When my wife and I moved to Montana to minister in a small church in a small ranching community, her mother wrote to us every week with all the news of farm, family, and friends at home. Can you imagine the eagerness with which we received and opened those letters? Well, transfer that excitement into the scene before us in Colosse when Philemon received a letter from the apostle Paul in Rome. After all, this was the man who had led Philemon to the Lord and established him upon the path of righteousness. By Paul’s faithfulness in preaching the Word, this saint of God had been lifted from an idolatrous lifestyle into the glorious heights of God’s grace.
As Philemon began reading the letter to the family, Paul’s name, of course, was presented immediately, but he also included “Timothy our brother.” Paul was the spiritual father of Timothy, and he could have spoken of him as such. However, he chose a wider relationship to highlight, for Timothy was a “brother” not only to Paul but to Philemon and, indeed, to all Christians. How gracious of this aged apostle to include Timothy in his salutation to this household! It was not unlike Paul to be generous in his recognition of young men in the ministry. Furthermore, it was a reminder to Philemon of that great brotherhood of all believers—the very spirit of brotherhood that Paul was trusting would work in his dear friend to bring about a kindly reception for Onesimus. Paul urged Philemon to receive with open arms the return of his runaway slave because they now belonged to the same spiritual family and were brothers in Christ. Oh that we, too, would receive one another as brothers and sisters in Him! — John Duty
(Onesimus has been taken prisoner and is being shipped to the prison in Athens. Angry with everyone and everything having to do with God, he lashes out at any hint of Christianity. One of the prison guards has an idea that will pour salt into his wounds, but little does this servant of Rome know that he is being used by God to draw Onesimus to the Truth.)
My strength is dried up like a potsherd;
and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws;
and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.
The ship swayed and rolled on the open sea, and men moaned for lack of food and drink. Onesimus looked across the hull, his eyes half closed and his mind empty of thought. He had tried to do right—was on the verge of making things right. He looked down at the chains around his ankles, red and raw from the chaffing. This was only the beginning. What would become of him? If he could, he would somehow end it all, but Rome was a master of captivity. The chains were too short for strangulation. All he could do was sit in his own waste and rot away.
It seemed as though they had been traveling for many weeks; but in reality, they had been aboard the ship for less than a month. The mighty warship had weaved its way across the sea, picking up prisoners and tossing them in the hold like a giant feasting on human flesh. The soldiers were quick to remind them that they were less than the lowest of humanity and would regret the day that they had broken the laws of the land. Onesimus closed his eyes and wished for death.
Thoughts of family tried to push their way into his mind, and just as quickly, he pushed them out again. He thought of Philemon, sad that he would never be able to explain—make amends. Every so often, God would also try to overtake his thoughts, and Onesimus wondered if, at those times, his mother was praying for him.
On the thirteenth day, the call came that Rome was within view. As their shackles were replaced with a gang-chain, they were herded out of the belly of the mighty ship and into blinding sunlight. Shielding their eyes and stumbling, the prisoners cursed and swore until the lashing began. Quickly, their shouts of anger became cries for mercy.
The soldiers lined them up along the deck’s railing. As Onesimus’ eyes adjusted, he noticed buckets of water lined up before them. At the captain’s command, the soldiers moved forward and doused the prisoners with the salty brine. Cries of pain filled the air as the saltwater washed over their wounds and sores caused by the shackles’ constant rubbing and hours of sitting in filth.
More lashes and barking communicated their orders to make a line and proceed to the gangplank. Beside the open rails sat a barrel of tepid water. Each prisoner drank voraciously as much as he could gulp before being pushed ahead.
Onesimus watched the man in front of him, curious about his ability to keep silent. As though sensing a watchful eye, the man turned to glance at Onesimus when his feet hit solid ground. “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?” He watched Onesimus reaction and continued. “Are you a believer?”
Something in Onesimus snapped. Anger and hatred filled his eyes. “Do not talk to me about your God!”
Pity filled the older man’s eyes. “There is nothing else to hope for, son. He is my rock, my shield, my…”
“Shut up!” Onesimus shouted before he realized what he was doing.
“What is going on here?” a soldier growled.
“Tell that fool to leave me alone,” Onesimus snapped.
The soldier looked at the old man. He knew that he was in prison because he would not bow a knee to the emperor, and it irked him. Was it not enough that Rome owned most of a man’s possessions and body? Must she demand his soul as well?
He cuffed Onesimus, nearly making him stumble and looked at the old man. Any casual observer would have missed the brief look of kindness in his eyes. He paused for only a moment, and then hurried away.
