“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” Philemon 10

In the first century, there were many ways that a person might find themselves a slave. It wasn’t necessarily an issue of the color of your skin like in the disappointing American version of slavery. In theory, you could own slaves that you grew up with as equals, if they came into hard times. People could have been forced into slavery because they got defeated by an invading army, if they couldn’t afford to pay their debts, or if they just ran out of options. However, it is my guess that Onesimus was born into a life of slavery. The reason I think this is because of his name. The name Onesimus means, “useful” or “beneficial” in Greek. This just sounds to me like the kind of name that a slave owner would give to a child that he sees as his property. I don’t imagine two young parents dreaming about the life of their baby boy and choosing a name like “Useful.” It’s just too cold and utilitarian. It’s a name given by someone who only cares about how much the slave can produce. I think that Onesimus’ slave owner gave him the name in the hope that he would be “Onesimus” for him.

But he wasn’t. In fact, Onesimus not only ran away, but he might have even stolen some money when he did. Mr. “Useful” actually became quite the opposite to Philemon. He became useless. Now, Paul’s invitation to a former slave owner is that Onesimus can become useful to him again, but not in the same old way. Paul invites Philemon to see Onesimus as an equal, as a brother. A brother’s usefulness is not measured in what they do, but in who they are.

In a lot of ways, this must be how God sees us. He designed us to be useful to God and others. He designed us to be his image-bearers on earth. But because of sin, we have become useless. The only reason that we have any hope of being restored to usefulness in God’s kingdom is that Jesus took the initiative and paid the price for our uselessness. Now, and only because of what Jesus has done for us, we can actually reclaim the name Onesimus. We can actually be useful in the kingdom of God. So, let’s pray that we too can be Onesimus today.

Josh Rose
Teaching Pastor

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