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Paul, the apostle, has been in prison in Rome. There he met many; some are fellow prisoners, some are soldiers guarding him, some are visitors. One he meets is a runaway slave named Onesimus. We don’t know the details of their meeting, only that in that meeting Paul shared the truth about Jesus with Onesimus and, through that, Onesimus became a follower of Jesus.

Part of the impetus for Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon is to share what has happened to Onesimus, who is Philemon’s prodigal slave.

I appeal to you, [Philemon,] for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment,  who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. (Philemon 10-14)

The issue in view is clear. Seeing as Onesimus is a run-away slave, under Roman law he still must answer to his master, Philemon; in fact, Onesimus could rightly be severely punished for his actions. Having come to faith in Jesus, Onesimus has apparently cared for Paul in his imprisonment. Paul could have presumed upon his relationship with Philemon and could have merely enjoyed the gracious serving of this new-born friend without a word to Philemon. But if Onesimus is going to stay and minister to Paul, the apostle wants such ministry carried out entirely above-board, freely, appropriately. So, Paul is laying out the situation before Philemon, even going so far to send the letter to Philemon by Onesimus’ hand.

Beyond the wonderful example of seeking out ministry that is entirely above reproach and fully above-board (a great example, by the way!), the way that Paul speaks of Onesimus also provides some food for thought.  

Paul thinks of his spiritual relationship with Onesimus in terms of father/son relationship; this is no casual matter to Paul. This relationship “in Christ” is deep and meaningful and significant to the great apostle. Am I aware of such deep ties in my relationship with those I know “in Christ”?

For Paul, this new-born follower of Jesus is “useful” (actually a play on words on Onesimus’ name) to him; he feels that Onesimus could rightly minister to him. Am I attentive to how others might be a channel for God’s grace into my life, even if they seem to be so much “younger” in the faith than am I?

Enjoying a deep friendship with Philemon and a new relationship with Onesimus, Paul is careful not to presume upon either of them. The growing experience of life he has with both of these brothers is to be enjoyed in full freedom–he wants them both to be able freely to extend grace, if they so choose, apart from any compulsion that may come from him. Am I truly free to enjoy the grace of God that comes into my life through the lives of others without any sense of entitlement, without that taint of “well of course they should treat me that way”?

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