© 2017 Lynn Abbott
I couldn’t have been more than five at the time. My cousin’s visit had helped make it the best Christmas vacation I could ever remember.
And she and I decided that she should stay on despite the fact that her parents planned to drive home that day.
When both of our parents indicated that such a plan would not be feasible, my disappointment knew no bounds.
I was determined that I would not be parted from my beloved cousin. Our Christmas holiday would never end.
Forget returning to school. Never mind my big brother’s merciless taunts. Allison and I would face the world together. We might even find a way to escape like Peter Pan to “Neverland.”
So I packed my bags with all the determination of a stubborn five-year-old, and made my stand. Right next to my cousin.
“What are you doing?” my mother inquired, suppressing a smile.
“I’m going to Allison’s house,” I announced.
I’m sure you can imagine the rest of that day’s conversation.
I didn’t get to ride in my cousin’s car to Los Angeles that day. But I knew I had made my point.
If things didn’t go my way, I was packing my bags.
I suspect that there is a little bit of that in all of us…the bag packing.
Life can be tough sometimes. It demands much of you and me…
Work pressures overwhelm us. Our employers add more to our already monstrous work load.
People snap at us. Even torment us.
The holidays pass too quickly, or perhaps, for some of us, not quickly enough.
The laundry avalanches.
The children’s school activities exhaust us.
The world appears unhappy with us despite all our best efforts to meet the needs around us.
And our attempts to find the bright side are met with opposition. We’ve run out of both time and money.
We sink under the heavy load. And dream of prolonging our Christmas vacation.
Who doesn’t feel that way, at least occasionally? Even as a responsible and practical adult, I would love to prolong vacation and escape all unpleasant obligations and responsibilities.
Sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it?
And so, you and I pack our bags.
Yup. “I’m outta here,” I say.
“I’ve had it,” I mutter.
“See ya later, Alligator!” I cry.
And I make my stand.
I imagine that my heavenly Father sometimes just rolls His infinite eyes.
Nevertheless, I head off independently to find my “better” way.
Funny that. It never seems to work out quite the way I expect.
I usually find myself in a terrible mess before Abba steps in graciously to rescue me from my “better” plan.
I think, perhaps, that’s why the account of Onesimus so resonates with me. His life situation was by far worse than any you or I will ever probably face.
If anyone had a right to wish for an escape, Onesimus did.
His story unfolds for us in Paul’s epistle to Philemon. Philemon, a wealthy believer, lived in Colossae which was located in the geographical region that is now Turkey.
As we read the book, we put the back story pieces together: Onesimus was a Roman slave. Of course, at this point, we should note that God does not sanction slavery in any way.
In fact, as I thumb through Scripture, it becomes apparent that slavery always signifies the state from which Christ rescues us. And God took great pains to rescue His people from slavery to Pharoah.
Obviously, in no way does God approve slavery. Again and again, He calls His beloved children to freedom.
Yet, God recognizes that humanity often pursues practices that are outside of His will. For this reason, He gave His people perimeters by which to curb those cultural practices that fell outside of His perfect will, those human choices that He hates.
Just as God outlined a narrow provision for divorce, God also gave them laws to limit the common practice of servitude despite the fact that servitude was far from His will for His people.
In Exodus 21:1-2, God caps the duration of service. God prohibited His people from permanently making another a slave. Indeed, after six years, a slave owner was to consider the debt paid and set his brother free.
Thus, while Scripture evidently acknowledges many negative human customs and behaviors, it does not condone those practices. Instead, God’s Spirit seeks to radically transform our human relationships one step at a time.
Indeed, one day our world will be completely transformed. Christ’s Kingdom principles of love will define all relationships. But in the interim, He restrains evil… never allowing it to fully blossom.
The law was never given to transform humanity. Messiah and His kingdom had been promised. And with Christ’s first coming, the Holy Spirit planted seeds of God’s ultimate earthly kingdom in our hearts.
The law was simply God’s “in the meantime.”
Of course, Scripture warns us that before Christ’s kingdom, a day will come when the Holy Spirit leaves this world and evil will be unrestrained. And such thoughts drive me to prayer. I do not wish for anyone to experience the depths of humanity’s inhumanity in those days.
Truly, I am grateful for the current, restraining power of God’s Holy Spirit in this world…
Unfortunately for Onesimus, he was a Roman slave. As such, he had likely experienced a great deal of inhumane treatment. And under Roman rule, God’s laws gave him no hope of freedom during the seventh year.
So, at the first opportunity, he made his break–double time. Forget the bags. He was outta there.
Likely, he took money from his master for the journey. After all, Onesimus traveled far. His destination? Rome.
The major metropolis provided the anonymity he sought. He had no intention of being found.
