The Prodigal Slave
Paul’s Letter to Philemon was his most personal letter that we are privileged to have a copy of. Philemon is considered as one of the four Prison Epistles along with Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Paul wrote this letter to the leader of the church in Colossae whom Paul had led to Christ probably on his third missionary journey when Paul spent about three years in nearby Ephesus. Acts 19:10 recorded that “all who lived in that area of Asia heard the word of the Lord”. Therefore, Paul considered Philemon his spiritual “son”, and Paul considered Philemon his partner in the ministry since the church there met in his home and he had an important role in leading the Christian community in Colossae.
Paul sent his disciple Tychicus to Colossae with his Letter to the Colossians and this Letter to Philemon. Travelling with Tychicus was the subject of Paul’s letter, Onesimus. He was a run-away slave owned by Philemon. It seems outrageous to us now that a respectable church leader could also be a slave owner, but in the first century Roman Empire, slavery was a set in place institution. About one half of the population were slaves. The idea of abolishing slavery was not even being considered.
Apparently, Onesimus not only ran away, but he also stole from his master. Rome was about 1500 miles away, but Onesimus was able to go to the big city with his newly ill-gotten gains. By the providence of God, Paul was under house arrest in Rome living in his own rented quarters. It was sort of like house arrest now when they let prisoners go home with those radio bracelets on their ankles that go off if they leave the house, but they have freedom to see all visitors, write letters, and have meetings. Somehow Onesimus came in contact with Paul in Rome, and Paul led him to Christ. Afterwards Onesimus became Paul’s disciple and servant, but confessed to Paul his past sins. Therefore Paul encouraged him to take his medicine and go back to Colossae to face the music. He accompanied Tychicus who was delivering Paul’s other letters, and Paul personally wrote a letter to Philemon in which Paul interceded for Onesimus. Can you imagine the courage that Onesimus had to summon to go back and face the music? The penalty for a slave who ran away was completely up to his owner, but the owner had the right to exact the death penalty.
Late to the Movie
Reading Paul’s letter to Philemon is a bit like walking into a movie in the middle and not knowing what is going on, then leaving before it ends. Paul does not mention how he met Onesimus, how he came to Christ, or what the final outcome was. We don’t know why or how Onesimus escaped or what he stole. We don’t know exactly what Paul wants Philemon to do with Onesimus now other than forgive him. We find ourselves hoping that the letter will end with Onesimus not only forgiven, but freed. We only know that Paul sent him back hoping that Philemon will do the right thing, and open up his arms to a fellow brother in Christ.
Soften Him Up
In Paul’s introductory greeting, he makes Philemon aware that he is a prisoner, persecuted and threatened for being a minister of the gospel. Nevertheless, Paul is not worried about his own circumstances, and he is able to express his love for Philemon and his family, “to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow soldier…grace to you and peace from God…I thank my God always” for you. Paul goes on in verse 4-7 to write about their love and faith, and that he prays for them and their ministry constantly.
Useless to Useful
In his plea to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus in verse 8-17, Paul uses a “play on words” to express the change Christ has made in the slave Onesimus. The name Onesimus actually is Greek for “useful” or profitable. In verse 11, Paul said, “the Useful One who formerly was useless to you as a slave, but now is useful both to you and me”. Paul had led him to Christ, and Christ had made a supernatural change in the heart of Onesimus (the useful one). Before, he didn’t work hard because his heart wasn’t in it, but now he is coming back to Philemon as a changed man in Christ. Paul makes it clear that he knows this because Onesimus has served Paul so well he wishes he could keep him there. Paul said in v.12 that as a brother in Christ, Onesimus was a kindred spirit, and it was like sending “my own very heart that I wished to keep with me”. Paul actually saw the providence of God in the entire situation, “For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you, that you should now have him back forever” (in eternity as a brother in Christ) v.15
Principle of Substitution and Imputation
In this letter which is Paul’s intercession for Onesimus to Philemon, Paul asked Philemon to receive his runaway slave as he would receive Paul (v17). Whatever Onesimus owes Philemon, Paul asked him to “charge that to my account”(v18). This is a grand illustration of Jesus Christ’s plea to God the Father on behalf of all sinners who trust Jesus as their Savior. We sinners are received by God as Jesus Himself is received, and our sins are charged to Christ’s account. The atoning work of Christ on the cross paid our debt. We have a credit card that is accepted in heaven from the Bank of Jesus. This is what Paul said to Philemon, “I led you to Christ, I loved you and served you and all your family. I sacrificed myself and risked my life for you. If I then have a credit with you, please receive Onesimus as you would receive me.” To reject Onesimus would be like rejecting Paul.
Take Grace to the Next Level
In verse 21, Paul wrote that he was confident that his spiritual son and brother in Christ would not only forgive as he had been forgiven, but that he would “do even more than what I say”. I believe Paul meant that Philemon would receive him back, forgive him, and even make him a free man. How revolutionary would that have been? Can you imagine the witness to the church at Colossae that met in Philemon’s home? They would get to see this gracious act of their host as he not only forgave, but restored this slave into the church as an equal free brother in Christ.
Freedom in Christ
In John 8: 31, many were seeking to become disciples of Jesus. Jesus then explained to them what they needed to do, and what the affect would be, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of mine and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” They answered Him as if offended because they thought He meant free from slavery. Jesus therefore explained that He meant free from sin, “everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” meaning their sinful selfish desires. Only the Son of God could set them free (Jn.8:34-36).
Onesimus, who had been a slave of Philemon but wanted to be free, discovered that there was a slavery in freedom and a freedom in slavery. He had thought that what was missing from his life was freedom from Philemon, but after some time on the run, he discovered that there was still something missing. As that great philosopher once said, “WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU ARE”, meaning you can’t get away from yourself and all your inherent problems and meaninglessness. When by the providence of God, Onesimus listened to Paul preach the gospel, he must have thought, “Now that man is really free, but I am still a slave to my ambitions, appetites, sexual lusts, and selfishness. I want meaning and purpose and hope in my life just like Paul has spoken of.” Imagine the irony—Paul was a prisoner in jail, but he was free in Christ. Onesimus was free but a slave, and Paul was a prisoner but free. I can imagine that he approached Paul, and Paul led him to Christ. After serving Paul as a disciple for a while, he was probably convicted of his past and wanted to make it right. After confessing to Paul his past, Paul may have asked, “Where are you from? Who was your master?” Can you imagine the reaction when he answered “Philemon of Colossae”?
Paul no doubt advised him to go back and reconcile the situation. By the grace of God the very same Philemon owed Paul a great deal, and now Paul would send his personal letter to his spiritual son asking him to forgive his former slave but new brother in Christ. We don’t know for certain what happened, but we do have some early second century writings from church fathers like Ignatius and Tertullian that confirm the story, and Ignatius, who was the Bishop of Antioch in 110AD, mentioned that Onesimus was the Bishop of Ephesus at that time. If Onesimus had been around 20, that could have been the very same ex-slave.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a great example of Christian compassion and forgiveness. This story kind of parallels the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Like the prodigal, the slave had run off, he needed intercession, forgiveness, and restoration. As Christ interceded for Philemon and he was forgiven and restored, so Paul interceded and sought to restore Onesimus. Who all in your life can you intercede for, or who do you need to forgive?