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Onesimus in the Bible - the Book of Philemon

Updated on July 4, 2014

Onesimus the slave, Philemon his master and the Book of Philemon

Bible Characters: Onesimus, Philemon and Paul.

While looking through the index of my study Bible, trying to decide upon the topic of my next study, I noticed the Book of Philemon. What caught my attention was the fact that this book had never caught my attention before. How is it that throughout all of my Christian studies, I'd never done a study on Philemon? Somehow I'd skipped the entire book! Of course I'd read it before; but I had never studied it. Well obviously, Philemon was to be my next study.

I prayed for wisdom, opened my study Bible and read the Book of Philemon, checking the footnotes as I read - not a whole lot of information in those footnotes. I checked the cross references - they were pretty empty, too. This was strange; my study Bible is usually full of helpful references. My next step was to grab my laptop; Google knows everything, right? I was amazed at how little there was relating to Philemon - no wonder I'd never studied this book before. The little I found pretty much said that Philemon was a social commentary on slavery. That's it? A social commentary on slavery?! I wasn't buying that. Scripture is timeless and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." - NIV. I just couldn't understand how a "social commentary on slavery" was equipping this servant of God for every good work. You just don't run across many slaves in 21st Century America. No, there's another message here - something relevant to today.

I decided that I would read and study the Book of Philemon every day and that I'd pray for wisdom concerning this book every day, until I understood the message. I grabbed my study Bible and my concordance and settled in for what I thought would be a long study. To my surprise, it had my answer in only three days. Read on to discover what revealed to me.

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Onesimus in the Bible
Onesimus in the Bible

Synopsis of Philemon

Philemon is a letter written by the Apostle Paul and addressed to Philemon. This is the only book of the Bible addressed to a single man rather than a nation or Church. Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus ran away from his master and somehow came into the company of the Apostle Paul. Paul preached the gospel; Onesimus accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. The letter is Paul's attempt at smoothing things over between Onesimus and Philemon - an attempt that appears to have been successful according to Church tradition and according to Paul's Letter to the Colossians.

Paul in Prison
Paul in Prison

Paul was in Prison when he wrote Philemon

1st discovery

Paul was in prison when he wrote Philemon; he mentioned being in chains and being a "prisoner of Christ." His longest period of incarceration was when he was under house arrest in Rome. We know that during this time, Paul was attended to by close friends, was allowed to receive visitors, was allowed to preach and was allowed to write letters - through these details , we can conclude that Philemon was probably written during Paul's time in this Roman prison.

Onesimus and Paul
Onesimus and Paul

How did Paul find Onesimus if he was locked up in Prison?

2nd discovery

The churchy answer is that Paul found Onesimus through God's providential grace. This is true of course, but it doesn't explain how.

Since Paul was in chains, he couldn't have found Onesimus - Onesimus must have found Paul.

How did Onesimus find Paul?

3rd discovery

Slavery was once legal in the United States and slaves sometimes ran away from their masters. When a slave ran away, where would he run to? Would he run to Richmond? Or Charlotte? No. A slave wouldn't have run to a large city in a slave-state. The people there quickly would have recognized the slave as a runaway and he would have been arrested.

So why would Onesimus have run to Rome? The Romans surely would have recognized this new-comer as a runaway. Even if Onesimus somehow had become lost and had accidentally wandered into Rome, there's no earthly reason to explain why he would have wandered into a Roman jail!

I believe that Onesimus went to Rome on purpose. I believe that he was looking for Paul, fully knowing the risk of being caught.

Why did Onesimus Run Away?

4th discovery

I believe that Onesimus ran away for the purpose of hearing Paul preach the gospel.

Philemon hosted the Colossian Church's meetings at his house. Fellowship was a regular part of these meetings and Onesimus, as one of Philemon's house-attendant slave, would have served at these fellowships.

