In Search of Freedom

August 27, 2010 | My Jottings

Warning: this is a longish post.

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“What’s in a name?”

Shakespeare’s Juliet asked that question, implying that a person’s name should not be of enough importance to determine their destiny. In ancient times, there was great significance in a person’s name. Children were often named according to what their parents hoped they would be. Their names represented their destinies. Or they were named according to where the family was geographically located when the birth occurred, or according to what was going on in their lives at the time. If I had named my girls like this, their names would have been Yarnista, Germany and Honeymoon. In our culture we usually just choose names we like that sound good with our last names. We do look at the meanings of the names we give our children, but often what a name means is secondary in importance to how it sounds to us.

Have you ever read Philemon? In the short book of Philemon in the Bible, I have learned that Onesimus the slave had a name with a very significant meaning. His story is all tied up in his name.

There are only 335 words in the original Greek text to the book of Philemon, but it’s a wonderfully rich book. The issues of physical and/or spiritual freedom are threaded all throughout. Forgiveness is another strong theme in this little book, and the implication of the “what’s in a name?” theme is worth looking at as well.

I.    Greetings from a prisoner — Philemon 1:1-3

“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul in prison

Did you notice that Paul didn’t say in essence, “Dear Philemon, this is Paul here, a prisoner of Rome.”  He said, “I’m a prisoner of Jesus Christ,” which shows that Paul completely trusted every single thing that happened in his life to be from the hand of God. If he was in chains, it’s because God allowed it, or even decreed it. Paul wrote this letter somewhere around 60-61 A.D., and this was his first imprisonment. This was not the second and last time he was a prisoner of Rome, when Paul knew his execution was near. This incarceration was called house arrest, and Paul was waiting for his court appearance because he had appealed to Caesar. He lived in a small house for two years, and he was able to receive visitors. In Philippians 1:12 Paul tells us that his chains actually advanced the gospel. We don’t know if he was chained to the wall or to the floor, or chained to a Roman guard.

Paul had served and loved the Lord for so long, was so completely swallowed up in living God’s will, he didn’t miss an opportunity to speak fervently to anyone about meeting and knowing Jesus. It’s doubtful that any person could have spent any time at all with Paul and not have been deeply touched by the Spirit of the Lord. In fact, II Corinthians 3:17 says, “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” So even though Paul didn’t have his physical liberty, I believe by that time he was one of the freest men to ever live. And anyone who spent any amount of time with him would have sensed and envied that freedom. Including his captors.

So this letter is addressed to Philemon, Apphia, who may have been Philemon’s wife, and Archippus, who might have been their son. Philemon and his family were wealthy Asiatic gentiles who lived in Colassae, and as most people of worth did in that area and era, they owned slaves. The letter from Paul to Philemon was probably “mailed” at the same time as the letter to the Ephesians and the one to the Colossians. Tychicus was the postman and Onesimus accompanied him after spending a very momentous time in his life with Paul the apostle.

Paul had most likely met Philemon in Ephesus, which was about 100 miles from Colassae, and Paul led Philemon to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus while there.

For the first three centuries after the death and resurrection of Christ, the church met in different homes, and one of the fellowships in Colossae met in Philemon’s spacious home.  The main reason why Christians met in homes was because of the persecution factor at this time. They had to meet in secret. Their lives were often at risk as they followed Jesus. They may have had to sing and worship in whispers.

In the last verse of this greeting, Paul expresses to Philemon and to the others who will read this letter(that’s us), what he wants for them most, and he says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He has expressed this to recipients of his letters many times before. When Paul wrote to the Romans he said, “Grace and peace to you,” in his letters to the Corinthians he said “grace and peace to you,” to the Galatians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, the Thessalonians, he wanted them to have grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. He wished the same for Timothy and Titus, and here he was saying how much he wanted Philemon and any others who read that letter to have grace and peace.

