Onesimus (Greek: Ὀνήσιμος, Onēsimos, meaning “useful”, “profitable”, “helpful”) was a slave who belonged to Philemon, a Christian leader and friend of the apostle Paul.
With Paul in Rome
Onesimus was a slave ( Philemon 1:16 ) belonging to Philemon who was a wealthy citizen of Colosse, and a prominent member of the church there. Onesimus was still a heathen when he defrauded his master and ran off from Colosse. He found his way to Rome, and in Rome he came into contact with Paul, who was then in his own hired house, in military custody (Philemon 1:9-10).
What brought him into contact with Paul we do not know. It may have been hunger; it may have been the pangs of conscience. He could not forget that his master’s house in Colosse was the place where the Christians met in their weekly assemblies for the worship of Christ. Neither could he forget how Philemon had many a time spoken of Paul, to whom he owed his conversion. Now that Onesimus was in Rome – what a strange coincidence – Paul also was in Rome.
The result of their meeting was that Onesimus was converted to Christ, through the instrumentality of the apostle (“my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds,” Philemon 1:10 ). His services had been very acceptable to Paul, who would gladly have kept Onesimus with him; but as he could not do this without the knowledge and consent of Philemon, he sent Onesimus back to Colosse, to his master there.
Paul’s Epistles to Colosse and to Philemon
At the same time Paul wrote to the church in Colosse on other matters, and he entrusted the Epistle to the Colossians to the joint care of Tychicus and Onesimus (Colossians 4:9). The apostle recommends Onesimus to the brethren in Colosse, as a “faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you,” and he goes on to say that Tychicus and Onesimus will make known to them all things that have happened to Paul in Rome. Such a commendation would greatly facilitate’ Onesimus’s return to Colosse.
But Paul does more. He furnishes Onesimus with a letter written by himself to Philemon. Returning to a city where it was well known that he had been neither a Christian nor even an honest man, he needed someone to vouch for the reality of the change which had taken place in his life. And Paul does this for him both in the Epistle to the Colossians and in that to Philemon.
With what exquisite delicacy is Onesimus introduced! ‘Receive him,’ says the apostle, ‘for he is my own very heart’ ( Philemon 1:12 ). “The man whom the Colossians had only known hitherto, if they knew him all, as a worthless runaway slave, is thus commended to them, as no more a slave but a brother, no more dishonest and faithless but trustworthy; no more an object of contempt but of love” (Lightfoot’s Commentary on Col , 235).
1. Onesimus Profitable.
The apostle accordingly begs Philemon to give Onesimus the same reception as he would rejoice to give to himself. The past history of Onesimus had been such as to belie the meaning of his name. He had not been “profitable” – far from it. But already his consistent conduct in Rome and his willing service to Paul there have changed all that; he has been profitable to Paul, and he will be profitable to Philemon too.
2. Paul Guarantees.
Onesimus had evidently stolen his master’s goods before leaving Colosse, but in regard to that the apostle writes that if he has defrauded Philemon in anything, he becomes his surety. Philemon can regard Paul’s handwriting as a bond guaranteeing payment: “Put that to mine account,” are his words, “I will repay it.” Had Philemon not been a Christian, and had Paul not written this most beautiful letter, Onesimus might well have been afraid to return. In the Roman empire slaves were constantly crucified for smaller offenses than those of which he had been guilty. A thief and a runaway had nothing but torture or death to expect.
3. The Change Which Christ Makes.
But now under the sway of Christ all is changed. The master who has been defrauded now owns allegiance to Jesus. The letter, which is delivered to him by his slave, is written by a bound “prisoner of Jesus Christ.” The slave too is now a brother in Christ, beloved by Paul: surely he will be beloved by Philemon also. Then Paul intimates that he hopes soon to be set free, and then he will come and visit them in Colosse. Will Philemon receive him into his house as his guest?
4. The Result
It cannot be imagined that this appeal in behalf of Onesimus was in vain. Philemon would do more than Paul asked; and on the apostle’s visit to Colosse he would find the warmest welcome, both from Philemon and from Onesimus.
We have no reliable account of Onesimus’ subsequent history; but we may accept as in itself highly credible the tradition (Apost. Canons, 82) that Philemon not only forgave but emancipated his slave. More doubtful and also discordant are the records which represent Onesimus as attaining to the position of ‘bishop’ or presiding presbyter, in Bercea, according to the Apost. Const. (vii. 46); in Ephesus, according to another tradition which identifies him with Onesimus, ‘bishop’ of Ephesus in the time of Ignatius.