Who is Onesimus?
There are a lot of lesser known biblical characters (often with names that even the most enthusiastic modern parent wouldn’t give to their child). One of these from the New Testament is Onesimus, whose name literally translates as ‘useful’. An odd name perhaps, but one that apparently described him well.
When you think about history and the way it is recorded, we tend to focus on the lives of the famous and wealthy, the people the society of that time considered important. We don’t know much about Onesimus, but we do know that he was a slave for part of his life, who became free. One of the radical aspects of the bible is that it talks about the lives of everyday people from every walk of life, who God chose to work through, including Onesimus.
Slavery to emancipation
We know from reading the book of Philemon in the bible that Onesimus was a slave who ran away from his Christian master Philemon, and ended up meeting Paul in Rome while he was imprisoned there (If you haven’t read it before, go read Philemon now- it won’t take long!). We know that he served alongside Paul there, and Paul eventually sent him back to Colossae to the church there, even though as a runaway slave this would endanger him: but Paul sent him back with a request on his own behalf for him to be accepted as a free man.
Unfortunately, there isn’t room here for a discussion of slavery in the new testament world, but for an excellent exploration of slavery in the bible I recommend the chapter from Rebecca McLaughlin’s book Confronting Christianity (Crossway, 2019) which looks at this topic. It can be seen clearly from Paul’s reaction though that he sees Onesimus’ emancipation as a blessing because “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me” (Philemon 1:11). Now that he is free, Onesimus can truly live up to his name and be useful by serving alongside Paul in his ministry, for the glory of God.
What can we learn from Onesimus?
Onesimus can teach us a lot, even though we only get to see his story through the eyes of others. Firstly, Paul emphasises how Onesimus has served alongside him in his gospel mission when Paul himself was limited by his imprisonment. In Colossians 4 Paul talks about how he sent Onesimus to this church to tell them all about what Paul has been up to, since he couldn’t go himself. Paul says he does this specifically to encourage the church by keeping them up to date on his situation. Onesimus’ enthusiasm to serve God and the church can be a model for us as we try to encourage other believers too!
Secondly, Onesimus is an example of how the gospel transforms our relationships. Paul tells Philemon in his letter to this man that since Onesimus is a Christian, he should be welcomed back as a brother, and Paul talks about how much he loves and values Onesimus as a son, or even like his own heart! (Philemon 1:10, 12) Even though Onesimus left his human master, Paul calls for forgiveness in this relationship, so that Onesimus can continue to serve God more usefully now. Paul even goes as far as to say to Philemon (Onesimus’ previous master) that “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” (Philemon 1:18). Paul wants Christians to forgive in their own relationships, to love one another, and not let anything get in the way of serving God.
We may have personality clashes with other Christians. Maybe there are things in our relationships with other Christians which we haven’t forgiven or let go of. But as brothers and sisters we need to learn to forgive these things, because we are all a part of God’s forgiven family. We can’t let our relationships hold us back from serving God.
Are there things that stop you from serving God, either in your relationships with other Christians or in your own attitude towards living for God? Take some time to read through Philemon, and think about what we can see here about what it means to live as a part of God’s family.