Through the performance of his duties, Onesimus undoubtedly would have overheard conversations about Jesus and Jesus' chosen evangelist - Paul. I believe that Onesimus wanted to know more about Jesus but, as a slave, he had very little opportunity to do so. Nobody would take the time to tell a slave about Jesus - except, maybe Paul. Paul cared nothing about a man's status. He would preach Jesus to anyone: rich or poor, Jew or gentile, free or slave.

I believe that Onesimus waited for the day that Paul would come to Philemon's house so that he could have his questions answered. One day, Onesimus overheard someone say that Paul was in prison. I believe that Onesimus waited; hoping and praying that Paul would be released and would come to Colosse. I believe that Onesimus' desire to know Jesus grew until he couldn't bear it any longer. I believe that Onesimus didn't run from Philemon, so much as he ran to Paul - fully understanding the risk that was involved.

God providential care is demonstrated in that He blessed Onesimus by allowing him to find Paul in his Roam prison, even though it would have been impossible for a runaway slave to do so.

Onesimus returns to Philemon
Onesimus returns to Philemon

What's the 21st Century application of Philemon?

5th discovery

Reread Philemon, bearing in mind what I've written about Onesimus' running to Paul to hear the gospel. Does it sound as though Paul is scolding Philemon?

I believe that what Paul is tactfully saying in his letter is "Philemon, why did Onesimus have to run all the way to Rome to hear the gospel? Why didn't you tell him, yourself?"

In my studied and prayful opinion, the 21st Century application of Philemon is that we as Christians should tell everyone about the Grace that is available through Jesus Christ's sacrificial death. Everyone, not just the beautiful people, not just the grateful people, not just the people that smell nice and try hard. Everyone. We can't just throw a few dollars into the Salvation Army bucket and expect the professionals evangelists to do for us what we should be doing every day.

God loves you and wants you to know Him, eternally.

If you'd like to know more, please contact me through my profile page. I'd love to tell you about Him.

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Please, Share your Thoughts.

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    • profile image

      Mduduzi 2 years ago

      Thank you very much didn't look at it in this dimension and I must say that the book of Philemon is so much reach in grace than one can imagine. Bless you!!!

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Thank you for the instruction regarding the Book of Philemon. Like you I have never spent a great amount of time in the book and appreciate your insight.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I thank you so much for your interpretation of The Book of Philemon! The paragraph: I believe that what Paul is tactfully saying in his letter is "Philemon, why did Onesimus have to run all the way to Rome to hear the gospel? Why didn't you tell him, yourself?" I almost Shouted! I now have a better understanding of this Book. I appreciate your words and knowledge. Thank you...

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      What a wonderful new look at the book of Philemon! Hadn't thought of all this. I love your reference that we need to tell everyone about the Lord & His Love, not just the 'pretty people'. Thank you for some great writing! Best wishes & God's richest blessings on your work.

    • RhondaSueDavis profile image

      RhondaSueDavis 6 years ago

      Did I leave you a note on this one Brimm? not sure if I did or missed sending it. I have a facebook friend, Onesimus Philemon, in the biblical sense. His page is open on the net and not terribly active currently, but some very good content there. Glad to see this lens to share the story. I grew up around churches and never heard about this slave and reconciliation story until I was grown. It is amazing how his running and perhaps theft from his owner was helpful to Paul's work, and also how his owner took him back under certain criticism from the community for being more lenient with him than typical. It is thought he remained a redeemed and functioning part of the christian church until his death.

    • RhondaSueDavis profile image

      RhondaSueDavis 6 years ago

      Brimm, you should check out his facebook page!

      I do believe I can say where this one originated from...in the bible times, and in facebook.

      "Onesimus Philemon" is on Facebook. I believe it is set so the public can view the content. Some good content is in the notes and videos on that page.

      I wonder how many friends he will end up with in the social network.

      FB maxes out about 5,000 friends. And yes there is a story about how I know that little tidbit....

      https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1000010440...