I won’t bother quoting any specific passages from this Epistle since it is so short; go ahead and read the whole thing, it will do you good.
This time through, the Lord showed me two things.
First, He revealed the heart of Onesimus. He was a slave, and not only a slave but the slave of a Christian. Christians owning slaves is generally seen today as an oxymoron, but in the 1st Century, it was a reality.
Before I tell you about the heart of Onesimus, let me address the issue of slavery in the New Testament. First, the type of slavery practiced in antiquity was not always Chattel Slavery, or the slavery we associate with the antebellum American south in the 18th-19th Century. Slaves of antiquity could be indentured servants (slaves for a time until their debts were paid off), criminals (why waste them in a prison cell when they could do some meaningful work?), and prisoners of war. Onesimus could have been any of these, in which case his enslavement was his debt to society. Paul does not support slavery, and even speaks against it in one of his letters.
Now that we’ve discussed slavery in antiquity, let me get to the heart of the slave himself.
Onesimus was the slave of Philemon for whatever reason, but he was a Lost person without Christ. As a result, Onesimus had no love for his master and from what Paul says, was lazy and worthless. Eventually, Onesimus ran away from his master, only to bump into Paul later (clearly a divine appointment).
Paul leads Onesimus to Christ, and Onesimus becomes a Christian and brother. Now Paul says, he is very useful and eager to work. In fact, Onesimus is such a good helper Paul wishes he could keep him. Paul and Onesimus must confess, however, that Onesimus remains Philemon’s property.
Onesimus is now headed back to Philemon to make amends and return to his place as Philemon’s slave and servant. Paul tell Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back not just as a slave, but as his brother in Christ.
Now Paul’s hope is that Christ’s love will be complete in them. PPerhaps this means Paul hopes Philemon will free Onesimus, perhaps not, but it is clear that Paul refuses to command Philemon to do it. Onesimus returns accepting the fact he may remain Philemon’s slave. Onesimus is expected to be content with his God-ordained place as Philemon’s slave.
Wow. Incredible. Imagine if you will, that you are a slave. Even if your master is a Christian, and treats you fairly, feeds you, clothes you, and takes care of you, you are still his slave. You cannot go where you please, do as you wish, or even save money for the future for as a slave you are not paid a wage. Would you be content with where you are?
Are you even content with where you are now?
God tells us in the NT to stay where we are called. Wherever He places us, we are to learn to be content, happy, and satisfied with that calling, even if it is slavery itself, though Paul does tell slaves if they are offered freedom to take it. Otherwise, we are not to try and change our situation unless God himself decides its time for a change. Then we are not to resist that change.
Do I have the heart of Onesimus? Would I willingly accept slavery if that was God’s wish for my life, or any other thing God wants? Would you? Have you?