Have you ever wondered why the short letter of 25 verses Paul wrote to Philemon about a run away slave, was included in the New Testament? Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t – but we owe nearly everything to the subject of Paul’s letter, Onesimus.
Without him we wouldn’t have our New Testament. That’s correct. The New Testament you have in your hands or as an app on your phone wouldn’t exist without him - surprised? Let me tell you a story…
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…
There lived a teenager named Onesimus. He was raised a slave in the household of Philemon, a man who lived in ancient Colossae, a city in modern Turkey situated about 120 miles (193km) east of Ephesus.
When Paul spent over 2 years in Ephesus, Acts 19:10 tells us everyone in that region known as Asia heard the word. The (house) churches at Colossae no doubt were born in this time, as Epaphras* took the Word to Colossae. *Colossians 1:7 & 4:12
Colossae was an important city along the supply road running from Ephesus towards the middle east, as was Laodecia its closest neighbor, and was so known for its (dyed) wool that the Roman Empire declared it to be free from taxes.
But all that meant nothing to young Onesimus, a non-Christian slave in a Christian home where adherents of this new religion gathered to worship a man named Jesus and hear stories of His life. Onesimus had bigger dreams, dreams of seeing the world, of being a man of the world - he would worry about the afterlife later.
And so it was at some point in his late teens or early twenties, Onesimus, whose name means ‘useful’, ran away to the big city; Rome. We don’t know how he got all the way from Turkey to Italy, what risks he took, how he presented himself to those who questioned the credentials of this young man making his way, but we know he made it to Rome.
Paul is already a prisoner of Rome at this time, somewhere in the years 60-62, which is where Luke closes Acts. He states Paul was under house arrest for 2 years but allowed to receive guests, and it was during this time Paul meets a certain run away slave from Colossae, the young man, Onesimus.
In his letter to Philemon Paul says this about Onesimus: “…Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus - I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is useful to both me and you…” v9-11
And he continues in v13 saying, “I would have liked to have kept him here with me because he is a great help in your place, but I don’t want to do that without your consent, so I’m sending him back to you with my heart as well…”
So we learn Onesimus in his effort to run away from that house full of Christians back home in Colossae, runs right into Paul in Rome, and becomes a Christian. The fact Paul met him while he was a prisoner might suggest teenager Onesimus had run out of money and no prospects of a job in the big city and turned as a last resort to his master’s friend, Paul. We don’t know. But we do know that in his effort to run away from home, he ran right into Paul and a new life in Christ.
Do the right thing
Now that Onesimus has become a believer, Paul tells him that he must return to Philemon and take his punishment, which could have been death. But Paul’s letter to Philemon in our New Testament is his letter of recommendation and request for leniency, in fact suggesting in verses 12-16 the larger plan of God was that in leaving as a runaway slave, God has now returned him better than a slave in a play on words, now as a (useful/onesimus) brother in Christ.
Paul even tells Philemon in v19 that he would pay whatever damage Onesimus did or whatever he owes his master, and he reminds him that he owes his own spiritual life to Paul, to seal the deal. Yet as if to add even more weight to his request, Paul closes by adding “And prepare a room for me because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.” He will come personally to see how Onesimus is being treated!
And so it was that Onesimus, the one time runaway slave, now returns home with money in his pocket to repay his debt, and carrying the letter to his master from the great apostle Paul in his hand. What joy and what nervousness he must have felt. How would he humble himself and ask forgiveness? Would Philemon be so angry he wouldn’t even read Paul’s letter and instead sentence Onesimus to immediate death?
With no overnight or 2 day mail, no phones nor texting, no way of sending word in advance of his coming, one day Onesimus just shows up at the door, letter in hand. What would be his fate?
Philemon did indeed forgive Onesimus, and better than that - he gave him his freedom and sent him back to work with Paul for as far as we know, what turned out to be the last 4 years of Paul’s life. The next time history sees Onesimus he is working in Ephesus, just west of Colossae you’ll recall, to work with Timothy who oversees all the (house) churches there.
Many scholars estimate there were about 25,000 believers in Ephesus, or 10% of the population of 250,000, and at that time they all met in homes rotating who hosted and led the meetings, having meals together, giving to one another as needs arose, and there were many full time workers coordinating all those resources and communication.
Fast forward 30 years: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tells us…
In the year 97, just over 30 years after the deaths of Peter and Paul, Timothy was now an old man and still overseeing the saints in Ephesus, where he was 30 years earlier when Paul sent him to Ephesus and wrote his 1st and 2nd letters to him there. Imagine that, he stayed faithful to his last assignment Paul gave him for over 30 years. No searching God for his next assignment, he stayed faithful right where Paul put him.
But in the year 97 the people of the city were celebrating a pagan festival called Catagogion which was noted by carrying idols in their hands as they celebrated up and down the streets of the city. Aged Timothy went to preach to the crowd about their idolatry, and the mob beat him nearly to death, and 2 days later he did finally succumb to his injuries.
Enter a former slave
With the death of Timothy, a former runaway slave named Onesimus became the overseer of Ephesus, and remained there until his own death in the year 108 AD. (Though some sources put his death in the year 68 that date doesn’t match known history, which says he succeeded Timothy in the year 97 and died a prisoner or Rome by stoning and/or beheading, in the year 108.
What he did that changed our lives
But this one thing we know he did after he succeeded Timothy in the year 97 that no one else had done to that point: He began compiling the letters of Paul that had survived over those 50 years.
We can only imagine his thoughts, holding Paul’s letter to Philemon in his hands, now a cherished personal treasure that had changed the course of his life. Yellowed and torn around the edges these 50 years later – a brief letter of a only little over 400 words, but what if he could add Paul’s other letters to this 1 cherished personal treasure. What if others could read Paul’s letters as he did as his Assistant? What if others could be set free by Paul’s letters as he had been by his brief appeal to Philemon?
And so it is that we have Paul’s letters in our New Testament. Thank you Onesimus, for including your own letter, that little hint for us, your own signature as it were to your task of assembling Paul’s letters, to let us know the hand of God set in motion by 1 act of kindness. And now you know why that little 25 verse appeal on behalf of a runaway slave is in our New Testament.
As with many good deeds, the consequences often deliver unexpected results - trickling down through the centuries to our lives changed because 1 man had mercy on, and shared Jesus with a runaway slave, and that former slave did not let the grace of God bestowed upon him be in vain.
We touch the lives of others but it remains to be seen how our investment in each life will bear fruit. The biggest miracles aren’t always when someone gets out of a wheelchair, but rather when their heart is changed. For the ripple effect of that change may be seen generations from now, as it was when Paul met a certain runaway teenager down on his luck in the big city of Rome…
Another random thought next week, until then, blessings!