Look: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (Philemon 1:11)
“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” (Philemon 1:18)
(1) Onesimus, whose name means useful, has undergone a transformation. Paul says that he has been moved from uselessness to his master, Philemon, to being useful. Today a myth prevails in the West, under the influence of pop psychology, that people don’t change. Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus has changed. The gospel changes people.
(2) Compelled by the gospel of Christ that has changed him from an enemy of God to a friend (Colossians 1:21-22; Romans 5:10), Paul pledges that he will repay Philemon for anything that Onesimus has cost him.
It’s believed that Onesimus was a runaway slave and that he ran after stealing from his master, Philemon. But, in running, Onesimus ran right under the influence of Paul, who had earlier been instrumental in Philemon’s conversion to faith in Christ.
After hearing and experiencing the gospel through Paul, Onesimus too became a Christian. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon reluctantly, with a plea that this once-useless slave could now become Philemon’s useful friend “as a brother in the Lord” (v.16). (Paul also refuses to pull rank on Philemon. Although “in Christ…[he] could be bold and order” [Philemon 1:8] Philemon to free Onesimus, Paul instead chooses to appeal to Philemon “on the basis of love” [Philemon 1:9]). Paul goes completely to bat for Onesimus.
Listen: Several important truths emerge for me from this encounter with God in His Word.
(1) The Gospel has the power to transform us from people leading useless, vain lives to people whose lives have purpose and meaning. That’s exactly what Jesus has come into our world to make possible through His death and resurrection. Paul writes in Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)
This morning, I was upset with myself for the intractability and recurrence of the sins I seem to specialize in, as well as for my stubborn bad habits. This is one of the things I discussed with God during the “STOP” portion of my quiet time.
I get discouraged with myself, ignoring the fact that while I may battle with the same bad old stuff, I can take consolation from two facts: (1) When I look back over the decades of my walk with Christ, I can see the ways in which He has impacted me positively, to use a non-existent word, Christwardly; (2) I am in the battle. I haven’t surrendered to my sins and bad habits; I seek each day to surrender to Christ.
If I weren’t in the battle, I wouldn’t feel the need to repent while reading Scripture or while praying or during conversations with maturing Christian. The surest indicator that I am seeking to follow Christ is guilt...not shame...but guilt. It’s guilt that prompts repentance and nudges me to confession, the experience of grace, and a closer walk with Christ. (This isn’t a license for sin, of course. Paul dealt with this issue when he wrote in Romans 6:1-4: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”) Our call is to cover ourselves in Christ through daily surrender to Christ as He renews us more deeply into His own image.
The most prominent dynamic of Christian discipleship is change. The disciple is always changing. If they’re not changing, they’re no longer following Jesus. They’re deluding themselves with the idea that they’ve arrived, that they no longer need to be covered in Christ’s righteousness. This leads either to self-righteousness or spiritual indifference.
But none of us, not even spiritual giants, “arrive” before we leave this life. Until that time, God has work to do on us.
So, my despair over my intractable sins and bad habits, the things that make me “useless” to God and the world is unwarranted. I belong to Jesus Christ. I turn to Him in daily repentance and renewal of the covenant He made with me at my baptism. I am in the battle. The damnation of my imperfection that Satan, my sin-distorted conscience, and the world seek to hand out to me be damned.
Jesus Christ is alive and I belong to Him despite the sins and flaws I daily ask Him to forgive and take away. As long as I’m in the battle against the old Mark, all is well. That’s incredibly comforting!
(2) It’s my responsibility as a Christian and a Christian servant-leader to go to bat for those others may dismiss, ignore, marginalize. I need to be an advocate for those Christians others may be inclined to dismiss, leave out, insult. I need to stand with those Christians whose faith others may doubt.
Paul went to bat for Onesimus. He was willing to repay Philemon for whatever damages to or loss of property Philemon experienced as a result of Onesimus’ actions.
When I was a young and very, very immature Christian (today I’m just a very immature Christian, I think, by the grace of God), Martha Schneider, a sixty year old-plus member of the church where I came to faith, put up with my twenty-something infantile behavior. She discipled me. She mentored me. She even came to see some of my behaviors which she’d once seen as useless and disrespectful as useful.
When others may have been inclined to give up on me, Martha didn’t. She taught me about Jesus, grace, prayer, and resilient faith. She saw my potential and she was an instrument by which God brought changes to my life: deepened faith, an openness to God’s call, a love of prayer. She was Paul to my Onesimus.
Respond: Father, You haven’t given up on me. Help me to not give up on You or the changes Your Holy Spirit can bring to me as I humbly bring my life to You each day in Jesus’ name. And help me not to give up on anyone, to pray for and to witness to those not yet converted to Christ and to stand with those who confess Christ who may be misunderstood or regarded with fear or suspicion by other Christians for their sketchy track records. Fill me with Your Holy Spirit again today, so that You guide my thoughts, words, and actions. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]