Philemon is a fascinating, yet often overlooked, epistle of Paul. Many of the curious contextual details of this short letter have been lost to history. We know enough, however, to piece together the story and draw some pastoral principles. We know, for instance, that Onesimus was a rather useless, thieving slave. In his dissatisfaction, he stole from Philemon before going AWOL. In a bizarre twist of events, Paul evangelizes him from his Roman cell and Onesimus comes to Christ. Paul eventually enlists him as a key leader in his church planting enterprise.
Pretty remarkable stuff so far, huh? Well, we’re just getting started. Things get even more interesting when we press into the irony of Onesimus’ conversion a bit more.
Apparently in a disgruntled state, Onesimus the slave had stolen something precious and fled from his master – a guy named Philemon. This means he had some serious problems – he was basically the equivalent of a fleeing felon. So Onesimus the runaway slave found himself appealing for help to Paul the prisoner. Somewhere along the way, Onesimus received Christ and a rapid transformation began. The man fled his physical slavery, only to have his spiritual slavery revealed, which then compelled him to return and be reconciled to his earthly slave master.
Here are a few lessons we can learn from this story:
Conversion is Never Convenient
From Paul’s other letters, we know how physically and emotionally brutal prison was for him. Paul was shackled, burdened, and afflicted when Onesimus arrived. A lost soul before a chained man. Onesimus was probably oblivious to Paul’s chains – he was runaway slave carrying stolen property. Should Paul dismiss him until a better time? Perhaps beg off citing his present circumstances? Onesimus appears like a black hole of needs. What would you do?
Paul immediately offered him the most precious thing he had: the promise of new life in Jesus. But that was just the beginning. Paul dove into discipling the young man. Think about it: Onesimus appeared with all of these entanglements. He seemed like a real ‘case.’ But Paul saw something more. Sure Paul was imprisoned and chained, but a soul needed God so there was work to do!
Training the next generation of leaders will never be convenient. It will not wait for our schedule to resolve. And by the way, when does a schedule ever resolve! Despite Paul’s obvious limitations, he cared for Onesimus. He had invested his time in equipping him and connected with him so deeply that Paul eventually called him “my very heart.” Onesimus was a broken slave, but Paul saw much more – he saw a future leader.
Pastors, people’s issues don’t respectfully knock and wait to be invited in. They break down the doors of our well-organized lives, often at the most inopportune times. Is Onesimus knocking right now? Open the door and begin the adventure. What an opportunity Paul would have missed had he waited for a more convenient time to invest in a younger man!
Pastors love radical conversion stories but often tire quickly from the messes that follow. How easy it would have been for Paul to dub Onesimus a ‘new creation,’ erase his past, and deploy him for ministry impact. But Paul understood something critical to leadership development: Their story matters. Onesimus has incredible potential for ministry, but he also had unfinished business with Philemon.
To Paul, baggage mattered. Onesimus had to go back.
The former slave was returned to his slave master not to endorse the institution, but to bring reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul was no pragmatist. He did not avoid correcting Onesimus’ stealing for the sake of the mission. He named the elephant in the room. For Onesimus to go forward, he must first go back. Onesimus must deal with his baggage so he doesn’t drag it around the rest of his life.
But to Paul, the baggage did not define Onesimus. Note the way Paul commended this former criminal. He said Onesimus had become useful, that he held Paul’s very heart, that he was like a son to the apostle, and that he was “very dear to me.” Paul did not focus on the past, on who Onesimus was when he came to him in that Roman prison. Paul saw who he could be once the Gospel took hold. Paul saw the potential hidden beneath the baggage of a broken past—he was living proof! Paul saw through Onesimus’s slavery, beyond his baggage, and into a life of gospel usefulness.
The gospel supplies us with new eyes. Because the resurrection followed the Savior’s crucifixion, older pastors can see beyond the brokenness of young slaves to a future of potential impact. We can’t ignore the baggage they bring – it’s the fertile ground from which the good news of the gospel will sprout and flourish. To lead effectively in the future, Onesimus had to deal with his past. But the gospel reminds us that our past does not define us – reconciliation in in Christ does.
The Future Rests in Broken People
Future pastors, church planters, and leaders arrive to our door incomplete. Sometimes they look like criminals fleeing the consequences of their actions. Sometimes they come completely oblivious to the impact of their decisions upon others. Remember: Future leaders always have present defects. How quick the seasoned pastor is to sanitize his own past and progressive development! Not Paul! A slave was knocking on his cell, but all he saw was a future son. Paul saw past the lazy, listless slave to the spirit-empowered leader he would become.
Would I have turned Onesimus away? I hope not. How about you? I wonder how many pastors’ eyes would have been too clouded by their busyness, concluding that he wasn’t worth their time. I wonder how many church planters would see themselves more as Paul than as Onesimus. Our churches are filled with young men who are easy to overlook and dismiss. Only when our eyes are transformed by the resurrecting power of the gospel can we see beyond the baggage. The future of Christ’s church rests in broken people. If Jesus can take you and me, with all of our baggage and history, and do what he’s done, what might he be able to do with those broken, inconsiderate, immature men in our midst?
In the coming days, we’ll walk through a few more principles contained in the letter to Philemon. May God grant us the grace to welcome the disruptions from, confront the baggage of, and entrust the future to the broken men he gives us.
 Philemon 12
 Philemon 16