The Book of Philemon

The Onesimus Test

I appeal to you on the basis of love. Philemon 9

To the church at Colosse, Paul wrote, “Forgive whatever grievance you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (3:13). In a brief personal letter to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church, Paul implored his friend to be an example to the other church members by forgiving Onesimus, a runaway slave.

Paul used his love for Onesimus as a model for Philemon. Paul called the fugitive his son in the Lord, a new Christian who had become an asset to his ministry (vv. 10-12). Paul didn’t excuse Onesimus’s wrongdoing. In fact, he told Philemon, “If he owes you anything, charge it to me . . . I will pay it back” (v. 17). Yes, Onesimus had been unprofitable in the past, but he had become a new man in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Therefore, Paul asked Philemon to treat Onesimus as someone who “is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (v. 16).

We won’t know how Philemon handled the apostle’s appeal until we arrive in heaven, although Paul seemed confident his friend would do “even more than I ask” (v. 21). Philemon’s response, however, isn’t the point of the letter. In fact, the lack of resolution prompts us to ask, “What would I have done?”

At some point, we’ll all face an Onesimus test. The genuineness of our love for God and our commitment to loving our fellow Christians will be challenged. Indeed, the ability to forgive may be the truest test of love. Who has Jesus asked us to forgive out of love for Him? Is He pointing to a sin someone has committed against us and saying, “Charge it to my account”?

C. S. Lewis wrote, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”* What do we consider unforgivable—adultery, embezzlement, murder, or some other betrayal? When others sin against us, God appeals to us on the basis of our love for Him. To each of us He says, “If you love Me, forgive your Onesimus.”

How will you respond to His request?


Read Psalm 86. David had enemies (v. 14), but what truths about God enabled him to maintain a godly perspective about his circumstances?

Read Acts 6:8-15 and 7:54-60. What do you think enabled Stephen to pray, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”? What does this incident teach us about forgiveness?

Read 2 Corinthians 2:5-11. What reasons does Paul give for forgiving fellow Christians? How can this perspective on forgiveness help us forgive others?

For more on forgiving others, see Forgive under Dig into Words and A Prayer of Forgiveness under Dig into Prayers.

Denise K. Loock

*“On Forgiveness” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Revised and expanded edition. New York: McMillan. 1980.


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