ARE YOU ONESIMUS?
Paul’s letter to his dear friend and fellow worker Philemon is short, but full of big lessons for all of us. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave who apparently ran away. Perhaps he had also stolen from Philemon. At some point while Paul was in prison in Rome, Onesimus met up with Paul and was converted to Christ. Paul’s letter is an appeal to Philemon to receive Onesimus, who is returning to him, as a brother and no longer as a slave.
By law, Philemon had every right to hold Onesimus accountable and demand repayment of all he had taken and to further punish him for running away. Although Paul could have commanded Philemon to do what he was asking, but he preferred to entreat Philemon as an old, imprisoned man simply asking another good man to do the right thing.
An interesting play on a word is incorporated by Paul to enhance his position. He informs Philemon in verse 11 that Onesimus had been useless to Philemon, but now he was useful to Philemon as well as to Paul. The name Onesimus means useful. Paul is sending Onesimus back to his owner, but he would have been happy to have just kept Onesimus with him to be a help during his imprisonment. We aren’t told how Philemon responded to Paul’s epistle, but my assumption is he did what Paul asked. Onesimus was far more useful to Philemon as a Christian than he had been as a slave.
Onesimus is an everyman because each of us is like Onesimus. We have failed in our service to the Master (God) and in so doing have fled thinking we can escape His wrath and grasp. We deserve to be held accountable and suffer the penalty of our crimes (sins). God, instead of punishing us as we deserve, forgives us our debts and puts us to work in His kingdom.
Like Onesimus, formerly useless, may we now be useful to God and to our brothers and sisters. How great the blessing when God can say we are useful to Him. We should long to hear our Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,” (Matt. 24:21, 23).
We cannot be useful in rebellion, alienated from God. Nor are we useful when we stubbornly follow our own ways and not the Lord’s. When our past sins and uselessness has been forgiven and forgotten by God, we must “roll up our sleeves” and get to work.
While the name Onesimus is not often given to a child today, may we all aspire to be Onesimus each day of our lives. “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," (2 Tim. 2:21).