Onesimus: A Man of Inexpressible Love
Updated: Aug 30, 2018
Being a slave in ancient Rome meant you were property with no legal personhood. Unlike a citizen of Rome, slaves could be tortured, forced into prostitution, forced to perform labor and killed without trial. Under Roman law runaway slaves could be beaten, burned with a hot iron or even put to death by their masters.
The life of a Roman slave was often harsh and short lived.
For these reasons slaves would rise up and revolt against their masters. Three great slave revolts were recorded, along with the cruelty in which they were put down. Some six thousand slaves were crucified by Marcus Crassus during the Third Servile War.
It’s with this backdrop that we first encounter a man named Onesimus. Appearing only twice in the New Testament, the historical impact he had on Christianity is absolutely remarkable.
Translated from the Greek word Ὀνήσιμος, meaning “useful”, Onesimus was a common slave name. In fact that is how we are introduced to him in the letter of Philemon - as a run away and imprisoned slave. Onesimus escaped Philemon, a Christian Bishop and wealthy citizen of Colossae, and fled to Rome where he encountered Paul in prison and was led to embrace the Gospel. Soon a deep friendship developed between Paul and Onesimus.
Paul writes an appeal to Philemon, hence the name of this brief passage of Scripture. There he informs Philemon that Onesimus had converted to the Christian faith and that Paul was sending him back to Philemon, not as an escaped slave – but as a brother. Paul refers to this escaped slave as his own child, asking Philemon to forgive him and if he is owed anything to charge it to Paul.
In a clever use of wording, Paul says Onesimus (whose slave name means useful) was useless as a slave but now useful as a follower of Christ.
After being reconciled with his former master, we encounter Onesimus once more in Colossians 4. Where Paul writes instructing masters to treat their slaves fairly, reminding them they too have a Master in heaven. Here Paul reaffirms his view of Onesimus, referring to him as a faithful and dear brother.
These brief appearances in Scripture alone are rather remarkable and reveal the heart and mind of the earliest Christians on the topic of slavery. Moreover they show that the relationship of slave owner and runaway slave can transcend such social boundaries and past hurts when the two become brothers in Christ. However, there is MUCH more to the story of Onesimus than these two instances in Scripture.
Onesimus would go on to become Bishop of Ephesus!
Ignatius, an early Christian Bishop of Antioch (35 – 108 AD), wrote an Epistle to the Ephesians. In this writing he speaks of Onesimus, referring to him as a man of inexpressible love, and the Bishop of Ephesus. Not only this, but Ignatius says he prays that the Church in Ephesus would all seek to be like Onesimus. He goes on to say that “blessed be He who has granted you, being worthy, to obtain such an excellent bishop.”
In all likelihood it was during his time as Bishop of Ephesus (having replaced Timothy) that Onesimus oversaw the collection of Paul’s letters. Thus the inclusion of a very small, yet profoundly personal letter to Philemon on behalf of a slave made its way into our Bible.
In 109 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, Onesimus was arrested and brought to trial before the Eparch Tertillus. After being imprisoned for eighteen days he was sent to prison in the city of Puteoli. There the Eparch had him stoned and beheaded for refusing to deny Christ.
Only the Holy and Living God can make the useless profoundly useful.
So we see in the hands of God a useless runaway slave can be set free as a brother, go on to become a Pastor, then a Pastor over Pastors (Bishop), then to collect and preserve what would become our Scriptures. In Onesimus, we see a man whose testimony is awe inspiring, with faith so great that like Christ he was willing to lay down his life for his friends. Onesimus found true freedom and life in a prison with the Apostle Paul, and like Paul he laid down his life as a prisoner in a last act of unwaivering faith.