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For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever. Philemon 15

 

“A runaway slave only runs away once.”

This was the common, unsettling refrain in the Roman empire, for slaves were necessary to drive the economy. They made up 20-25% of the population and, according to Roman law, they had no rights and were mere property.

The New Testament canon reveals the story of a thieving, runaway slave named Onesimus; yet one who is described as a “faithful and beloved brother” (Col. 4.9). The name Onesimus literally means, ‘profitable,’ or ‘useful.’ Clearly, Onesimus was no ordinary slave; therefore, the Holy Spirit gives us a treasure in Paul’s letter to Philemon. We have in this short, private correspondence, a beautiful picture of God’s eternal love manifest through the conversion of an ordinary slave.1

Philemon was a wealthy merchant from the city of Colossae, 100 miles from the coastal city of Ephesus. Through Philemon’s frequent travels and Paul’s extensive missionary labors in Ephesus on his third journey, Philemon and Paul would have become close acquaintances (Acts 19:10; Phile. 22).

Philemon owned Onesimus. When Onesimus ran away, he violated the slave-master relationship (Phile. 15; Eph. 6:5-7). Additionally, he stole something from Philemon, for Paul offers to repay what was lost (Phile. 19).

During this time, slaves held unskilled positions (in more rural contexts) as well as skilled positions (in more urban contexts). A more skilled position might involve more domestic services, like being an accountant for the master’s business or even being a physician (Luke, for example). It seems that Onesimus had a skilled position in Philemon’s household due to the urban context of Colossae and Philemon’s wealthy status (Phile. 2).

This could be further supported through the liberty that may have tempted Onesimus to flee his master. His involvement in the household of Philemon may have given him special access to whatever he stole, being tempted to take advantage of Philemon’s trust, and to better his life by pursuing freedom.

Additionally, slaves wore a slave collar (made of metal or leather) for identification, and this collar gave the name of the master and the reward promised for return of the slave. The material used would have varied based on the status of the slave, so it may have been that Onesimus’ higher status as a slave meant he could easily remove and dispose of his collar. In this way he could make it all the way to Rome.

However, it could also be plausible that he held no additional advantage and was weary of his lot. Whatever the case may be, Philemon reveals that he fled to Rome, the largest city in the empire (Phile. 10). Certainly a safe place to hide: 1,300 miles from Colossae and a city harboring well over one million people.

Surprisingly, he was discovered. But not surprising, because God ‘discovered’ him. His departure, albeit a sinful departure, was planned. In God’s mind, from before the foundations of the world, He knew Onesimus. God used Onesimus’ sinful flight to reveal His eternal plan. As Paul eloquently writes in Philemon 15, “For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever.” God led Onesimus to Paul, who was enduring a two-year imprisonment, and God used Paul, in the highest sense of the word, to find Onesimus as a lost sinner, through the gospel, to bring him unto Himself (Luke 15:4-7).

Through the planned departure of Onesimus and his new friendship with Paul, Onesimus discovered that Christ was his Savior. Through the gospel, God revealed His eternal relationship with Onesimus and gave him the knowledge that all his sins were forgiven in Christ. Departed to be received!

Through the power of the Spirit, Onesimus was converted, and it is evident from Paul’s letter to Philemon that Onesimus had developed a secure place in the apostle’s heart (Phile. 10, 16). Paul loved Onesimus and would have wanted nothing better than to have Onesimus stay with him and continue ministering to him and to others (13). But Paul knew Onesimus must be sent back to Philemon. His sin was serious, and his need to repent directly to Philemon and seek forgiveness of Philemon was necessary.

The request of Paul that Philemon restore Onesimus is beautifully transitive in nature and models all relationships within the body of Christ: “If you (Philemon) and I (Paul) are beloved brothers in Christ, and Onesimus and I (Paul) are beloved brothers in Christ, then you (Philemon) and Onesimus are beloved brothers in Christ” (see Phile. 16, 17). That very same logic must extend to the church of Christ: beautiful brotherhood, unity, and spiritual equality.

Therefore, Paul’s dilemma to return Onesimus was really no dilemma. The same Spirit who changes the heart of man also renews to sorrow over sin. Paul knew what had to be done.

The basis for this possibility is Revelation 13:8: “And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” This declares the wonder of grace that Onesimus was eternally forgiven of all his sins, including his sinful flight from Philemon. God knew Onesimus in Christ, eternally, by His electing grace!

