Friday, November 11, 2011

Onesimus: Lessons From a Sinful Slave

Although I have been a Christian for many, many years, it was only relatively recently that I encountered a character that I had never met and from whom I had a lot to learn.  His story is closely tied to the books of Philemon and Colossians, and perhaps Ephesians as well.  The books of Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians were written some 2,000 years ago.  No one can be sure of all the details as to its writing, but scholars have pieced together an account that is a very powerful picture of redemption.  Even if all the details aren’t correct, the redemption remains.  I would like to share his story with you.

Once upon a time, during the Roman Empire, there lived a slave named Onesimus.  Onesimus lived in Colossae with his master, Philemon.  In those days, the life of a slave was not a particularly attractive one.  A slave had no identity, no rights, and was considered to be merely a possession.  Any attempt to escape this lot in life was rewarded with certain death.  It does not appear that Onesimus was a very good slave.  He was certainly not honest, and probably not very wise.  Onesimus stole from his master, then ran away, a continent away, to Rome, hoping to lose himself in that crowded and busy metropolis. 

In Rome, Onesimus encountered the Apostle Paul.  And what do you know?  Paul knew Onesimus’s master, Philemon!  I suspect that Onesiums was not particularly happy with this “small world” experience.  By all expectation, Paul should have sent Onesimus back to Philemon immediately to be punished, i.e. executed.  But Paul had a master to serve as well.  As an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul shared the Gospel with Onesimus, who received it.  In turn, Onesimus became a real blessing to Paul, to the extent that Paul thought of Onesimus as a spiritual son, and wanted to keep Onesimus with him for service.

Since Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, Paul needed to ask Philemon’s permission to keep Onesimus.  This is the subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon.  And since mail delivery was not what it is today, Paul needed to send his letter with a messenger (named Tychicus).  Meanwhile, Paul had received word about life in Colossae from Epaphras, who was with him in Rome at the time.  Given Paul’s affection for the Colossian church and his concern in regard to the philosophies that were threatening the Gospel there, Paul took this opportunity to write to the Colossian church as well.  At the very end of the letter to the Colossians, Paul refers to another letter that was circulating in Asia at the same time.  Many scholars believe that that letter was what we know today as Ephesians.  It is likely, then, that Paul took advantage of the opportunity to communicate with the believers in Asia and also sent with Tychicus a general letter to the Asian churches, which eventually became associated with Ephesus.

So—God used one insignificant slave, a dishonest, insignificant slave at that, to work an incredible web of redemption.  He used Onesimus’s encounter with Paul to redeem Onesimus.  Onesimus in turn blessed Paul and became a participant in Paul’s apostolic work to extend God’s redemptive work to the Gentile world.  These events triggered Paul to write not one but possibly three letters, all of which proclaimed God’s truth and which would be used by God to continue His work, not just for that generation, but for every generation of believers since.  God used the events surrounding one slave to “buy back” countless souls.

We have not only been blessed by these events—we now have the books of Philemon, Colossians, and Ephsesians—but we are invited by Christ to participate in His ongoing work of redemption, of “buying back” those enslaved by sin.  It is good to be reminded of this, especially when we feel as insignificant (and possibly as guilty) as Onesimus, or when we encounter people who might appear to be as insignificant as Onesimus.

The point here is that God is serious about His work of redemption, and He will take any and every opportunity to prosper His kingdom.  We do not need to be anyone special or do anything spectacular to be a part of what He is doing.  We simply need to come to Christ and depend upon Him to enable us to fulfill His purposes for us.