Can you imagine what Onesimus must have been feeling as he travelled from Rome back to Colossae carrying Paul’s two letters with him? He was a slave, but, more than that, he was a runaway slave. His master had every right to be angry with him. But while being away he had run into an old family friend who was now a prisoner under house arrest, a preacher named Paul. Paul taught him about Jesus and he had become a Christian. And Paul insisted that he return to his master – it was the right thing to do.
What awaited his return to his master? How would his master react? Did it matter that he was now a Christian? This is what the letter of Philemon is about – a man who had really messed up his life but became a Christian. Could he be given a second chance?
We don’t know much about Onesimus. We know that he was a slave and that his name means “useful.” His master was Philemon, a Christian and possibly one of the leaders of a group of Christians who met in his house. As such, he should have been a good master. But who would want to be a slave of anyone?
Onesimus, for reasons not disclosed to us, ran away from his master. This was a very serious crime under Roman Law: the punishment was death. To make matters worse, it would appear that he possibly stole something from Philemon when he left:
“Therefore if you regard me as a partner, accept him as you would me. Now if he has defrauded you of anything or owes you anything, charge what he owes to me. I, Paul, have written this letter with my own hand: I will repay it. I could also mention that you owe me your very self.” (Philemon 17-19 NET)
The situation was pretty grim – from a secular viewpoint, there was no way to correct what he had done. But now that he was a Christian, he was in a real quandary. What was he to do? As a Christian, repentance involved turning his life around. This would include taking care of those things he could deal with from the past, which would include his running away and his theft. Although he could return, Philemon had every right under the law to punish him as severely as he would like, including having Onesimus put to death. It would seem that whatever it was that he had stolen was already gone – he could not replace it.
Paul wrote this letter to Philemon to plead for Onesimus to be received back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ, a fellow follower of Jesus. Onesimus had changed. He had not lived up to his name of “useful” and had become “useless,” but now he could be “useful” once again. Because he had a new life in Christ, his relationship with Philemon had also changed. Paul heavily suggested that Philemon give Onesimus his freedom – they were now brothers, not master and slave. Onesimus would then have a double new life: a new life as a Christian, freed from his past sins, and a new life as a free man.
We have been given this same second chance as Christians. We have a new life, new goals, new opportunities. It is getting a clean slate and getting to start over again. How many times have we done something or gotten involved in something that just snowballed out of all proportion to what we did, and just wished we could start over? This is what God offers us – a chance to start over again. Many people long for this, but fail to realise that it is within grasp of each of us. This is what we have in Jesus – a chance to start all over again with a clean slate that doesn’t have all the mistakes we have made already written on it.
Bible Reading Schedule
26 January – Matthew 5
27 January – Matthew 6
28 January – Matthew 7
29 January – Matthew 8
30 January – Matthew 9