10 I am appealing to you concerning my child, whose spiritual father I have become during my imprisonment, that is, Onesimus, 11 who was formerly useless to you, but is now useful to you and me. Philemon 1:10–11 NET
The name Onesimus means “profitable.” Onesimus was the slave for whom Paul wrote his letter to Philemon. The book of Philemon is the only New Testament book addressed to a single individual. In his letter, Paul pleads with Philemon to free Onesimus because he had been so helpful to the apostle while in Rome. Paul had apparently had some part in converting this former slave and they had worked together to advance the kingdom while Paul was in chains. Onesimus had robbed his master and escaped, using the money he stole to flee to Rome. His intent, likely, was to disappear into the busy urban life of the large city. God however had other plans. While there in Rome he met Paul, and accepted Christ. In sending him back to Philemon, Paul urged the owner to treat the slave as a Christian brother (v. 16). Paul also had a close relationship with Philemon and was instrumentally involved in his conversion as well. Paul had enough influence on Philemon that he felt confident his words and recommendation to receive Onesimus back into Philemon’s household would be enough to save the slave’s life, and it appears to have worked.
Onesimus accompanied Thychius in bearing Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae (Col. 4:7-9). It was most likely during this trip that he was escorted back to the home of Philemon as well. For Onesimus to travel alone would have put him at great risk of being caught by the slave hunters of the day. Traveling with Thychius assured his safety and also would have given great credibility to the letter Onesimus carried from Paul to Philemon. Little is known for certain about what happened to Onesimus after he returned to the home of Philemon. Two traditions connect Onesimus with a bishop of that name in the second-century church and with Onesiphorus in 2 Tim. 1:16. Neither connection has been proven satisfactorily to consider fac, but they are both very interesting to consider. Imagine the implications if a once former escaped slave was saved by God’s grace, called into the ministry, and then led one of the leading churches of the day. Some have even suggested that Onesimus is responsible for pulling together much of what we consider to be the New Testament today. Those who make this claim site his close friendship with Paul. They also contend that a letter like Philemon would likely have never ended up in the New Testament without the strong influence of either Philemon or Onesimus. Tradition has it that Philemon passed away before the collection could have been compiled, leaving great speculation about the role of Onesimus in the collection of the New Testament letters. I suppose one day in heaven we will all know the truth about Onesimus, but even if he never was a pastor or involved in the collection of the New Testament his impact on the kingdom is still amazing. This goes to show no matter who you are or what your past may contain, God can use you in great and wonderful ways!