Yesterday’s Unprofitable Servant Could be Profitable Tomorrow
This topic is drawn from the epistle of Paul the apostle to the Philemon. Google says, this about the book of Philemon that “it is one of the books of the Christian New Testament. It is a prison letter, co-authored by Paul the Apostle with Timothy, to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church. It deals with the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation”.
“Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:” (Phm 1:11)
Who Wrote the Letter?
The letter was written by Apostle Paul when in the prison to a friend and probably a bishop in Colossae.
Online Wikipedia says the opening verse does not mean Timothy co-authored the book, but it may suggest that Timothy has met with Philemon before.
It is one of the undisputed works of apostle Paul, perhaps the shortest of his works because it consists of 335 words in Greek. While Christian A. Eberhart says Paul wrote the letter around 55-61 CE.
Who was This Letter Written to?
The person this letter was written to was Philemon as the bible says,
“Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,” (Phm 1:1)
This is the man to which the letter was addressed, but John Knox posited that the letter may have been addressed to Archippus but this was faulted base on what the apostle said that “his house” and that he should be accepted.
The Man Philemon
Philemon in Greek is “Φιλήμων”, Romanized form is Philēmōn (pronounced as fil-ah'-mone) which means friendly. E-Sword says it could also mean “affectionate, or beloved”. He was a Christian and probably a wealthy man because the brethren gathered in his house to worship. People cannot be gathering in a place that was not spacious to worship God. Then someone with a space that can accommodate people like that would be classed among the wealthy ones in the society.
This word, “Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier,” (Phm 1:2) suggests that these people alongside with Onesimus were members of the church that gathered in Philemon’s house in Colossae. How Philemon got converted wasn’t stated but he may have gotten converted when Paul was ministering in Ephesus.
Some have suggested that Apphia was Philemon’s wife while Archippus was his child.
Why Paul Wrote the Letter
Paul wrote this letter on behalf of Onesimus a runaway slave who wronged his master and owner, Philemon. Online Wikipedia says Onesimus was a slave who had departed his master, Philemon, a wealthy christian and probably a bishop in whose house the brethren meet for fellowship, and was returning with the epistle wherein Paul asks Philemon to forgive him and receive him as a beloved brother.
To Grasp This Letter
In understanding this letter and its importance to Philemon we need to know this important event that characterized their days.
Christian A. Eberhart says, believers would find this helpful that in the “ancient Greco-Roman world, almost everybody could become a slave and that about 35% to 40% of the population was indeed enslaved.” Slaves then were considered as things, something that could be bought and sold at their master’s convenience, they are often abused and could be expelled from their master’s house anytime most especially when they are sick or old. To cap this all, their masters could kill them for they have the legal backing to do such. This may perhaps be what was in the mind of apostle Paul for deciding to act on Onesimus case not considering his frail health.
Thus, Paul uses slavery versus freedom during this time while writing to the saints because slavery was common during their days. It is believed that he takes special interest in that because as believers he hopes that the associated suffering that slaves undergo would be reduced by their believing masters.
The Man Onesimus
Onesimus is written in Greek as “Ὀνήσιμος”, Romanized form is Ŏnēsimos (pronounced as on-ay'-sim-os) which means profitable.
He was believed to be a slave to Philemon the rich bishop. He would have been bought before Philemon got converted.
Allen Dwight Callahan challenges the status of being a slave, thus suggesting that Onesimus was probably a brother of Philemon by blood and religion as something similar could be found in verse 16. Another place in the bible where Onesimus is made mention of is Colossians 4:7–9.
Slavery corrupt both the owner and the chattel; and, as a matter of fact, we have classical references enough to show that the slaves of Paul’s period were deeply tainted with the characteristic vices of their condition. Liars, thieves, idle, treacherous, nourishing a hatred of their masters even more deadly that it was restricted, but ready to flame out, if opportunity served, in blood-curdling cruelties.
What Makes Onesimus Unprofitable
Contrary to the meaning of the man’s name which is useful or profitable, the man has been unprofitable to his master because of some unstated offence. But those offences are generally assumed to be the followings:
1. Fled his Master’s Place
Since slaves are used as things then, fleeing his master would lead to a lot of loss for the master financially because those things he has been bought to be doing he would not be able to do them for his master again and this has grieved the master’s heart. That is why he (Paul) offers to pay up any debt he may be owing him or whatsoever he may have lost during the time he wasn’t with him.
2. Stole His Master’s Money
It is assumed that he has fled the master’s place after stealing his properties specifically his money.
“If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;” (Phm 1:18)
Because he has stole his master’s money that was presumed to have been the cause for his arrest and imprisonment.
3. Bad Example to Others
He perhaps may have been a bad example to other slaves by his lackadaisical attitude to work.
Gill’s in his exposition says, “Yea, injurious and hurtful; one that was an eye servant, that loitered away his time, and set an ill example to fellow servants; and not only so, but embezzled his master's goods, and robbed him, and run away from him. So, every man, in his state of unregeneracy, is an unprofitable man (Rom 3:12)”
4. Was Unsaved
Though bought when he was unsaved, but after his master has given his life to Jesus Christ Onesimus still continued in his former way of life, sinful way of life without repenting and coming to Jesus, because of this he was unprofitable to his master because he will always be doing what the master does not like.
What Makes Him Profitable Now
Having been unprofitable to his master before fleeing him, he may have been arrested and imprisoned alongside Paul. On the other hand, he may have previously heard Paul's name (because his owner was a Christian) and so travelled to him for assistance.
1. His Conversion
When he gets to Paul the apostle, he was preached to and he became a believer. Since Paul was yet in the prison, he decided to send Onesimus back with a letter to his master to show the new person he has become, allowing for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Christianity knows nothing of hopeless cases. It professes its ability to take the most crooked stick and bring it straight, if a Christian man does not show that his religion is moving him into the fair likeness of his Master, and correcting him for all relations of life, the reason is simply that he has so little of it, and that little so mechanical and lukewarm.
2. He has Been Helpful to him
While with him in the prison he has been of help unto Paul such that he does not wish to leave him, but he perhaps may have served his term and was released to go thence there is no need to be with Paul again other than to return to his master, to show that he life has changed.
“Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:” (Phm 1:13)
Having tried him, Paul could write passionate letter to his friend that he should accept the man, because now he is profitable to himself, man and God. Paul pleads with Philemon to take back his worthless servant and assures him that he will find Onesimus helpful now.
The letter is a loving testimony to
Onesimus devotion since the time he has been converted, imploring his friend to take him back because we are once unprofitable to Jesus and God too, but having been converted we become profitable children of God. A person who has not been useful before when he meets with Jesus would become useful need to add that a person who is useless today may become useful tomorrow, because time changes.
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