Questions from Bible Study (Series): Onesimus

Paul petitions Philemon regarding Onesimus

Question: After Paul wrote the letter to Philemon, was Onesimus accepted as a brother in Christ by Philemon?  Or is Onesimus mentioned again?

This question comes from the Book of Philemon, authored by the Apostle Paul. Unlike most of Paul’s letters, this one is addressed to an individual.

Onesimus was a slave who had run away from his owner, Philemon, a friend of Paul’s from his journeys. Onesimus had come to Paul who, at that time, was imprisoned in Rome. Little is known about Onesimus, but it is presumed that he was an African slave. From Paul’s statement that he (Paul) would repay anything Onesimus owed Philemon, there is also an assumption that Onesimus had stolen something from Philemon when he ran away.

Paul instructs Philemon to “accept Onesimus as a brother.” In other words, Paul’s direction was to show Christian love to his run-away salve. Many have wondered why Paul did not just come out and request that Onesimus be freed. He came close, but we have to look at this in the context of the times.

At the time of Paul’s letter to Philemon roughly one third of all the people in the Roman Empire were slaves. In the high population centers such as Ephesus, close to where Philemon is presumed to have lived, this ran as high as 70%. Slavery was a mainstay of Roman life, much as it was in the American south prior to the American Civil War. Paul would have been risking his life to openly oppose or condemn slavery.

“Onesimus” means “useful or profitable.” It is unknown whether this was the slave’s original name or if Paul changed his name to carry this particular meaning. Paul plays on this meaning in v.11 when he says “who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.”
The Bible does not tell us whether Philemon followed Paul’s request (we presume he did, but don’t know) or what happened to Onesimus after he returned. However, a second century writer, Ignatius, says that a Bishop of Ephesus by the name of Onesimus was the former slave of Philemon. There is no way to know whether this is true. This is the only mention of Onesimus I’ve been able to find that provides any kind of follow-up to Paul’s letter.

Shalom, Art

Alive in The Word

This is part of a series of blogs responding to questions that come up in Bible study classes I am either taking or facilitating. To see all of the blogs in this series, please visit: Questions from Bible Study

About aliveintheword

Missouri, USA Married to Marty, 45 years 2 sons (with 2 daughers-in-law) and 2 granddaughters Life dedicated to serving Jesus Christ and delivering the Good News
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6 Responses to Questions from Bible Study (Series): Onesimus

  1. Planting Potatoes says:

    interesting….especially since the bible seems to speak to slaves being good slaves…in fact, the south used those passages to justify owning slaves didn’t they? Curious why Paul didn’t just send him back to his master?

    • Thanks for your comment.

      Yes, slave owners in the American south used the Bible to justify slavery. African slavery was particularly justified by the sin of Ham, Noah’s son.

      Onesimus is believed to have carried the letter back to Philemon himself. Most likely, Paul want the new relationship between the two to be mutually voluntary.

      Shalom, Art

  2. Pingback: Questions from Bible Study (Series): Onesimus (via ChristianBlessings) | The Christian Gazette

  3. ptl2010 says:

    Thank you Art, for sharing on Onesimus. Your blog reminds me of one close to home who stole from us and to whom we have to, for the love and mercy we have received from the Lord, give a second chance. Yes, so often we read the Word and in mind blithely accept all we read till we run head on to having to apply it to real life. Then it could be a completely different story until we pray for strength from the Lord to obey His Word, to the letter. It makes a difference to us who give and to the recipient of a second chance. It is when the rubber hits the road.

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