Because of his eternal forgiveness and new life in Christ, Onesimus had the power of the Spirit to sorrow over his sins and be reconciled with Philemon. Philemon’s forgiveness of Onesimus would be used by God to assure and declare to Onesimus that he was a forgiven sinner. Herman Hoeksema beautifully expresses the truth of eternal forgiveness thus:

We must understand, too, that in God this act of forgiveness is eternal. In him this act of mercy and grace whereby he ordained his Son to be the head of the church, so that he might represent them in the hour of judgment and might bear their sins and iniquities and take them away forever, is from everlasting to everlasting. In God’s eternal counsel Christ is “the firstborn of every creature,” and that too, as the head of this church and as “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:15, 18). And therefore there is, there eternally is, forgiveness with God. And there is no condemnation, there never was with God condemnation for them that are in Christ Jesus. In Christ “we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (v. 14).2

In this way, the gospel that Paul had so powerfully preached to Onesimus would be magnified in all its glory that God declare to him, in the very depth of his soul: “Onesimus, you are forgiven.” This beautiful truth would have encouraged Onesimus on the foreboding trip back to Colossae.

In addition, what is remarkable to consider is that the comfort that Onesimus needed, the assurance of his forgiveness in Christ, both eternally and at the cross, was in the satchel of Tychicus, the letter-carrier, for he was preparing to deliver three of Paul’s prison letters to Asia: Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (Eph. 6:22; Col. 4:7). Ephesians declared the truth of Onesimus’s election (Eph. 1:3-12), Colossians of Onesimus’ forgiveness (Col. 1:14, 15; 2:13-14), and Philemon of Onesimus’ need to repent of his sin to Philemon and to press on faithfully in the knowledge of his forgiveness (Phile. 11).

Tychicus may have assured Onesimus, through Colossians 2:13-14, that his trespasses were forgiven and that Christ “took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross” (2:14). The sinful flight of Onesimus was nailed to the cross! What a great comfort for Onesimus, and for each child of God!

Yet, this return of Onesimus would still be difficult. Even though Tychicus would have given spiritual support and encouragement to Onesimus, and even though he had the testimony of the Holy Spirit through the inspired letters Tychicus carried, the trip would have engendered anxiety as Onesimus rehearsed in his mind the reunion with his master Philemon.

Remember, slaves only ran away once. A branding and beating would certainly be waiting for any runaway slave.

But just as Onesimus was no ordinary slave, Philemon was no ordinary master. He was a Christian. He understood the teachings of Paul regarding the duty of masters to be fair and just, knowing that Christ is their Master (Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:22). He would be ready and willing to forgive. He, too, knew forgiveness in Christ (Phile. 19).

Therefore, we can be confident that, upon arrival in Colossae, Philemon opened his arms for Onesimus. Much like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, so Philemon rejoiced to see his “son” Onesimus once again (Luke 15).

Due to Paul’s request of Philemon that lodging be prepared for him (Phile. 22), and the freedom to travel he enjoyed between his first and second Roman imprisonments, it may very well be that Paul entered Philemon’s home several years later and saw a restored slave. Once unprofitable, now profitable (Phile. 11), for ultimately, Onesimus knew that his Master was King Jesus.

Some scholars have posited the possibility that Philemon freed Onesimus, for “there are traditions that he became bishop of Berea in Macedonia, and that he returned to Rome, and suffered martyrdom under Nero.” 3 Regardless of a possible freedom, the Spirit’s message through Paul’s letter to Philemon is to assure each of His dear children that though each one runs away, daily, he or she is always received back through sovereign grace and mercy.

Metaphorically, child of God, be a slave for Christ! Confess that you must surrender your power to be whole to Him. Confess that you are not your own, but belong to your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Confess that though life will be difficult, His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.

Confess your sinful flight each day, but rest assured in the promises of His Word, that you are a forgiven sinner. Go back, repent to your Master each day, be comforted by His warm embrace, and know His eternal love to you. Hear, again and again, His declaration of forgiveness! You, like Onesimus, are departed…to be received!


1 The reader is encouraged to read Paul’s short letter to Philemon and see the beautiful parallel of the work of salvation for each of His elect “runaways.”
2 Herman Hoeksema, I Believe: Sermons on the Apostles’ Creed (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2023), 272.
3 William Smith. The New Testament History, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890), 591.