Paul used words purposefully, so we can be sure that grace and peace are not just Paul’s way of saying, “God bless you all.”  When Paul declares that grace and peace are what he wants people to have from God, there’s deep meaning there. Grace was always listed first in Paul’s greetings. He never said, “Peace and grace to you.”  What difference does that make?  Well, he knew better than almost anyone that peace doesn’t come without grace coming first. Grace, which means “unmerited favor” also carries the picture with it of God “stooping” or “bending low” to us in His great love. He did this by sending His son Jesus for us, to die in our place for our crimes against Him and humanity, and this is what grace is all about.  So even in the order of his words, Paul is reminding us that we can’t have peace with God, or peace from God, unless we have first experienced the grace that God gave us through His Son. So it’s grace and then peace.

And Paul, though chained, beaten, starved, mocked, deserted and hated, knew God’s grace and peace well. He knew that there was nothing more important than accepting God’s grace through trusting His Son, and receiving that peace that passes all understanding. Grace and peace. I love it when we can find an entire volume of powerful truth in just one phrase in the Bible. We don’t always need to devour huge portions of the Bible to be instructed and fed, although there are appropriate times for taking in large amounts of scripture.  Sometimes we need to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us to one verse, one phrase, and ask Him to illuminate that to us and what it means personally for our lives. And then ask the Lord to help us meditate on it all day long, all week long, ask Him to help us mine the riches that are hidden for those who will search. So one of the treasures from these three “little” verses is that peace does not come without grace. If we open our heart’s door to the grace of God through Jesus Christ, peace floods. That peace is available to us every day of our lives and is not contingent on whether or not we are going through trials and hardships.

II.     Praises for a beloved friend — Philemon 1:4-7

In verses 4 through 7 we see Paul praising Philemon – he thanks God for the kind of man he is, and the love he has shown for people. Verses 4- 5 say “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” Paul must have had an incredible prayer list, because he was always praying for many people individually and for groups of people. But Philemon stood out in Paul’s mind as the kind of person who caused him to say “Oh thank you God!” each time he thought of him.

Do you have anyone in your life like that, someone who is so special and so loving that just the mere thought of them brings tears of thankfulness and an exuberant “Thank you God!” to your lips?  I do. Her name is Dorothy.

Dorothy is my step-mother, and she and my dad were married for many years until he died in November of 2007, in San Luis Obispo, California. Dorothy lived her life to love my dad, and she blessed our family many times.

My parents suddenly divorced after 31 years of marriage when I was 14 years old. It was devastating to our family, but that is another story. Years later my father met and married Dorothy, whom I want to say, was not the cause of my parents’ divorce.

When my mother (who had remained unmarried) lost most of her vision and could no longer care for herself, my husband and I prepared to move her close to us in Minnesota. Her house in Morro Bay, California sold, and then she fell ill and required surgery and a lengthy hospital stay. Mom’s house was packed and then occupied by the new owners while she was still very sick in the hospital. She was too ill to move to Minnesota right away, so when she was released from the hospital she had no place to go. I considered flying to CA and renting a hotel room for a few weeks so I could care for her until she was able to move back here.

Right about this time, my dad’s wife Dorothy stepped in. She’s a committed Christian and reminds me of Philemon. Her personality is one of love, encouragement, humble servant-hood and grace. She announced to my mother (who barely knew Dorothy at the time, and wasn’t anxious to know Dorothy since she was my dad’s wife), to my dad and to our family, that my mom was coming to live with them and she would care for my mom.

“Oh, no I’m not,” my mom said.

“Thank you, Dorothy, but we can’t let you do that,” is what Michael and I said.

And what my dad said was “Oh. My. Gosh.”

Dorothy — gracious, meek, and not known for her forcefulness, insisted, and my mother, my father’s first wife, moved in with my father and his new wife. My mom couldn’t see well, couldn’t change the bandages from her surgery, had become incontinent and had to sit on towels that had to be laundered constantly, had lost her taste for most food and could only tolerate some things. Dorothy lovingly cared for my mother for weeks. She changed her bandages, washed what my mom called her pee towels, cooked the same things over and over for my mom, and did it in such a way that made my mom feel like it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened in Dorothy’s life.

