There’s this guy in the Bible with a pretty funny name: Onesimus. How do you even say that? Well, weird name aside, this guy has a powerful testimony.
While he is mentioned in another place in the Bible (Colossians 4:8-9), we hear Onesimus’ back story in the book of Philemon. It’s easy to wonder why this letter was included in the Bible – It’s less than a page long, and many Christians will never read it in their lifetimes. Why would the people who put the Bible together include something so small? Why is this book in particular so significant?
Philemon is included in the Bible because of the story it tells. See, Onesimus was a slave, and the apostle Paul actually wrote this book solely for the purpose of writing to Onesimus’ owner to prove that his heart had become good and to appeal to Philemon’s better nature to let Onesimus go free.
Onesimus started his story as a slave who stole something from his owner and then fled the country. As it turns out, he fled to Rome, right to where Paul was teaching the Gospel, and his life was changed forever. Onesimus was then able to spend some time with Paul, learning from him and growing closer to God. What a divine intervention!
Here is what Paul says about Onesimus (verses 9-16, ESV):
“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
Here, Paul is petitioning on Onesimus’ behalf. The New Testament is riddled with instructions for slaves to obey their masters and work as though God is their master, many of these cases written by Paul’s own hand, but here, Paul appeals to Philemon to set Onesimus free. What is the difference here?
The thing that sets Onesimus apart from other slaves is that Paul has spent time with Onesimus, getting to know him and investing into his soul. Onesimus isn’t some run-of-the-mill slave to Paul any longer; he’s like Paul’s own son. His transformation was so great Paul told Philemon, I’m not sending a slave back to you. I’m sending my heart.
By all accounts, Philemon owned Onesimus, and Paul did the right thing by sending him back, but that ownership didn’t change the way Paul saw him. Onesimus was a beloved son to Paul, and the fact that he was a slave did not change how important Onesimus was.
Paul hated that this was hovering over his head, a looming storm cloud of oppression. Some day, Philemon is going to call upon that slavery and tear my son away from me. He is going to punish Onesimus for his past when he’s not that person any longer. Paul had to do something about it.
Later in the letter, he did (verses 17-20, ESV):
“So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.”
Paul not only asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus for the trouble he has gone through; he tells Philemon that even if he is unwilling to forgive Onesimus, Paul will pay for his freedom. He asked Philemon not to hold anything against Onesimus, but to hold it against himself as though he was the one who did wrong. For someone who was a Pharisee for a very long time, priding himself on not sinning, that’s an awfully large price to pay.
But that price didn’t matter; his son did.
This is the definition of standing in the gap for someone, saying, “I will pay the price for you so you can be free.” That’s what fathers do for sons. That’s what Jesus Christ did for us.
When Paul talks about Onesimus in Colossians, he calls him a “faithful and beloved brother,” not a slave or even a former slave. A brother in Christ. Part of the family. Onesimus’ past was washed away, never to return again. He had a new name, and that name was “Beloved.”
This less-than-a-page-long book of the Bible is a Real Life example of how we can fight for people. This is how we are Jesus Christ to the world. This is how we bring freedom to the people who need it most. We make sacrifices so other people can have the life more abundant we do. We take their burdens upon our own shoulders and pay the price it takes to free their souls. We change their names from slave to brother.