The letter to Philemon is often considered to be a textbook example outlining the forgiveness that each of us needs to be prepared to show to those who have wronged us, as well as a studied template for persuasive writing when reconciling brethren to each other in the ecclesia. However, the aim of this article is to put ourselves in the shoes of the runaway servant, Onesimus, a man who has fled from his master, but is now seeking his forgiveness. This sense of forgiveness is something which we all understand as brothers and sisters in Christ, and this letter will heighten our appreciation of its value. By reading between the lines, we can piece together the story of Onesimus and Philemon and understand the work of the Apostle Paul as he becomes a wonderful type of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Timing of the letter – Philemon verse 9

In Philemon verse 9, the Apostle Paul tells us two things about himself which give us the timing of this story. First of all, he calls himself “Paul the aged”. Ironically, he would only have been about 60 at the time, however the apostle had probably experienced more at 60 than most people do in their lifetimes. He also calls himself “a prisoner of Jesus Christ” and from this we can deduce that Paul wrote this letter whilst he was a prisoner in Rome, chained to a Roman guard, living in his own hired house. He wrote several letters at the same time, including one to the Ephesians and one to the Colossians, which we hope to look at as part of this story.

Who was Philemon? – Philemon verses 1-2

Philemon himself was a member of the Colossian ecclesia. We can tell this by comparing some of the names in this letter with those in Colossians 4 verses 9 and 17. In verses 1 and 2 of Philemon, we see this letter is addressed to Philemon, to Apphia, and to Archippus, “and to the ecclesia in thy house”. Apphia is a woman’s name and we can assume that this was Philemon’s wife, and Archippus may well have been their son.

Philemon was presumably a wealthy man, having a large enough home in which he could host the ecclesia, and we learn from verse 22, he had enough spare accommodation to receive guests in his home. Apart from this, we also know that he was wealthy enough to have owned slaves. But clearly, Philemon is generous with his wealth, and we know that Paul commends him for his kindness in verse 7, where he says, “We have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee”.

Onesimus returns to his old master – Colossians 4:7-9

In Colossians chapter 4, we have a few verses that help us piece together the story of Onesimus and Philemon. Colossians 4:7-8 states, “All my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord: whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that he might know your estate, and comfort your hearts”. From this we learn that when Paul wrote to the Colossian ecclesia he sent Tychicus to deliver this letter and asked him to find out how the ecclesia was going.

It’s really good to try and imagine this little scene. As we know, the ecclesia would have gathered every Sunday morning at the house of Philemon and Apphia for the memorial meeting. We can picture one particular Sunday morning, the ecclesia arriving, taking their seats, and as the meeting is about to begin, there is a sudden knock on the door. Two men are brought into the house. One being Tychicus, the apostle’s right-hand man, a faithful brother who had physically penned many of the apostle’s letters. He is carrying a letter from the Apostle Paul for the ecclesia. Everyone knows this brother, and of course they are extremely excited to see him. Tychicus would have told them all about Paul’s situation, and then would have handed his letter to the presiding brother, requesting that it be read in front of the ecclesia (v16).

Hiding behind Tychicus is another man. He is clearly nervous to be there, and he, too, is holding a letter. However, unlike Tychicus, he doesn’t hand his letter to the presiding brother. Whispers would have run around the room. Wasn’t this Philemon’s slave who had run away? Why on earth is he here? And what did he have to do with Tychicus? This man was Onesimus, the runaway slave described in the letter to Philemon.

We see that Paul had sent him along with Tychicus from verse 9 of Colossians 4. Onesimus would have humbly walked over to where Philemon sat and handed him the letter that Paul had written for him. As Philemon took this letter, all the emotions would have come flooding back, particularly the pain this man had caused him. And in this letter, Philemon would be asked to forgive this man’s large debt.

