Philemon 10-13, 15-16
10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, 11 who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
12 I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. 14 But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. NIV
Slavery is a scourge on the history of America. Nothing really needs to be said about that; there’s no need to state the obvious. Nevertheless, slavery was acceptable during New Testament times. Jesus uses the topic of slaves in several of his parables, because slavery was part of the fabric of society. Slaves were considered property of their owner. As wrong and as archaic as that may be, that was the culture. And for a slave to steal from his master and then run away, that was a punishable offense.
Paul writes a letter to one of his converts named Philemon from Colosse. Philemon must have been fairly well off as he was a slave owner. One of those slaves, Onesimus, had stolen from his master, and then fled to Rome. While in Rome Onesimus came in contact with the Apostle Paul, and as a result he came to Christ as his Savior.
The primary theme of this letter that Paul writes is “forgiveness.” Paul asks Philemon to now receive Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. He asks Philemon to let Onesimus off the hook for the wrong-doings committed against him. Paul even offered to pay back whatever was taken. That’s what Paul was ready, willing, and able to do for him.
But what did things look like from Onesimus’ vantage point while in Rome?
He was a slave, a thief, and a fugitive. Life didn’t look so good before, and was looking even worse now. This “temporary freedom” would bring him a world of problems if he returned to his master. Punishment and payback would surely come from Philemon. Onesimus’ name literally meant “useful, and profitable.” He may have thought that living up to his name was impossible…that he was destined to be a slave forever…destined to be insignificant…destined to always be a captive. But after he received Christ as Savior, Paul got in the way of Onesimus and what Philemon would do if that runaway slave was returned.
Maybe you’ve had those same ideas. You feel enslaved…enslaved by habits…captive to wrong thoughts…thoughts of insignificance that your life doesn’t make a difference. You could never live up to the idea of being useful or profitable. There is just too much baggage, and you feel trapped in life because of it.
That may be how your story started, but the incredible news is that it does not have to end that way! Jesus has forgiven you; He’s paid the debt that belongs to you; He’s given you a new identity – “child of God.” He’s even given you a new destiny…a new purpose as an ambassador for Christ. Jesus got in the way of the judgment you had coming, and chose to write a new ending for you. Your name has been changed from “slave to child,” from “unuseful to useful,” from “purposeless to His ambassador,” from “slave to free,” from “in debt to forgiven.”
When Paul was under house arrest in Rome, he wrote to the church at Colosse (approximately a year after writing to Philemon) telling them he was sending one of his co-laborers, Tychicus, to encourage them. In chapter 4, verse 9 of that letter he says, “He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you…” It is speculated that he is the same Onesimus that Paul refers to in his other letter. What a transformation! What hope!
Remember, the words of Christ in John 8:36 (NLT). “So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free!”
“The voice of sin is loud, but the voice of forgiveness is louder.”
– D.L. Moody