As I wrap up this set of posts about the letter to Philemon, I have a persistent question that keeps invading my mind as I study. Why did Onesimus go to Paul in the first place? This assumes Onesimus deliberately set out to meet up with Paul, but I find that scenario far more likely than this being a chance meeting.
This study is going to delve deeper into the realms of speculation that I am usually comfortable with. There’s much we simply don’t know about Onesimus, his journey to Paul, and Philemon’s household. Our faith does not hinge on these things. So please take this exercise for what it is — wondering aloud about an unspoken piece of Christian history.
Running Away from Home or Toward Paul?
Some slave owners required their slaves to wear collars, but my research indicates that most slaves had no distinctive dress to differentiate them. In that case, the easiest place to blend in and disappear would be in a larger city. However, I find the idea unlikely that Onesimus fled over a thousand miles to the center of Roman civilization and then coincidentally stumbled across the guarded apostle Paul.
The likeliest scenario in my mind is that Onesimus learned of Paul and his situation by overhearing others talk about him, and perhaps even hearing his epistles, in the congregation that met in Philemon’s home. (See Philemon 1–2.) Hearing so much about Paul led Onesimus to seek him out personally — even at great personal risk — specifically to hear the gospel from him.
The Unanswerable Question
Why Paul? With a congregation meeting the house in which he served, why undertake such a journey and risk so much? The only explanation I can come up with is that, for one reason or another, Onesimus wasn’t getting what he needed among the Christians meeting in Onesimus’s home.
Perhaps Philemon and the other Christians who gathered in his home had simply not overcome their prejudice against slaves yet. We can read that James specifically prohibits this kind of prejudice in James 2 as well as Paul’s assertion that all are equal in Christ — including slaves —in Colossians 3:11. Still, how easily do any of us set aside generational prejudice? The church in Philemon’s household might have simply seen Onesimus as less.
Or their inattention to Onesimus’s spiritual needs may have been less insidious, simply failing to notice his interest in the gospel because they were used to slaves being invisible. I find this the likeliest scenario. How many people do you ignore in your daily routines — the beggar at the intersection near work, the cashier at the grocery store, the kid delivering pizzas? You mean them no harm; you may just filter out their existence.
We may be standing right next to someone hungering for the hope provided by Christ’s gospel, but we may fail to notice them. We may harbor some prejudice, or they might just be invisible to us. However, we must challenge ourselves to grow our compassion and be more like the harvesters Jesus says we should be in Matthew 9:35–38:
Then Jesus went to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”
Who Can You Touch?
We may never know with certainly why Onesimus went to Paul, but we do know that Paul was uniquely qualified to help him. Paul saw the opportunity for what it was and shared Christ with a soul in need. Who is your Onesimus? Who are you in a unique position to help?
If Paul had blown off Onesimus or turned him in to the nearest authorities, a soul would have been lost. Paul overcame societal and even legal boundaries to share the gospel. Who can you reach out to just by making a step you might not otherwise take? You may be the only person to share the gospel with some of the people in your life. Isn’t it worth being uncomfortable or taking a risk if it means a soul is saved?
Somewhere in your life, you have an Onesimus knocking at your door. What will you do for them?