But the runaway slave probably soon discovered that he wasn’t truly free. I suspect he looked over his shoulder continually. Fear of being recaptured certainly would have dominated his thoughts.
To make matters worse, he likely went hungry when he ran out of funds with no legal way to secure more. He needed to stay under the Roman radar.
Scripture doesn’t tell us how he met Paul, but Paul’s letter to Philemon provides the evidence that not only did Onesimus meet Paul but that he also met Paul’s Savior.
Paul indicates this in his letter and the apostle pleads with the wealthy Colossian to receive Onesimus with mercy, love and grace.
What’s up with that? Receive the runaway? Onesimus wanted to return to slavery?
But I suspect that as Onesimus grew in his faith under Paul’s teaching, he felt he needed to confess to Paul. He told Paul all.
Here’s the good part.
Turns out that Philemon, Onesimus’ former master, had come to Christ through Paul’s teaching.
Undoubtedly, God had orchestrated it all for Onesimus’ welfare. Onesimus had run to the right place.
In Christ, Onesimus wished to make things right; he wanted to return whatever he had wrongfully taken from Philemon. He needed to fulfill his obligations, even those he had wished to escape.
It was a risk, of course. Philemon’s response was uncertain and likely unpleasant.
Nevertheless, Abba paved the way for this former slave through Paul. You see, Christ dramatically transforms the way we approach relationships. And although faith in Him does not mean that we are perfect or immediately transformed, we nevertheless are called to demonstrate, however imperfectly, the values of Messiah’s coming kingdom.
Onesimus understood that.
And Paul believed that Philemon embraced Abba’s Grace as well.
Paul thus asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as Philemon would receive Paul himself: “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me,” (Philemon 17).
Wow. This is even bigger than the story of the Prodigal Son. Onesimus did not begin as a son but as a slave. And this slave, this one considered “less than human” by Rome, was to be received as a brother.
Paul’s letter of reference, in fact, glows with praise for Onesimus whom Paul calls a spiritual “son,” (Philemon 10).
He writes, “I am sending him–who is my very heart–back to you,” (Philemon 12).
In Christ, Onesimus became a beloved “son,” invaluable to Paul.
Christ transformed Onesimus’ heart, (I Corinthians 5:17). Paul called the once renegade slave by name, “Useful.” Onesimus became Abba’s new creation.
He received a new identity and significance in Christ. And Abba went before Him, preparing the way, smoothing the path of even the difficult and unpleasant.
As I read further, I see that Paul also indicated that he would have kept the runaway with him as a companion in ministry had Paul not felt it necessary for the young slave to make things right and to receive Philemon’s blessing (Philemon 12-14).
Even though God doesn’t tell us if Philemon ever sent Onesimus back to Paul, I think it likely that Philemon did.
Paul made his plea persuasively when he wrote,” I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced,” (Philemon 13-14).
In his letter, the apostle also offered to make restitution on Onesimus’ part. Paul volunteered to repay whatever Onesimus owes and to make right any wrong, (Philemon 18).
And with the offer, the apostle gave a gentle nudge: “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will pay it back–not to mention that you owe me your very self…confident of your obedience, I write to you knowing that you will do even more than I ask,” (Philemon 19, 21).
I wonder if Paul thought of Christ’s parable of the unmerciful servant when he made this request.
In Christ’s tale, a servant is forgiven an impossibly high debt. In today’s economy, the debt would translate in the millions. Yet, that same servant quibbled over pennies with another on the way home that very day. He demanded immediate payment of a pittance, and then filed charges against the other.
The audacity of the forgiven servant’s behavior drove home Christ’s point. Having been offered infinite forgiveness and grace, how much more should we offer such grace in our relationships?
Paul asks Philemon to both remember and give God’s amazing grace. And through Philemon, I also understand the grace that frees from sin, addiction and dysfunction of every sort; grace that provides you and I with a new identity in Christ.
No longer a slave.
Now a dear brother or sister in the LORD.
And in turn, you and I pass that grace along to others. Just as Philemon did.
Then, I also see that God’s grace goes before us, orchestrating blessing even in life’s toughest moments…
In social situations.
In life’s whatevers.
Grace lifts us when burdens avalanche.
Indeed, Abba bestows forgiveness and ultimately transforms human relationships.
He grants strength for that next step.
Grace forges a path.
Without a doubt, God grants new beginnings even after we’ve thrown in the towel or packed our bags. God can bring good even from our worst mess.
Onesimus’ life demonstrates that.
Yes, you and I are works in progress, but someday God will complete our transformation. One day, earthly relationships will fully reflect God’s perfect love…
God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Someday, that new day will dawn. But for the meantime, there’s God’s unending Grace on the road that leads to our heavenly “home.”
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers,” ~Galatians 6:9-10