He was a runaway slave from Colosse. Was he a slave due to war or because of bad economic choices or behaviour? How did he end up in Rome we will never know! For certain, he was a man with the threat of death over him. Somehow Onesimus met Paul. Was this one of God’s coincidental meetings not first with the apostle but with Epaphras. He was from Colosse (Colossians 4:12 Philemon 23). Did this man introduce Onesimus to Paul? It was to change his life in time and for eternity. This man whose name means ‘profitable’ was far from that to himself and others. When he believed that Jesus Christ could save him, change him and fulfil the meaning of his name. Now he must address his past and correct it in so far as possible, especially to Philemon, his master. All of us have to deal with issues from our Christless past as opportunity allows. This is the fruit of repentance. It isn’t always easy or pleasant but it is essential as a testimony to Christ’s grace and transforming power.
So, Paul sends Onesimus back to Colosse accompanied by Tychicus. In Colossians 4:7-9 this 'fellow-slave' appears to be, or had been, in the fellowship there. He had also a message to share with them about the Apostle's situation. Tychicus was the encourager. How did the congregation respond/react when Onesimus entered? One thing is certain, Philemon was a believer in good fellowship at the church. How easy it would have been for Onesimus to back-out of going there. He needed someone to stand with him and say a word on his behalf. The term is ‘paraclete’ and Paul did it through Tychicus. Would we take a risk like that for someone with a dark past? He would be under intense scrutiny in the early days of his return. He and the Church, along with Philemon would need the love, understanding and grace of Christ to embrace each other. Jesus saves the most unlikely, even the unlovely persons. Then He places them in a community where all have rough edges. This is where we all become what Proverbs 27:17 describes: ‘iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits (face in Hebrew) of another.’
The terms used about this once unprofitable person are most instructive. They remind us of the power of the Gospel when let loose in a person’s life. Onesimus is now faithful, a beloved brother and to Philemon he is called Paul’s ‘son’. The apostle urges the master of Onesimus to see him no longer as a doulos – slave –but as a beloved brother. The once unprofitable had the opportunity to be profitable in the employ of Philemon and to the Church. His status in the eyes of the World would not have changed but for the Christians he was a new man, a ‘freeman’ in Christ.
Without knowing the stories of those in our sphere of witness it is certain there will be those similar to Onesimus. What we share with them about Jesus Christ could be transforming here and now. This has happened many times in many places. It may also mean burying the seeds of God’s grace in someone’s heart which will bring new life later. This is one of a number reasons why Christians such as you and I are involved in this and other ministries. When young or old who have had a dark history come to faith they need a ‘paraclete.’ As their spokesperson you help them to integrate into the community of faith. If they have offended certain people you, as did Paul and Tychicus, seek ways to rectify that which had been damaged. This isn’t easy or necessarily short term. However, what a joy it is when the fruits of repentance and renewal begin to blossom and mature.Colossians 4:8-9. Philemon 8-16.
Onesimus – the (un)profitable becomes profitable.