Monday, October 13, 2014


Philemon 11, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.”

Philemon is unique amongst Paul’s epistles inasmuch as it represents a personal letter from Paul to Philemon regarding a very practical and personal matter.  The letter gives us some insight into Paul’s way of dealing with such matters and speaks also to the gospel’s ability to transform lives and relationships.

Philemon was a well-to-do slave owner who resided in Colossae.  At some time during Paul’s ministry there Philemon heard the gospel and was saved.  Paul expressed thanksgiving to God for the faith and love that Philemon had demonstrated (Cf. Philemon 4-7).  One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had fled to Rome.  He somehow came in contact with the Apostle Paul and then became a believer (Cf. Philemon 10).  Onesimus became very dear to Paul and ministered to his needs while he was in prison (Cf. Philemon 12-13).  Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus with him, but he knew that Onesimus’ situation needed to be addressed.  Onesimus had wrongfully deserted his master.  So Paul wrote to Philemon exhorting him to receive Onesimus back, but “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 16).  Paul did not compel Philemon to abide by his wishes, but rather appealed to his “goodness” that he might respond of his “own accord” (Philemon 14).  Paul also reminded Philemon of that which he owed Paul, by way of having heard the gospel through Paul’s ministry (Cf. Philemon 19).  Paul’s loving concern for his brothers, Philemon and Onesimus, was such that he himself was willing to repay anything owed by Onesimus to Philemon (Cf. Philemon 18-19).

What’s striking in the account is the transformative power of the gospel in the lives of all involved.  Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus were all men who had been saved through its influence.  Their salvation worked to radically alter their lives and their relationships.  In an interesting “God’s providence” kind of thing, Onesimus’ name actually meant “useful or profitable.”  It was a name commonly given to bondservants by masters undoubtedly in the hope that they’d live up to it.  That was his name, but in his escape from Philemon he became “useless” to him (Cf. Philemon 11).  We should note that the lost sinner finds himself in a similar situation before His Creator.  We are created to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” but with respect to our intended purpose we are “useless” before Him.  Romans 3:12, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless.”  It by salvation in Christ alone that we can be made otherwise.  2 Timothy 2:21, “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.”

Onesimus was made “useful” to both Paul and Onesimus through God’s intervention in his life.  One can imagine him as a fugitive looking over his shoulder fearful lest he be found out.  Burdened by a guilty conscience, and if not for wrongfully escaping from his master, at least for the other sins which he had done.  Where was he to go?  What was he to do?  But God intervened on his behalf and somehow brought him to Paul.  He heard the message of the gospel—how Christ died for his sins and rose from the dead (Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).  How he could be saved from his sins through faith in Christ (Cf. Acts 16:31).  And he believed.  And he was saved.  And he was made useful.  By God’s grace he was conformed to his name.  He was made “useful” to Paul.  That former slave became very dear to Paul.  He is referred to in the book of Colossians as “our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you” (Colossians 4:9).  In an ever-expanding role of usefulness to God, he was made useful to Paul, to Philemon, and to the entirety of the church in Colossae.  By God’s grace Onesimus, a former fugitive slave, was privileged to have his name recorded in God’s inspired Word for us to read about 2000 years later.  His story epitomizes God’s ability to make us useful to Him and others through the saving and transforming influence of the gospel.

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