Once useless but now useful (Philemon 8-12)

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Philemon 8-12 8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.

The book of Philemon is one of the shortest written by the Apostle Paul. This letter appeals to Philemon to take back his runaway slave, Onesimus, without retribution. Onesimus had stolen from Philemon before he left to seek his freedom. On this journey to seek freedom from slavery, He encounters the Apostle Paul by divine appointment and finds “true freedom” in Christ alone. 

Once Onesimus receives salvation, he is transformed by the power of the gospel. The freedom which he sought from being a slave, he eventually found and received in Jesus Christ. This meant he would now have to return to his earthly master, not knowing the result of returning, whether it would be back to slavery or receiving retribution for the wrongs he had committed.

His salvation in Christ meant that he knew the right thing to do. He is no longer his old person, but now he is a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Also, Matthew 6:23-26 says, 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Onesimus was useless, meaning that he was unprofitable to his master Philemon. More than that, he was harmful, having wronged his master. But after Onseimus encountered Christ, he is now a profitable godly man, producing fruit spiritually and in this world’s affairs. 

In this new transformed life, Onesimus’ life is fashioned by his love for God. He is useful because now he is in the family of God, no longer an enslaved person but considered a brother in Christ. He is now useful to both Paul and Philemon. This transformation is the power of the gospel. 

The old self has now been transformed into a new creation. He is now returning to his master, who he had wronged. He wants to make things right. Onesimus is now choosing to return to his master, from whom he had tried to escape. He is now “useful” to become a partner with the gospel, both spiritually and externally, because of the transformation of the gospel message. Ultimately it means that Onesimus is now more than an enslaved person and now is a brother in Christ.

Now profitable. “Christianity knows nothing of hopeless cases. It professes its ability to take the most crooked stick and bring it straight, to flash a new power into the blackest carbon, which will turn it into a diamond” (Maclaren, “Philemon,” in “Expositor’s Bible”). Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 3 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), 520.

Likewise, you were useless once, but now you are useful. Ask yourself the question and examine your life transformation from your old life to the new. Or are you still enslaved to your prior passions and evil and trying to find freedom in those rather than the true freedom you already have in Christ? This true freedom is to humbly submit to His love and relationship, resulting in fruitful character change that produces love, peace, joy, and profit in the kingdom of God, walking in the power of the gospel. Amen!

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