Philemon & Onesimus
Open Your Bible
Philemon 1:1-25, Colossians 3:22-25, Colossians 4:1-9, Romans 12:9-13
BY Patti Sauls
Scripture Reading: Philemon 1:1-25, Colossians 3:22-25, Colossians 4:1-9, Romans 12:9-13
When I engage with Paul’s letter to Philemon—a Christian who is also a slave owner—I want to be shielded from jarring talk of slavery, especially in the Bible. But nothing shielded the millions enslaved, past or present. We can’t look away from this brokenness in the world. We must consider what God is revealing through this letter about a runaway slave returning to his master.
Paul was imprisoned in Rome when he wrote to Philemon, a friend and ministry partner in Colossae. Paul knew bondage and he knew the source of true freedom in Christ. He also lived in a time and place where slavery was society’s norm. Nearly one third of the Roman population was enslaved, which means master-slave dynamics were unavoidable. It’s essential to note that while Paul was describing and addressing an interpersonal conflict within the context of slavery, he was neither prescribing the system of slavery nor endorsing it as a good or godly practice.
Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus, had become a Christian through Paul’s ministry. He also became a faithful friend to Paul and could have continued living on the run, yet was compelled to return to Colossae and face his master. In preparation for Onesimus’s risky return, Paul sent Philemon a tactful letter, thanking him for being a faithful brother in Christ, and pressing him to further exercise his faith by extending brotherly love and acceptance to Onesimus.
Paul urged Philemon to recognize and welcome Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—as a dearly loved brother” (Philemon 16). Requesting that the slave be treated as a brother was radical. Legally, Philemon could punish Onesimus or even kill him for running away. No one would expect him to treat his runaway slave with kindness, let alone regard him as kin. But the gospel calls for deep reconciliation that gives birth to liberation.
As Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). All believers in Christ are family. None is superior to another, and none can “own” another. Furthermore, each of us has been on the run. Each of us has been a slave to sin. Each of us has been forgiven and reconciled to God through Jesus and set free. May this truth refresh our hearts (Philemon 20). Jesus is not ashamed to call us kin (Hebrews 2:11), and He welcomes us into a right, good, and eternal relationship with Him. May we also remind each other that we abide in this space together as equals, sisters and brothers united in Christ.
Patti Sauls lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband Scott and daughters, Abby and Ellie, where they serve alongside the people of Christ Presbyterian Church. Prior to living in Nashville, the Sauls planted churches in Kansas City and Saint Louis and served at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. A trained speech therapist, Patti also enjoys serving behind the scenes, hiking with friends, and reading good books.