Christian, be generous with me, and relieve my anxiety; we are both in Christ. I write to you confident that you will meet my wishes; I know that you will in fact do better than I ask.”—vss. 17-21, NEB

Dawn Bible Students Association
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