A Runaway Slave meets Paul in Prison

The content of a very warm and personal letter, written more than 1900 years ago, is one of the many treasures which have been preserved in Scripture for our enjoyment and blessing. That letter, as most of our readers are well aware, was written by Paul to a certain Philemon, a fellow saint, owner of a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus who had met up with Paul in prison through circumstances not revealed.

Since this is a personal and private letter, it may suggest many questions now which it was not intended to answer. Paul had no need for repeating things which Philemon already knew, and there is nothing to suggest he had any reason to think the letter would be saved as a part of Scripture. Thus there is no intention here to offer any arbitrary interpretation based on things which the letter may well imply but does not actually state.

For like reason, when we suggest here later even how Paul may have talked with Onesimus in prison, this will not be intended as though we were putting words in his mouth; it will be only to suggest what COULD have been said consistent with his own teaching in accord with his epistles, mindful also of the commendable tact commonly reflected in all of his spoken and written words. It seems the letter was written at some time in the early sixties, because the Apostle refers to himself as Paul the "aged" and as being then "in bonds" indicative of prison. It appears that Philemon was a resident of Colosse because the letter was addressed also to a certain Archippus as well as Apphia, a sister in the faith; and Archippus is mentioned also in the letter to the Colossians: "Say to Archippue, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord that thou fulfill it." Since that clearly associates Archippus with the saints at Colosse, we may well infer that the same was true of Philemon and Apphia. We assume that Apphia was the wife of Philemon and that Archippus may have been their son. It would appear that the three of them were of one and. the same household. Though Onesimus was a slave of Philemon’s, it seems from verse 17 that in some way he was also related, a coincidence the letter does not otherwise explain; and while that may appear strange to us now, perhaps it was not unusual at that time for a slave to be owned by one of his kinsmen.

The letter seems to show that Philemon was not only well regarded but even dearly beloved by Paul as one of his brethren in the faith. Paul was thanking God for the love and faith Philemon was manifesting; first to the Lord Jesus Christ, then toward "all the saints." In accord with that he writes "Much joy have I had and consolation in your love, seeing that the compassions of the saints are soothed through you, brother" (CLNT vs. 7). From this it appears that Philemon was a man of substantial means who was contributing freely to the personal needs of less fortunate saints.

From such favorable mention of Philemon's generosity in a letter Paul was preparing to send by the hand of Onesimus, it becomes more apparent that every word was being chosen with meticulous care to serve some delicate purpose in view; first to reconcile Philemon to a slave who had been disloyal, but Paul had also a further objective, even more critical, which he was about to suggest very gently later on in the letter.

First he was concerned that Philemon should know how something quite phenomenal had occurred with regard to Onesimus. Without that advance knowledge Philemon may not take kindly at all to a slave who had run away, for the letter even admits that Onesimus also may have stolen from Philemon, in which case Paul hastens to tender complete restitution at his own expense.

It was urgent for Philemon to know that this was no longer the same manner of slave as the one who had stolen and escaped. This TRANSFORMED Onesimus was now coming back to Philemon of his own free will, no longer as a fugitive from justice; much rather as a new regenerate man in Christ, a fellow saint, a beloved brother. "If, then, you have me for a mate," Paul writes, "take him to yourself as me" (CLNT).

This letter sheds no apparent light on the circumstances which had led to the slave’s imprisonment. If he had been apprehended at Philemon's request and not for some other public offense, it seems he might have been returned to Philemon at once by the civil authorities. Instead he was committed to prison and there, as Paul is happy to relate, he had become an invaluable aid to himself "in the bonds of the evangel." Yet we are not told how. Might it be that Paul's aging eyes had grown sadly dim so he had become increasingly dependent on the youthful Onesimus to read for him from the Hebrew Scriptures and possibly other sources: maybe also to serve as Paul's amanuensis?

However all that may be, the time had arrived when Onesimus had served his penal sentence, so now he was free to leave prison but he still remained the chattel property of Philemon, so Paul realized he had no other moral choice than to send him home while he himself must remain behind in prison. Thus it is possible that this letter, composed and dictated by Paul himself, was actually written by the hand of Onesimus and then delivered by him to Philemon, a fellow saint and Paul's dear friend. "I beseech thee," it begins, "for my son Onesimus whom I have begotten in my bonds." Then Paul freely acknowledged what Philemon well knew, that in time past this one had become unprofitable: but this, as Paul implied, was ironically untrue to the name Onesimus which actually means "profitable." Thus Paul was happy to tell Philemon that now the former disloyal slave had become "profitable to thee and to me."

Much as Paul loathed to part with Onesimus and happy as the slave would have been to remain with Paul even in prison, they both well knew that he must return to Philemon. Therefore in the letter Paul was imploring his honored friend to receive him back, no longer as a deserter; rather now with the same love and affection as if he were receiving Paul himself. "If thou count me therefore a partner"— something Philemon should have felt honored to do—"receive him as myself."

