The process of Onesimus’ conversion and discipleship was a rigorous birthing process. The Rav took very seriously and personally everyone he brought to Torah and Messiah as one giving birth to a child and now was responsible for the care, growth and protection of that new life.
I Cor. 4:15 For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.
Gal. 4:10 My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you,
The following is a blog I once wrote about the spiritual birthing process:
“With the heat of persecution I fight the closing of my mind like a hair dryer to shrink wrap. With the icy chill of the human heart at large I fight to resist shattering like glass. Now merciful is the L-RD, for we are like a fragile tea cup which will shatter with boiling water and fracture with cold. Therefore God balances the heat of judgment and the cooling effects of mercy (Based on Rabbi Jose words from the Midrash). I fight the urge to run like a skittish cat at the sight of wide eyed screaming toddlers when confronted with the cruel demands of this world. I work feverishly to patch a breach of my hermit’s wall with a trough and sword, mistaking it for the Wall of Jerusalem. Hands that reach through I find are not hostile hands but needy hands. I warily drop my sword and pick up a ladle. I find I must trade my trough for a Shepherds staff. Thrust me from my cave as if Eden and teach me to fly as I fall from this nest in the rocky heights. I constantly fight contraction. I strain to maintain dilation. This labor of my New Self has been years of false pangs. I pray this is really it. Is that birthing water trickling down my leg, or frightened piss? Like a struggling butterfly I want no assistance. For that would be the end of me. Despite the loathing of this cocoon I must continue to fight it to be rid of it. Beating my head against this wall is finally paying off. I see a small thread of light piercing this cracked shell called the Klepah. Give me the vigor of a tireless chick. LORD, I will trade you my selfish fear for bold humility. Distrust for Discernment. Lay my hills low and make the valleys rise to kiss my feet. Let fall the caked mire of my resignation to defeat as I strain upon the birthing stool.”
It should be noted that Rav Sha’ul also referred to the Rabbi’s he trained up as sons.
I Tim. 1:2 Unto Timothy, [my] own son in the faith: Grace, mercy, [and] peace, from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
I Tim. 1:18 This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare;
II Tim. 1:2 To Timothy, [my] dearly beloved son: Grace, mercy, [and] peace, from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
Titus 1:4 To Titus, [mine] own son after the common faith: Grace, mercy, [and] peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour.
For Onesimus to seek Rav Sha’ul out and eventually convert, testifies to the truth of Philemon’s piety and attractiveness as a believer for the religion of a slave owner to be desirous to his slave. When Rav Sha’ul was in Colossae, no doubt he met Onesimus and the Rav must have left a wonderful impression upon him and showed himself to as a warm-hearted soul who made everyone feel as if they were the most important person in the world. Rav Sha’ul is called and apostle to the Gentiles and stressed equality of Gentiles and Jewish believers even at the cost of confronting and chiding the Apostle to the Jews.
Gal 2:7-8 But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as [the gospel] of the circumcision [was] unto Peter; (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:)
Gal 2:11-14a But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before [them] all,
Yet Peter never harbored any hard feelings toward the Rav but ended up defending him and pointing out that people took Rav Sha’ul’s teachings and writings out of context to their doom and shame.
II Peter 3:16 As also in all [his] epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as [they do] also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
The Full Life Study Bible comments, “Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon, had run away, possibly taking with him some of his master’s goods (vv. 15-16, 18-19). Somehow he reached Rome, came into contact with Paul and was converted to Christ under Paul’s ministry. Paul now writes this letter, asking Philemon to take Onesimus back with kindness, love and forgiveness.”
11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
He admits to Philemon by Onesimus’ confession and admission no doubt that he wasn’t a very good slave, but by his sincere conversion assures Philemon of his new found sincere work ethic fore since his conversion he had been of great help to the Rav.
Sha’ul here makes a play on Onesimus’ name which means “profitable” or “useful.”
Unger’s tells us, “The apostle freely acknowledges that Onesimus had been unprofitable (un-useful) in the sense that he caused his master loss.” Which may indicate further that he possibly took money or goods from his master.
Nelson’s Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible says that, “Some scholars believe this Onesimus is Onesimus the bishop, praised in a letter to the second century church at Ephesus from Ignatius of Antioch.” If so this means that eventually Onesimus was eventually given his freedom by Philemon and became a mighty force for good in the Messianic communities of Colossae and Ephesus.
