I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, 11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me, (1:10-11).
One chapter. A personal letter from one friend to another. I find it interesting that God would include such a letter in His God-Breathed Word; but He has assured us that everything written is for our instruction.
For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4).
And all that was written for our instruction was inspired by Him to teach, reprove, correct and train us in righteousness.
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, (2 Timothy 3:16).
While attention is given in this letter to the relationships between Paul and Philemon, Paul and Onesimus, and Philemon and Onesimus, the spotlight really lands on the relationship between God and man.
To begin with, note the meaning of the name Onesimus, especially in light of the intentionality in giving names in Biblical times.
Onesimus: “3682. Ὀνήσιμος Onḗsimos; gen. Onēsímou, masc. proper noun. Onesimus, meaning useful. A slave of Philemon in whose behalf Paul wrote the epistle to Philemon (Col. 4:9). It seems that he fled from his master (Phile. 1:15), but when he returned, he was a Christian. His conversion was brought about through Paul at Rome (Phile. 1:10),” Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance.
And the NIV Study Bible comments on Paul’s writing on verse 11: “useless … useful. A play on the meaning of Onesimus’s name.”
Through Onesimus, we are reminded of God’s original intention for His creation, man was created with purpose, created to be Useful in tending His creation; Useful through relationship with his Creator God and with others; and Useful in such a way that would bring God glory.
And in this story between Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, we see a beautiful depiction of God’s plan of salvation. Created to be Useful; becoming Useless in his slavery to sin and severing relationship with his Master; begotten through the sufferings of his Master’s Gift, His only begotten Son, and through faith in His sacrifice, Transformed from Useless to Useful for His purpose and glory.
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation, (2 Corinthians 5:17-18).
Consider Him Who Transforms the Useless
- He Transforms the Useless to walk in love and faith toward Jesus and the saints.
- I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; (1:4-5).
- He Transforms the Useless to be Useful to Him and others.
- who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me, (1:11).
- He Transforms the Useless to serve Him by our own free will.
- but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. (1:14).
- He Transforms the Useless to be set free to become a part of the family of God.
- no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (1:16).
- He Transforms the Useless to accept one another the way Christ accepts us.
- If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; 17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. (1:17).
- He Transforms the Useless to show forgiveness and mercy to others as He has shown us.
- But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; (1:18).
- He Transforms the Useless to live in selfless obedience beyond what is even required.
- Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say, (1:21).
How do we respond to Him Who Transforms the Useless?
Paul’s focus seemed to be on the former slave, but his admonition was to Philemon as he described the Transformed Useless slave who had been set free to be Useful to the body of Christ.
Paul’s words would be a reminder to Philemon of the Transforming work his Savior had accomplished in his own life, as well as a call to extend the same grace he himself had received when he placed his faith in Christ.
This personal letter, written from one friend to another, is a testament to God’s Absolute, Eternal Truth: there is no one who is bound by their past when made new through faith in Christ.
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. (2 Corinthians 5:17).
So, how might we respond? Let us commit to hold no one, ourselves included, bound to the past; for God doesn’t. It is only Him Who Transforms the Useless and He commands us to let go of the past.
“Do not call to mind the former things,
Or ponder things of the past.
19 “Behold, I will do something new,
Now it will spring forth;
Will you not be aware of it?
I will even make a roadway in the wilderness,
Rivers in the desert,” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
It is His Transforming work that does something new in every born-again believer. Our work is to let go of our past and to go for the goal of His upward call in Christ.
Oh, may we press on in faith that we would become Useful for His purposes here on earth. It is a lifelong goal that requires perseverance, but it is the worthiest of life’s ambitions. Oh let us let go of what is behind as we aim for what He has for us ahead, that we might bring glory to our Gracious God Who Transforms the Useless.
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, (Philippians 3:13-14).