Philemon 1:10-11, I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
As we have seen in the few verses we have covered already, Paul is relying on Philemon’s established character in the Lord, his love and care for the saints that meet in his home as a fledgling church and his support for those he calls brothers and sisters. Paul now gets to the “meat” or substance of his letter and thus his heartfelt appeal.
In the original language the name Onesimus actually comes last. The verse could best be rendered thus: “I am appealing to you concerning my child whom I became the father of during my imprisonment, Onesimus.” (LEB).
I can just imagine, Philemon, already in a state of mind while thinking of his friend and mentor, Paul and reading Paul’s kindhearted words and then reading of a “son” of his while in chains. Philemon most likely knew that Paul referred to most all of those he had a part in converting to Christ as sons or daughters, so it probably didn’t surprise him much, until the Apostle dropped the name, Onesimus, the slave that ran away!
Can you even begin to imagine the thought process that must have been going on in Philemon’s mind? He must have been completely and totally surprised and disarmed. We all know what it’s like to hear something that we least expect, that takes us by total surprise! Can you imagine his surprise when the name of that rascal, Onesimus was mentioned? The thoughts that must have been immediately going through his mind. Yet right there, the Apostle calls Onesimus his son, whom he had “begotten while in chains.” Paul was relaying to Philemon that somehow Paul had led Onesimus to Christ Jesus.
Somehow, some way, when Onesimus ran away and escaped, he ran into Paul while in Rome. A Greek tradition that was more-or-less adopted by the Romans was that a slave could find sanctuary at an altar. It could even be in the home of a private family and the head of that household would give protection to the slave while trying to convince them to return to their master. If the slave refused, often times, the slave would be auctioned off and the funds received given to the slaves old master. So how fortuitous that through Providence, Onesimus found his way to Paul, who was then in the process of trying to work the issue out with his friend Philemon.
As so many other examples in the Bible, the Word of God, we see due to the focus of hindsight, that God ALWAYS works things out for the best! (Romans 8:28). In Onesimus’ case and even for Philemon, the circumstance couldn’t be better as we shall explore as we go along. Just to consider the hand of God in this circumstance, Paul was the one who also led Philemon to Christ and now through such great odds, the Apostle also led his friends slave to Christ! There is no such thing as luck or coincidence in a Christian’s life. A disciple of Jesus Christ does not believe in those things when you recognize and realize that our steps truly ARE ordered of the Lord! (Proverbs 16:9; Psalm 37:23).
In one of my favorite commentary’s I found this in regards to this situation:
One of the hidden delights of the Christian life is to see God working in marvelous, miraculous ways, revealing Himself in converging circumstances that cannot be explained by coincidence or chance.
So now, you can begin to understand the Apostle’s train of thought in the first few opening verses. Both Philemon AND Onesimus were converted to Christ through the Apostle’s service! They were now not just master and slave, which still held true in the secular or natural sense, but now they were blood-bought brothers in service to Christ Jesus! I am tickled just writing this as I glance at the verses! What an awesome God we truly serve!
One of the things that I love to do in most of my studies is to take a look at the original words used. Now mind you, I do not spend a lot of time looking up the Hebrew and the Greek for the simple truth is, I’m just not a scholar. I’m more of a student and I do love to learn new things; so when I see a reference to a word or a word or phrase used that intrigues me, I’m like the guy who gets a bit distracted and follows the proverbial rabbit!
Onesimus’ name was one such instance. There’s a lot that can be inferred from someone’s name. I guess it goes back to my own childhood and what I learned about my own name. In this case however, the name Onesimus was at the time of the Apostle Paul a fairly common name for slaves. It’s really not clear if that is the name many were given at birth or if it was more of a “nickname” due to the situation of their lives.
It’s actually a phenomenon that is pretty common. Even today, many names are derived from occupations or skills though they weren’t necessarily given because of perspective career hopes in parent’s children. However, there actually is a greater than coincidence of people whose names are common in the types of work they do and there are actually grammatical terms used by linguists (those who study words and their origins) to describe that.
For instance, a “euonym,” from the Greek eu meaning ‘good’ and onym ‘name’, literally means a good name. It’s more commonly defined as a name well suited to the person, place or thing named. But furthermore there is also a term named an “aptronym,” which is a name that is aptly suited to its owner, or an “aptonym,” a proper name that aptly describes the occupation or character of the person, especially by coincidence. So it is evident that it is far from a new thing that a person’s name fits his or her position in life. All I can say is, interesting!
However, there was a point in this little language lesson and evidently the very educated, such as Paul was, back in his time, were very familiar with the meanings of people’s names.
The name Onesimus means “useful” or “profitable”; the Greek word for “useful,” euchrēstos, sounds like the Greek word for “Christ,” christos; and the Greek word for “useless,” achrēstos, sounds like the Greek word achristos, meaning “without Christ.” These wordplays advance Paul’s appeal: Since Onesimus is now part of God’s people, Philemon should treat him primarily as his brother in Christ, not just as his slave.
Now I want you to think about this overall situation for a moment. This is what makes studying the Word of God so enjoyable to me and it should to you as well. The supposed “profitable or useful” Onesimus was probably in Philemon’s mind, nothing but a useless scoundrel! Paul probably realized that to a slave owner, it would only be natural for someone to think that, so in his brilliance and his wisdom, the dear Apostle was making a play on Onesimus’ name that would probably get Philemon’s mind on another track! Again, so very evident that the Holy Spirit was at work, not just in the writing of the letter, but what would play out in Philemon’s mind!
Paul reminds his friend that yes, the “useful” one was not very useful or profitable at all, but now because of his conversion to Christ and all the spiritual changes that accompany that conversion, Onesimus would now live up to his name. Paul expands his thoughts by the statement that “now he’s profitable to you and to me.” Paul is letting Philemon know that it isn’t just Philemon that Onesimus is now useful to, but is also useful to Paul. In other words, he was a much better slave AND person, who was returning than the one who had run away to escape.
This is usually the case even today when considering employer and employee relationships. A Christian worker is more likely to be a much better employee than one who doesn’t have any scruples or disciplines in his life. There are those teachers and commentators who surmise that in the early New Testament times, Christian slaves garnered a higher price for their services than others. It should stand therefore that the same thing holds true today in the work market that a Christian employee should be much more valuable than unbelieving employees.
But here is the intriguing thing; Paul is telling Philemon that in the future, Onesimus would be much more profitable or useful to him, but right now he is useful to Paul. The Apostle adds Onesimus’ usefulness to his own self as well. In essence, Philemon’s friend is telling him that yes, he will be worthwhile to you when he comes back, but he’s already worthwhile to me now and could be in the future.
So what is the Apostle getting at? One thing, he’s already making a commendation concerning Onesimus’ character which in turn should soften the blow upon Onesimus’ return to the household of Philemon. A commendation from the Apostle, though he has made it clear he is writing as a friend and a brother and not an authority figure, would most likely still carry a lot of weight in Philemon’s mind.
So, “useful” was not so useful at first but is now going to be more than useful in the future all because of Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit. I love the wordplay, but more than that, in those simple few words the Apostle is laying out an awesome spiritual fact concerning the changes that take place in the lives of those who accept Christ Jesus as Lord!
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. – 2 Corinthians 5:17.