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Onesimus the runaway slave

Onesimus, a runaway slave, returns to face Philemon.
Contributed by Helen Reason
Story also available on our translated websites: Romanian, Hindi
Have you ever wanted to hide to get away from a problem? Have you ever felt like running away? Onesimus knew what it was like to feel miserable and angry. – Slide 1
Onesimus was a slave. His name meant ‘useful’. He lived many years ago in the days of the Roman Empire when rich people had slaves who worked for them. A slave had no choice but to work hard for his master who ordered him about. – Slide 2
And Philemon, his master, was certainly rich for only rich people could afford slaves. He kept his poor slave Onesimus very busy. Onesimus often got tired and fed up. – Slide 3
But one day, everything changed. A travelling preacher visited their city, Colossae. The preacher’s name was Paul. – Slide 4
This is the story of Onesimus the runaway slave. It is a story we can pull together by reading the letter Paul sent to Philemon and trying to piece together what had happened. We don’t get all the story but it could well have happened like this. – Slide 5
Living as a slave was hard work. Onesimus probably started at work at sunrise and worked all day. His master, Philemon gave orders such as. “Go and clean my chariot!” – Slide 6
Onesimus was tired but he had to begin cleaning at once. He was a slave! And slaves had to do what they were told or be punished. – Slide 7
As he cleaned the chariot, Onesimus daydreamed about running away. But could he escape without being caught by his master Philemon or by Roman soldiers? – Slide 8
Philemon gave new orders. “Get my chariot ready to roll. I’m off into Colossae to hear this new preacher Paul. He’s telling people about Jesus whom he claims has risen from the dead. I’ve got to hear this.” – Slide 9
A short while later, Philemon joined the crowds listening to preacher Paul tell them about Jesus. – Slide 10
We don’t know what Philemon said to Paul but maybe he asked, “You say God can set people free – Slide 11
Paul had an answer for this question. “You may not think you’re a slave, but you are not really free are you? You may not be a slave with a master who orders you around, but you do and say things that are wrong. You hurt other people and that hurts God. That makes you a slave to the wrong things you do.” – Slide 12
Philemon thought about the thing Paul said. Slowly, he realised, “I suppose you’re right. I am a sort of slave – Slide 13
Philemon wanted to hear more, so he invited Paul to stay at his house. It wasn’t easy for proud Philemon to say he was sorry to God, but he did. Philemon became a Christian. He opened his home as a place for Christians to meet and worship. – Slide 14
Everyone seemed happy. Onesimus was happy too, but for a very different reason. His master was too busy to notice what Onesimus was doing. At last his chance had come – he could escape! – Slide 15
Onesimus crept through Philemon’s house packing things he would need to make his escape. Then he tiptoed out of the house, across the courtyard, and down the street. – Slide 16
He moved quickly and quietly, stealthily dodging in and out of the shadows. If he was caught he knew he would be in big trouble. Soldiers would be on the lookout for him, so he hid during the day and moved on in the darkness. – Slide 17
Onesimus made his way to the sea. He had to get far away! Someone might see him and tell the soldiers. He wanted to get to Rome.<br/>(It was a long trip overland so he most likely headed there by sea.) – Slide 18
A ship was about to set sail for Italy. Onesimus crept aboard and paid the captain his fare. Once out at sea, Onesimus breathed in the fresh sea air – he was free – free at last. But somehow he didn’t feel free inside. Instead, he felt guilty and worried. – Slide 19
He travelled a long, long way by ship – all the way from his home town of Colossae to Italy. – Slide 20
Onesimus made his way to the famous city of Rome. We don’t know what he did wrong in the big city but soon he was in trouble. – Slide 21
“Gotcha! You’re under arrest!” Big, burly Roman soldiers dragged Onesimus off to prison. – Slide 22
Onesimus sat in his cell. No-one in Rome knew who he really was. And no-one knew he was a runaway slave. He had to serve his prison sentence but then he would be released and be free again! – Slide 23
Some time later, the guards came and moved him. “You’re going in with a new cell mate,” grunted the prison guard. “He’s not a criminal, but he has been telling people that God will forgive them and set them free. He’s causing riots, so we’ve arrested him. The Emperor himself is hearing his case.” – Slide 24
Onesimus stared at the man in the cell. “Don’t I know you?” – Slide 25
Paul nodded. “I saw you at Philemon’s house. Aren’t you one of his slaves?” – Slide 26
Onesimus felt scared. Would Paul tell the soldiers who he was? – Slide 27
Over the next few days, the two prisoners talked together. We don’t know exactly what Paul said to Oneisimus but Paul always encouraged people to tell God how sorry they were being disobedient. Paul always told people how Jesus had died on the cross to take the punishment for our sin so we could be forgiven. Paul also spoke about putting our lives right with God and those we have mistreated. – Slide 28
We do not know when Onesimus decided to confess the bad things he had done and ask Jesus to forgive him. But he decided to put his life right with God and become a Christian. – Slide 29
Paul hadn’t finished. “There are things you need to sort out with Philemon too.” Onesimus’ jaw dropped. “What about the things I took? Philemon will never forgive me. I’ve nothing left now. How can I repay him?” – Slide 30
Paul thought for a while. “I’ll do what I can. I’ll write a letter to Philemon telling him that I will repay anything you owe him.” – Slide 31
It wasn’t long after when ... “Oy, Onesimus, get your kit together. You’ve served your sentence. You’re out of here.” The prison guard threw him out into the street. – Slide 32
Onesimus breathed in the fresh air. Free again. What should he do? Stay in Rome? Or risk going back to Philemon? It was time for this slave to be brave. He clutched the letter Paul had written to Philemon and strode to the nearest sea port. – Slide 33
He boarded a ship and set sail back to Colossae. – Slide 34
Would Philemon forgive him? If he didn’t ... well, it didn’t bear thinking about. – Slide 35
Once in his own country, he kept hidden. Soldiers were always on the lookout for runaway slaves. He thought of all the times Philemon had bossed him about unfairly. Would Philemon treat him as a runaway slave, or – as Paul had asked him in his letter – like a brother? – Slide 36
During the day he hid. At night he slowly picked his way through the shadows towards Philemon’s house. He was a runaway slave. Did he deserve to be forgiven? – Slide 37
At Philemon’s house he wiped his brow and gulped. His trembling hand reached into his bag and took out the letter Paul had written. It started, “Dear Philemon, Please welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me ....” – Slide 38
Onesimus knocked on the door and waited ... the door creaked open ... the big figure of Philemon appeared, casting a shadow over him and ... – Slide 39
The story of Philemon and Onesimus is found in the Bible, but it doesn’t tell us what happened next. What do you think happened? – Slide 40
Do you think Philemon was angry with his thieving, runaway slave? <br/>Do you think he reported him to be punished by Roman soldiers? <br/>Do you think he had Onesimus thrown back into prison? – Slide 41
Or do you think Philemon read Paul’s letter and forgave Onesimus? <br/>Do you think he welcomed him into his home again? <br/>Do you think Philemon began treating Onesimus more 
like a brother than a slave? – Slide 42
Would you have forgiven Onesimus? – Slide 43
Slide 44