…that you would have him back forever. – Vs 15
At one time a slave, now a brother. Once a runaway deserving death, now a repentant believer deserving of forgiveness. This is an incredible story of God's sovereignty and love. It reveals the way in which God works in the lives of men, behind the scenes, orchestrating events in such a way that the results are truly amazing.
Here was a slave named Onesimus, who had run away from his Christian master, Philemon. In his travels, Onesimus ends up in Rome. As "fate" would have it, he somehow crosses paths with the imprisoned Paul. The result of this "chance" encounter is that Onesimus the slave of Philemon becomes Onesimus the bondslave of Jesus Christ. He is free in Christ. He is forgiven by God of all his sins. He even begins serving Paul in his imprisonment. But Paul encourages him to return home to his master in order to restore that relationship. The amazing thing is that Onesimus agrees, knowing full well that he faces possible death as a runaway slave. It is interesting that Paul does not write a stinging criticism against the evils of slavery, but appeals to Philemon's Christian sensibilities. He asks Philemon to view Onesimus not as a returned slave, but as a repentant brother. What he had once lost, he has now gained back, but with more value than ever before. Paul says Onesimus is "no longer a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother" (Vs 16).
Paul even asks Philemon to consider God's hand in all of this. That God was behind all of this in order to give back to Philemon something of greater value than he ever had before. Paul says, "for perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that ou would have him back forever" (Vs 15). In other words, that Philemon now had gotten back more than a slave, but a brother in Christ – a relationship that would last for eternity. Philemon used to own Onesimus as a slave, but had lost him. Any value he had once had went out the door when Onesimus left. Now he had walked back in the door, but his value had significantly increased. He was now a fellow believer – a Christ-follower.
God had transformed this runaway slave. He had redeemed him just as He had Philemon. They were equals in Christ. As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28
God had worked a miracle in the life of a slave with a bounty on his head. Now Paul was asking his former master to accept him as a brother in Christ, to "accept him as you would me" (Vs 17). What a fantastic story of God's grace that extends to all men in every situation. What an unbelievable picture of God's love that reaches us wherever we are. Onesimus had run away from Philemon, but he could not run from the love of God. God found him in Rome and somehow placed him in the path of another man who was little more than a slave to the Roman government, chained and restrained, robbed of his freedom. But through Paul, Onesimus would discover true freedom in Christ. Slavery, chains, imprisonment, bondage – none of these things could prevent a man from experiencing the kind of freedom Christ offered. Onesimus learned that his ultimate freedom had nothing to do with an escape from the chains of slavery, but from his bondage to sin. So even if he had to return to his former life as a slave, he would be free in Christ. Free to serve his master with a new heart. Free to love his master with a selfless, sacrificial love that expects nothing in return. Free to express his newfound freedom in Christ in a thousand ways, in spite of any earthly shackles or limitations he may face.
We don't know what Philemon decided to do. Tradition says that he freed Onesimus and this former slave went on to become a minister and later bishop of the church at Ephesus. But whatever happened, we know that Onesimus was no longer the man he once was. He had been released from his slavery to sin and was now free to serve Christ in whatever circumstance he found himself.
Father, thank you for the freedom you have given me through Christ. That you for reminding me that it is not a freedom from circumstances, but from slavery to sin. I no longer have to allow my circumstances to control and manipulate me. Yet I do. If things do not go the way I think they should or if I find my circumstances less than appealing, I can easily become frustrated, angry, or even depressed. And when I do, I only reveal that I have become a slave to my circumstances, allowing them to control my responses. Father, help me to live like a free man no matter what is going on around me. If my job is not going like I would like, let me live above it, freely sharing my love and rejoicing in Your grace. Let me see myself as more than employee, but as Your servant. Let me see my circumstances as opportunities to trust You and serve You. Because I am free to do so in You. Amen