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A WORD FOR TODAY, June 22, 2021
“I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, hearing of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints, that the fellowship of your faith may become effective in the knowledge of every good thing which is in us in Christ Jesus. For we have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.” Philemon 1:4-7, WEB
Onesimos Nesib was a translator and evangelist from Ethiopia who was captured by slave traders, bought and sold several times until he was finally freed and educated by Swedish missionaries. His birth name was Hika, but he was given the name Nesib by his captors and then took on the name Onesimos when he became a Christian. It was an appropriate name for a slave set free by the Gospel, since the book of Philemon tells a similar story about a man name Onesimos. His original name, Hika, was fitting because it meant “translator” in his native language. The commemoration of his life as a missionary was yesterday, June 21st, because that is the day he died in 1931, at about age 75.
After he was educated and trained to be a missionary, Onesimos wanted to return to his native land to share the Gospel with his people. It was a difficult journey; it took many years and several tries before he could get through the politics of both secular and religious authorities. It didn’t help that travel was difficult with poor weather, poor roads and conflict. He was often given misinformation and his company of missionaries suffered from illness. They experienced so many roadblocks that Onesimos fell into deep despair at least once, giving up the mission. He pulled through each obstacle, finding other ways to share the Gospel in other places until he was finally able to make back to his home. With the help of a native Oromo (or Galla) speaker, he was able to translate the Bible into the native language. As we remember Onesimos, we see how he lived out the life described in our passages. God brought him through; by faith he continued despite the obstacles. During those times when he faced despair, he was reminded of God’s presence and of the fact that God knows what humans can never know. He always went back to work, no matter what he suffered.
Translating the Bible into his native language was important to Onesimos because he wanted his people be able to read and hear the Word of God in their own voice. When the translation was complete, he personally oversaw the publication of the book, attending to the printing himself. During that time, he received word that his smallest child died and his other children were also sick. He wanted to drop everything to return to his family, but he didn’t want to leave his work. His wife wrote to him to encourage him to stay with the printing, that all would be well with the family. She felt his work was very important and that she could handle things at home. He was torn, but did as his wife suggested.
The lesson from the book of Philemon is about living our vocation in and through the faith we have been given. This means both our vocations in the world and at home. It takes discernment to know how to balance it. Onesimus was an escaped slave, but Paul wrote to his master Philemon to encourage mercy and grace. Their relationship would have to change because Onesimus was more than a slave: he was Philemon’s brother in Christ.
While Onesimos had to decide if he should continue his ministry work or go home, Onesimus had to decide if he was going to stay with Paul or go back to life as a slave. Paul wanted to keep Onesimus because he had been very helpful to his ministry, but Paul sought to restore their relationship for the sake of God’s kingdom in Colossae. He thought it best for the two brothers might work together in forgiveness and grace to make the Church grow in truth and in spirit. It doesn’t matter what work we do, whether we are translators, missionaries, garbage men, office workers, nurses, teachers, businessmen, skilled or unskilled laborers: whatever we do, we are called to do it well and to do it to the glory of God. And sometimes it means making difficult choices that will ultimately enhance the kingdom on earth. We have to work out where to draw the line between our responsibilities at home and at work. But through it all, God is with us. He stands with us as we try to figure out how to do it all in a world that demands so much from us.
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