I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) Philemon 1:10-11
Paul and Onesimus were cellmates in Rome. The story is told in the book of Philemon. Onesimus was a runaway slave, belonging to Philemon. Philemon was a Christian, and I’m guessing he lived in Colossus, as Paul mentioned Onesimus in Colossians 4:9. Paul wanted Philemon to release Onesimus as a slave so that he could be a messenger for the Gospel once he got out. Onesimus deserved to be executed according to the law, but Paul wanted Philemon to pardon him and to welcome him as a brother.
Onesimus means ‘useful.’ Maybe that wasn’t his real name, but Paul changed it to that. Or maybe that really was his name, given by hopeful parents so he would become someone great. Whether he knew the meaning of his name and was rebelling against it, or whether he knew it but was born in poverty to parents who were slaves, his life was about to change. He could now live up to his name. Onesimus became who he was supposed to be in that prison cell, because God called him by name and he became God’s child.
We are all runaway, useless slaves. We all deserve execution because of our sin. That verdict isn’t just for people in jail, it’s for everyone. Romans 3:23 says it: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We all need a pivot point where we turn from our sin to follow Jesus, turning from the useless pursuits of self interest, to the useful God designed purposes that God has for us. Paul’s pivot point was on the road to Damascus, Onesimus’ was in prison. Neither of them expected this wonderful change, but they got it.
2 Corinthians 5:17 promises, “If anyone is in Christ, he (she) is a new creation. The old is gone and the new has come.” Isn’t that a great promise? God is in the recycling and re-purposing business. He takes all of our previously useless mistakes, random life experiences, and unfulfilled potentials and weaves them together for good. And He makes us useful for His kingdom.
What has been useless in your life that you can give to God to make useful? And, how can you be Paul to someone else, just like Paul was God’s ambassador for Onesimus? Proclaim to them the good news that all is not lost. Your useless, painful experiences can be turned into something good. Your destiny of being headed for destruction because of their sin can be turned around through faith in Jesus and pointed Heavenward.
I love this song by Meredith Andrews, “The Gospel Changes Everything.” Check it out:
*Image from drawception.com