Reading: Philemon Part One: The back story
We had no idea that he was coming until the knock on the door. How he dared to come back at all was beyond me. At first, I didn't see him because he was standing behind the man who had escorted him to my house. This man I knew. His name was Tychicus. He was a good friend of Epaphras who was a student of the great Apostle Paul. It was Epaphras that exposed me to the new religion called "Christianity.” As Tychicus introduced himself to me, I finally noticed the man standing behind him. It was Onesimus, my runaway slave.
I had expected that the next time I would see him he would be in chains. But here he was, unbound, and dressed as any free man.
He said nothing, hiding behind his escort. I said nothing as well, patiently letting Tychicus explain how the two of them had traveled several weeks from the capital city of Rome. As he recounted their journey, I carefully observed Onesimus. He was thin, but he had always been thin. His eyes flitted back and forth - not focusing on anything in particular. His hands were behind his back as if in shackles, though they were not. He rocked, hesitantly, back and forth. You could tell he was nervous. As well he should be.
I felt a resentment rising to anger within me. He deserved the death penalty. That would be justice for his crime.
Tychicus finally broke the tension in this unlikely turn of events. He reached out his hand - and in his hand was a letter - a letter apparently written by the Apostle Paul.
My name is Philemon. I grew up in the once thriving city of Colossi, built on an important east-west trade route leading from the Aegean seaport of Ephesus to the Euphrates River, which brought goods all the way to Babylon. But that was 200 years ago. Now Laodicea and its neighboring city Hierapolis, with its healing hot springs, dominate the area.
Though from Colossi, I spent most of my life away from it as a Roman Commander. I lived wherever Rome sent me.
As a military man, I had but two allegiances - the Emperor and the soldiers I commanded. The former called himself a god, but no one believed that. If he were a god, then he would have to get in line with all the other gods that people felt an obligation to honor. It seemed each city had one. I never found the gods of any particular use. But I honored them just the same, as did everybody else. What harm could there be?
I busied myself with doing my job and doing it better than anyone else. I had no time or inclination to worry about anything else.
But then my job ended. I moved to my hometown of Colossi to be with my wife and our grown children and began to live what I thought would be the good life.
But what was good about my new life? I had no men to lead. I had no emperor to follow. What was I to do? What was my purpose? What was the meaning of life and death?
When a soldier, I never worried about dying. If I died, it was for the cause, it was for the Emperor, it was for my men. I felt there would be some kind of glory in it - among men and the gods. But now I had nothing to die for and, I soon realized, nothing to live for either.
My mind would turn these thoughts over and over. I became anxious.
So for the first time in my life, I studied my options.
The Roman gods held little meaning to me. So I turned to philosophy. Not really a religion per se, but, at least philosophers were trying to find answers to the questions that I had. What is true? What is real? What is life about? Where is it all going?
Of the many philosophies of the day, two were the most popular: Stoicism and Epicureanism.
According to the Stoic, life is determined. All the particles and material of this world are following a predetermined pattern. So what is going to happen is going to happen. Worrying is pointless.
Since all of life is determined, there is a certain logic to it all. Finding out what that logic is would be how one should spend his time.
And somehow, being good and doing good are the ways to happiness. But happiness, according to the Stoic, is not an emotion. Emotions are distractions, false realities. The pursuit of goodness and reason and logic is what life is about for a Stoic.
I had many Stoic friends who did a lot of good and never seemed to be bothered by the negative circumstances of their lives. They seemed content and strong. And they, unlike me, slept like babies.
But, and this is what soured me on this philosophy, if all the material of this world is following a particular predetermined pattern, where did that pattern come from or from whom and to what purpose?
So I turned to the other great philosophy, Epicureanism.
If Stoics shunned the material world, Epicureans embraced it. Life, to their way of thinking, was first and foremost about pleasure - one's own pleasure.
At first, I thought this was a young man's philosophy - you have to be young to take advantage of it. But, as my friends following this philosophy explained, pleasure only comes to those who limit their wants. Too much of a good thing is not always good. In fact, most things in life are better, more enjoyable, the harder they are to come by or the longer we have to wait for them.
I thought I had found the answer - to live a simple life and to enjoy simple pleasures, all the while achieving tranquility.
But my new philosophy did not quiet my troubled mind in the end. I found no purpose in pursuing my pleasures. It just didn't work. I got bored with myself. My little life, as it happens, was, I am afraid to say, not purposeful enough.
That is when a friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his, Epaphras, who was a disciple of the Apostle Paul, the great missionary of a new religion called Christianity. He tried to tell me about this new religion, and at first, I laughed it off. Why would anyone be crazy enough to adopt a religion that worshiped a man we Romans had killed on a cross?
