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.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.
There are certain moments in life that simply change everything... moments that are so significant that after they occur nothing is ever the same again. Like the moment you hear the preacher say, "I now pronounce you man and wife." Or that first moment you lay eyes on your child. These moments change us. They affects us deeply both because of their innate power and because they are a forerunner of a host of other changes bursting into our lives. In Paul's little letter to Philemon we learn that the most significant of these life changing moments is the moment of salvation.
Onesimus had been a slave in Philemon's household until, severely unhappy in his bonds, Onesimus seized an opportunity to escape. It was dangerous to be a runaway slave in first century Roman society, if caught one could be killed. So Onesimus did what many other runaway slaves did. He did his best to disappear into the crowds of Rome, the largest city in the empire. As providence would have it, Onesimus found himself in the company of the Apostle Paul imprisoned in Rome for the sake of the gospel. Perhaps it was seeing a man so willingly submit to chains for the gospel that caught Onesimus' attention. Either way, Onesimus heard the truth about Jesus from Paul. He was moved by the Spirit, and responded in faith. Onesimus was never the same again.
In verse eleven Paul uses a play on words to describe the significant change that took place in this fugitive's life. The name Onesimus was commonly given to slaves in the first century because it meant "useful." Yet, Paul says that our Onesimus was decidedly useless as a slave. Yet, once he had received the gospel, he was changed. Perhaps for the first time in his life Onesimus found himself wanting to serve others. He began selflessly ministering to Paul's needs and helping in the advance of the gospel. Onesimus was a changed man. Though these details are not recorded in Scripture and therefore are not beyond scrutiny, church tradition tells us that this very same Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus and was eventually martyred for his faith in Rome.
What we learn from Onesimus' life is that the gospel changes everything. It changes who we are. It changes our character. The Apostle Paul certainly knew this. The gospel changed him from a murdering enemy of Jesus to an apostle and great missionary of the faith. He wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: The old has gone, the new is here!" Simply put, if the gospel hasn't changed you, you aren't a Christian. So I must ask. Has the gospel changed you?
Jesus Himself said, "Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matthew 7:22-23) So don't consider what you have accomplished, but what the gospel has accomplished in you. Has the gospel changed you? If not, then allow me to share with you the same powerful truth that the Apostle Paul shared with Onesimus in hopes that the Spirit will use this opportunity to reach down and change your heart today.
All of us have sinned against God, rejected His authority, and gone about living lives our own way. In this way we have made ourselves enemies of God, rightly deserving His wrath and punishment. But God is loving and gracious. So in Jesus He took on the nature of humanity and paid the penalty for our sin. He took our punishment on the cross. He died in our place and then he beat the power of sin and death by his resurrection on the third day. So that "if you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9)
For further reading...
- Philemon- Check out the full letter to Philemon. It's only 25 verses.