Then Paul would have Philemon know also at what serious loss to himself he was sending Onesimus back. As it is rendered in one version, he was saying in effect "This means my very compassion," as if Paul were giving up his very own heart, because without Onesimus it seems as if he felt that his own usefulness had ended and his labors had ceased, though they were far from finished.

Finally as though to disarm Philemon of any lingering cause for ill will to Onesimus, Paul graciously added "If he hath wronged thee or oweth thee ought, put that to my account. I will repay it." Still because of something more Paul was seeking, though carefully not demanding, he casually added, "Albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides."

There is an overtone of hope in the letter which implies that Philemon would consider Paul's critical need for Onesimus and therefore voluntarily send him back. "I intended to be retaining (him) for myself that for your sake he may be serving me in the bonds of the evangel; yet apart from your opinion I want to do nothing, that your good may not be as of compulsion but voluntary" (vss. 13,14 CLNT). Then very tactfully Paul added: "having confidence in your obedience that you will do even above what I say."

Nearing the conclusion of the letter Paul is reminded of a most delightful anticipation: "Make ready also a lodging for me, for I am expecting that through your prayers I shall be graciously granted to you." In that happy event Paul realized that both he and Philemon could enjoy the service and fellowship of his beloved Onesimus. Yet for the present anxious moment, he was leaving a very important question for Philemon alone to decide; whether he himself or "Paul the aged” had the greater need for Onesimus. Hopefully Philemon would yield to Paul's fondest wish and send Onesimus back.

So much for Paul's very sensitive appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, the former runaway slave. Now it would be really fascinating to learn just how or with what words he had approached Onesimus, his fellow prisoner, before he became a fellow saint, but the letter does not say. Still we do know that prison life was no small part of Paul' s hard and perilous pilgrimage, for in another letter he says that he had been "in prisons more frequently," though he had done nothing to deserve imprisonment, for he had broken no law. Indeed, he consistently encouraged obedience to law, yet suffered much from malfunction in civil justice and was often the victim of much mob violence, both from his own kinsmen and from the Gentiles. It was in prison also that he wrote those exemplary codes of good conduct as found in Ephesians and Colossians, intended for masters like Philemon and slaves like Onesimus: "Slaves, be obeying your masters according to the flesh …. not with eye-slavery as man pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the soul … Masters, be doing the same toward them … being aware that their master as well as yours is in the heavens."

There were times when Paul's presence alone is known to have had a restraining effect on other prisoners about him. Thus one night in the jail at Philippi where he and Silas had been secured with their feet in stocks, there was that extraordinary earthquake when all prison doors opened and the bonds fell away from every prisoner, yet not one of them sought to escape, though the terrified warden feared they already had, until Paul reassured him, "Do thyself no harm, for we are all here."

In like manner now at Rome, no doubt Paul's example as a model prisoner was having its quieting effect on others who, unlike himself, were each serving time for injury or loss they had caused to others. If they at various times were plotting rebellion, Paul was encouraging voluntary submission to prison rules whether those rules were fair or foul, and when others grew restive or clamorous we may well assume that he was quiet, composed and at ease. At times perhaps they would bear him say, as indeed he did say elsewhere "I have learned in whatever state I am therein to be content."

Thus we infer that Paul’s exemplary conduct was having its salutary effect especially on Onesimus who we assume was never in prison before and conceivably he was deeply disturbed in the company of chronic offenders calloused with crime. As Onesimus day by day observed Paul's composure while perhaps he himself was vexed with fear in his heart and turmoil in his conscience, the moment apparently did arrive when either he asked or Paul found a suitable occasion to speak with the young prisoner and kindle a faith which was about to generate peace in a sorely troubled mind. We, of course, are not told what Paul may have said. If perchance it had any resemblance to an imaginary attempt we are about to suggest, it is only because the substance of this is intentionally borrowed from Paul's letters elsewhere:

Onesimus, it seems you and I have something in common. Both of us have been slaves, and in a way we still are. For much of my adult life I have been slaving—most gladly so—for a gracious and benevolent Master. Perhaps you would be interested to hear just how I came to be His slave.

Until I was yet a young man, though maybe a little older than you are now, I had lived the very strict life of a Pharisee, what you might call a legalist, in the religion of Judaism, having been born of Hebrew parents. I was trying to build a righteousness of my own by inviolate obedience to our ancestral law. Still I was always more or less vexed in my conscience, knowing I had fallen at least a little short of the ideals I had sought to attain.

