Today, February 16, we celebrate the feast day of Saint Onesimus, the “Saved Slave” (died 68, also know as Saint Onesimus of Byzantium and the Holy Apostle Onesimus). Saint Onesimus was a slave to Philemon who was converted by Saint Paul. Onesimus had stolen from Philemon, and was forced to flee for safety. He sought out Saint Paul, who was being held captive in Rome. There, Saint Paul received him with kindness and love, helping him realize that his theft was wrong. Not only did Onesimus repent for his crimes, he accepted the Christian faith and was baptized by Saint Paul.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Onesimus was sent back to Philemon accompanied by a beautiful letter penned by the imprisoned saint. In Paul’s Epistle to Philemon, he makes a strong case for Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom, so that he might accompany Paul and preach the Gospel as a disciple.
1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow laborer,
2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in thy house:
3 Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,
5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;
6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.
7 For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.
8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,
9 Yet for love's sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.
10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:
13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:
14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.
15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;
16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?
17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.
18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.
20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.
21 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.
22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.
23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus;
24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellow laborers.
25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
Philemon, for his part, forgave Onesimus, and he promptly returned to his spiritual father in prison. Thereafter, he faithfully served Saint Paul, and among his many deeds, bore Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians on its journey of faith.
Saint Onesimus, as recorded by Saint Jerome and other Church fathers, became a zealous preacher of the Gospel throughout the region, eventually succeeding Saint Timothy as bishop of Ephesus. There he preached frequently and ardently, inflamed with love and the Holy Spirit. His preaching, of course, attracted the attention of the authorities, and during the persecutions under Emperor Trajan, he was arrested and taken in chains to Rome. There, he was imprisoned for 18 days, during which time he was encouraged to recant his faith. When he refused, his legs and thighs were broken with bludgeons, and he was subsequently stoned to death. Following his death, his head was separated from his body with a sword, and local Christians buried him in a silver coffin.
The life of Saint Onesimus is one that holds great lessons for us as Christians. Paul brings Onesimus to the faith through gentle love and support, coupled with firm teachings grounded in Christian virtue: to truly become free, one must repent and ask forgiveness for sinful behavior. And with that freedom, the soul can grow and flourish into a great vehicle of God’s love and grace, illustrated by the life of Onesimus and the many he brought to Christ.
God of liberty, through Saint Paul the Apostle you brought your servant Saint Onesimus to spiritual and temporal freedom; liberate us, we pray, so that we may be equipped to serve you fully. We ask this through Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.