Gerry spoke today about Onesimus and Philemon
It was in Pauls third missionary journey during the late 50’s AD that he passed through Colossae, I say passed through because he must have done on his route from Antioch to Ephesus and we know he spent a great deal of time in Ephesus. I am not sure whether Onesimus actually met Paul at Colossae but he most certainly would have heard of him because of the effect he had on Philemon. So let’s listen to Onesimus’ account of the story.
The church in Colossae was founded by Epaphras a colleague of St Pauls and it was still a thriving community at the time of St Pauls imprisonment although not the centre it once was, and this of course was before it was devastated by the earthquake.
I think the Christian church in Colossae was doing fairly well at that time and consequently Paul was happy, well as happy as he ever was, about leaving Epaphras in charge so I believe he only stayed briefly with my master at that time. But the effect was amazing, after Paul had left he never stopped talking about this Jesus Christ and went full head on into helping Epaphras build up the Christian church as they called the people who followed Jesus.
And not only talked, he wrote, well that is to say he talked and I wrote because as the most educated slave that Philemon owned it was part of my responsibility to act as his scribe. I had been an administrator in Asia before being captured and sold to Philemon and was skilled at many things although the only one I was allowed to practice was scribing because there was no one else who could write as well as I in both Greek and Hebrew. I looked forward to having to write because the rest of my time was spent in hard menial labour in the house and gardens.
And of course as I wrote I listened. I listened to Philemon rehearsing his arguments about this Jesus and Christianity and arguing back and forward with himself before deciding on what to write to Paul and then dictating it to me. And of course I also got to read Pauls replies to Philemon when they came back. It would be fair to say that they had as much of an effect on me as they did on Philemon and I spent every waking hour thinking about them. I could see that they had changed Philemon, he had previously been a selfish deceitful lying and greedy man doing always what would increase his pleasure and his fortune with no regard for others. But now he had changed, he still kept slaves but in subtle ways our lives had improved. We still worked the same hours and tasks but he no longer seemed to look for things just to make us suffer.
And my life began to change too, no longer quite so in fear of what I would be asked to do when my Lord called my name I also began to grow in hope from the message of Jesus that Paul talked about.
More and more I looked forward to reading Pauls letters about the Kingdom to come and how we were all equal children of Jesus and how we should all be treated equally whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for as he said we are all one in Christ Jesus.
So day by day hope filled my heart together with frustration, I wanted to help spread this message of Pauls I wanted to feel this love of Jesus myself but could not see how I could move forward. Finally I read a letter of Pauls which said “Masters render to your servants what is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.” And my heart broke and I realised I must serve the greater master and I stole a sum of money from Philemon and set off to Rome to see Paul.
Unfortunately that is where Onesimus’ account ends, we have no record of how he managed to get to Rome and meet St Paul so we have to take up the story there from St Pauls point of view.
We read that
“Among those who gave their hearts to God through the labours of Paul in Rome was Onesimus, a pagan slave who had wronged his master, Philemon, a Christian believer in Colossae, and had escaped to Rome.
In the kindness of his heart, Paul sought to relieve the poverty and distress of the wretched fugitive and then endeavoured to spread the light of truth into his mind. Onesimus listened to the words of life, confessed his sins, and was converted to the faith of Christ.
Onesimus endeared himself to Paul by his piety and sincerity, and by his tender care for the apostle’s comfort, and his zeal in promoting the work of the gospel. Paul saw in him traits of character that would render him a useful helper in missionary labour, and he counselled him to return without delay to Philemon, beg his forgiveness, and plan for the future. Now that might seem pretty unlikely you might think, but Paul promised to hold himself responsible for the sum of which Philemon had been robbed and, dispatching Tychicus with letters to various churches in Asia Minor, he sent Onesimus with him. It was a severe test for this servant to deliver himself up to the master he had wronged; but he had been truly converted, and he did not turn aside from his duty. Paul made Onesimus the bearer of a letter to Philemon, in which, with his usual tact and kindness, the apostle pleaded the cause of the repentant slave and expressed a desire to retain his services in the future for the growth and spread of the Gospel.
Paul reminded Philemon that every good purpose and trait of character which he possessed was due to the grace of Christ and this alone made him different from the perverse and the sinful. The same grace could make even the most criminal a child of God and a useful labourer in the gospel.”
And there you have it, the account of Onesimus. Onesimus represents each of us in this story. This story symbolizes the great atoning sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us.
You see Paul asked for something amazing, He asked Philemon, in view of the conversion of Onesimus, to receive the repentant slave as his own child, showing him such affection that he would choose to dwell with his former master, “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved.” Thus bidding him to enact Pauls earlier words that Jesus tells us that we are all equal before God.
He expressed his desire to retain Onesimus as one who could minister to him in his bonds as Philemon himself would have done, though he did not desire his services unless Philemon should of his own accord set the slave free
We are all rather unprofitable servants as was Onesimus. We are slaves of sin when we do wrong and may also be slaves to fear.
We may all at one time have run away from Jesus as Onesimus fled from Philemon. But we can still repent and turn our hearts to Jesus Christ even when we are far away from him.
Paul regarded Onesimus as his son just as we become sons and daughters of Jesus Christ when we are spiritually reborn.
Paul offered to pay for the debts of Onesimus just as Jesus Christ has paid for our eternal debts through his sacrifice on the Cross.
We do not know how Philemon reacted to Pauls entreaty but I urge you all to think on this story and, if you were Onesimus what hardship would you be prepared to undertake to learn the truth of Jesus Christ. And if Philemon would you have acted like Paul and been prepared to treat everyone you met equally, as a brother or sister under God.
And finally as Paul says at the end of his letter to Philemon:
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen
4 1 Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
2 Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. 3 At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, 4 so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should.
5 Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.
Final Greetings and Benediction
7 Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. 8 I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; 9 he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.
10 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him. 11 And Jesus who is called Justus greets you. These are the only ones of the circumcision among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. 12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. 13 For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14 Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. 15 Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16 And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. 17 And say to Archippus, “See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Col 4:1–17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.