Based on data from
people applying for Social Security cards for their children, the most popular baby names for boys are: Liam, Noah, Oliver, Elijah, James, William, Benjamin,
Lucas, Henry, and Theodore.
But no Onesimus.
That’s too bad. Although it’s a little long at four consonants (you’d probably have to come up with a shortened
version), it’s a good name. You might recognize it as the name of someone Paul
writes about in his brief letter to Philemon.
The story in Philemon is as captivating as it is controversial. Paul is in prison and Onesimus in with him. He has recently become a follower of Jesus Christ. He is the runaway slave of Philemon—the disciple Paul is writing.
It’s a delicate situation for Paul. He would like Onesimus to continue to take care of his needs but not without Philemon’s agreement to the arrangement. Philemon is a “dear friend and fellow worker” (v. 1). Paul speaks of Philemon’s “partnership with us in the faith” (v. 6).
Beyond these matters, there’s the huge, multifaceted, and troublesome issue of slavery to deal with. Paul’s general policy was to encourage transformative Christian behavior among masters and slaves (see Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1; 1 Timothy 6:12; Titus 2:9).
But I don’t think it’s difficult to see that the situation with Philemon is different. As opposed to writing to churches in mass and in effect, setting a policy across the Empire, in Philemon he’s dealing with an individual situation where he knows all of the particulars. That is why, contrary to his general instruction to the churches,
he not only asks for Onesimus to be allowed to continue to minister to him in
prison (v. 12-14), but that Onesimus’ status be changed and he be recognized
“no longer as a slave” (v. 16).
It’s clear to me from these texts that Paul was taking a less than ideal situation and seeking to make it work for everyone. (It seems to me, this is the kind of thing we need more of, not less of). Everybody and his brother tell us as soon as “X” happens, their world will be perfect and they will be able function spectacularly. Consequently, they
spend all their time praying for X to happen and are little good for anything
else. But the wise and seasoned among us seem to always be able to figure out a
way to serve and glorify God no matter what their circumstances might be. This
is all that Paul is doing—he’s showing Philemon and Onesimus how they can be
useful in the kingdom of God in the situation they are in.
Of course, the theological ramifications of Paul asking for Onesimus’ release from slavery are staggering, so it’s embarrassingly easy to lose sight of the practical dimension that Paul was actually pursuing. That is that Onesimus, who formerly was “useless” to Philemon (v. 11), was now “useful” to both Paul and Philemon (see v. 13).
It’s a play on words (“Onesimus” means “useful”), but it’s more than that—it’s a profound theological statement for all disciples of Jesus. Onesimus was formerly “useless.” He was a rebellious slave who had run away from his master. Now he was a follower of Jesus and “useful” to Paul and Onesimus.
It’s great to walk away from Philemon radiant with insight as to how Paul approached the issue of slavery on an individual basis. But we don’t need to do so at the expense of the theme of usefulness that runs through the letter. For all of us have been rescued from the slavery of sin that we might be useful in the kingdom of God!