But one night, I listened to what Epaphras had to say. He explained how the foundation of the Christian faith was Judaism. At this, I laughed out loud and told him he was making his views harder for me to believe. But I listened, and I was intrigued.
Unlike the Roman pantheon of many gods seemingly chosen for political reasons, Judaism had only one God. And He supposedly created everything out of nothing. This God could not be made into an image of gold or silver by a man, but men and women were made and shaped by Him.
Epaphras explained to me about Adam and Eve and the garden of paradise that God had provided them. He told how sin came into the world through a lie spoken by a fallen angel - a lie that promised that mere men and women could become gods. Of course, this is what we Romans believed - that mere men and women could become gods.
When Epaphras described how Adam and Eve believed the lie and then, as a result, felt the need to hide, not only from each other in their newly discovered nakedness, but also from their God, I felt convicted. I had been hiding behind my uniform most of my life. I had been hiding behind the importance that I felt when people did what I said. I had been hiding behind my wealth that allowed me to control the people around me. I had been hiding behind the connection I had to the Emperor of Rome - a so-called god.
All of it was a lie. All of it was a cover up for an insecure man trying desperately to be significant, to be somebody.
This lie, a lie I could not hide from anymore, caused me great shame.
So, I listened with real interest when Epaphras told of God's plan to bring His prized creation, the men and women that He loved, out of insecurity, smallness, shame, and even death itself. God, he explained to me, had chosen a simple man named Abraham. And he did so with these words, "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing ... and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Abraham passed this promise on to his son Isaac, and then Isaac passed it on to his son Jacob, who had 12 sons. Jacob's descendants eventually became the 12 tribes of Israel.
Though the promise was passed down to the descendants of Jacob, they ended up as slaves in Egypt.
"But,” explained Epaphras, "God heard the cries of his people in slavery, and he sent a savior named Moses to lead the people out of slavery - out of hiddenness, guilt, and shame.”
As he talked about this part of his story, I wondered about my slaves. Were they praying for deliverance?
Then Epaphras told me about Jesus - the Son of God, who died at the hands of Roman soldiers like me. "But He died,” Epaphras said looking me straight in the eye, "to take your place, to take on your guilt so that you can come out from hiding, insecurity, and shame.”
And then Epaphras said something so ridiculous that I almost choked on the piece of bread I was eating. "Jesus died at the hands of Roman soldiers like you, Philemon, but three days later he was resurrected. He walked among us. He then commissioned us to tell others about Him. Then He left for His Kingdom in Heaven. He is there preparing for our arrival when we die.”
Epaphras then challenged me to live my life as a Christian - a follower of Christ.
And when I asked what a follower of Christ was, he said, "One who believes in Christ, lives for Christ, and shares Christ with others.”
I did believe. And I began to tell others. And with the help of Epaphras, I started a church in my home. It changed my life. I finally had something to believe in that gave me real purpose and meaning to my life.
But something was missing. I believed it, and I was sharing it, but was I living it?
I felt like I was still hiding behind the image I had carefully fashioned all my life. I was still wealthy and powerful. I still liked these things. I had become a Christian, but I wasn't sure how to apply my Christianity to the people around me.
One sign of my power and wealth were my slaves. I once managed soldiers that I paid a wage. Now I controlled slaves that I owned. Owning slaves was quite common in the Roman world. You conquer nations; they become your slaves. Slaves do what you want them to do. They serve you. They have no choice in the matter. They exist to please you.
I considered myself a good master before becoming a Christian - especially to my most useful slave, Onesimus. I treated him like a son. I let him manage many of my affairs. I even trusted him with money transactions. I cared for him, and he lacked for nothing.
After I had become a Christian, I admit I did not share my newfound faith with my slaves. Slaves are slaves. They have no rights. The master's religion is the master's religion. Slaves must find their religion. But, having said that, I was a good provider.
So, you can understand, perhaps, my bewilderment when I found Tychicus and Onesimus standing at my door with a letter from the Apostle Paul. What could this be?
I had to leave. I was not born a slave. And when I left, I never thought I would come back - at least not of my choosing.
Some 20 years ago, the mighty Roman Empire, as it expanded to the far corners of the earth, finally had arrived with its legions of soldiers at my little corner of the earth.
My people, a fierce, proud tribe in northern Britannia, foolishly resisted and inevitably paid a high price for their pride. Death. Rape. Slavery.
At the time, I thanked the gods of my tribe that I only had to pay the price with slavery. The rest of my family paid with their lives.