12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:
Onesimus apparently went with Tychicus and accompanied the delivery of the letters. I can imagine Onesimus stood before Philemon, head hung in remorse, shame and anticipation of Philemon’s reaction to the instructions in the letter, to take him back with love and forgiveness.
Rav Sha’ul implores Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would one of Rav Sha’ul’s other sons, like perhaps Timothy or Titus, who were young ministering congregational leaders and some would say even Rabbis. The Rav even goes so far as to say to receive Onesimus as he would Rav Sha’ul himself. And in truth, for a Rabbi to send a talmid (student/disciple) is like sending a little bit of himself , for he poured so much of himself into his pupils (v.17).
13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:
To accentuate Onesimus’ new found usefulness the Rav said that he wouldn’t think twice about keeping Onesimus for himself as a fellow laborer in the Torah and the Besorah (Gospel) of Messiah.
14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.
The Rav said that he wouldn’t keep Onesimus without first consulting with Philemon and getting his consent, so that if Philemon decided that he didn’t want to retain Onesimus, he could send him back to Rav Sha’ul out of voluntary benevolence and not out of obligatory compulsion. This gave Philemon more options than “having to” take Onesimus back or handing him over to the Roman authorities for punishment.
Unger’s says, ““But without consent [agreement] I would do nothing, that your displayed kindness [toward Onesimus in taking him back] might not be the result of coercion or pressure, but purely voluntary.” Forced service for Christ is not genuine. Paul’s aim was to motivate the best in a man.”
15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; 16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?
Rav Sha’ul says in the spirit of Romans 8:28, that Onesimus left as a useless slave so that he may return as a profitable brother and be of service with him in the labor of ADONAI forever.
Unger’s elaborates, “Maybe Onesimus was separated from Philemon for a while that his master might have his complete loyal and permanent service, 15. This was now possible because Onesimus was no longer just as servant (a common slave or bondmen), but above a slave a “brother beloved” in Christ and united with Philemon in a bond stronger than any other, the Body of Christ – The church.”
The situation has clearly changed from just a clinical master-slave relationship to a multi-faceted relationship, more like unto employer-employee and brother-brother relationship. Though in the social-economic there is no equality; in the spirit they were the same.
Gal. 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
The Full Life Study Bible says, “Onesimus must no longer be treated as a slave, but as a fellow believer and beloved brother, one who in God’s sight is equal with the Apostle Paul and Philemon.”
If Rav Sha’ul’s words and reputation held any weight at all, Sha’ul implores Philemon to receive Onesimus as the Rav himself.
17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.
Ultimately Rav Sha’ul is urging Philemon to live up to his name which means, “Loving” most likely related to the Greek word for Brotherly Love “Phileo” where we get “Philadelphia; the city of brotherly love.” Unger’s reminds us that, “if” does not express a doubtful contingency. “Therefore, since you do esteem me as a fellow believer in salvation, esteem your repentant slave as a fellow believer also, for such is he now.”
18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; 19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.
Some may argue that the “if” here, like the verse prior, means “since” and either way “if” or “since,” Rav Sha’ul will fit the bill for Onesimus. Some speculate that Onesimus stole money or goods that he pawned for money from his master Philemon in Colossae and eventually ended up in Rome, broke like the Prodigal Son and knew Rav Sha’ul was in Rome and went to see him for consultation and help.
This is an awesome Messiah-like illustration of how a person sins are put on Messiah’s account and His righteousness is imputed to the sinner’s account by faith.
Rav Sha’ul gently and lovingly reminds Philemon that he owes the Rav one for not only returning Onesimus to him, but returning him as a profitable believing brother, not to mention that it was Paul also who introduced Philemon to the saving knowledge of Messiah.
20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.
Rav Sha’ul states that if Philemon takes Onesimus back as a brother without any sort of punishment that Sha’ul’s own soul would be refreshed the way the Rav commends him for refreshing other believers (v.7).
21 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.
The Rav expresses his utmost confidence that Philemon will go above and beyond carrying out what Rav Sha’ul asks and that Onesimus will not let him down either.
22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.
Here, Rav Sha’ul expresses his hope and belief of release from Roman house arrest and by faith asks Philemon to prepare a place for him to lodge when this happens. Perhaps like the Shunamite woman did for Elisha, perhaps Philemon had a room set aside just for Rav Sha’ul. Philemon must have been one amazing man for Rav Sha’ul to want the first place he goes once free is to see Philemon and Onesimus.
