The runaway slave

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was so that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. Philemon 15

Philemon, a wealthy Christian of Colosse, is angry; one of his slaves has run away. To be honest, Onesimus was never much use anyway, but nobody is happy to be cheated in this way. Well, if ever he surfaces again – trouble! (The Roman law allowed that runaway slaves could even be executed.) Philemon puts Onesimus out of his mind and gets on with life.

But then… Onesimus does surface. Amazingly, he comes back voluntarily, knowing the punishment that might await him. What on earth would make him do such a thing! Answer: he has with him a powerful secret weapon that Philemon would never have dreamed of…

As Philemon prepares to give him a blasting, Onesimus says, “Er, master, before you say anything, would you mind just reading this” – and produces a letter from his pocket. “What’s this?” says Philemon. “Well, it’s from Paul,” says Onesimus, and hands it over.

A letter from his friend Paul! – Philemon is stunned.

This is the tiny letter we have in our New Testaments. It’s the letter in which Paul explains that he has met Onesimus in prison, probably in Rome; that the runaway slave has become a Christian during that time; and in which he asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “no longer as a slave… but as a dear brother” in Christ.

Can you picture Philemon reading this letter, this total bombshell? He realises that he has, as they say, some serious thinking to do.

Well, I can’t guarantee that this is exactly how this little drama unfolded – I’ve used my imagination a bit. But it must have been something like it. Why not read The Letter to Philemon again yourself and see how you can bring it to life?

What particularly interests me is the fifteenth verse. It begins, “Perhaps the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while…”

What’s so special about that? Well, I am struck by the way Paul assumes that there was a reason why these things had happened. It wasn’t just chance. God had a purpose over and above the events themselves. To put it simply: something bad had happened; but God had brought something good out of it.

Bad things happen to God’s people. We all know that. Often we are puzzled. We can’t see any rhyme or reason in it. But often we find later on – perhaps very much later on – that something good results. Many of us who have been Christians for any length of time can testify to the truth of this. As the old hymn puts it, “God moves in a mysterious way/ His wonders to perform.”

The classic Bible example is Joseph, in the Book of Genesis. He suffers the injustice and cruelty of being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. He becomes a slave. His master’s wife viciously gets him put in prison. But God does an amazing thing – Joseph becomes the Egyptian king’s right-hand man, and is used to save the world from famine.

And when Joseph eventually meets those cruel brothers again, what does he say to them? Does he blast them for what they did? No. “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was in order to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…” (Genesis 45).

Yes, it wasn’t obvious at the time. Yes, what happened was completely unjust and wicked. Yes, it plunged Joseph into years of misery and pain. But, says Joseph, God was behind it all, working out purposes of which nobody could have had the remotest idea.

A simple question: Do you believe that God has reasons for the bad things that happen to you? I was taught as a very young Christian that in the purposes of God there is no such thing as coincidence. I’ve never seen any reason to doubt that. Things happen for a reason. As that other great hymn puts, there are times when we need to “trace the rainbow through the rain”.

Have faith! The sun will shine again, and God’s wonderful purposes will become clear.

Father, only you know how Philemon responded to this turn of events, whether or not he swallowed his anger and received Onesimus like a brother in Christ. And only you know what you might be secretly doing in my life. But help me to trust you, and to believe that everything really does work out for good for those who love you. Amen.

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