The back story of the runaway servant – Philemon verses 10-14

Just to put it in perspective, we read from historical documents, that a slave could be purchased for around 2,000 denarii. Using the “penny for a day principle,” this equated to around 2,000 days wages, or approximately $350,000 in today’s money, assuming an average wage of $60,000 a year. So, when Onesimus had run away from his master, that had not only cost him an employee and lost service, but a small fortune as well. On top of this, we know that even whilst working for him, Onesimus had not been an exemplary servant. We can presume this from verse 11 where Paul says of him, “in times past, he has been to thee unprofitable.” Ironically, Onesimus’ name means ‘profitable’, and, clearly, he had failed to live up to his name at this point.

It is worth noting that nowhere are we explicitly told that Onesimus ran away, and some have suggested that Philemon, in fact, terminated his contract. However, it would appear that Onesimus did actually run away. Paraphrasing verses 13-14 we read: “See, I have had Onesimus here with me, and he has been so useful to me in my work, that I’d have loved to keep him here, but I thought I should ask you first. I didn’t want you to be helping me in this way out of compulsion, but I wanted it to be your willing decision to let me use him”. From this language of the Apostle Paul, it seems very possible that Onesimus did, in fact run away. It also seems possible that Onesimus had stolen money or goods from Philemon when he had run away. In verse 18 of Philemon, Paul implies that Onesimus owed a financial debt to Philemon, which he may well have stolen to fund his new life.

So here we have Onesimus, fleeing his master’s bondage, sick of being a servant, seeking a life of freedom. And this journey had taken him to Rome, a city which would have represented freedom and a new life to many. He, like many others, would have been attracted by the story that the streets of Rome were “paved with gold,” and forsaking his old life of servitude, sought refuge there. Of course, we know nothing of his story after that, except that at some point he came across the Apostle Paul in Rome. Somehow, by the providence of God, he had come across the very man who could show him the meaning of real freedom; a man who was always shackled to a Roman soldier, and yet who enjoyed the wonderful freedom in Christ that we can all share.

Here, in Rome, Onesimus had learned the truth from the Apostle Paul. In verse 10, Paul says, “I want to beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds”. He had presumably turned his life around, been baptised and become profitable to the Apostle Paul in Rome. But it was inevitable that he would one day have to reconcile with his master whom he had wronged. This would have hung over his head throughout his time with the apostle. Which is, of course, where this letter comes in. The Apostle Paul takes up the pen and appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus as a favour to himself but at the same time sends that letter with Onesimus, who must now face the master he had wronged.

No longer a servant, but a brother – Colossians 4:9

Returning to our Sunday morning scenario, we can imagine Onesimus arriving that morning at the house of his old master, the very house where he had been an unprofitable servant, the very house he had stolen money from. And you can imagine the tension in the meeting that morning, as the Apostle Paul’s letter was read before the entire ecclesia. All eyes would have turned to Onesimus as the brother read Paul’s words in Colossians 3:22, “Servants, obey in all things your masters”. Here, in this very room, was a worthless servant! What was Paul possibly going to say about this servant Onesimus? Or was he even going to mention him at all? And then, in chapter 4:9, the Apostle Paul introduces this man Onesimus before the ecclesia, whom he had sent to them with Tychicus.

Paul says, “[I have sent] Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you”. Now this is incredible. This is the apostle’s summary of this man, Onesimus. As far as he was concerned, this man was forgiven by God, and this is how he introduces him to the ecclesia. There is no mention of him here as a servant, but as a brother. The contrast here is something that I found quite amazing because if you have a look at how Paul introduces the other members of the ecclesia in the letter, he calls Tychicus a fellow servant (v7); Aristarchus, Marcus and Justus, he calls his fellow workers (v10,11), and Epaphras, the founding brother of the ecclesia, he calls a servant of Christ (verse 12). And yet, Onesimus, who was actually a servant, is referred to as a faithful and beloved brother.

