Onesimus: A Lesser-Known Story with a Lasting Impact

Brad Simon
Onesimus: A Lesser-Known Story with a Lasting Impact

Onesimus, a name perhaps unfamiliar for many, holds a profound story of redemption and transformation. Onesimus is first introduced to us in the New Testament letter to Philemon, penned by the Apostle Paul during his imprisonment. Within this brief yet profound letter, we glimpse Onesimus’s life and the remarkable change that took place within him.

Born in the obscurity of slavery, Onesimus was the property of Philemon, a prominent Christian in Colossae. In the Roman Empire during the first century, slaves were considered property, devoid of rights or dignity. Yet, in the eyes of God, every individual – regardless of social status – possesses inherent worth and is worthy of redemption.

Onesimus’ Salvation

Onesimus robbed his master and then fled to Rome, hoping to be lost in the crowded city. But his life takes a dramatic turn when he encounters the Apostle Paul. In the providence of God, he met Paul and accepted Christ as his Savior.

Under Paul’s guidance and through the power of the Gospel, Onesimus experiences a spiritual awakening. The once wayward slave becomes a devoted follower of Christ. The chains of bondage that once shackled his body are replaced by the freedom found in Christ — a freedom that transcends earthly circumstances and societal labels.

While in Rome, Onesimus grew in his faith. The Apostle Paul taught him from the Scriptures, and Onesimus ministered to Paul in his imprisonment. As time passed, Paul knew that if Onesimus was to continue to mature in his faith, he needed to seek forgiveness from those he had wronged. Amid the flickering candlelight of his prison cell, Paul crafts a profound plea for forgiveness and reconciliation.

“Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel” (Philemon 10-13).

Onesimus, accompanied by Tychicus, returns to his home carrying the letter to Philemon from the Apostle Paul, along with a letter to the church in Colosse that met in his home (see Colossians 4:7-9). In them, Paul tenderly implored his friend Philemon to receive back his disobedient slave and forgive him.

“For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother” (Philemon 15-16).

“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Colossians 3:12-13).

Memories of Onesimus flooded Philemon’s thoughts. The runaway slave and thief had caused him financial loss, and bitterness threatened to take root in his heart. The law permitted a master to execute a rebellious slave, but Philemon was a Christian. If he forgave Onesimus, what would the other masters think? Would other slaves follow his lead? But if he punished him, how would it affect his Christian testimony and ministry in Colosse?

What a dilemma. Bound by legal and social standards, yet as a believer in Christ, Philemon knew he was called to a higher standard. The parchment scroll carried by Onesimus provided the advice Philemon needed. Paul’s profound insights provide timeless lessons for believers about forgiveness, unity, and the life-changing impact of Christ.

Scripture does not reveal the fate of Onesimus. However, the inclusion of the book of Philemon in Scripture suggests rather strongly the letter achieved its purpose and Philemon forgave Onesimus.

Onesimus’ Life after Conversion

Beyond the pages of Scripture, the early church writings of Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John, shed further light on Onesimus’ life. In his letters to various churches, Ignatius refers to Onesimus as a faithful servant of Christ.

Ignatius wrote that Onesimus served as the bishop of Ephesus and was instrumental in producing the first collection of Paul’s letters. John Knox stated “Onesimus played a major role in ensuring Philemon was included with Paul’s letters in Scriptures, and that his voice as a bishop carried weight.”

Knox continues in The Interpreter’s Bible, “Paul’s collected letters were published originally in the form of two papyrus rolls, the first containing Ephesians and I and II Corinthians, the second comprising Romans, I and II Thessalonians, Galatians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians. It is almost certain that the original collection was made before A.D. 95. With this publication of the Pauline letters the history of the New Testament, as a fixed collection of books, properly begins.”

Including Philemon and leaving out the letters to Timothy strengthens the case for Onesimus being the curator of the initial collection, rather than Timothy, as is often assumed today. The Apostle Paul was instrumental in leading Onesimus to Christ, and influential in securing his forgiveness and release from slavery. He dedicated his life to ensuring others could learn from the teachings of Paul that shaped his life.

In his paper, How Onesimus Was Heard – Eventually, Prof. D.F. Tolmie states, “For many centuries, there was, to some degree, consensus on Onesimus’ status.” He then proceeds to demonstrate how during the Abolitionism Debate of the 1800s, people disputed Onesimus’ status and he became a victim of the slavery issue. During this time, scholars ignored the contributions of Onesimus to early Christianity.

His conclusion is, “In the academia, Onesimus’ voice only started being heard approximately twenty or thirty years ago. The reason why this took so long has also become clear: For too long interpreters of the Bible have been unaware of the extent to which their own social location has influenced their reading of texts and often made it impossible for them to listen to the unheard voices in the Bible.”

Onesimus’ Legacy

Though his life may seem obscure to us, Onesimus left a lasting mark on the early Christian movement. No longer defined by his status as a slave, Onesimus emerged as a devoted servant of Jesus Christ. His newfound faith propelled him to wholeheartedly embrace a life dedicated to following the leading of the Holy Spirit and serving God.

The story of Onesimus serves as a timeless reminder of the power of God’s grace. Regardless of our past or present circumstances, God’s love has the power to redeem, restore, and renew. It compels us to extend grace and compassion to those around us, recognizing that in Christ, there is no distinction between slave and free, but all are one in Him.

Onesimus was deeply committed to advancing the Gospel and serving the needs of the church. Through his unwavering devotion and selfless service, Onesimus epitomize Christian discipleship — a life surrendered to Jesus Christ and dedicated to fulfilling God’s purposes.

From a humble beginning as a slave to a revered figure in early church, Onesimus’ journey stands as a powerful testament to the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit and the power of faith. His journey challenges us to examine our own lives and to consider the depth of our commitment to Christ. Are we prepared to serve God faithfully, wherever He may call us, and to embrace the work He desires to accomplish in and through us?

As we reflect on the life of Onesimus, may we be inspired to recommit ourselves to a life of devotion and service. May we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and seek to fulfill God’s purposes in our generation. And, like Onesimus, may we be living testimonies to the boundless grace and transforming power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

John Knox, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (Chicago IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1935) 56-57
John Knox, The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954) 357

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Moostocker

Brad Simon has shared God’s Word for over forty-five years, with a unique blend of storytelling and Bible exposition. He is a retired Master Jeweler and relies on the God-given creativity that won him several national and international jewelry design awards to craft Biblical Narratives and Life Stories that are engaging and thought-provoking. Once a speaker, author, and publisher for the jewelry industry, now he is putting those skills to work to promote the beauty and appeal of God’s Word. Download a free copy of his devotional on prayer.