Dorothy’s love for my mother built the foundation for a Christian friendship that lasted until my mother’s death eight years later. They regularly talked on the phone, told each other they loved each other, and my mother grew in Christ because of Dorothy’s witness to her. Dorothy’s tender care for my mother softened my father’s and mother’s hearts for each other, and even though I don’t believe divorce was God’s will for them, they were friends from that point on. When my mother died eight years later, my father mourned. Dorothy’s love for my mom brought me to my knees in tears and gratitude, and to this day when I think of her or pray for her my first thoughts are “Oh thank you God! Dorothy has been such a gift from you to our family!”

In verse 6 Paul told Philemon that his prayer for him was that he would be active in sharing his faith, so that he would have a full understanding of every good thing he had in Christ.  There is something about saying out loud what Jesus has done for us that opens our eyes to understanding even more of the mercies He’s given. Verse 6 implies that when we share our faith, our eyes are opened to the other things God has done for us aside from giving us salvation, as if that wasn’t enough. When we share our faith, we may not feel totally equipped to speak knowledgeably about many of the things skeptics ask, but we can always share what Jesus has done for us.  We can say “This is what my life was like before Him; this is what my life is like now.” That is sharing your faith.

Paul continues in verse 7 – “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” This word refreshed means “to give rest to.”  Dorothy will always be one of my greatest examples of someone who has refreshed, or given rest to, other believers.  This might be a good time to pause and ask ourselves, “Do I drain people, or do I refresh them?” I know what I want to do.

So Philemon had an outstanding reputation. He was known throughout the scattered church of Jesus Christ as a man of love, a man who generously gave of his time and belongings to others, and a man who was compassionate and helpful.  His character was strong and noble.

III.     An appeal for a new man   Philemon 1:8-11

But the Philemons and Dorothys of this world aren’t immune to sin just because they do so much good. Paul knew this, so he broached a potentially unpleasant subject to Philemon. In verses 8-11, Paul gets to the thrust of this letter, and that was to talk to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus. Now, slaves were the machines of their day. It is estimated that there were about 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire, out of a total population of 120,000,000. (Thankfully, slavery is now seen as the horror it really is, but it was quite the norm for the Roman Empire.)

Paul says to Philemon in verses 8 and 9, “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love.” Paul was an apostle, a sent one with great authority. On the road to Damascus when he was still a Christian-hater, he had literally met Jesus Christ in His fully resurrected state. Paul had been apprehended, corrected and commissioned by Christ and the course of his life changed forever. He could have authoritatively told Philemon to welcome Onesimus back into his home, to forgive him and restore him, but instead he tactfully appeals to Philemon on the basis of love.

Philemon forgiving Onesimus

Do you know what I thought of here? I thought about Paul’s conflict with Mark years earlier. Early on Paul had a strong, arrogant, personality. When he was knocked to the ground and temporarily blinded by Jesus Christ, some of those traits may have been tempered. But not all of them.  It took years of walking with the Lord and doing His will to completely soften Paul. He had no patience with Mark when he had deserted Paul and Barnabas and hadn’t continued with them in the work they were doing. The Bible says they had a sharp disagreement and parted company. This is Bible terminology for “Paul stomped off in a huff.”  But 12 years later, after being imprisoned for two years and enduring almost unbearable hardship and untold blessing as an ambassador of Christ, Paul’s heart was soft and submitted to his Lord. It’s good to think that Mark might have been Paul’s inspiration for seeking restoration between Philemon and Onesimus. The old Paul might have said “Philemon, do as I say!”  The sanctified Paul appealed on the basis of love, which came from his own personal struggles. He had learned a more excellent way.

The second half of the book infers that very likely Onesimus also stole from Philemon. He was a household slave who would have known where things were kept, and when he decided to go in search of his freedom, he probably took money or other items of value in order to sustain himself for the weeks it took to reach Rome.

Philemon and his family had been wronged. They had much to forgive. If he was the loving man Paul says, he surely must have been a kind slave-owner. Onesimus was probably well-treated and provided for, yet we can see in his fleeing a picture of our own selves:  we have been given life and provision and whatever we need from our generous God, our “owner,” yet often each one of us takes it all for granted and we wander away from Him, in search of the kind of freedom and things we think we need.

