By Raymond Harris
Regarding Scripture: Philemon 1.10-11
Note to the Reader – I encourage you to invest additional time reading the Book of Philemon in conjunction with this article.
Useless to Useful
In order to know uselessness, perhaps it is worth understanding usefulness. What is usefulness? Would it not contain the idea that whatever the good or service, it would be beneficial in accomplishing a task. Consider gardening. Having a plow pulled by a horse is beneficial to the task of preparing the ground, but a motorized tiller is extremely favorable and demonstrates its usefulness to gardening. Also consider the Internet. It has many useless websites, but by whose definition? Generally, the surfer’s. Most websites have the potential to be useful, but they demonstrate their usefulness only when they provide the needed information the surfer is wanting. It is my hope that we can see that usefulness is not limited to gardening implements and the Internet. By looking at Onesimus it is my goal that we learn that Jehovah takes people who were less than useful and makes them useful.
Onesimus: Fails His Name
Onesimus is a name that sounds distinctly Greek; and Strong’s tells us that the name means profitable; and it is Thayer that lets us know that the name also means useful. Interestingly enough, is it speculated that Onesimus, while the name of the slave bound to Philemon, is possibly a “nickname for a slave”.1 While our country rightly frowns upon slavery, it is interesting to see that the possible “nickname” was not only derogatory but dehumanizing. If this “nickname” is true, then this “nickname” reinforces the idea that a slave was never seen as a living breathing person, but was dehumanized to being only useful, useful like a chariot was useful, a slave was something owned in order for the master to achieve a goal. Knowing this, it means that a slave was only useful if they brought profit to their master.
By looking at the meaning of Onesimus we are not trying to disparage Philemon, but it does help us have a better perspective of him. While Philemon is described as one who loves the brotherhood2 and renders aid to the brethren,3 this by inclusion does not necessitate that this same love, generosity and kindness was extended to property, namely to slaves. Slaves had no freedom. They did not travel from location to location or receive shelter from the brotherhood. They had no rights, no privileges. They were bound to their master’s direction and instruction. While we know that Philemon was a Christian and had a church in his home, we also know that when Onesimus fled from Philemon Onesimus was not a disciple.
Knowing the previous, it is plausible that Onesimus could have seen favoritism on Philemon’s part. This inequity would not have been seen as discrimination, instead it would simply have been customary. While this seems critical of Philemon, to permit this possibility gives at least one reason why Onesimus might have become fugitive. As a fugitive Onesimus would no longer be “useful” to Philemon, this provides even stronger emphasis and evidence to Paul’s semantics (his play on words) in verses ten and eleven. Truly, as a slave, he failed his name, Onesimus became useless.
Onesimus: Lives up to His Name
While it may be easier to identify with Onesimus than Philemon, we need to be attentive of Philemon as a master. When my thoughts meander into the following, I am not upholding slavery, it is deplorable, dehumanizing and should not be practiced, yet to best understand Paul’s request of Philemon, the text compels us to understand the then current culture and to consider the difficulty of the request made of Philemon.
While Philemon may have been a kind master, he could still maintain distinction and discrimination between slavery and freedom. Philemon, whether our current culture likes it or not, lost a then current useful part of his household. Onesimus, a non-free person, took power which was not his to take, in doing so he thwarted the authority of a free man. When Onesimus fled, he demonstrated not only disrespect, but also disregard toward Philemon. Onesimus was a slave, he had no rights, no privileges, no authority and no control over his personal life. He was to be useful, not to himself, but to his master.
As a fugitive, Onesimus made his way to Rome. The Scriptures do not reveal why he went to Rome, but does reveal that Colossae was the hometown of Philemon and Onesimus4 with Colloase being over a thousand miles southeast of Rome. Knowing this, Rome must have provided a fugitive with peculiar opportunities because Onesimus took quite a risk to travel that far and seems to have evaded capture the entire way. Yet, when we learn of Onesimus, he has become a disciple and frequent laborer with Paul.
While we are not given the specific length of time that Onesimus was with Paul, the term that the King James translates as season5 seems to indicate that they were together only for a brief period of time, but we are not told the specific time frame. It seems to have been a duration that provided Onesimus the opportunity to prove his value because Paul describes Onesimus as faithful6 and useful,7 two qualities that a master would need in a slave. It must have been a frightening moment when Onesimus realized that his spiritual teacher was sending him back to his master and he would have over a thousand miles to contemplate what would happen the moment he arrived back at Philemon’s. What is important is that Onesimus was given the opportunity to live up to his name, he truly became useful.
So, what is useful? Useful includes but is not limited to concepts, items, persons, people, services, and tasks that render benefit to a given situation. It matters not if the situation is temporal like construction and finances or eternal like faith and spirit. Usefulness provides encouragement and assistance to a goal. Specifically speaking about matters of faith, usefulness is a life transformed by Jehovah from focusing on selfish needs and wants to selfless service and sacrifice. This is what Onesimus became. Since Jehovah can transform a useless Onesimus into a useful Onesimus, Jehovah can transform each and every one of us. By God’s power we too can become profitable, profitable to those around us and profitable to glorifying Jehovah. May the Lord bless us so we too can become profitable servants.
1. Philemon 1.11 Commentary on Name Onesimus; Archaeological Study Bible, New International Version, p. 1980, ISBN-10: 0-310-92605-X.
2. “Philemon loves the brotherhood.” Philemon 1.5, NASB.
3. “Philemon aids the brotherhood.” Philemon 1.7, NASB.
4. “Colossae, home of Philemon and Onesimus.” Onesimus is one of them. Colossians 4.9, NASB; cf. 1.2, NASB.
5. “Length of time, a season.” Philemon 1.15, NASB.
6. “Onesimus is faithful.” Colossians 4.9, NASB.
7. “Onesimus is useful/profitable.” Philemon 1.11b, NASB.