A Profitable Slave - Philemon

A Profitable Slave

Philemon 1-25

        Slavery was not uncommon in the Roman Empire.  During the course of empire building, the Romans conquered many nations and accumulated many slaves, which numbered in the millions.  Under Roman law slave owners were free to treat or mistreat their slaves any way they chose.  Some slaves were often beaten for minor offenses.  For serious crimes some were even crucified.  Runaway slaves were at the mercy of their masters.

        Onesimus was a runaway slave.  Somehow he made his way from Colosse to Rome, where he visited Paul in his rented house.  The apostle led Onesimus to the Lord, and learned that he was a slave who had fled from his owner, Philemon.

        It has been said that God works in mysterious ways.  Philemon had been a "beloved friend and fellow laborer" of the apostle.  Paul was acquainted with his family.  "The beloved Apphia" was Philemon's wife, and "Archippus our fellow soldier" was his son.  They had a church in their house.  Philemon was of good report among the brethren, who spoke of his love and faith.

        Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter.  He wanted Philemon to receive his runaway slave as he would welcome Paul.  It isn't clear whether Onesimus had stolen anything from Philemon when he ran away.  However, Paul wrote, "But if he has wronged you or owes you anything, put that on my account."  The apostle was offering Philemon a blank check.

        The name Onesimus means profitable.  Paul expresses a play on words in verse 11, when he mentions to Philemon that Onesimus "once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me."  The runaway slave was now "profitable."  He wanted to keep Onesimus with him, that on Philemon's behalf he might minister to Paul in his chains for the gospel.

        Paul saw the purpose of God in Onesimus' flight from Philemon.  "For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave---a beloved brother...."  In the providence of God Onesimus was now a Christian.

        What is the end to this story?  Philemon's son, Archippus, ministered at the church in Colosse.  Colossians 4:17.  Paul sent Tychicus there to tell the church about him.  Tychicus had a companion.  He went to Colosse "with Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you."  Colossians 4:7-9.  It appears that the runaway slave became a profitable servant of Jesus Christ. 


        Heavenly Father, how wonderful are Your ways!  We count it a privilege to serve You.  Thank You for giving meaning and purpose to our lives.  In Jesus' name.  Amen!



All About God

Scripture taken from the
New King James Version.
Copyright ©
1979, 1980, 1982
by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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