I was ten years old. My gods, my family, my homeland - all that communicated a person's worth - gone.
I now had to forge meaning from a new reality. Slavery. My new god was my master, and my value as a human being was dependent on his need of me. I had to be useful.
I learned to serve my master. As I grew into manhood, I became his most valuable slave. Whatever was needed, I could make happen.
That is how I got my name, "Onesimus,” which means "useful.” I was useful. My life depended on it.
Being useful was enough at first. I would have stayed a slave, content in being useful to my master, but then my master became a follower of the Way. He became a Christian. Soon many of my master's friends did the same. They began to meet in our house. Slaves were not welcome at these meetings. Over time, however, I learned about the Way. And I have to confess, I was intrigued.
I learned that the God of this new Way had chosen a people long ago, but that these people had become slaves like me. God then heard their cry for help and sent a savior named Moses to lead them to freedom.
I learned from some letters read in meetings in our home, letters written by some teacher of the Way named Paul, that all men are born slaves and must be freed by what Jesus did on the cross.
I didn't understand the whole thing, but the desire for freedom and the hope that it was possible was born in me.
But nothing came of it. Lives were being changed, supposedly, in the church in our house, but my life as a slave stayed the same.
I could no longer get my value from just being useful to my master Philemon. The possibility of hope created such a desire in me that I had to do something.
I decided to escape. Having been the right-hand man of my master for so many years, I was familiar with travel, history, accounts, maps, and the ways of the world.
I decided to make my way to Rome - a place of opportunity, a place of obscurity, a place to hide, a place to make my way.
The journey to Rome was not without adventure. I made it. Upon arrival, I joined in with all the other misfits and foreigners seeking to find a better way.
My skills at being useful to people helped me, not only to survive in this chaotic and strange new city, but also, ultimately, to thrive.
But no matter how successful I became, I always slept with one eye open. One slip of the tongue, one misstep and I could be exposed for the liar that I was. And, if that were to happen, death.
One day, as I was doing business in the market, a most astounding thing happened. I heard two people talking about the Way. Was it the same Way of my former master Philemon? I listened to them. I followed them. They led me to a house. It turned out to be the prison house of the Apostle Paul - the one I had heard about at the estate of my former master Philemon.
Over the next several months, I became useful to the Apostle Paul. But as I served him, I made it clear to him that he was not my master, and I was not his slave.
He responded in, what I soon learned all too well, classic Paul. He said to me, "All men are slaves to whatever they serve, whether power, riches, popularity, glory, or God. The only freedom one has is in choosing what or whom one serves.”
So, apparently, I had escaped one master only to end up serving another. I could leave at any time, but in the end, I had to serve something or someone. At the moment of leaving one master to serve another, I would become a slave again. Slavery is inevitable. So freedom is really about choosing one's slavery wisely.
I decided to enslave myself to a God that loved me so much that He sent His only Son to die to set me free from sin and death.
I became a follower of Christ and the Way. And my life was filled with meaning and purpose as I attended to the needs of perhaps the most influential Christian alive.
But I was hiding something. My past.
One night, as I was attending to his needs, the Apostle Paul said, with a mischievous smile on his face, something about being a prisoner - not only of the Romans but also of Christ. He said it like it was a good thing. That is when I knew I had to tell him the truth about who I was.
Of course, he somehow knew already, but he was waiting for me to be ready. We talked all night. In the morning, he looked me in the eye and asked me what I thought I should do.
I knew what he wanted me to say, but I couldn't. How could Paul know what Philemon would do if I went back? Philemon had treated me, in some ways, like a son - mentoring me, giving me responsibility, trusting me with everything as his most trusted slave. And how did I reward my master for everything he had done for me? Betrayal.
How would I be able to explain that I was thankful for all I had been given, but I did not want to be treated as a slave or even as a surrogate son? I wanted to be treated as a brother ... a brother in Christ.
Paul must have known what I was thinking and finally said, "Let me write a letter to Philemon explaining things. I will let you read it. If you like it, we can send it. If not, we won't. What do you say?”
This is the letter both Tychicus and I brought to the house of Philemon:
The Apostle Paul:
Philemon 1:1-2 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker -- also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier -- and to the church that meets in your home:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4-5 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus.
6 I pray that the faith you share will make you understand every blessing we have in Christ.
7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord's people.
8-9a Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.
9b-10 It is as none other than Paul--an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.
11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him--who is my very heart--back to you.
13-14 I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the gospel. However, I didn't want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure.
15-16 Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever-- no longer as a slave but more than a slave--that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord!
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.
19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back--not to mention that you owe me your very self.
20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.