Bible Study

Philemon and Onesimus – Do the right thing?

We all aspire to doing ‘the right thing’ but sometimes it is not easy, the cost can be high. What we perceive and understand to be the right thing in God’s sight may not be popular or even accepted by other people. Even with the passing of time, and changing culture, there is still so much that we can learn, through the three main characters in this story, about God prompting and positioning His people to respond and to ‘do the right thing’.

Who was Philemon in the Bible?

In the first century early church, Philemon was a prominent and wealthy Christian and a member of the newly established church in Colossae. He had opened his home as a meeting place for the church, as his house was large enough to do so. By looking at the detail in the writing of the epistle to Philemon, we can see evidence of his good character. He was hospitable, welcoming guests and providing a place for travellers to stay. Philemon was known as a man with a good reputation and commended as being one who blessed and refreshed others.

He was also a slave owner. The fact that he was a Christian, who did good for his community, and a slave owner can be an emotive concept for us to comprehend. How can the two go together?

Slavery in the New Testament

From the distance of a different time and culture, it can sometimes be difficult to understand the mindset of another era. Roman-era slavery was different from New World slavery in that it was non-racial, and emancipation was possible. But in whatever form it presents itself, slavery was, and is, an ungodly system, depriving people of their freedom and dignity, and open to abusive behaviour.

The early church was not living under a democracy, and the people did not have the right to speak out or to protest. Instead, New Testament Scripture calls for personal responsibility, for the individual within the bounds of the society in which they are living, to do the right thing.

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect…..Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.”

Ephesians 6:5-9

It was a pragmatic approach to living in a society that was far from God, and we face that same challenge today, but maybe over different issues. Scripture makes clear, however, that in God’s kingdom, there is equality for all, He does not show partiality, and God has no favourites.

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is all in all.”

Colossians 3:11

Who was Onesimus in the Bible?

Onesimus was a young man and a fugitive. He had been a slave in Philemon’s household and had run away, possibly with stolen goods. It is implied that he had taken something with him when he left. It could have been a cloak, or provisions for his journey, or a valuable item to sell, we are not told explicitly. Under Roman law, these actions were punishable by death. He runs from Colossae and, whether by land or by sea or a combination of both, he finally comes to a stop in Rome.

Who wrote the book of Philemon?

The book of Philemon is a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote, and is generally accepted to have been written while he was a prisoner awaiting trial in Rome. For two years, during Paul’s first imprisonment, he was kept under house arrest. He was allowed to live by himself, but with a soldier to guard him, and he was able to receive visitors. During this time he preached and taught all those who came to see him and wrote many letters to the newly established churches.

Paul sent the letter to Philemon, with Tychicus, at the same time as the longer letter of Colossians. Whereas Colossians is Paul’s clear teaching to the church, on spiritual and practical matters, his letter to Philemon was a personal message – although intended to be read publicly. Paul was very diplomatic and careful in his approach and appealed to Philemon to do the right thing.

Why did Paul send Onesimus back to Philemon?

Onesimus, somehow, had met with Paul in Rome and had become a Christian. He had come to know Jesus, as his Lord and Saviour, by acknowledging and repenting of his sins. Repentance is to turn away from our old sinful lives and to turn by faith to God. He now knew God’s forgiveness and was free from any condemnation of his past life.

Ironically Onesimus who had run away from obligated service to Philemon in Colossae, now transformed by faith, was willingly serving Paul in Rome. Paul describes him with great affection as his son, saying how useful Onesimus was to him. But once Paul knew Onesimus’ story he was obliged to act. Paul was a man of integrity and would have realised that it was not right for another man’s servant to be serving him, without his permission. Onesimus was not free to do so, he was bound to Philemon.

'Do the Right Thing' Philemon and Onesimus and a picture of The Appian Way, the Roman Road from the port into the city of Rome.
Philemon and Onesimus – Do the right thing?

Doing the Right Thing

Paul was sending Onesimus back to Colossae and was appealing for Philemon to accept him, ‘no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.’ Paul asked that Philemon would show the same welcome to Onesimus that he would to Paul himself. If there was any debt, if Onesimus owed anything, to charge it to Paul’s account and he would pay it back.