In making this stark contrast, Paul is showing the ecclesia the true nature of forgiveness. When we are forgiven by God, he sees us as completely clean in His eyes. In the same way, Paul is encouraging the ecclesia to see this man in a totally new light; they were no longer to view him as a servant, but as a brother, “who is one of you.” But of course, this shift in thinking would pose the greatest challenge for Philemon, who had been so wronged by this man. We see in the letter to Philemon, Paul’s specific appeal to Philemon, asking him to forgive this man and to accept him back as a brother in the ecclesia.

The feeling of forgiveness – Philemon verse 16

In Philemon verse 16, Paul beseeches Philemon to receive Onesimus back, “Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord”. I’m sure that as Philemon read this phrase, he would have seen the connection back to Colossians 4, and the way that Paul had introduced Onesimus to the ecclesia. He would have felt Paul’s plea, and seen the great need to forgive Onesimus, and of course the relief that this forgiveness would provide to his old servant. It is also really moving to think of the Apostle Paul’s thoughts as he penned this verse because he too had been an unworthy servant and had sought the forgiveness of the ecclesia.

We know from many passages that Paul had caused a great deal of destruction in the ecclesia of Christ. He tells us in Galatians 1:13, that he persecuted the ecclesia of God beyond measure, and wasted it. Paul had been a lot worse than this servant, Onesimus, who had simply been an unprofitable servant; in fact, if you want to talk about people who had wronged others in their past, Paul had been the worst. And yet, despite this, God called him in Christ. The story of Paul’s conversion is revealed in Acts chapter 9. Here you may remember that the Lord Jesus Christ sent a man by the name of Ananias to the house where Saul was staying, and he entered the house, and put his hands on the Apostle Paul. And what were the very first words that a Christadelphian ever said to Paul? “Brother Saul”.

Brother! This was the first word that Ananias (his name means ‘the grace of God’) said to Paul after his conversion. Despite all his sins and his past evils, he was able to experience the wonderful relief of forgiveness and be accepted as a brother. Those words would have stuck with Paul; they would have rung in his ears. And they would still have been ringing in his ears as he wrote his letter to Philemon, beseeching him also to accept Onesimus as a brother, and no longer a servant. Paul would never forget that feeling of complete forgiveness, of being accepted into the family of God, and that encouraged him right throughout his life. By now, I hope that we can all see the connection to ourselves.

We are all unprofitable servants – Philemon verses 11-12

Brothers and sisters, each one of us have been unprofitable servants. In Philemon verses 11 and 12, Paul acknowledged that in the past, Onesimus had been an unprofitable servant. To forgive is something that our Lord commanded each one of us to do in Luke 17:3-10. Even if we have done everything that God has commanded us to do (although we could never do that), we still need to acknowledge that we are all unprofitable servants. All of us sin every day and turn aside from the vows we have made at our baptisms. But despite our sins, Hebrews 2:11 informs us that Christ is not ashamed to call us his brethren.

You remember Paul’s words we looked at in Philemon verse 16—receive him “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved”. This little phrase reminded me of the words of our Lord in John 15:15: “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his Lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you”. It is such an amazing privilege we have, brothers and sisters. This is the man we serve—a man who is prepared to call us his brethren and his friends. And in the same way that servant, Onesimus, would have felt a sense of relief to be accepted back into the ecclesia, we can feel that same thankfulness for this privilege that we have in Christ.

I will repay his debt – Philemon verse 17

In verse 19 of Philemon, the Apostle Paul offered to repay any debt which Onesimus owed him. Now I am certain that Philemon would not have asked Paul to pay back this debt, but from this verse we see how generous Paul was in an effort to reconcile two brethren. As such, he stands as a type of our Lord who went even further by actually giving himself for the reconciliation of the world (2 Cor 5:19). Hence Paul raised this subject with the Colossian ecclesia when he wrote: “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled” (Col 1:21). May we demonstrate the same spirit of reconciliation and “let the peace of God rule in our hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful” (Col 3:15).