Now He Has Become Useful
Philemon 8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul--an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (NIV)
Paul is writing to Philemon, who hosts a house church in Colossae. The time is during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, about 64 A.D. Philemon is likely a man of property and influence, since he heads a household of numerous relatives and owned at least one slave. He was later to become the Bishop of Colossae and died as a martyr under Nero, as did Paul and Peter.
In this letter, Paul is addressing the situation of Onesimus. Onesimus is not to be confused with Paul’s fellow Christian worker Onesiphorus of Ephesus, who is mentioned in 2 Timothy. Onesimus was a slave of Philemon’s. He was a runaway, and showed up with Paul, in Rome. Philemon likely does not know that Onesimus has joined up with Paul until he receives this letter.
Paul brings up the subject of Onesimus by writing that he could approach the subject from a position of authority. Paul was Philemon’s spiritual leader, since he led him to Christ and discipled him. Even though Paul is “in Christ”, a Christian, he could be “bold” and insist that Philemon comply to his “order” to act like the Christian that he is (v. 8).
However, Paul probably remembers the words of Christ, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). So, instead of ordering Philemon, Paul decides to appeal to him “on the basis of love” (v. 9a). He appeals to Philemon to show love for this “old man” who is a “prisoner”, both literally and theologically speaking, "of the Lord." Paul is about sixty years old at the time of this writing. He is likely more “old” because of the wear and tear on his body through persecution suffered for the Lord than chronologically speaking.
After softening up Philemon, Paul gets to the subject of his appeal. His appeal is for his spiritual “son”, Onesimus (v. 10a). He became Paul’s spiritual son while Paul “was in chains” (v. 10b). This is an indication that Paul led Onesimus to Christ while Paul was in chains in prison, prior to being assigned to house arrest.
Onesimus previously had been “useless” to Philemon (v. 11a). The literal Greek for verse 11a is “The one then to you useless.” Paul is saying that before he was a Christian Onesimus did not do the best of work. “But now he has become useful both to you and to me” (v. 11b) means that Onesimus is now a good worker, since he became a Christian. Christian slaves brought higher bids in the auctions due to their reputations for being better workers.
Onesimus had become a helper to Paul. He was providing services to Paul, either to meet his personal needs or, perhaps, he was helping with the work of ministry. Either way, he was of value to the work of the Lord, and to Paul. One man’s “useless” runaway slave was now a valuable worker in promoting the gospel. Onesimus had obviously become very important to Paul, prompting him to intervene with Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf.
The story of Onesimus is a valuable lesson for us all. No matter our plight in life we can always be used by the Lord. When we give ourselves to Him, He can make beauty out of ashes. The only ability we need to do the work of the Lord is availability. We just need to say “Here I am God, use me.” We may start out in what we think is not too important of a role, but every role is important to God. As we continue to show our faithfulness, God will continue to give us more responsibility. And then, one day, someone, like Paul, might shout our praises to the Lord, saying “Formerly he was useless to You, but now he has become useful.”
Online Bible Commentary