Something had changed within Onesimus. Disappointment and defeat fed the bitterness that hardened his heart, and he soothed his rankled soul by lashing out at everyone, especially followers of Jesus Christ. There were many in prison and more came every day. Their courage and limitless strength of character shamed him but fueled his anger as well. No matter how many lashings he received or how much food he was deprived, there was no controlling him, until the day Cassian came to his cell.
Cassian knew how to break a man and took pleasure in doing so. As he sat in the officers’ quarters listening to the others talk about the young man, he began to laugh. They looked at him questioningly. “You are missing his Achilles’ heel.”
“What do you mean?”
He leaned forward, placing an elbow on the table. “Who is he lashing out against?”
He shook his head. Again, silence. He looked into their eyes, enjoying the riddle. “There is a group of people in here that he hates, despises almost as much as we do.”
A slow grin showed Livius’ missing teeth. His lips curled in disgust. “These Christians,” he spat.
Cassian’s eyes moved from one face to the next. “Exactly. So, let us eliminate our problem and make his life miserable.”
“That Paul fella,” another soldier answered.
“Yes. I will suggest it to Otho. He will make the necessary arrangements.”
Five days later, Onesimus was removed from solitary confinement. The guards came in, faces like stone, and unlocked the wall chains and shackled his legs and hands. He shuffled along, wondering if this was the end, hoping it to be true.
When they passed out of the inner gates, he grew hopeful, but when they entered the streets, he was confused. Where were they taking him? A cold chill ran up his spine as he realized there might be a fate worse than death.
When they entered a narrow stairwell, the soldiers sandwiched him between them, his chains clinking on the steps.
On the other side of the door, Paul looked at Tatius when they heard the sound of someone coming. They had been praying for the various churches before Luke came to continue Paul’s letter to the Philippians. They all stood as the threesome came through the door.
“Here’s another one for you, Tatius.”
Tatius remained standing at attention as the men removed Onesimus’ shackles and chained him to Tatius. They laughed. “Have fun, but beware. That one may try to slit your throat if he gets the chance.”
Without another word, they left the room. “It makes you wonder which one of us is the prisoner,” Tatius said to Paul. But Paul was staring at the new prisoner, unable to believe his eyes. He was nearly certain that it was Onesimus, but so much had changed about him, and he knew that most of the change was reflected from his heart.
“Onesimus?” he asked.
Onesimus had been staring at his feet, a stance he had found most helpful when he did not want to face reality. This all seemed so strange to him, but any thoughts concerning his future had long been crushed from his mind. When he heard his name from a voice that sounded vaguely familiar, his head shot up.
Onesimus focused on the face before him, trying to remember where he had seen the man before. Then he knew.
“No!” he cried, jerking the chain as he flailed his arms. His eyes were wild—he looked from Paul to Tatius, and then to the chains that bound them all together. His eyes were dark and menacing. “Is this some sort of a sick joke?” he growled.
Paul turned his gaze away from Onesimus and spoke to Tatius. Without a word, Tatius unlocked Paul’s chains.
“You know this man?” Tatius asked.
Paul looked once again at Onesimus. His hair was long and matted, and his beard was thick and filthy. His clothes were mere rags, and his skin held the sickly pallor of one who had been away from sunlight for too long.
“Yes,” Paul answered, never letting his gentle eyes leave Onesimus’ face. “Although I do not know his story. We met several years ago.” He paused. “I know his master,” he said with added meaning, as though questioning Onesimus.
Onesimus was calculating how much effort it would take to overcome the soldier and flee, but when he looked at Tatius, it was as though the man was reading his mind.
“We have a bit of an unusual situation here. I am not sure why they have brought you here, but Paul is under house arrest and is in my care. We have a measure of freedom, and I am not willing that anyone jeopardizes that.”
He walked toward the far wall where an iron loop was anchored into the wall. He unfastened his end of the chain and locked Onesimus to the loop, shoving a chair in his direction. Tatius then placed a basin of water before him with soap and a towel. “And if you are going to be staying here, you need to get rid of the stench that you picked up in the prison.”
Tatius opened a trunk, which stood on the opposite wall, and tossed him fresh garments. He then motioned to Paul, Tychicus, and Luke, and the four men left the room.
Onesimus looked around the area and sighed. It was certainly a step in the right direction, but the thought of living with the religious fanatic only infuriated him. He reached for the soap and was ready to hurl it across the room, but stopped, rethinking his actions. He was out of prison! Yes, he was still a prisoner, but he was away from the horrors of that place. A sense of hope that he had not felt since the day he boarded the ship tentatively crept into his hardened heart.
Slowly, he picked up the soap and began to wash. When had he last bathed? He could not even remember. He ripped the rags from his body and hurried to finish. Pulling the tunic over his head and poking his free arm through one armhole, he folded the towel and sat to wait.