We are steadily inching nearer to the verses that reveal why the letter from Paul to Philemon was written. It shocks us in 2020. Especially during this year when slavery has rightly been at the forefront of our conversations and actions. Here it is in the Bible.
Philemon was a good man and he was a slave-owner!
We will get to this but for today let’s read some more things Paul says.
“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (Philemon 8-11)
The purpose of this letter is to convince Philemon to forgive one of his slaves and to reconcile with him.
Love above the Law
- As an Apostle he had the authority to command Philemon to set Onesimus free. But he chooses the path of love. The law will get the result but love will go above and beyond, it will go the extra mile. The law doesn’t involve the motivation and the attitude, the heart and the spirit. Love involves all those.
- Paul uses the power of persuasion rather than the push of power. He uses emotion, he is pulling on Philemon’s heart strings. “I’m an old man, a prisoner.” He is asking Philemon to look on an old friend. It is a ‘do this for me even if you really should do it anyway.” It is a masterclass.
- More than that, Paul models to Philemon what he wants him to do. He is coming to him, appealing to him with love, on the basis of love and for love. Isn’t that so refreshingly challenging? Don’t we need more of that? It is like the Son of God washing feet. If you want to see change then model change. Let it start now, today, with you. Demonstrate it.
Trapped yet involved in freedom
Your circumstance do not have to be perfect for you to be used of God to help someone else even in similar circumstances.
Paul is in chains. Onesimus is chained to Philemon figuratively so.
We don’t know how Onesimus became his son whilst Paul was in chains. There are many theories which can be summarised into either Onesimus ran away or Philemon sent him to look after Paul in prison. Let your imagination run wild! But Paul calls him “my son” which is a clear indicator in line with his other writings that he led Onesimus to Christ. Onesimus, the slave, found freedom in Christ because of an old man trapped in chains. Isn’t that a beautiful picture? That tells us that no matter what is going on behind the scenes of your life, to model something doesn’t mean it has to come from a place of perfection, you can be a huge help to those who have their own ‘chains’ for freedom is not circumstantial it is all of the heart. You may be stuck and be free and you can be free and stuck. Chains don’t define you. In fact chains can be your servant. You can use them for the glory of God. The whole word may judge you and think God has left you to rot in a prison and yet your chains can help an ordinary soul who needs to find his own freedom. It may look like you are trapped and yet you have never been so free and daily you are involved in the work of freedom.
This leads us to the final thought ….
Your destiny is in who you are
The meaning of the name Onesimus means ‘useful’ or ‘beneficial’.
How amazing then is this? “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me”
Prior to Paul knowing him he was a useless slave to Philemon. Can you imagine being called something which no one believes you are?
My best story to illustrate this point is this:
In October, 2011, a deeply moving story was circulating in the press about a name-changing ceremony for girls in Mumbai, India. At birth the 285 girls had been named Nakusa or Nakushi, which means Unwanted in the primary Indian language of Hindi. The name Unwanted is widely given to girls across India where families often value sons much more than daughters. As a result, female babies have been aborted or neglected at an alarming rate.
But the renaming ceremony was an attempt to give the girls a new identity. The article reported, “The 285 girls—wearing their best outfits with barrettes, braids and bows in their hair—lined up to receive certificates with their new names along with small flower bouquets.” Some of the girls chose new names that mean prosperous, beautiful, good, or even “very tough.” One girl who had been named Nakusa by her grandfather who was disappointed in her birth said, “Now in school, my classmates and friends will be calling me by this new name, and that makes me very happy.”
Useful you have not lived up to that name or been recognised for many years but today I call that name into being and declare that you are indeed useful!
Again the theories roll out based on the question on how Onesimus became useful to Paul. But we don’t need to know though the imagination is fun.
This powerful and delightful Indian story pales into insignificance with the identity change that Jesus Christ brings to people who put their trust in Him. We have a new beginning! Today, you are more than what others may not even recognise. You are useful! He is using you in more ways than perhaps you appreciate!