“It seems Onesimus ran away for a little while so that you could have him back forever.” Philemon 1:15 (NLT)
Sandwiched between the books of Titus and Hebrews is a private personal letter written from Paul in a prison cell in Rome to his friend Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy member of the Colossae Church that probably met in his home. A young slave of his named Onesimus had run away from Philemon and fled to Rome. Providentially, he ran right into the Apostle Paul. The timing and the meeting were more than coincidence! God was at work in both Onesimus’ and Paul’s life drawing them together. In fact, about this same time, given his incarceration, Paul used the opportunity to write what we know as the prison letters of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. This personal letter to Philemon would be among them as well!
Somehow, Onesimus found his way to Paul when he was on the run. Anyone who got within earshot of Paul was dangerously close to being saved! That’s exactly what happened to this runaway slave. Through their encounter, Onesimus, received the good news of Christ’s love and redemption on his behalf and committed his life to Jesus! Paul writes that he became Onesimus’ father in the faith while here in prison! (Vs. 10) He refers to Onesimus affectionately as his child.
In his letter, Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus and receive him back not only as a slave, but now as a brother in Christ. Paul says, “He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” (Vs. 16)
Paul’s intercession on behalf of this runaway slave illustrates what Jesus has done for you and me. We were slaves to sin and Jesus interceded for us. As Onesimus was reconciled to Philemon, so we are reconciled to God through Christ. Paul even offered to pay Philemon for any debts owed to him for his losses, while Christ paid our debt of sin that we may return to God, our Master and serve Him.
As difficult as it must have been, with Paul’s encouragement, Onesimus would return and face his old life as a new person! This seems to be the pattern God has for runaways. When God finds a runaway, He often sends them back to the very place and people from which they ran. The Bible is filled with such stories of reconciliation. Jonah ran away from God’s calling. Moses ran as a fugitive and hid in the wilderness for forty years. Jacob ran away from his brother Esau. Elijah ran and hid in a cave. David ran away from Saul. The Prodigal Son ran away from home and his father. Each of these had unresolved issues in their past that came into new perspective when their hearts were right with God. Have you been running away from your past? Through Christ you can be forgiven and face what you used to run away from. It may not change circumstances that are irreversible, but it can enable you to make peace with your past and move forward to be all that God wants you to be.