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15 February 2009
  + Philemon and Onesimus +
15 February, New Testament

Paul and OnesimusPhilemon was a prominent first-century Christian who owned a slave named Onesimus. While the name "Onesimus" means "useful," Onesimus proved himself "useless. (Philemon 11)" He ran away from his master and perhaps even stole from him (v. 18).

Somehow, Onesimus came into contact with the apostle Paul while the latter was in prison (possibly in Rome). Perhaps he knew that Paul and Philemon had a friendship and went to Paul in order to protect himself from harsh treatment should he be returned home. In any event, through Paul's proclamation of the Gospel he became a Christian. After Onesemus confessed to the apostle that he was a runaway slave, Paul directed him to return to his master and become "useful" again, as Paul had already determined him to be (v. 11).

HandsIn order to help pave the way for Onesimus' peaceful return home, Paul sent him on his way with a letter addressed to Philemon, a letter in which he urged Philemon to forgive his slave for having run away and to "receive him as you would receive me (v. 17)" Paul encourged Philemon to think of Onesimus "no longer as a slave ... but as a beloved brother (v. 16)"

The letter was eventually included by the church as one of the books of the New Testament.

Those looking to Scripture for a definitive statement on slavery find mixed messages in this brief epistle. While Paul seems to urge Philemon in the direction of treating Onesimus as a freedman, he certainly leaves open the option that Onesimus might be returning to slavery, albeit in a much-improved situation.

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