Point of Reference
by Fred Price
That’s what Onesimus, Philemon’s slave and Paul’s friend translates as. It would be interesting to know if Paul christened him that at his conversion, or if Philemon possibly renamed him that upon receiving him back as a “brother” in Christ; or if it’s one of life’s ironies that it was his given name at birth and he grew into its meaning. Paul, in writing to Philemon, sought understanding and forgiveness for Onesimus, saying, “Formerly (as a slave) he was useless to you, but now (as Paul’s adopted “son” and Philemon’s brother in the Lord) he has become useful both to you and me.” Philippians 1:11
Paul probably wrote Philemon while incarcerated in Rome; a prisoner – in chains – in a sense a slave himself. Onesimus apparently ran away from Philemon’s “care”, as benevolent as it may have been as a result of Philemon’s profession of faith; but slavery is still forced labor, whether in the fields, in the mines or as a household servant. Which raises the question: How could a Christian – and Paul never questioned Philemon’s faith – be a slave owner? The short answer being that slavery was the norm, either through capture in warfare or unpaid debt resulting in indentured service or the virtual kidnapping of individuals for the slave market. And quite honestly, due to the vast number of slaves throughout the Roman Empire, if they had all been simultaneously freed, there would have been nowhere for them to go and virtually nothing for them to do to sustain themselves. Thus Paul’s instruction to Onesimus to return to Philemon and his encouragement to Philemon to accept him, “…no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” Philippians 1:16 Such is the revolutionary power of the gospel, even in the most oppressively structured social “institutions.”
So how had Paul come to know Onesimus? “…who became my son while I was in chains.” Philippians 1:10 Onesimus may have stumbled across Paul, who at times preached from a rented “half-way house” while awaiting trial ( Acts 28:16 &30), and been converted by his preaching; (Possibly hearing of Christ first while a member of Philemon’s household ) or as some believe, been in prison himself and witnessed Paul’s evangelizing efforts first-hand there. (Acts 26) Needless to say, after saving his soul, Paul set him on a path to make things right with his Master and his master. “I am sending him… back to you. (Where he could have been executed for running away and possibly stealing from his master’s household. Philippians 1:18,19) Even though, “I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.” Philippians 1:12-14As he does repeatedly throughout his various ministries, Paul emphasized here that love for Jesus must express itself – in large part – through love for others. In doing so, he challenged Philemon to exercise his faithfulness in a concrete way through acceptance and mercy, likewise challenging Onesimus to express his repentance and newfound faith by putting himself at the mercy of his earthly master; both trusting God to make things right. (The idea of submission and/or obedience to those having authority over us, whether “employers” ( Ephesians 6:5-9), parents ( Colossians 3:20), spouses ( Colossians 3:18,19 & Ephesians 5:21), our religious leaders ( Hebrews 13:7), and government authorities ( Romans 13:1); consistently running throughout scripture.) The flipside being that masters were to treat their slaves in the same way – with respect and a sincere concern for their well-being, “…since you know that he who is both their master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.” Ephesians 6:9 Paul consistently declaring, “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” Acts 26:20
Nowhere in scripture does Paul speak specifically to the morality of slavery. He does however, provide the basis for overcoming social barriers and “business relationships” up to and including slavery by treating those issues as matters of the heart as well as the head. No amount of arguing could convince everyone of the evils of slavery, but treating people as family – brothers and sisters – would make it virtually impossible for anyone to take advantage of, let alone enslave anybody else in any fashion. At the core of the issue is the fact that we are all Onesimus ( Romans 6:6, Galatians 4:3,2Pet. 2:19), finding freedom regardless of our circumstances in Christ; once a useless slave to sin, now useful in the Lord.
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Fred Price - married (49 years), father of two grown children, grandfather of six.
Fred retired earlier this year after 42 years as a factory worker. He has always had a heart for young people and the challenges they face today. Over the years Fred has taught Discipleship Groups for High School and college students.
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