Paul’s letter to Philemon may be small in size but it is jam-packed with some amazing truth. In this letter there is a wonderful picture of the gospel through Paul’s relationship with Onesimus (Philemon’s former slave). In this letter we see how God uses circumstances and situations to draw us to Himself and then how He transforms and makes us new through Jesus. Through Philemon’s conversion story we are reminded of God’s amazing grace in our own but we are also given hope that God could do this work in someone else’s life if we take advantage of the opportunity to minister to them just as Paul did with Onesimus.
Starting in verse 10, Paul says to Philemon, “I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus.” Look at how Paul used his circumstance. He saw his imprisonment as his mission field. He took advantage of where God had placed him to minister to a fellow prisoner named, Onesimus. Imagine if Paul spent that time sulking and moaning about how he’d rather be anywhere else. He would have missed the opportunity that God had placed right before him. Paul shared the gospel with this young man and he was saved.
Then Paul describes Onesimus in verse 11, “…who was formerly useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.” Apart from Jesus, this is the condition of each of us. We have nothing to offer God. Our righteous deeds are filthy rags and our strength is useless. In John 15:5 Jesus says, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” When Onesimus came to trust in Jesus Christ, he found his usefulness. This is where each of our usefulness lies, in the realization that we don’t have what we need or what it takes on our own and in placing all of our trust in Christ. It’s interesting, Onesimus’ name actually means “useful” but he only truly lived up to his name when he found Christ.
So, how did Onesimus get to this point? We first see in verses 15-16 that God used the circumstances in his life to bring him to where the God wanted him to be. Paul says, “For perhaps Onesimus was for this reason parted from you for a while that you should have him back forever no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Joseph sees in the book of Genesis that what his brothers meant for evil, God used for his good. The same is true for Onesimus’ life. What Onesimus meant for evil, in the stealing from his master and then running away, God twisted for his good. This brought him to be cellmates with Paul which then led to his conversion and transformed life. This certainly, doesn’t excuse Onesimus’ sin but it shows us God’s control and His love over us “while we were yet sinners.”
Plus, this sin was forgiven through Christ. Paul gives us a picture of Jesus in verses 17-18, “If then you regard me a partner, accept Onesimus as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” This is essentially what Jesus said to the Father, on our behalf, at the cross. All of our sins were charged to Christ’s account. He took them and then paid that account in full with His blood and His death. Jesus then is able to say to the Father, “Accept them as you would me.” This is true for us today, because our debt has been paid, the Father looks at us, loves us, and blesses us the same way He would His Son. Think of what God has taken you from and who He has transformed you to be, think of the situations and circumstances He brought you through to lead you to Himself, and praise Him for the work that He’s done through Jesus on the cross that we would find forgiveness and freedom before Him. Just as Paul stood on behalf of Onesimus, the Lord stands on our behalf. What an amazing truth!
Holding To The One Who Saves, Pastor Rudy