23T here salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus; 24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.
The Rav ends by telling Philemon to greet, to say, “Shalom (Hello)” to certain people of the Colossae congregation and Messianic community. One of which is Epaphras which means ‘Charming.” The Key Word Study Bible says, “Epaphras… was one of Paul’s friends and associates, called by him a “fellow bondservant” and “fellow prisoner.” HE may have been imprisoned with Paul. Epaphras evangelized cities of the Lycus Valley in Phrygia under Paul’s direction and founded the churches of Colossae, Hierapolis and Laodicea. Later, he visited Paul in prison in Rome, and it was his news of the conditions in the churches of the Lycus Valley that caused Paul to write the book of Colossians.” Nelson’s Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible says that Epaphras “remained with Paul in Rome and was, in a sense, his “fellow prisoner.”
Marcus is believed to be the John Mark of Acts 12:12,25, Col. 4:10 who was considered profitable (II Tim. 4:11). Aristarchus was the one with Rav Sha’ul during the riot at Ephesus in Acts 19:23-41:
“And the same time there arose no small stir about that way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana, brought no small gain unto the craftsmen; Whom he called together with the workmen of like occupation, and said, Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our wealth. Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands: So that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at nought; but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth. And when they heard these sayings, they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians. And the whole city was filled with confusion: and having caught Gaius and Aristarchus, men of Macedonia, Paul's companions in travel, they rushed with one accord into the theatre. And when Paul would have entered in unto the people, the disciples suffered him not. And certain of the chief of Asia, which were his friends, sent unto him, desiring him that he would not adventure himself into the theatre. Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused: and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together. And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander beckoned with the hand, and would have made his defence unto the people. But when they knew that he was a Jew, all with one voice about the space of two hours cried out, Great is Diana of the Ephesians. And when the townclerk had appeased the people, he said, Ye men of Ephesus, what man is there that knoweth not how that the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter? Seeing then that these things cannot be spoken against, ye ought to be quiet, and to do nothing rashly. For ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess. Wherefore if Demetrius, and the craftsmen which are with him, have a matter against any man, the law is open, and there are deputies: let them implead one another. But if ye enquire any thing concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly. For we are in danger to be called in question for this day's uproar, there being no cause whereby we may give an account of this concourse. And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the assembly.”
Aristarchus is also mentioned in Colossians 4:10.
Lucas and Demas are the same mentioned in Col. 4:14.
25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
Rav Sha’ul ends his letter much the way he began.
Some believes Onesimus may have been an Arab or African, such as an Ethiopian perhaps, though Catholic history says he was a native of Phrygia meaning he would have most likely been a Turk.
St. Onesimus Feastday: February 16 90 Martyr and former slave. He is mentioned in St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon as the slave of Philemon in Colossea, Phrygia, who ran away. Paul met Onesimus while the former was in a Roman prison, and Paul baptized the slave and came to consider him his own son. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with the epistle, asking Philemon to accept him “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me”. In Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, Onesimus is again mentioned as accompanying Tychicus, the bearer of the letter. The pre-1970 Roman Martyrology incorrectly identifies Onesimus with the bishop of Ephesus who followed St. Timothy as bishop of Ephesus and who was stoned to death in Rome. “He was crowned with martyrdom under Domitian in the year 95.” - http://www.catholic-saints.info/roman-catholic-saints-m-r/saintonesimus.htm
“Later, as Saint Jerome and other Fathers testify, he became an ardent preacher of the Gospel and a bishop. It is he who succeeded Saint Timothy as bishop of Ephesus. He was cruelly tortured in Rome, for eighteen days, by a governor of that city, infuriated by his preaching on the merit of celibacy. His legs and thighs were broken with bludgeons, and he was then stoned to death. His martyrdom occurred under Domitian in the year 95.” -- http://www.magnificat.ca/cal/engl/02-16.htm
A clear personal application we can take away from these 25 verses is one of brotherly forgiveness, reconciliation, repentance and equality among the Body of Believers in Messiah and that of when appropriate and wise, vouch for other believers. What a beautiful letter which has survived the rigors and is forever timeless and one letter I am glad is in the Cannon of Natsari Jewish Scripture. I pray you have been edified, enlightened and encouraged by this simple, humble commentary.