Once a Slave—Now a Brother

OUR TITLE REFERS to Onesimus, who is the subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon. In this short epistle of one chapter there is revealed a situation which called for the exercise of true Christian understanding and love. And we have no doubt that when put to this severe test, love did not fail. The circumstances leading up to the writing of this letter need to be kept in mind in order to derive the real value of the lessons which it teaches.

Philemon was a well-to-do Christian, whose home was evidently in the general vicinity of Colosse. How he came into contact with the Gospel, and the circumstances under which he embraced it, are not revealed in the Scriptures. There seems to be a general agreement among Bible historians that Philemon was liberal with his wealth, especially toward the brethren, a group of whom held meetings in his home.—vs. 2

Paul’s letter to Philemon indicates that the two were well acquainted. It could be that Paul had been entertained in his home. Certain it is that the two had labored together closely in the ministry of the Gospel, so much so that Paul refers to Philemon as a ‘partner’. Paul’s every reference to this ardent coworker in the Gospel reveals that he was indeed a noble Christian, and a stalwart in the faith.

At that time, ownership of slaves was quite common, and Philemon, being a man of some means, was apparently a slave owner. This seems strange to us today. We might well wonder how a Christian could be a slave owner. Our Common Version Translation refers to these as servants. To these Paul wrote, “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers but in singleness of heart fearing God.”—Col. 3:22,23

One of the servants, or slaves, owned by Philemon was Onesimus. Whether or not Paul had become acquainted with him during any of his visits to Philemon’s home, we cannot be sure. All we know with certainty is that Onesimus, for reasons not revealed in the Scriptures, elected to run away from his master. He fled to Rome. He probably thought that in a large city like Rome he would be less likely to be found.

Arriving in Rome, Onesimus sought out Paul, who was in prison. The fact that he went to Paul would seem to indicate that he was acquainted with the apostle, and knew that he was held in a Roman prison. As we know, Paul used every possible opportunity to present the Gospel, and did not overlook the privilege of witnessing to Onesimus, who accepted the message, and consecrated himself to God and the service of the heavenly Master, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Onesimus also became a very valuable servant to Paul, not as a slave, but as a voluntary helper. However, under the circumstances, Paul realized that he could not properly continue to use the services of Onesimus inasmuch as he actually belonged to Philemon. The fact that Onesimus had accepted Christ did not cancel his obligation to his earthly master from whom he had run away. This being true, Paul arranged for Onesimus to return to Philemon to seek forgiveness, and to accept whatever, if any, penalties might be imposed upon him.

However, Paul did all he could to make Onesimus’ return as easy and pleasant as possible, principally by giving Onesimus a letter to his master which he was to deliver to him personally. In this letter Paul builds upon his own close relationship with Philemon as a friend and brother in Christ to help him realize the great opportunity he now had of exercising forgiveness and brotherly love. He presented Onesimus, not as a runaway slave, but as a spiritual son, “whom I have begotten in my bonds.”—vs. 10

Paul also entrusted a letter to the brethren at Colosse to Tychicus and Onesimus, referring to these in his letter as ‘faithful and beloved brethren’, and adding concerning Onesimus that he was one of them. (Col. 4:79) Probably the brethren at Colosse knew that Onesimus had run away from his master, Philemon, so Paul introduced him to them now as a beloved brother in Christ, and entrusted messages of greeting to him for them. Naturally the brethren in the ecclesia at Colosse would not have the same difficulty in accepting Onesimus as a brother as Philemon might have experienced. At the same time, if the brethren generally did accept him, it would make it more difficult for Philemon to withhold his blessing, perchance he had any inclination to do so. Surely Paul used great wisdom in handling this delicate situation!

In his letter to Philemon, Paul does not minimize the wrong course Onesimus had taken in running away. He admits that Onesimus had been unprofitable to his owner, “but now profitable to thee and to me: whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the Gospel: but without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.”—vss. 11-14

Here Paul is gently reminding Philemon that there had been an opportunity to serve him while in prison, and that he would be glad to accept the services of Onesimus in the place of Philemon. However, as Paul explained, since Onesimus really still belonged to Philemon he could not assume to continue accepting his services without the consent of his master.

