Posts Tagged ‘Onesimus’

A few weeks back I preached a message on Psalm 87, with reference to Colossians 1:21-23.  I’m drawn to the “once… but now” contrast of the Colossians passage.  I find it powerful in reminding me what God has done in Christ.  I was curious if there are other passages in Scripture that use this same basic construction and came up with 4, all from Paul.  I’m going to spend more time researching this, particularly passages where “but now” is present.  In the meantime here’s a handy little table of the first set, with some explanation given below:


Once (pote)

But now (nuni de)


Col 1:21-23 Once you were alienated from God and  enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death if you continue in your faith, do not move from the hope in the gospel.
Col 3:7-8 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now… (because you have been raised with Christ- v1) you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these…
Eph 2:11-22 Therefore, remember that formerly … you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. destroyed barrier of hostility, peace, reconciliation, fellows citizens and members of God’s household, built together- vv14-22
Philemon 1:11 Formerly he was useless to you but now… he has become useful both to you and to me  (because he has become my son- v10) receive Onesimus back as a brother- v16

There are practical implications &/or commands in these passages.  Again, these might be stated clearly and succinctly (both Colossians passages and Philemon) or explained in more detail (Ephesians).  The key here is to recognize the “but now” time frame, which we currently experience because of Christ, ought to have a tangible impact on our lives.  I structured the chart the way I did because I found some common elements, even if they are, in a couple cases, unstated but understood.  For example, at the risk of giving a Sunday School answer, the key to the “but now” portion is Jesus.  It is explicitly stated in the Colossians 1 and Ephesians 2 passages, and understood from the context in both the Colossians 3 and Philemon passages.  I inserted a relevant reference to this in the latter passages.

The aspect of this little study that stands out to me the most is the theme of reconciliation (again, sometimes explicitly stated and sometimes alluded to).  The Colossians 3 passage is probably the least clear, although one could make a case that the Colossians are to reconcile their actions with their new reality in Christ (3:1).  But there are two main areas of reconciliation I see in the other passages.

One is reconciliation between people and God (Col 1:22; Eph 2:13, 16, 18).  Both Colossians 1 and Ephesians 2 state this clearly.  Just look at the phrases used: alienated from God, enemies (of God) because of sinful behavior, separate from Christ, without hope and without God in this world.  But now, reconciliation has come because of what Christ has done.  Both of these passages refer to Christ’s death on the cross, in our place for our sins.  It is very clear that reconciliation is only possible because of what Christ has done on the cross.

The second type of reconciliation we see here is reconciliation within the body of Christ itself.  There are two main types:

Reconciliation between Jew and Gentile.  What were once two “people” are now one in Christ.  The language here is very strong- the Gentiles are now full members of God’s people.  The practical outworking of this should be seen in the unity of the body of Christ (which is the consistent, overarching practical theme in Ephesians in various forms).

In Philemon we see this theme of reconciliation on a smaller, but no less important, scale.  Instead of two massive groupings of humanity becoming one, we see Paul pleading with a slave owner to receive his runaway slave back as a brother in Christ.  Because Onesimus is no longer to be viewed as a piece of property but a brother in Christ, the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus must change.

It is because of the first type of reconciliation- between God and us- that reconciliation between people is possible.  The gospel message is the great equalizer.  No one escapes the fact that they are an enemy of God in need of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.  That puts all people, no matter their ethnicity or station in life, on a level playing field.  Because we were once enemies of God now reconciled to him, we can reconcile with those who are currently separated from us.

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What Happened to Onesimus?

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon on Philemon until the other day.  In fact, I think the only time I’ve ever heard it referenced is using v6 (“I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith”) to support evangelism, which sounds like a reasonable application in some English translations (notably the NIV), though probably not the actual meaning.  At any rate, until I heard a two-part Doug Moo sermon, I’d never heard someone exposit the text.

There are probably a couple reasons for this: it’s very short, Paul doesn’t outright condemn slavery like we might want him to, and we don’t know the ending to the story.  We have no biblical reference to Philemon’s reaction to Paul’s letter.  Did he take advantage of the Roman laws which would permit him to punish severely, even with death?  Did he set Onesimus free?  Did Onesimus return to his position as slave, but with the fellowship of his newfound brothers and sisters in Christ?  All of these, and probably more, are possibilities.

I don’t think we can come to a strong conclusion to this question, though I think I lean toward Onesimus being set free by Philemon.  I’ll look at 3 points of evidence, though the 3rd is the one that is most intriguing to me.

  1. Toward the end of his letter to the Colossians, Paul tells them that he is sending Tychicus to them (probably the letter carrier), along with Onesimus.  Let’s assume for a second that this is the same Onesimus we encounter in Philemon.  Is this a clue that he was set free and became a part of Paul’s ministry team?  That’s possible, though I tend to think that Philemon and Colossians were sent together (notice that many of the same people send their greetings at the end of both letters).  I should note that it is possible that Philemon was written earlier, and Colossians would be evidence that Philemon was emancipated.  I just don’t think that’s the most natural way to understand this connection.
  2. Ignatius, writing sometime around 110AD, refers to the bishop in Ephesus, Onesimus.  Is this the same Onesimus?  That certainly is possible.  If Onesimus was a fairly young man when Paul wrote to Philemon, it is possible that this could be the same man, though 50 years older.  Unfortunately, there is no certainty these refer to the same person.  Onesimus was a relatively common name, though I think more study can be done on this (maybe it has been, I don’t know).  Onesimus means “useful” or “profitable,” which makes sense since he was a slave.  Were most people with the name “Onesimus” slaves?  If so, what are the chances there would be a bishop with that name?  If it is a slave name, then I’d argue this makes the likelihood of them being the same person greater (though I wouldn’t die on this hill).
  3. One thought I’ve had but have never really encountered (but I may have forgotten) is considering the implications of the very existence of the letter.  If Philemon rejected Paul’s request to accept Onesimus back as a brother (even if he didn’t grant him full emancipation), would this letter still exist?  Would it have been copied and circulated?  It’s not as if this were a public letter in the sense of 1-2 Corinthians or Galatians (though Philemon apparently wasn’t the only person to read it).  One of those letters would have been much more likely to be copied, even if it didn’t have the effect Paul would have liked.  All it would take would be for one house church to agree with it, copy it and distribute it.  Paul’s letter to Philemon, on the other hand, would probably not exist if Philemon refused to grant Paul his wish.

We still cannot say for sure what happened.  I suppose it’s possible that someone else had access to this letter and copied it, though I still think the same issue applies: if the situation ended poorly, why would anyone keep it?  I think the evidence points toward there being a “happy ending.”  What exactly that “happy ending” is… well… that’s harder to tell.  Was he returned to Paul?  Was he granted freedom and stayed with Philemon and his household?  Was he kept on as a slave, albeit with an entirely different relationship to his master?  We’ll never know, but I’m betting he ended up with a far better result than if Paul had never written the letter to begin with.

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