Meanwhile I studied law at the feet of Gamalial, a distinguished legal scholar, and as my knowledge of the law increased I grew ever more sensitive to its searching demands. It seemed to aggravate and compound my conscious guilt. I was becoming continually more aware of some relentless persuasion in my flesh which seemed to operate at cross purposes with my mind and it baffled my best endeavors. Still I never relented but went on trying to do what I had more or less failed to do before.

I didn't realize then, as by now I have known long and well, that I was fighting a hopeless battle. All along I had been unaware that the purpose of the law we had received through our ancestors was to show what we cannot do of ourselves just because of that opposing force within us, stronger than our strongest will. This as I afterward came to realize is a certain hereditary law of sin, and from that no mortal like us was ever born free.

Meanwhile I had heard about Jesus of Nazareth. It was generally known that He had been crucified and some were saying that He had been raised from the dead which I refused to believe; not as if I disbelieved that God could raise the dead, but I did not believe, as the disciples of Jesus were saying, that He was the Son of God with power and authority to forgive all sins. That was offensive to me because I found it contrary to all I had always tried so hard to do while seeking to build a righteousness of my own through law-obedience. Then too, my attainments in Judaism had been favorably recognized among my colleagues.

Not yet realizing the error of my way, I persisted in the self-defeating purpose of seeking to be faultless according to law and I persecuted all who testified that Jesus, the Christ, had been resurrected from song the dead, wherever I found any such persons. As a member of the Sanhedrin I voted for the stoning of many in Judea, and among them I shall never forget a certain young man named Stephen as I witnessed and consented to his execution by stoning after hearing from him a testimony which even now I know remains immortal.

It was not long after Stephen had been stoned at Jerusalem that I requested and received a letter from the chief priest. I planned on going to Damascus and the letter was my authority to seek out all persons I could find there who were professing the name of Christ and bring them bound to Jerusalem for punishment.

As I was approaching Damascus at a moment of high noon on a clear day, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a dazzling light from heaven, far brighter than the brightest sun. Having been struck instantly blind, I fell abruptly to the earth as did also all who were with me. Meanwhile I heard a loud clear voice speaking to roe in the Hebrew tongue and saying "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" Trembling in great fear, I responded "Who art Thou Lord?" and He replied "I am Jesus who you are persecuting." As you see, Onesimus, by persecuting His witnesses I had been, unknowingly, persecuting the risen Christ, the Lord from heaven, who ever since has been my Lord and Master.

He went on to say that He had chosen me to be a deputy and a witness, first concerning the things I had just then perceived and other revelations yet to follow. He told me also that I was being commissioned to testify before Gentiles and kings as well as my own people from Israel. Meanwhile I was told to go on into the city of Damascus where I would be instructed what to do from that moment onward. Others with me led me by the hand because I remained stone blind until we had entered the city where a certain Ananias, a devout believer living there, had been told to come and place his hands on me, whereupon my sight was restored, and I was indeed told what to do from that present moment. Afterward by successive revelations I have been told exactly what to do ever since even until now. As I realize now, it was then on my journey to Damascus, when I was met by my new Master, when He in grace and mercy delivered me from the bondage of a law I had tried so hard to keep against the relentless frustration of hereditary sin. It was then that I as a former slave of sin became the .property of a new Owner and the only Master I would ever serve from that moment onward. All I had tried and failed to attain under the slavery of sin He has enabled me to receive in grace alone through faith in Him.

So you see, Onesimus, I am still a slave, but where I had been a slave of sin under the law, now I am a witness to the revealed righteousness of God in Christ; a righteousness which becomes ours, yours and mine, through no effort of ours as we receive His righteousness in grace alone, apart from works, through the faith which first sustained Him as He endured the death of the Cross, and now it sustains us also.

* * * * * * *Here we have tried to listen in, as it were, imaginary visit between Paul and Onesimus where Paul presumably did all of the speaking, but we assume there were many more such visits, and at frequent intervals, the two of them talked together.

There is one more thing, however, which no doubt all of us would much like to know:—Did Philemon send Onesimus back to Paul? The letter does not say, certainly not in so many words, but the answer may be implied in Paul's letter to the Colossians. Together with Tychicus, who was the bearer of that letter, Paul said he was sending also "Onesimus, the faithful brother who is one of yourselves" (Col. 4:9).

Some have inferred from this that both letters were sent at one and the same time; and that could well be so, for the letter neither says nor denies as much; still we suggest a different hypothesis. To us it seems that Philemon HAD sent Onesimus back to Paul before he was ready to send the other letter. Afterward when he had finished his letter to the Colossians, and was sending it by the hand of Tychicus, we favor the possibility that THEN he sent also Onesimus, the "faithful and beloved brother" who, as Paul added, “is one of yourselves."

Melvin E. Johnson (Treasures of Truth, Installment Fourteen, August-September 1974)