Faith: No longer useless: A lesson from Philemon

The “book” of Philemon is the shortest in the Bible.

It is basically a one-page letter, written by the Apostle Paul to Philemon, a wealthy merchant and host of the house church in the city of Colossae (modern western Turkey).

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The reason for Paul’s letter is a plea for forgiveness on behalf of Philemon’s slave, Onesimus.

Onesimus was a runaway. Although the reason is not made specific, the text implies that Onesimus had stolen a substantial amount of money, and probably used some of it to buy passage to Rome.

A likely scenario is that Onesimus was remiss in his duties and was criticized for laziness or shoddy work by Philemon.

Rather than reform his behaviour, he decides to relieve his master of a sum of money and flee to the big city.

While in Rome, he meets Paul who is imprisoned there. Onesimus undergoes a conversion experience after his meeting with Paul and becomes extremely useful to him.

Paul uses a play on words to emphasize Onesimus’ new status. Onesimus means “useful” in Greek, but of course he became worse than useless when he stole his master’s money and fled to Rome.

Paul writes, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”

There is an additional play on words in the original Greek. The specific Greek word for useless is “achrestos”, which is very close to Christos (Christ).

In other words, previously Onesimus was “without Christ,” but now he is “euchrestos”, i.e. “full of Christ”. This type of word play is common in rabbinic writing, of which Paul was a master.

Under Roman law, a slave owner had complete authority over those he owned. If he chose a severe discipline, up to and including death, that was within his right. So it is no small matter for Paul to return Onesimus to Philemon.

Unlike the other Pauline epistles, which are letters written to a general audience of believers in a specific church, Philemon is personal, written to one individual. One wonders why it became part of the canon of scripture, given its uniqueness.

There are several important themes at play in this letter. The most obvious is the theme of forgiveness.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says that forgiveness is a wonderful idea until he has something to forgive.”

Philemon was wronged by Onesimus and was probably quite angry with him for his dishonesty and theft.

Forgiveness, however, is essential for the restoration of a right relationship between two people.

Failing to forgive, hanging on to resentment, can become an emotional cancer, one I saw a lot of in my former counselling practice.

Advice columnist Ann Landers once wrote, “Resentment is like allowing someone to live rent-free inside your head.”

Forgiveness is not for the other person — it’s for you.

A secondary theme is the role of the spiritual master in relation to a disciple.

Paul writes, “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do…”

Paul reminds Philemon of his authority as a master (“you owe me your very self”), but instead he appeals to him to behave in a Christ-like way, voluntarily doing the right thing.

The most important underlying theme of Philemon, however, is the brotherhood of all believers.

Paul writes, “I am sending him…no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”

Some think that Paul was implying that Philemon should free Onesimus — perhaps that is so.

It was clear he wished Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother in the Lord, not a piece of property.

In his separate letter to the believers at Colossae, Paul writes, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all….Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Christianity is a faith which erases ethnicity, social distinctions, employment status, etc.

All are equal in Christ and must be treated as brothers and sisters.

It is this kind of teaching that has had tremendous appeal to the downtrodden of the world.

Finally, the book of Philemon is important because it is a reminder that before our own conversion, we were all like Onesimus — useless to our Lord and Master and slaves to sin.

In this sense, Onesimus is a metaphor for us all.

But Christ forgave us everything, and welcomed us as brothers and sisters in the Lord.

But the onus is ours, now that we are “useful,” to share our faith and work tirelessly for the kingdom of God.

And that, my friends, is why this little “book” is such an important part of our Bible.

KTW welcomes submissions to its Faith page. Columns should be between 600 and 800 words in length and can be emailed to Please include a very short bio and a photo.

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