Regular Christians (Part 7): Onesimus

Regular Christians

Onesimus was one who endured social and economic inequality as a slave. We learn about him in the letter Paul wrote to his master, Philemon.

I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 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” (Philemon 10-16).

Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, a wealthy Christian from the area of Colossae/Laodicea [see lesson 2 for more about Philemon]. Onesimus ran away from his master and came to Rome where he met Paul and obeyed the gospel. After this, Paul sent him back to his master. It may seem shocking to us that an apostle would do this, yet we need to understand that slavery was different in the Roman world than it was in American history. Even so, it was still not desirable to be a slave as Onesimus was. Despite the undesirability of slavery, Christian slaves were still expected to obey their masters: “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22). They were to do this “not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable” (1 Peter 2:18). This may not have seemed “fair,” but that was what Onesimus was expected to do.

There are several similarities between the situation of Onesimus and that of Joseph. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and taken to Egypt (Genesis 37:24-28). After he arrived in Egypt, despite the faithful and diligent service he provided to his master, he was mistreated and ended up in prison (Genesis 39:1-20). None of this was “fair,” yet he remained faithful to God throughout everything. When he was tempted, he responded, “How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). Ultimately, everything worked out in the end. Joseph told his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Yet that did not make it easy to endure the time of slavery and imprisonment prior to that point.

Contrary to the way that many people want to portray Jesus, He did not come to bring social and economic equality. When someone demanded, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” He did not try to settle thus “unfair” situation; instead, He said, “Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:13-14). He bluntly told His apostles, “For you always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26:11). This means that poverty and inequality are still going to exist and it could be that even faithful Christians will have to endure this type of hardship. Because of this, there are at least three things we need to do:

  • Learn contentment – Paul faced times of “humble means” and “prosperity”; yet in every situation he “learned to be content” (Philippians 4:11-12).
  • Store up treasures in heaven – Jesus said these treasures cannot be destroyed or stolen (Matthew 6:20); therefore, they are preferable. We can store up these treasures no matter what our financial/economic situation is in this life.
  • Put spiritual things first – Jesus said, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). The things that pertain to our relationship with God and our future and eternal hope must be a priority over everything else.

It may still be difficult to endure social and economic inequality. Life may not seem “fair.” However, that should not be our primary concern. Paul wrote, “Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that” (1 Corinthians 7:20-21). Yes, being freed from slavery (or any other oppressed/disadvantaged condition) is preferable; but we can still faithfully serve God regardless of our status.

We do not know if Onesimus was ever freed by Philemon. Given his master’s character, we can assume that he would have either freed him or at the very least he would have treated him with fairness and respect as a fellow brother in Christ. Yet by returning, Onesimus showed that he was willing to submit to his master, whatever that might require. In every society, there are some who are richer and reside in a higher “class” than we do. Rather than bemoan this reality, let us simply determine to serve the Lord as He desires no matter what our place in society might be.

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  1. Why not stay with the old paths and just use the KJ when giving scripture.
    It is the Word of God. 2tim2:15

  2. JP, the King James Version is a fine translation of the Scriptures and I use it regularly for my studies, but it is not the only good English translation.