“From Useless to Useful” (Philemon 8-22)

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The Epistle to Philemon is a personal letter. So, Philemon does not teach about the faith. It doesn’t teach the doctrine of Christianity, either. In the early church, believers wrote short letters like Philemon. But, these letters are not included in the canon. So why did people include this short letter in the canon? Aren’t you curious?

Letters in the 1st century were usually very short. Interestingly enough, Philemon is longer than the letters of that time. Most of the letters in the New Testament are longer than the letters of that time. So, the letters in the New Testament are not typical of the letters of that time.

The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to a specific individual named “Philemon.” This letter is about another individual named “Onesimus.”

Ignatius, a leader in the early church, wrote many letters. In one of his letters, Ignatius mentions the name “Onesimus.” Ignatius describes Onesimus as an overseer in Ephesus. Many scholars argue that this Onesimus is the same Onesimus mentioned in Paul’s letter.

Onesimus was a slave of Philemon in Colossae. He stole from Philemon and ran away, but he was caught in Rome and thrown into prison. In prison, Onesimus heard the gospel. Do you guess who shared the gospel with him? Yes, Paul. Paul preached the gospel even in prison. He was crazy. He was crazy about sharing the gospel no matter where he was. In fact, Onesimus became a completely new person.

In the Epistle to Philemon, the Apostle Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus, his runaway slave, and to accept him back as a brother in Christ. Philemon read Paul’s letter and forgave Onesimus. Philemon accepted Onesimus as a brother in Christ and even treated him as his fellow worker. As a result, Onesimus became an overseer in Ephesus. Wow! It’s a tremendous change from a slave to an overseer. It’s a miracle. I believe that this is the power of the gospel. He went from being a slave, a runaway, and a prisoner to a great man of faith. This is probably why Philemon was included in the canon.

Through Philemon, we can learn how a former slave like Onesimus received Jesus and was transformed into a worker of the gospel, eventually becoming a great man of faith. We can also learn how important it is to forgive someone in the name of Christ.

Now let’s get deeper into today’s passage. First of all, in verse 8, Paul is persuading Philemon to do what is right. Paul does not want to command Philemon to do so. Of course, Paul, as an apostle, could have commanded Philemon with authority. But, Paul does not do that. Instead, he appeals to Philemon with love. Paul was a humble man. Although he had the spiritual authority of an apostle, he was not an “authoritarian.”

Moreover, he wisely and effectively used the spiritual authority he had, not forgetting his position as an apostle. In other words, he did not treat the authority given to him by God as worthless, nor did he act lightly as if that authority were nothing. Paul always introduces himself in his letters as follows: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle…” In other words, he first introduces himself as a “servant,” humbling himself like a slave. Then he calls himself an “apostle,” clearly stating the spiritual authority he has.

Onesimus ran away from Philemon. It was wrong of Onesimus to do so. But, Onesimus came to Paul. Although Onesimus was a useless person, he became beneficial to Paul. Paul wanted Onesimus to stay with him and help him. But, Paul had to get permission from Philemon first because Onesimus belonged to Philemon.

In verse 9, Paul describes himself as “an old man” and “a prisoner for Jesus Christ.” Humanly speaking, this is the worst situation. Paul, at the age of about 60, became a prisoner. Moreover, it was not because Paul himself had done wrong, but because he preached the gospel. It could be frustrating and unfair. Nowadays, we can’t say that a 60-year-old man is “old.” He can’t be considered to be an old man. Don’t you think so? For those of you who are in the sixties! You are still young! Amen! For those of you who are in the seventies! You are still young! For those of you who are even in the eighties! You are still young as long as you are in the Spirit!

Anyway, at that time, the age of 60 was considered old. Despite being imprisoned at an advanced age, Paul did not forget the mission given to him by God. At an advanced age, Paul “spiritually” gave birth to Onesimus as his son.

Physically, one cannot bear children at an old age. Similarly, when we are young like in the 20s or in the 30s or even in the 40s, we can bear spiritual children. But it is rare to find Christians who evangelize and bear spiritual children in their 60s. Isn’t that challenging? It means that evangelism is possible even after the age of 60. It means that one can bear spiritual children even if one can no longer bear physical children.

The name “Onesimus” means “useful.” Unfortunately, Onesimus became a runaway slave. So, he was a useless person, not living up to his name. But amazingly, now he is with Paul and has become a useful person. The gospel is God’s power to transform useless people into useful people. A sinner may be useless before God and people, but a saved saint becomes a useful person before God and people. In the past, he was a tree that bore bad fruit, but now he is a tree that bears good fruit.

Paul also wants Onesimus to be “more useful” for the kingdom of God. But, since Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, it was difficult for him to be more useful for the kingdom of God. Paul asks Philemon to help Onesimus be released from his slavery so that he can be more useful for the kingdom of God.

Finally, let’s look at verses 14 to 17. Paul asks Philemon to forgive and accept Onesimus, whom he will send back. He urges Philemon to love him as a brother. He is no longer a slave but a Christian. This is a tremendous demand.

Paul knew what kind of person Philemon was. That’s why he made this request. Paul is trying to persuade Philemon to make the right decision. In this letter, we can see Paul trying not to let Philemon’s decision be influenced by their culture.

Onesimus received great grace and became a faithful assistant to Paul, his spiritual mentor, and Paul genuinely appreciated him. Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him and make him a helper for his ministry, but he wanted to handle everything correctly.

So, in verse 14, Paul says, “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. I think that this verse can be seen as One of the central teachings of the Epistle to Philemon. It is the teaching of “voluntary actions.”

Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, his master. Although Onesimus was a useful and loyal assistant to Paul, Paul knew that he had to send him back to Philemon first because Onesimus belonged to Philemon. No matter how good a deed is, Paul thought it was not good if it was done without the owner’s consent. So, Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him only after receiving Philemon’s consent. Paul wanted Philemon’s good deed to be done not by force but voluntarily. Doing good deeds by compulsion is also a good deed, but God is more pleased with voluntary actions of kindness.

Brothers and sisters! The gospel is the power of God that transforms us from useless people to useful people. It will transform us into useful people especially when we reach out to the people around us. And I am hoping and praying that you would do good deeds for the kingdom of God “voluntarily” rather than “by force.”

Let us pray.

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