The letter to Philemon is one of the most fascinating books in the New Testament. It’s among the shortest books in the Bible, but it’s incredibly dense in terms of practical applications. It’s also a book that stirs my curiosity; there’s so much unspoken backstory that I really want to understand. But there’s only one thing I want to focus on right now: Onesimus’s legal status when he was baptized.
Onesimus, Paul, and Roman Law
Onesimus didn’t just break household rules when he fled Philemon’s household. He broke the law. The Roman government was paranoid about the possibility of a slave rebellion, so laws regarding slaves were harsh. Not only was it illegal for a slave to travel any distance without permission from their master, but it was also illegal for slaves to gather in groups, and it was illegal to harbor an escaped slave. A Roman’s civic duty was to immediately turn in any slaves suspected of escape.
It was illegal for Onesimus to be with Paul. That’s important to understand when thinking about the implications of his conversion since it’s obvious that Onesimus was baptized by Paul before he reconciled with Philemon. Verse 10 says, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” So what does this mean for us when we come to Christ for salvation?
Baptism, Repentance, and Perfection
We often break salvation down into tidy steps: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. I don’t think it’s wrong to put repentance before baptism, but I think we need to consider what repentance really means. We often associate repentance with being sinless; nothing could be farther from the truth. Repentance is a process; it doesn’t mean that we have fixed everything. If it did, we could never repent enough before baptism.
Onesimus had not yet fixed his legal status or his relationship with Philemon when Paul baptized him. He was still a fugitive. He was yet to completely correct these sins in his life when baptized, but Paul did not let that stand in the way of salvation. Onesimus was not perfect when baptized, but he did have this: he had repented. He had a plan to set things right.
When you or I come to Christ, we don’t have to have our lives in perfect order. All we need is a heart ready to make things right. We need to repent — meaning we recognize the error in our lives and are willing to change. Onesimus would return to Philemon; with Paul’s support, he would fix his standing with his owner and with the law. But that repentance was a process for him, and it’s a process for us.
If some standard of perfection is holding you back from baptism in Christ, I would invite you to go forward with it despite any shortcomings. Christ wants you to come to Him broken, in need of His grace, and willing to start anew. Baptism is the beginning of your journey, not the end. Wherever you are, take that first step, knowing that Christ will forgive you in your imperfections and that your new family in Christ is there to help you on your journey.