Shout Outs: Onesimus
In Colossians 4:7-18, the Apostle Paul closes his letter to the church at Colossae, with ten “Shout Outs” to friends who were with him on a mission across Asia Minor. A Shout Out is simply a public acknowledgment of good. Paul closed most of his letters with a list of shoutouts. These were one or two-sentence acknowledgments of their contribution to his ministry and life.
These shout-outs from Paul remind us that he was not alone. And neither should we try to be as we live life and participate in God’s mission. Christianity is about relationships. The church is simply a group of friends that are pursuing God’s mission together. Jesus had the twelve. Paul had around 35 that he mentions across all of his letters. The model is Friendship + Mission. There is no such thing as solo Christianity.
Paul’s second Shout Out went to a young man named Onesimus. Onesimus’ name means useful. However, indications are that the trajectory of his life was headed the opposite way when he met Paul. In the book of Philemon, we learn that Onesimus is actually a runaway slave. We’re not sure of all the details of his enslavement or the reasons for his attempted escape, but somewhere along the way he meets Paul and becomes a believer in Christ, brother in Christ, including a brother in Christ to his Christian enslaver, Onesimus. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with a letter urging him to forgive and restore him. We don’t know Philemon’s response to the letter, but we can infer that he received it positively, because Paul is counting Onesimus as a useful friend on the mission in Colossians 4. Also, legend tells us that Onesimus later becomes a pastor in Ephesus.
Larry Johnson preached a great message at our church on Onesimus in June 2022. Here are three points he made about Onesimus’ story:
1. Christ Changes Relationships and People.
When Onesimus found Christ, he was forever changed (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). And his relationships were forever changed. Philemon and Onesimus were now brothers in Christ. Paul used the nature of their now new relationship to urge Philemon’s forgiveness. And Onesimus’ relationships were changed. He would have to reconcile his past to move on with God. This leads us to the next point.
2. Christ Changes the Past.
The past does not automatically get wiped away. It must be faced honestly to move forward with God. But Onesimus now had the power inside of him to help him live up to his name. No longer useless, fugitive, slave. Now a useful, brother in Christ, empowered by God for servanthood in His kingdom.
3. Christ Changes the Future.
Indications are that Onesimus engages in a life of faithful ministry from this time forward. Paul calls him a faithful, dearly loved brother. These words speak of Onesimus’ shift from disloyal, runaway, undependable to the loyal, steadfast, dependable, faithful servant. The trajectory of Onesimus’ life was changed through the gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul’s investment in his life, and Philemon’s forgiveness and acceptance.
A few questions to ask in thinking about Onesimus’ story:
- Am I Onesimus – Have I dealt honestly with my past? Are there people that I need to forgive? Are there relationships that I need to reconcile? Have I faced my past, even at a risk? Avoiding forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemptive risk means we may jeopardize or limit the full impact we can have as a servant of Christ.
- Am I Paul – Can I help two brothers reconcile a relationship? Paul went to bat for Onesimus. Paul believed in Onesimus. Paul took a risk to vouch for Onesimus, probably before he had proven himself. Who can I vouch for, believing in the power of God living inside of them, not in their ability to follow through? Paul’s actions tell us he believed in the power of the gospel.
- Am I Philemon – Is there someone that I need to forgive and release from guilt or shame? Philemon held Onesimus’ life in his hands and evidently choose forgiveness. Could your effort to reconcile release someone today into a life of ministry?
- Who am I counting as useless? Who am I judging only by their past and not by their future potential in Christ? The Gospel can move people from useless to useful. Do I believe that? If so, there are no lost causes. Today’s fugitives can become tomorrow’s disciple-makers.