Philemon 1:10: “…that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,b who became my son while I was in chains.”
Onesimus was a man in flight. A runaway. He felt caged at Colossae where he had lived as a slave in a Roman world. Though he wore no chains, life’s limitations smothered him. Considered nothing more than chattel, he served solely at the master’s whims and commands. Life was a brutal monotony of ‘do this, do that’, bowing and scraping, honoring the fateful code of a sycophant, smothering beneath life’s limitations.
For weeks Onesimus lay awake at night scheming, thinking escape. He knew the risks. Punishments were severe for runaways. The slave hunters (Fugitivarii) would be searching for him. If found, they would brand him on the forehead with the letters (FUG), an abbreviation for “fugitivus” meaning “runaway.” His bones would be broken to prevent any future attempts at escape. (http://www.tribunesandtriumphs.org/roman-life/slave-punishment.htm). None of this stopped him. Freedom called. Its voice was sweet. The temptation to discover a personal liberty, a future with options, was too strong.
So he fled. He stole some money from Philemon and ran toward Ephesus 100 miles away. Each mile was a milestone. Past, Laodicea. Past Hieropolis. He followed the Meander River as it rolled through the Lycus Valley seaward to Ephesus. After days of overland struggle, he arrived and caught a ship for Rome, the furthest place on his map. No one would find him there.
Onesimus ran from life’s tortuous ignominy. But somehow in a city of nearly a million residents, he met Paul, the slave of Christ, the prisoner of Rome and in this serendipitous encounter found his ultimate freedom. He and Paul become best friends united in Christ. Paul considered him a unique son (ὃν ἐγέννησα ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς, –birthed while he was in chains).
If your life is tough and you can’t breathe and you’re thinking about running remember the story of Onesimus and draw comfort. Somewhere out there is a Paul, a friend who understands your grief and who wants to help you. And in your lowest moment when all hope is gone, turn your heart to Jesus who knows the meaning of pain and isolation and who longs to be your friend and Savior.
David R. Denny Ph.D