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Friendship in the Bible: Philemon and Onesimus

For years I thought that God was inefficient. It just didn't seem to make sense that the Bible could be so big and so full of complicated stories. Surely if God really wanted us to know what he was like and how to live, he could have done it in less space, surely? And with the use of a few, well-placed bullet points.

Thankfully, as I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate efficiency less and relationships more. Now that I understand that God operates in relational ways, it makes sense that his story is told within the rough-and-tumble of relationships in history.

The Bible is full of friendships−between God and people and between people themselves. We can learn a lot about our own relationships by looking at theirs.


Of all the stories of friendship in the Bible, I love Onesimus and Philemon most. Philemon is a book that must shake us to our core if and change our relationships and social life if we take it seriously.

It centres, appropriately enough, around Philemon, a wealthy man of good social standing, who becomes a Christian possibly through Paul's ministry, and his rebellious, runaway slave, Onesimus.

In those days, masters owned slaves. It was not an equal relationship by any means. In ordinary circumstances, Philemon and Onesimus were certainly not relating to each other as people, peers or equals. They would not have been friends.

Onesimus stole money from Philemon and ran away. We're not told more than that except that in some extraordinary way, he ended up with Paul in Rome and became a Christian. He could have stayed there and begun a new life, but Paul was keen to see Philemon and Onesimus reconciled — and in a bigger way than just a master and slave.

Paul writes his short letter to Philemon and asks him to accept Onesimus back − as a brother. Not as a slave, but as a child of God like himself; in fact, a friend.

This is huge.

Accepting Onesimus back as a slave would be a scandal, even if he was given a suitable punishment. But to welcome him into his house as an equal and friend and valued human being would really turn things upside down. Philemon would probably find himself on the outside amongst his peers.

This is Christianity that really makes waves. To go against social norms, class and race lines or socio-economic status and make friends with people who are considered 'lesser' is a very courageous thing to do. Philemon is being asked to do it and to demonstrate the character of God in a way that is very costly to himself.

This is what God's saving love brings us to do − to break down the man-made barriers of hatred and difference that we create and maintain.

Christian friendship goes across wealth, status, and social acceptance. Christian friendship is radical and beautifully scandalous. Are we prepared to let God change us?

Flip through Paul's letters in the New Testament and find the parts where Paul refers to people whom he knows personally (these are usually at the ends.) Why are these parts of the letters included in the Bible? What can you learn from the glimpses of relationships that you see here?


Cecily Paterson writes uplifting, warm hearted fiction for young teenage girls. Visit her website

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