Ever feel useless? If you are anything like me—a great sinner in need of an even greater Savior—you may have felt that way from time to time. Well, get ready for a word of cosmic comfort today!
Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 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–I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (Philemon 8-11)
Philemon was a wealthy Christian who lived in Colossae. Slavery was a common practice in the Roman world and Paul had not received a mandate from God to abolish it. However, as several New Testament passages show, Paul intended to transform slavery through the Gospel transforming the way Christian slaves and Christian slave owners related with each other.
A slave belonging to Philemon, named Onesimus, took something of value and ran away from Philemon. Onesimus somehow met Paul in Rome, and through Paul’s teaching, Onesimus became a Christian believer. Now Onesimus needed to do the right thing: return to his owner and face whatever consequences Philemon chose to impose on him.
Onesimus wouldn’t return empty-handed, however. Paul wrote a letter—which we know today as the New Testament epistle “Philemon”—asking the Christian slave owner to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a Christian brother. The name Onesimus means “useful.” Paul was appealing to Philemon’s Christian heart to overlook the offense of Onesimus, who was “useless” without Christ when he ran away, returning now as “useful” because of his faith in Jesus.
Before Jesus shows up, you and I are just as useless, from the perspective of doing anything good that brings honor, praise, and glory to God. We were just like Onesimus: runaway slaves, stubbornly refusing to bow our knee to the King of kings. But once Jesus saves us, we become useful for advancing the cause of the kingdom. We are useless no more, now that we have been redeemed from our slavery to sin in order to rejoice in sonship to our Savior.
Marinate on this for just a moment. After you have been united to Christ by grace through faith, you are useless no more, no matter what you do.
- Abraham lied and he was still USEFUL.
- Jacob schemed and he was still USEFUL.
- Moses was fearful and he was still USEFUL.
- David was an adulterer and a murderer and he was still USEFUL.
- Matthew collected taxes for Rome, stole from his people, and he was still USEFUL.
- Peter denied and he was still USEFUL.
- Thomas doubted and he was still USEFUL.
- Paul persecuted the church and he was still USEFUL.
Once you are in Christ, you are useless no more, regardless of anything you have done, regardless of anything you do or don’t do. To be sure, there are consequences to your behavior, and some of those consequences may follow you for the rest of your life. But you are always fit to be used by God, as long as you are willing to get back up and into the game of life.
In reading the biblical account of Onesimus, it is obvious that the apostle Paul set his affection upon this runaway slave for no reason that was to be found in Onesimus. And that, beloved, is a picture of Jesus . . . and you and me. Jesus set his affection upon us, slaves on the run, for no reason that was in us. Indeed, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
In ancient Rome, the only thing Onesimus deserved was punishment as a slave on the run. Instead he got grace. In our day, we deserved the eternal punishment as slaves on the run. When we trusted in Christ as our Savior, we too got amazing grace. What a beautiful picture of the Gospel—going from useless to useless no more!
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!