Occasionally I’m asked to write a letter of recommendation. “He’d be a great candidate for your job opening.” … “She’s a worthy recipient for a scholarship.” … “They’ve moved away from our city, left our church, and I’d recommend them them to your church.” I’ve written letters to the Texas State Board of Pardons and Paroles, but I’ve never written a letter of recommendation for a run-away slave. Paul did.
Slavery was common in Paul’s day. Some historians suggest that one out of every five people living in the Roman empire was a slave. One out of five! Twenty percent of the people were bought-and-paid-for, owned by another, living in bondage with limited freedom! Onesimus was one of those.
While Paul was imprisoned in Rome, a run-away slave named Onesimus, travelled the underground railroad from Colossae in Asia-Minor to the empire’s capital city. That’s where he encountered Paul. We don’t have many details, so allow me to speculate.
I suspect that Onesimus, like slaves from every generation and every corner of the globe, had longed for his freedom. He’d plotted and planned, and one fateful day, he’d made a run for it! He knew that if he was caught, he might be executed, so maybe he made his way to Rome hoping to get lost in the crowds.
Paul had spent three years in Ephesus, not far from Colossae. His Gospel-ministry had been immensely fruitful, reaching Colossae and beyond. Paul had led Philemon, Onesimus’s master, to saving faith in Christ. It is likely that Onesimus had heard the Gospel message too, and heard tales of Paul, the church-planter and missionary.
When Onesimus reached Rome, he would have been homeless and penniless, hungry, scared, and alone. Knowing that Paul had come to Rome to stand trial before Caesar, Onesimus may have sought an audience with the missionary. Maybe he hoped that Paul would give him some bread. He did. And much more. Paul led the runaway slave to Jesus, the Bread of Life! Onesimus was set free… eternally.
It appears that Onesimus stayed close to Paul for weeks or months, growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Onesimus, whose name meant “useful” or “profitable,” was marvelous company. He ran errands, worked around Paul’s little apartment, and generally lived up to his name.
One morning, Paul summoned Onesimus. “It’s time for you to go home!” Paul explained what the runaway slave already knew. He needed to return to his master. That’s when Paul wrote a letter of recommendation. It’s recorded for us in the Bible. Just one chapter, twenty-five verses, it’s Paul letter of recommendation addressed to Philemon.
“If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it!” (Philemon 18–19). Paul gave Philemon a blank check. “Whatever it costs, I’ll pay the bill! Put it on my account!”
Isn’t that what Jesus did for each of us at Calvary. “Father, forgive them… I’ll pay the bill… put it on my account!” That’s grace!