Many commentators said that in this book we can see Paul as a mediator, obtaining mercy and restoration as Jesus does for us. That we can see in Philemon a picture of God – wealthy, gracious, loving, yet misunderstood and wronged.  And in Onesimus we can see a picture of ourselves, always thinking that freedom is on the other side of the hill, thinking that what will fulfill us is something which can be possessed, instead of something that happens in our hearts. In him we see our own sinful natures. Martin Luther said “We are all Onesimuses!”  We have disregarded our Master’s kindness and selfishly go off in search of freedom, not realizing that true freedom is found in Him alone. I need to remember that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. But Onesimus had not learned this truth yet.

And Philemon could have slipped easily into his own form of slavery had he not been willing to forgive. If we don’t forgive, we open the door to all sorts of evil, and hinder fellowship with the Lord. Paul the Persecutor became Paul the GreatHeart by the transforming power of God, evidenced by these words he wrote to us and the Ephesians around the same time as his letter to Philemon: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Time does not heal bitterness and resentment. Sometimes we are hurt so deeply that the work of forgiveness has to be done over and over again, but we must keep at it or we will be slaves to the cruelest kind of master.

In verse 9 Paul also mentioned again that he was a prisoner, not of Rome, but of Jesus Christ, and that he was now an old man. He was probably about 60 years old at this time, in an age where the average life-expectancy for a man was about forty-five. As we know, Paul had been shipwrecked, beaten and left for dead, had probably experienced many broken bones and serious head injuries, had been malnourished. The toll his life had taken on his body must have made him seem even older than his sixty years. He was weary in body, but buoyed up in spirit, because there in that place of imprisonment, there with the clanking chains around his ankles, the Spirit of the Lord was present. So there was liberty.

What were the odds that Onesimus would flee from the household of Philemon in Colassae, travel over 1000 miles on land and sea to Rome, a city of approximately one million people, and find Paul there among the masses?  It could have been that Onesimus didn’t intend to run into Paul, or it could have been that the Holy Spirit was working on Onesimus the entire time in his search for freedom, and by the time he reached Rome he set out to look for Paul. Onesimus may have heard Paul’s name mentioned in Philemon’s house or he may even have met Paul in Ephesus when he was there with Philemon. Whether or not he had ever met him, whether or not he was intentionally trying to find Paul, the Spirit of the Lord propelled Onesimus toward real freedom when he guided him to the place where Paul was chained and under house arrest.

Verse 10 says “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.” Paul only called three people sons:  Titus, Timothy and Onesimus. We don’t know how much time Onesimus spent there with Paul, but it was sufficient time for him to see what real freedom looked like. Paul was in chains yet was truly free — his search for freedom ended on the road to Damascus. Onesimus’s search for freedom ended next to his spiritual father Paul, in a rented house in Rome. Once he realized that true freedom is a destination of the heart, he knew he had to go back and humbly ask forgiveness from Philemon and his family.

Let’s segue a bit and take a look at what Paul possessed while in chains, versus what Onesimus had, once he had supposedly secured his freedom. In just 11 verses, we can see that Paul’s chains didn’t hinder him from possessing grace and peace, gratitude, a magnificent prayer life, comfort, a few loyal friends who ministered to him, heartening news of God’s work in others, spiritual authority and boldness, powerful influence, humility, compassion, mercy, and concern for the lost. In chains, Paul knew encouragement from a friend’s love toward others, had a productive awareness of who he had been and who he was then, he had the ability to see promise in someone that others would have considered the dregs of society, he had the gift of relinquishment, love, and of course, the freedom found because the Spirit of the Lord was there with him. And Paul had the honor of being imprisoned for the King of the Universe.

Let’s take a look at what Onesimus had after he ran away in search of freedom:  he may have had greater physical freedom, but what probably constituted Onesimus’s life on the run were loneliness, misery and guilt. Whatever pleasures he found after he left Colossae were short-lived.

The word slave in the Greek is doulos, which means one who is in servitude to another, his will being altogether consumed in the will of another. Paul called himself this kind of slave. His will was altogether consumed in the will of Jesus Christ, and in that state he found his freedom.

Onesimus eventually learned that staying in Rome or going back to service as a slave in Colassae had little to do with experiencing liberty. With Tychicus as his traveling companion and new brother in the faith, he returned to Colassae, holding tightly to the letter from Paul and praying that he would be forgiven.