In his letter Paul eases the situation as much as possible by reminding Philemon that it might well have been permitted for a good purpose. “For perhaps he therefore departed for a season,” Paul wrote, “that thou shouldest receive him forever; not now as a servant [or slave], but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.”—vss. 15-17

Paul realized that Onesimus’ desertion had doubtless put Philemon to some expense. Perhaps Philemon had felt the need to purchase another servant to take the place of Onesimus. Some scholars think there is a possibility that Onesimus had stolen from Philemon prior to his escape, although there is no evidence to substantiate this. However, Paul covers these possible situations in his statement, “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account.”—vs. 18

It is difficult to determine definitely the background of this statement. It would seem to indicate that Philemon was handling Paul’s financial affairs while he was a prisoner in Rome. Seemingly Paul had some resources at the time, for he lived for two years in his own hired house, having had this special privilege granted to him by the Roman authorities. Perhaps Philemon was the one who took care of this situation for Paul, holding his means in trust, and paying the rent when it became due.

And now Paul was giving Philemon authority to use some of his account for another purpose; namely, to repay him for any loss he had sustained as a result of Onesimus’ having left him. What a noble attitude this was on Paul’s part! However he does not miss the opportunity to remind Philemon indirectly that he owed a great debt to him, which is probably a reference to the self-sacrificing manner in which Paul had ministered to Philemon in spiritual things. We quote, “I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.”—vs. 19

Having disposed of this possible financial objection that Philemon might raise in connection with receiving Onesimus, Paul then appeals to him as a brother, saying, “Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord. Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.” (vss. 20,21) The record does not indicate whether or not Paul’s confidence in Philemon was justified. However, Paul himself seemed quite sure that it would be, and having presented his unusual request, asked his ‘partner’ to prepare lodging for him, “for I trust,” he wrote, “that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.”—vs. 22

In this unusual situation there is brought into focus for us the opportunity for Philemon to exercise the virtue of forgiveness. Jesus’ teachings on this point actually left Philemon no choice as to what he should do, for in his sermon on the mount Jesus said, “If ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive men not their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14,15) The proper application of this principle of divine love and mercy was considered so important by Jesus that he incorporated it in the prayer which he taught to his disciples.—Matt. 6:9-13

According to the standards of the time, the trespass of Onesimus against his master, Philemon, was a very real and serious one. It was not that he had been misunderstood by Philemon. Nor did Paul, in his letter to Philemon, try to discount the seriousness of the trespass. All Paul asked was that Philemon exercise forgiveness and mercy toward Onesimus, especially that now he was a brother in Christ.

Today, a similar situation could not develop. However, it is still true that brethren in Christ are trespassed against, both by those in the world and, at times, unwittingly, no doubt, by their brethren in Christ. And whatever the nature of these trespasses, if we truly desire to be like our Father in heaven, we will extend mercy and forgiveness toward those who do us wrong, especially if they manifest a spirit of repentance and seek our forgiveness, as did Onesimus.

And even when we are not directly asked to extend forgiveness, the spirit of mercy and of kindness should be in our hearts toward all who transgress God’s law. God loved us while we were yet sinners, and provided a Redeemer, his own beloved Son, to make possible our reconciliation. And while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. This is the manner in which divine love operates, and if we would be like our Heavenly Father, and like his beloved Son, we, too, will need to maintain this desire to bring about the reconciliation of those who have trespassed against us.

Jesus said that if we do not forgive those who trespass against us, neither will our Heavenly Father forgive us. This makes the spirit of forgiveness very vital to all who desire to maintain their relationship with the Father. Because of our inherited imperfections we frequently, by thought, word, or deed, trespass against our loving Heavenly Father, thinking, saying, and doing things which reflect against the glory and beauty of his character. We are not willful in this, but at the same time, we need his forgiveness; and if we are to obtain it we will need to continue in a merciful and forgiving attitude toward any and all, even though at times some may say or do things which reflect against us. Failing in this exercise of divine love, all else that we say and do will be of little or no account.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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