Paul’s letter to Philemon is a personal appeal to his friend regarding the slave, Onesimus. Apparently Onesimus had run away from his master, which was a crime punishable by death under Roman law. At the same time, Onesimus may have stolen some of Philemon’s goods. While on the run, Onesimus met Paul and was converted to Christ. Paul convinced Onesimus to return to his master, and this letter was Paul’s way of encouraging Philemon to accept Onesimus back, not only as his slave, but also as his brother in Christ (Phe. 15-16).
As Paul sought to persuade Philemon to receive Onesimus, he made a play on the slave’s name, which means “useful.” In vs. 10-11 Paul said, “I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.” When Onesimus was serving Philemon he was literally useful to him. When he ran away, he became useless to Philemon. Then, when he became a Christian, this “useless” slave became useful to Paul in his imprisonment. Now, as Paul was sending him back to his master, Onesimus would once again be useful to Philemon.
The transformation of this slave from useless to useful is an illustration of the power of God’s word to change our character. As an unbelieving slave Onesimus thought only of himself. This is why he ran away from Philemon. When he became a Christian, however, he learned from Paul the importance of humble service, and of the need to render faithful service as a slave of Christ. The slave who returned to Philemon was no doubt a much better slave than he had ever been.
This same transformation must take place in each one who becomes a disciple of Christ. When we are outside of Christ Paul says that we have no hope and are without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). In this state, covered in sin, we are useless to God and to His kingdom. We are like Onesimus when he ran away from Philemon. If we continue in this state, we will never be useful for godly things, and our end will be in the lake of fire, which is the second death (Rev. 20:14-15).
However, when we become Christians, we begin the transformation that makes us useful to God, to His kingdom, and to our fellow Christians. Peter spoke of this in 2 Pet. 1:5-8. He said, “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Peter likened new Christians to newborn babies (1 Pet. 2:1-3). However, newborn babies are not useful in the kingdom unless and until they add the virtues that make them useful in the Lord’s service. If one does not grow and mature in the faith, as the scriptures require, then he is useless and unfruitful in the kingdom. This is not acceptable to the Lord, because we are all expected to make the transformation from useless to useful as we grow in the faith.
Therefore, like Onesimus, we must be transformed from useless to useful. Paul helped Onesimus make this transformation by personally teaching him how to be useful in the kingdom. Today we learn the same lesson by devoting ourselves to God’s word. In Rom. 12:1-2 Paul said, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” So then, let us follow Paul’s command so we will not be useless, but will be useful in the Lord’s service.