Philemon & Onesimus

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Philemon 1:1-25, Colossians 3:22-25, Colossians 4:1-9, Romans 12:9-13

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.

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20 thoughts on "Philemon & Onesimus"

  1. Ada McCloud says:

    Who do I need to receive as family?

  2. Kathryn Talbert says:

    @katelynn Barlow thank you.

  3. Melissa says:

    A wonderful message and beautifully said.

  4. Courtney says:

    Thank you for your courage and honesty, Bev. We must continue to believe in Christ’s power to revolutionize a world full of hate into one of love. The fact that you and others are asking these difficult questions, is proof that God is moving among us. He is doing great things and is not done with us yet. Praise be to Christ!

  5. Dorothy says:

    Patti really hit home with her devotional with me today. Much of what she said rings true for my church. There were to parts that really stuck out, “But the gospel calls for deep reconciliation that gives birth to liberation.” But I think what really reminds me the most of my own church and how we think is, “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.”
    I have to share a praise, I received a bonus from the company I work for — as many of you know I’m a private duty nurse, well they called this a stay bonus. I guess other nurses are leaving the company for more money to work on the front lines. I have multiple offers but I enjoy what I do plus I don’t want to be exposed to the virus so I plan on staying where I am at. Have a great weekend my sisters in Christ. God bless you all.

  6. Angie says:

    When I read, “I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love for all the saints and the faith that you have in the Lord Jesus.” I thought of the SRT ladies…many of you specifically that I pray for randomly throughout the day and feel thankful for your love for the Savior and the walking out of your faith throughout the world…truely… “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you,…”

  7. Ashley White says:

    ❤️ such a great message

  8. Churchmouse says:

    Believers are bond servants of Christ. Paul reminds Philemon that Onesimus, regardless of his societal standing, was first and foremost a child of God and was to be held in that high regard. May we do the same.

    1. Jennifer Anapol says:

      ❤️

  9. BEV says:

    “Christ can revolutionize any social relationship.”
    While I’m waiting for Diana Fleenor to weigh in here with something intelligent, I’m going to throw out what God has put on my heart this morning: “What is Christ calling me to overthrow today?”
    Here, in the Pacific Northwest, in 2020? Do I really harbor white privilege and sense of entitlement? Do I subconsciously contribute to – and support – the social structures that favor white Americans and contribute to all other people groups struggling and failing in society? Who do I view as a ‘slave’ that i need to see through Jesus’s eyes as a dear sister?

    1. tanya b says:

      Bev as your Black sister thank you for allowing yourself to be honest; for you to admit that white privileged is real is an opportunity to begin honest and open conversation for healing to take place. Peace and Love my sister hearing and seeing with our heart is what we all need. Be Blessed!

      1. Casey Snow says:

        Bev- thank you for your thoughts! These are important questions that I believe every believer of the gospel here in America in 2020 should be working through right now. God is also revealing to me ways to acknowledge my white privilege and use it to love, help change things, and have hard conversations toward healing.

    2. Jennifer Anapol says:

      I too have been asking myself some of these questions. As white people, we can’t pretend like race doesn’t matter in this country or say that true acceptance of another race is to be “ color blind.” I believe what we are called to do is to see a person for who they are, skin tone and all, and love them. We are called to love as Jesus would. I pray I would see people the way Christ sees them.

  10. Diana Fleenor says:

    “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.”

    The expectations of general society certainly do contrast with the expectations of the gospel. The expectation to show kindness to those under your authority, to love with brotherly affection those who are not like you, even to be hospitable to strangers do not come naturally or logically to us generally. But, when Christ enters ones life, our “logic” changes, no longer earthly in nature but heavenly.

    I was struck by Paul’s boldness in asking for Philemon to prepare a guest room for him. He seemed to not only have an expectation (a hope) for Philemon to receive Onesimus with affection and kindness, but even for himself. I’m asking the Lord to help me see if I’m in error with my common thought that asking for someone to prepare a guest room is presumptuous, as it seems to be showing me here. Another example that came to mind as I was praying about it was Jesus telling Zacchaeus that he was going to eat dinner at his house. This has gotten me thinking about right expectations for hospitality from others. Perhaps I need to grow in more boldness in asking other Christians for accommodation?

  11. Traci Gendron says:

    Outdo. Not kudos!

  12. Traci Gendron says:

    So much goodness here. Col 4:1-9 stood out to me. Let your speech always be gracious seasoned with salt, so that you should know how to answer each person. I’m always terrified of sharing. I don’t seem to have great recall. I’m praying that God will help me. I also liked Romans 12:9-13 Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. Kudos one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence in zeal; be fervent in the Spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality.

  13. Maura says:

    Not seeing but a few comments this morning, wondering that they must not be coming through on my phone. Paul’s love for Onesimus reflects Jesus love so well that while we were still sinners, or slaves to sin Christ died for us. Praying I have eyes to see and Jesus grace and love like this for all. Joy to you Sisters. Missing your responses this morning. Hopefully I can see them later. Press on the King of Kings loves you with an everlasting love.

  14. Gina says:

    I have to admit something. I have never read the book of Philemon before… Now I that I have; it is like watching a series finale…and you have to wait a while season to find out what happens!!!

  15. NanaK says:

    There is so much for us to hold firmly to in these passages. One of my life-verses is Colossians 3:25: “Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the LORD and not for people…”. This is such a simple truth that can change every aspect of our lives, if we could get from this self-driven (Me) state of mind and turn our hearts and minds to CHRIST… our world would look so different. Doesn’t Romans 12:9-13 (Christian Ethics) clearly show us how to live out our Christian faith? Remember WWJD?! I pray today will be a day of living out my faith boldly for others to see.

  16. Lizzie says:

    We are all a family in Christ, with God as our Father! Hebrews 2:11. He will lead us, discipline us when we sin, and love us as His children. So rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Romans 12:12 Life is not always exciting, you don’t always get what you want. But God has given us more than we know. So be content to walk with Him. Like Adam and Eve in the garden. Listen to the voice of the shepherd. Show love to one another and put them first. Yes, love others as family in Christ. And know that you are not alone, we walk together with Him. 1 John 1:3
    Paul loved onesiumus, and it would have been hard to let him go, but he did the right thing trusting that God would lead Philemon to do the right thing too.
    Lord, please teach me your ways and help me to be content and satisfied, & joyful walking with you. Please give me opportunities to share your Word and love others as I trust you with everything.