Philemon was a convert, a wealthy man, an owner of slaves in a society in which there were three slaves to every freeman. Yet he had heard the gospel message and accepted the gospel. Within his heart, the work of grace had started small. In the beginning, it was by just a word spoken, a word that was like a ray of light on the soul. An influence for good is exerted that is the beginning of new life; and who can measure its results?
How he treated slaves before his conversion and then after his conversion we are not told. What we can surmises is that Onesimus was not satisfied with his condition and so ran away. He ran to Rome seeking a new and better life. Indeed, he had found life better in that he had heard the gospel message as lived by and preached by Paul.
Paul sought to relieve the poverty and distress of the wretched fugitive and then endeavored to shed the light of truth into his darkened mind.
But, what was Philemon responsibility, since he had already accepted the gospel. What was his responsibility toward the slaves he owned? Philemon upon becoming a Christian and understanding Christian principles, had the responsibility to create an environment that fostered the growth of his slaves and to afford them comfortable places to live and protection. This protection was only available while they remained in faithful employment to their lord and master, and in this case, it would be to Philemon.
Onesimus had run away, and upon running away had stolen from him. He not only stole money, but he also stole time and service, the work he could have accomplished if he had not run from his lord and master Philemon.
Under Roman law as a runaway slave Onesimus was subject to punishment and that punishment could and often resulted in death. As we discovered in an earlier post, this often resulted in death, even death by crucifixion.
It somewhat reminds of the story told by Jesus in Luke chapter 15 verses 11-32, in which there was a certain man that had two sons. And the younger son totally disrespected his father and the customs of the land, and asked for his inheritance early. Then went to a far country and squandered it. Then upon becoming very hungry, he decided to return to his father. He decides he was no longer worthy to be considered a son, so desires only to become as one of his father’s servants.
In other words, he is willing to take on the responsibilities of a slave, perhaps similar duties as what Onesimus had run away from.
Perhaps you are beginning to get the picture hear. Onesimus decided to break the rules that governed society and by breaking those rules, he becomes subject to the law that governs society, which for a runaway slave, means death, the ultimate loss of freedom, a total separation from everything the lord and master has provided for the servant’s care and comfort.
Onesimus before his conversion is considered worthless because he, Onesimus was only looking out for his own interests and not he interests of his lord and master.
Under these circumstances and with this attitude, then Philemon would have been justified in allowing the rules that govern society to dictate how Onesimus should be treated upon his capture or his returning to Philemon.
As the story progresses, we can begin to see, how Philemon represents God and how Onesimus, represents the unfaithful sinner, you and me, who have run away from God seeking something better only to find life is wretched and miserable.
But there is a ray of light. Small at the beginning, but it is a ray of grace that is working upon the heart. Light is shed into the soul; an influence is exerted that is the beginning of the new life; and who can measure its results?