I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus,
whose father I became in my imprisonment
(Formerly he was useless to you,
but now he is indeed useful to you and to me).
Paul is appealing for Onesimus, on his behalf.
Who is Onesimus? He’s Paul’s spiritual “son,” coming to faith while Paul was imprisoned. We don’t know how his conversion happened. I like to imagine Onesimus was guilt ridden about leaving his master and what he stole. He stumbled across believers who told him how they had been forgiven through the blood of Jesus. Wanting to hear more, they brought him to visit Paul in prison, where he heard the gospel and responded in faith. Since then, he was a daily visitor, eagerly soaking up all Paul had to teach him about this Jesus.
It’s easy to imagine how Onesimus was a sweet reminder to Paul that God could still use him, whatever his limitations, whatever his age.
So, Paul is appealing on Onesimus’ behalf. I’ve heard Onesimus’ name meant “useful,” but to Philemon he was “useless,” probably because he ran away. Philemon may have already replaced him; he was expendable, a commodity, a bondservant. Maybe Onesimus always felt trapped in a life he didn’t choose, useless, unappreciated, used.
But to Paul, he was a son. He felt loved. He felt like he had a purpose, someone to serve who treated him with heart and soul. One who didn’t see his earthly status or position, but his heavenly position. He, with Paul, was now a child of the King.
His transformation, when he came to know Jesus, went from useless to useful. He was useful not only to Paul, but could be useful to Philemon also, not as a unwilling bondservant, but now as a fellow-heir in Jesus.
Useless to the world as we are in our sin…Useful for eternity to display the righteousness of God before others.
Useless to give hope…Useful to communicate the transformational message of Jesus Christ.