Biblical People

Biblical People: Onesimus

The focus of Paul’s letter to Philemon is Onesimus, the runaway slave. Ironically, Onesimus means useful. An escaped slave isn’t too useful to his master.

After Onesimus flees, he encounters Jesus through Paul. Paul mentors Onesimus and the two begin working together. However, it isn’t right for Onesimus to remain with Paul—even though what they’re doing is important. To do so would defraud Philemon of Onesimus’s labor.

Paul encourages Onesimus to return to his master, despite the risk it involves. A recaptured slave could be punished. To facilitate a positive reunion, Paul writes a letter to Philemon, pleading for him to offer Onesimus mercy.

While we don’t explicitly know the outcome of this drama, we can reasonably deduce it.

First, Paul’s petition on Onesimus’s behalf is so powerful that it’s hard to imagine anyone not complying.

Second, in the only other mention of Onesimus in the Bible, Paul announces he is sending Tychicus and Onesimus to the people of Colossae. Paul also affirms Onesimus as a faithful and dear brother.

Since this trip could not have reasonably occurred prior to Onesimus returning to Philemon, we can assume that Philemon did as Paul requested, allowing Onesimus to return to Paul to work with him on Philemon’s behalf.

This would put Onesimus in a position to take that trip to Colossae.

At last Onesimus can be useful, to both Paul and Philemon, as well as to the Colossians and to God. This all happens because Onesimus does the right thing, returning to his master despite the risk.

Do we do the right thing regardless of the cost?

[Discover more about Onesimus in Philemon 1:8–21.]

Read more about other biblical characters in The Friends and Foes of Jesus, now available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

A lifelong student of the Bible, Peter DeHaan, PhD, wrote the 1,000-page website to encourage people to explore the Bible. His main blog and many books urge Christians to push past the status quo and reconsider how they practice their faith in every area of their lives.

By Peter DeHaan

Peter writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and make a faith that matters. Learn more at