Paul was in Rome, the epicenter of empire, the magnet for people on the lam such as fugitive slaves. He was a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” not only because the Messiah had captured his heart but also because he had boldly proclaimed the grace and peace he had found. Somehow, through the Christian grapevine, Onesimus found Paul and sought shelter with him. Now Onesimus is going back to his owner.
Is it a shock to our modern sensibilities that the man who wrote the “neither slave nor free” line does not strike out at the institution of slavery when Onesimus is a legal “prisoner” of his master Philemon? Perhaps Paul weighed the cost of speaking out, and decided that this was not a winnable fight in his time and place. It was not until the late 18th century that William Wilberforce and others finally embraced abolition. When they did, they framed arguments based on Paul’s writings.