Onesimus’ Return

I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment” (Phile. 12–13).

- Philemon 11-13

The apostles lived under the first-century Roman economy, a system in which slavery was foundational. Estimates vary, but the slave population in the Roman Empire was enormous. As many as a third of any city’s residents were enslaved. Moreover, it was not only the rich who owned slaves but also those of lesser means.

When slaves were freed in the first century, they often stayed in the employment of their former slaveowners if they had been treated well or had few other opportunities. Although slaves were encouraged to get an education and were often more taught than their masters, they would not necessarily find gainful employment upon release. It was by no means a guarantee that freed slaves would have a better life in freedom than in bondage, especially if their former owners did not have the funds needed to employ their newly freed slaves or were unable to sell them some property with which they could start anew. Again, this is not to glorify ancient slavery; rather, it shows that personal freedom was not esteemed as highly back then as it is in the modern West. Manumission could be a ticket to a poorer life for a former slave.

Due to these facts, it seems that one reason why Paul calls Philemon to release Onesimus (Philem. 15–16, 21) but does not issue a blanket command for all Christian masters to free their slaves is that Onesimus would be able to survive once he was freed. He alludes, for instance, to Onesimus having become very useful after his conversion (v. 11). In any case, today’s passage also provides a glimpse into Paul’s condition in prison when he wrote to Philemon. Verse 13 indicates that Onesimus was serving the apostle, probably bringing him food and otherwise attending to his needs while Paul was under house arrest in Rome for the gospel. First-century prisoners relied on friends and family for their sustenance; the state did not feed them.

Thus, Paul gave up part of his own comfort and well-being in sending Onesimus back to Philemon, though Luke and a few others were still around to help the apostle (vv. 23–24). Yet Paul was not only sacrificing some of his physical well-being but also a close relationship, because sending Onesimus back meant sending back “his heart” (v. 12). The apostle was risking the loss of fellowship with Onesimus forever, as Philemon might have chosen to keep him in Colossae and not to free him.

Coram Deo

Do you have relationships with other believers that would enable you to say with Paul that you would be sending away your “heart” if you were to move or otherwise lose the chance for face-to-face fellowship? God did not make us to function alone as believers, and we all need close Christian friendships to help us grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ Jesus. What are you doing to forge these relationships?

Passages for Further Study

Proverbs 18:24
Ecclesiastes 4:9–12
Mark 2:1–12
3 John 15

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