New Testament minor figure, Onesimus

Philemon 1:8-20 HCSB For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, 9 I appeal ⌊to you⌋, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, 10 appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while ⌊I was⌋ in chains. 11 Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him back to you as a part of myself. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place. 14 But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will. 15 For perhaps this is why he was separated ⌊from you⌋ for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, may I have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.

ONESIMUS – His name may be translated “profitable,” “helpful.” A slave of the recipient of this affectionate letter is written, Philemon. Onesimus slaved for Philemon who was a wealthy citizen of Colossae and in whose house the Church met there. (Compare Colossians 4:9; Philemon 2, 10) Through the teaching of Paul the Apostle Onesimus become a disciple of Christ, He returns to the home or Philemon, ready to take his punishment or continued service of the master Philemon. Onesimus upon escaping from slavery in Colossae meets Paul the Apostle in Rome and Paul shares the gospel with Him. Onesimus & Philemon’s story is a further demonstration of the power of the Gospel, rich or poor the gospel appeals to all.

Slavery in the first century was horrible as possible just as it is in every century. No man should, own another. Certainly, a Christian must do all they can to slip the chains from the backs of these less fortunate people. Why then did Paul send Onesimus back to the master he had escaped from? Why did Onesimus go back? While these two questions may seem to have vastly different answers, they are closer than we may think. Paul appeals to the finest of all Christian character in both men. He asks Philemon to accept Onesimus the slave now as a brother. Onesimus returns to fulfill his duty as a Christian to respect the rules of the land. It has always been true the great enemy of the good is the ideal good. It was as true for Paul, Onesimus and Philemon as it is for modern Americans. Christians cannot do everything to change the world, but they can do something (2015-2016 Companion GA).

It is not clear Paul had ever been to Colossae at the writing of this letter, it would seem Timothy and Epaphras has served the church there early in its beginning. Paul may never met Philemon but clearly intended to travel there as soon as possible Philemon 22. The personal level of the letter on behalf of Onesimus is plain, he wanted and expected Philemon to act as a Christian brother in this matter Philemon 12. Paul pledges to restore whatever Philemon was out as a result of his escape. Perhaps he has stolen for a road stake we can not know for sure. But Paul fully intended to restore all on Onesimus’s behalf.

Now under the power of the Gospel the slave master comes face to face with his commitment to Christ. The possible thief and runaway slave must fulfill the law of the land to fulfill his commitment to the Lord. The slave and the master and now brothers in Christ and must work out their salvation with fear and trembling.

Nothing more is said of the returned slave Onesimus in the New Testament. But perhaps we have an historical reference to him in the early 2nd century. About 104 ad and elder in the church at Antioch in Syria called Ignatius was on his way to Rome under guard, having been arrested. As he traveled in Asia on his way to Rome he left 7 letters to the churches there. The one to the Ephesian church speaks of an elder in the church named Onesimus. The letter to Philemon & Colossae was written around 62 ad. If Onesimus was a young man at that time, as most runaway slaves would have been, it is possible this was the same man about 70 some years old. If true Philemon might have freed a slave who became a pillar in the church in Ephesus (GA Companion).


  1. Where does it appear Philemon lived?
  2. Who else did Paul address in the opening of this letter?
  3. By what authority could Paul have commanded Philemon to free Onesimus?
  4. How had Paul “begotten” Onesimus?
  5. What relationship did Paul call upon to make such a request of Philemon?
  6. How should modern Christians treat each other from different stations in Life?
  7. What do, and what should we do, when the Lord expects difficult things?
  8. Can you share an unexpected meeting of some one from your Christian walk?