The next few posts (8) will be a combination of two sources: the Feature Bible Study Guide put out by the Fundamental Evangelistic Association and Bond Brothers, a historical Christian fiction novel I wrote three years ago.
Philemon is such a fascinating book. It gives us an insight into so many facets of first-century Christianity at a personal level. If your curiosity is piqued, check out the book AND the devotional. I’ll warn you: the Feature Bible Study Guide is not fluff! The writers do an excellent job at presenting scripture in a straight-forward, applicable manner. And Bond Brothers… well, I’m a little partial, but I think you will find it to be inspiring, informational, and entertaining–at least that is my goal.
Tucked away in the text of the New Testament, this short epistle of Philemon has been called the finest specimen of early private Christian correspondence extant. That should not surprise us, for it was given by divine inspiration and flowed from the heart of Paul the apostle. The contents center around the circumstance of a slave who had stolen from his master (v. 18), a wealthy householder named Philemon, and had run off to Rome where, providentially, he came in contact with Paul.
Philemon was a believer who apparently was led to saving faith in Christ some years before this letter was penned, perhaps during Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (v. 19; Acts 19). He was a man active in the cause of Christ, for Paul refers to him as a “fellowlabourer” (v. 1). It is obvious from the letter that he owned at least one slave: Onesimus, the runaway. During Onesimus’ contact with Paul, he became a Christian and began to live up to the meaning of his name—“useful” or “profitable” (vv. 11, 13)—and he quickly endeared himself to the apostle (vv. 12, 16). Clearly, Paul would have been delighted to have kept Onesimus by his side in order for him to minister to Paul’s own needs. However, a more pressing matter had to be rectified: Onesimus was a runaway slave, worthy of death under Roman law if his master should so choose. He had wronged Philemon, and now, as a brother in Christ, he needed to return to Colosse and make it right. The apostle encouraged Philemon to receive him back willingly and to recognize that they were now one in Christ. Forgiveness and restoration are prominent in this beautiful letter. May our hearts be profited as we explore it more fully. — John Duty
Chapter Eight: Ephesus
There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.
Onesimus watched as Solon [Philemon’s son] dealt with the greedy merchants, each one striving to outwit the young man but finding him to be a worthy opponent. The last of the business transactions was finished with a slap on the back, and Solon turned to walk away. Onesimus saw the relief on the young man’s face and was proud of his master’s son. It was then that he saw him—the man who had ruined his life: Leontios.
He was also making business dealings, arguing with a merchant and intimidating him. He watched as Leontios leaned forward and whispered something into the man’s ear. A look of unbelief spread over the man’s face until he pulled back to see that Leontios was not joking. Horror replaced unbelief, and he quickly finished his trading and hurried away while Leontios counted his coins, a greedy satisfaction curling the corners of his lips.
“Well, my friend,” Solon began, but stopped when he saw his servant’s face. “Onesimus, what is wrong? You look as though you just saw a ghost.”
Onesimus pulled his gaze from Leontios, but not before his former master saw him. As recognition dawned on the older man’s face, he started making his way toward the two young men, his face splayed with a wicked look, like a gladiator who knew he was about to best his opponent.
“Well, well, what do we have here?” Leontios said, his voice syrupy with condescension. His eyes were boring into Onesimus’ eyes when Solon spoke.
“Excuse me, sir?” Solon questioned, feeling the need to lead in the situation and affirm his authority.
Leontios turned his gaze upon him, his annoyance clearly visible. When he spoke, he addressed Solon as though he were a child. “I suppose you are also a runaway?”
Onesimus saw the anger roil up in Solon and feared what the young master might say, but what he heard surprised him.
With a calmness that Solon himself did not know he possessed, he answered his elder in a cool, controlled tone. “No, sir, I am Solon, son of Philemon. I do not believe we have ever met.”
At first, Leontios was taken aback by the young man’s self-control, a quality he rarely saw in young people these days—a quality he greatly admired. His look of condescension was slowly replaced with a reserved smile. “Ah yes, Philemon. Good man, although why he ever bought this one is a mystery to me.” He jutted out his chin toward Onesimus, who knew to keep quiet. After all, what were masters for, but to lead, even in conversation?
Solon showed no reaction, but simply smiled curtly as he formed a reply. No one could ever accuse his father of poor business affairs. “Well, I know not the details; however, this young man has served our whole family with great honor and ambition.”
Leontios allowed a chuckle to begin low in his throat before it burst forth into an obnoxious laugh. “Well, my friend,” he said as he placed a hand on Solon’s shoulder and squeezed more than would be deemed friendly. “Be forewarned that his ‘ambition’ may cause you great difficulties.”
The older man swung his gaze back to his former slave. A menacing grin spread across his leering face. “Have you heard from your family lately?”
Onesimus’ eyes grew steely, but he did not answer.
Leontios continued, “That young sister of yours is quite the little filly.”
Onesimus began to advance, but Solon restrained him. Leontios laughed and walked away, leaving the two young men to bore hateful holes into his back. Onesimus’ chest heaved as anger coursed through his veins. He clenched his teeth until his jaw hurt.
Solon watched his reaction, amazed at the intensity of anger he saw there. It frightened him a bit. What did he really know about this man? “How do you know him?” he asked quietly.
Onesimus never let his eyes leave Leontios until he was lost in the crowd. He took a slow deep breath, trying to still his rankled soul. “He was my former master,” he said with marked tones.
Solon wanted to ask more but was afraid of what he might hear. Hoping to rekindle their good moods, he placed a hand on Onesimus’ shoulder, squeezing it for emphasis. “Let us forget him and go celebrate our good success.”
It had been a good day. They had accomplished their tasks and worked as a team. Solon treated Onesimus more like a brother than a servant. Onesimus’ heart slowed its pace and a quick, appreciative smile touched his lips for one brief moment. He would try to forget Leontios’ comments, at least for the moment.
* * *
As Onesimus listened to Solon snoring, Leontios’ words echoed over and over in his mind. Have you heard from your family lately? That young sister of yours is quite the little filly. What had he meant? He tried not to think the worst, but his mind continued to conjure up images of the young women who had been slaves of Leontios. He knew what the man did to them. He saw the fear in their eyes, saw them recoil from even the slightest touch from their master.
The moon was far into the western sky when Onesimus could stand it no longer. He looked around the room and spotted the bags of gold Solon had placed near his pillow. One lay a bit apart from the rest. Slowly, Onesimus sat up. As silent as the predawn breeze that crept softly through the window, Onesimus stole to Solon’s side and reached for the pouch of coins. Holding it securely so the coins would not rattle together, he lifted it from the floor, all the while keeping his eye on Solon. His heart raced and ached for what he was doing. His conscience battled with reason, but in the end, reason won.
With a heavy heart he slipped into the night, his conscience none the more silent even after it had lost the battle. They have treated you like family! Philemon saved you from that rascal and a life as a galley slave. Have you forgotten? “No, I have not,” he hissed, and then looked out into the vacant streets to be certain no one was lurking about. He made his way north through the back streets of the city, thankful for the early hour. He would be able to be far into the wilderness before he would be missed. With so much gold, he was tempted to pay the fare and travel by ship to Troas, but the chance of meeting Leontios or someone with a lot of questions pushed him to travel alone and on foot.