A level playing field
In the ancient world, you knew your place in society. If you were born into the elite class, you associated with and married in the elite class. If you were on the outside looking in, you knew that too. You also knew that you would never be able to join the upper crust.
Slaves in the ancient world were considered property of their masters – either by temporary arrangement (like to pay back some debt) or as a permanent situation. There were avenues in society for a slave to purchase their freedom or to be released by their masters, but those situations were the exception, not the norm.
The name “Onesimus” was a common slave name since it means “useful”, for that is what the master expected of his slaves – that they would make themselves useful to their owner and the family they served. When Paul wrote on behalf of Onesimus, he used the slave’s name in a play on words in his petition to Philemon:
I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my child, who I fathered while in chains – Onesimus. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful to both you and me.
In his prior life, Onesimus was useless. Whatever had happened between him and his master Philemon was substantial and, as we’ll read later, monetarily expensive. The situation had to have been significant based upon Onesimus’ choice to leave – either as a runaway slave, or even if he sought Paul out to intercede with Philemon. After causing significant damage to Philemon and then departing, Onesimus truly had no usefulness to Philemon. However, after encountering Jesus and trusting Him for eternal life, Onesimus has become eternally useful – both to God and among the family of believers.
I am sending him – a part of myself – back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will.
For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave – as a dearly loved brother. This is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Oh, the level playing field created by Jesus!
Take a moment to appreciate what took place when Onesimus joined God’s family. Despite his background, past sins, or current social and economic circumstance, Onesimus is now on equal footing with Philemon AND Paul.
In Christ, the slave is on equal ground with the master and the apostle. Since Jesus paid the price for all sins that means there is room at cross for everyone. Paul even said as much in his letter to the church in Colossae:
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.
None of the world’s barriers, distinctions, or divisions can prevent someone from joining God’s family. There is not one of life’s circumstances that can prevent you from trusting Jesus for eternal life. His offer is available to all. We only need to trust Him.