Paul spoke to Philemon in his letter with a level of maturity, that he could speak openly with candour without fear of causing offence or being misunderstood. He appears confident that Philemon would be merciful towards Onesimus, and that he may do even more than suggested. It was right and safe for Onesimus to return to Colossae.

It is not always easy to do the right thing, it can be risky and costly. But there are times when God positions His people and prompts us to take that step.

Out of all the places that Onesimus could have run to, here he was in the Apostle Paul’s company in Rome. Out of all the households that Onesimus could have run from, it was Philemon’s, a prominent member of a new fledgling church, who was known to Paul. This was not coincidence, God was at work….

A Step of Faith

Paul did the right thing in sending Onesimus back to Colossae. He was positioned to act as an intermediary and initiate a reconciliation between two men who were now brothers in Christ. He placed his trust in God, that Philemon would respond favourably. Although it would mean depriving himself of a companion and a helper at a time when he needed both, he knew God would supply all his needs.

Onesimus did the right thing in going back, to ask for forgiveness from those he had wronged. The injustice of being a slave did not void his action in taking what was not his and depriving Philemon of his service. He placed his trust in God for his own personal safety, and that Philemon would show mercy.

Philemon was being asked to do the right thing, to forgive Onesimus, and more than that to show mercy. To remove the threat of punishment from over Onesimus’ life and to go one step further, to bless him, and accept him as a brother in Christ. Philemon would be required to take a step of faith, to trust in God, that Onesimus’ transformation was genuine and that he would not take advantage of him again.

In the accompanying letter to the church in Colossae, in his instructions on living as Christians, Paul had written these words:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

Colossians 3:12-14

What is the main message of Philemon?

Reconciliation and Unity

Unity among believers is important, even when separated by thousands of miles. In the first-century world, communication was slow, it may have taken weeks or even months for a letter to travel from Colossae, in present-day Turkey, to Rome in Italy. The offence and the division between Philemon and Onesimus may have been hidden from the majority of people, but not hidden from God.

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”

Psalm 133:1

There is nowhere that we can go running away from God, and nowhere that we can hide from His Spirit. Paul taught extensively on the unity of the Spirit, and that we are spiritual beings and members of one body. We are called to one Lord, with faith and hope in Him, and we are to make every effort to be united with a bond of peace, reconciled to God, and reconciled to one another. Distance makes no difference, and the speed of communication in this digital age, makes this more, not less, relevant.

Forgiveness and Mercy

Mercy is defined as ‘Compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.’ Oxford Dictionary

Mercy is a gift of grace, freely given by God to His people, to meet the needs of the body of Christ and to build up the church. Jesus taught about forgiveness and redefined mercy. In answer to a question about how many times should we forgive, when there is an understanding that we forgive one another because our sins have been forgiven, Jesus taught about mercy, a love that knows no boundaries.

In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18: 21-35) the king decides to withhold punishment when his servant couldn’t pay back what he owed, but then he goes one step further and blesses him. He does this, not just by removing the punishment, but by cancelling the debt completely. The king’s expectation is that his servant would now show the same mercy to others….

Jesus redefined mercy. The compassion or forgiveness shown is far more than withholding harm or punishment, it is more than forgiveness and more than an act of will. It is love in action, a love with no boundaries, going one step further, and blessing the person. This is what Jesus did for us at Calvary!

And it is on this basis that Paul makes his plea to Philemon for Onesimus, to forgive, to show mercy, to be reconciled and united, no longer as slave and master but as brothers in Christ Jesus.

Prayer

Lord, I run to you for a fresh revelation of how much you love me. Help me to experience your forgiveness and mercy once again. Let your love fill my heart bringing healing to my brokenness. Restore and renew my strength so that I can walk in your love and be your witness where you have placed me. Help me, when required, to do the right thing, in your sight. Amen.

Dig deeper – Slavery in Roman Society

7 thoughts on “Philemon and Onesimus – Do the right thing?”

  1. Sharon, the story of Onesimus always amazes me and you have shared it well. Each of these three men played a role in teaching us so much about forgiveness, mercy, change, and unity. Thank you for this reminder to remember the beauty of forgiveness and restoration.

    1. I love Paul’s diplomacy in this letter and could learn so much from that alone! And yes, sometimes I think we need those reminders of forgiveness and restoration more than ever – thank you for reading and responding.

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