Remember that crucifixions were common in the Roman Empire and it is almost certain that Onesimus had seen criminals executed this way. The common punishment for thieves in that day was death on a cross.  Jesus died between two thieves. This may have well been uppermost in Onesimus’s mind – will I be forgiven or will I get what other thieves and runaway slaves get? We might be tempted to think that because of Paul’s description of Philemon’s love and glowing character, Onesimus’s restoration was a given, but if Paul had to write such a strong appeal, I don’t think we can know for sure. The Philemons and the Dorothys of this world are not perfect. They, like all of us, need reminders on how crucial it is for us to forgive.

The wrong that was done to Philemon, the property that was taken, may have been a huge amount that crippled the household financially. But in his appeal, Paul asked Philemon to be kind and compassionate to the repentant Onesimus, forgiving him; just as in Christ Jesus God had forgiven Philemon.

At the end of this short passage in Philemon, Paul says, “formerly Onesimus was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Onesimus is the Greek word for “useful” or “profitable.” Obviously someone who steals and rebels is not useful. But this play on words beautifully implies that by coming to the Lord Jesus Christ, by bowing his knee and will to his real Master, Onesimus was finally true to his name. He became useful, profitable, not just to Paul, but would be to Philemon too.

So, what’s in a name?  In Onesimus’s case, much.

What’s in your name? What does your name mean? I looked up a few. If your name is Kathy or a form of Kathy – like Carey or Kay, your name means pure one.  If you are in Christ, you have been washed completely clean…He has restored your purity and He can make you true to your name.

Beatrice – your name means she who blesses. Before Christ you were under a curse, but in Him you bless others.

Susan? One who trusts. Your destiny in Him is to fear not, and trust Christ with reckless abandon.

Lois? Your name means famous. You may have been relatively unknown before you came to the Lord, but as you walk with Him and are transformed into His image, your reputation in Heaven will be legendary.

Phyllis? Your name means lady. I don’t know what characterized your life before Christ, but in Him you are clothed in strength and dignity.

Carol?  Did you know your name means joyous?  No matter what kind of sadness and mourning you’ve seen, in Jesus Christ you can still rejoice in His hope and promises.

Chris, Kristi or a form of Christine? Your name is rooted in one faith – faith in Jesus Christ, and you are His namesake.

My own name means youthful. As I watch my fingers bend in different directions and see my eyesight fade, I take comfort in the fact that in Him, age doesn’t matter. The slower and grayer I become, the closer I will get to being with the One I’ve waited for my entire life.

And can I tell you what the name Dorothy means? It means Gift of God.

Who can transform a person into the meaning of their name? Who could make “useless” Onesimus useful? Who can make a person a blessing who was once under the curse? Our Savior.

Who can make an impure, corrupt person pure? Jesus.

Who can make a mourner joyful?  Jesus can.

Who can help a fearful one trust? Who can make the unrighteous righteous?  Jesus Christ alone.

The search for freedom is a journey every human takes, and those who become slaves or prisoners of Jesus Christ are the ones who find liberty in the truest sense of the word.

When Onesimus came to faith in Christ, he gained the most important kind of freedom, and he became true to his name. When we come to faith in Christ, we are invited and enabled to walk in that same freedom no matter what our circumstances, and even if our given name doesn’t mean something beautiful, that name is written down in the Lamb’s Book of Life, which gives it the most beautiful meaning of all.


  1. Ember says:

    Thank you *so much* Julie, for this! x

  2. Sue Raimo says:

    I want to be like Dorothy

  3. Just Julie says:

    Me too, Sue. 🙂

  4. Dorothy Sooter says:

    Dorothy says;

    I feel so completely humbled by what Julie has put on her blog. She knows that I loved her from the first time I met her. She is one of the most talented, loving, kind and wonderful daughters that any mother could ask for. I have learned so much from her over the past 30 years and thank God that I have been a part of her life.

  5. Just Julie says:

    Love you Dorothy!

  6. Norma Riley says:

    I am doing a precept bible study on Colosians. I was searching for some information and came across your website. I thank the Lord for you information and insite it has truly touched my heart.

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