Receiving Onesimus

“So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Phile. 17-18).

- Philemon 17-18

In studying Paul’s letter to Philemon, it is important to consider how difficult it would have been for Philemon to receive back his runaway slave, let alone free him. The ancient Roman slavemaster feared the slaves in the Empire would join together and revolt. It was not an entirely irrational fear, as there had been some slave uprisings before the first century, most notably the one that Spartacus led around 70 BC. In any case, this fear of revolt led to strict punishments for disobedient slaves. Although ancient Roman slavery was closer to our modern system of employment than the slavery once practiced in the United States, ancient slaves were the property of their masters, and their masters basically had the right to do with their slaves as they so desired. Masters could even inflict death upon an errant slave.

Though masters had absolute rights over their slaves, many thinkers encouraged masters to treat their slaves well, not because they believed slaves were made in God’s image but because a slave that was well cared for would be able to work longer and harder, giving the master a better return on his investment. But it was unheard-of for a master to receive back a runaway slave without inflicting punishment, much less to free the slave. To do so would send a message that slaves could disobey with impunity, which could upset the whole social order. Masters who did such a thing would be ostracized by other slaveowners and lose their standing in the community.

Paul was aware of all this, which may explain why he offered to pay any debt Onesimus owed (v. 18). This would make his revolutionary idea to forgive the escaped slave easier for Philemon to swallow; he could have Onesimus back with no real loss and even tell other slaveowners that he had committed no taboo because another paid for the return. Yet Paul’s willingness to make up any cost to Philemon was not the chief reason for him to be reconciled to Onesimus. Instead, Philemon’s relationship with the apostle was to move him to do what was unheard-of back then. If Paul was truly his partner and friend, he would take Onesimus back (v. 17). In essence, the apostle was calling Philemon to practice the fellowship he claimed with Paul. He was to trust the apostle’s word that Onesimus was a new man and receive him back. If he truly knew and loved Paul, then he would be able to act on the apostle’s words.

Coram Deo

John Calvin takes Paul’s willingness to help Onesimus be reconciled to Philemon as an example for us. The apostle, he writes, “warns us how affectionately we ought to aid a sinner who has given us proof of his repentance. And if it is our duty to intercede for others, in order to obtain forgiveness for those who repent, much more should we ourselves treat them with kindness and gentleness.”

Passages for Further Study

2 Samuel 9
Philippians 1:3–5
2 Corinthians 8:16–24
Hebrews 10:32–36

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.