Useless, Useful, Onesimus
The Book of Philemon
The book of Philemon is one of a handful of our Bible books which have only a single chapter.
In Paul’s letter to his friend and brother in Christ Philemon, he makes an appeal regarding Philemon’s slave property, but now fellow brother, Onesimus:
8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. (Philemon 1:8-21, NRSV)
Read through this again, this time looking for references to father and son, master and servant, savior and saved, freedom and bondage, obedience, debt (to a master), and profitability (or not) or benefit (or not) or usefulness (or not).
Our Bible Bit is to have you examine the short, single chapter book of Philemon, and look for these things. Consider especially verses 10 and 11, where Paul appears to offer a play on the word “useful,” and also the wider (possible) allusions to Christ/Philemon/Paul as savior to Philemon/Onesimus and then, also, men as slaves becoming brothers in Christ but also servants of God.
Here’s how several of the more thought-for-thought and looser, paraphrase-friendly translations take verses 9 thru 11. (We’ve removed the verse numbers and varied the starting points.)
I am appealing for my child. Yes I have become a father though I have been under lock and key, and the child’s name is—Onesimus! Oh, I know you have found him pretty useless in the past but he is going to be useful now, to both of us. (J.B. Phillips)
I, Paul—an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus— appeal to you for my child Onesimus. I became his father in the faith during my time in prison. He was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us. (Common English Bible)
I appeal to you for my [own spiritual] child Onesimus, whom I have fathered [in the faith] while a captive in these chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you as well as to me. (Amplified Bible)
My request to you concerns my son, of whom I became the father while here in prison, Onesimus. His name means “useful,” and although he was once useless to you, he has now become most useful — not only to you but also to me; (Complete Jewish Bible)
…I feel free to command you to do it. But I am not commanding you; I am asking you to do it out of love. I, Paul, am an old man now, and I am a prisoner for Christ Jesus. I am asking you for my son Onesimus. He became my son while I was in prison. In the past he was useless to you. But now he has become useful for both you and me. (Easy-to-Read Version)
I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Which in times past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable both to thee and to me. (1599 Geneva, which we include for the use of “begotten” and “profitable.”)
So I make a request to you on behalf of Onesimus, who is my own son in Christ; for while in prison I have become his spiritual father. At one time he was of no use to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. (Good News Translation)
My plea is that you show kindness to my child Onesimus, whom I won to the Lord while here in my chains. Onesimus (whose name means “Useful”) hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is going to be of real use to both of us. (The Living Bible)
While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. (The Message)
I appeal to you on behalf of my son Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who in the past was unprofitable to you, but now he is profitable to you and to me. (Modern English Version)
I appeal to you to show kindness to my child, Onesimus. I became his father in the faith while here in prison. Onesimus hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to both of us. (New Living Translation)
A very literal take:
I entreat you concerning my child Onesimus, whom I fathered in my bonds, the one once worthless to you, but now useful to you and to me; whom I sent back to you. (J.P. Green Literal)
And in the Greek:
10 παρακαλῶ σε περὶ τοῦ ἐμοῦ τέκνου, ὃν ἐγέννησα ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς, Ὀνήσιμον,
11 τόν ποτέ σοι ἄχρηστον νυνὶ δὲ [καὶ] σοὶ καὶ ἐμοὶ εὔχρηστον, (Nestle-Aland 28)
The proper name Onesimus is rooted in a Greek word meaning beneficial or useful.
Likewise, but coming from different etymology, are the Greek words εὔχρηστος / euchrēstos and ἄχρηστος / achrēstos, meaning “useful” and “not useful.”
Paul’s appeal to Philemon is layered with figures of father/son, Christ/saved, God/servant, master/servant, brother/brother. Additional wordplay is, perhaps, in evidence via the similarity in sound of the two “-chrestos” words with the label for our “Christos”, the Christ, the Messiah, the Annointed One.
Ὀνήσιμος / Onēsimos / useful, beneficial, profitable εὔχρηστος / euchrēstos / (highly) useful, helpful, serviceable, profitable ἄχρηστος / achrēstos / useless, worthless, unprofitable, detrimental Χριστός / christos / the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One δέσμιος / desmios / bounded, prisoner, one under arrest δοῦλος / doulos / servant, slave
James Burton Coffman says this about Paul’s offer to repay any of Philemon’s losses owed to him by Paul’s “son” Onesimus.
“This magnanimous action upon Paul’s part in taking unto himself the whole debt of Onesimus is similar to the fact of Christ’s assumption on the part of any sinner saved by grace the whole of the sinner’s debt, which, as in the case of Onesimus, is utterly beyond the power of the sinner to discharge himself. No more wonderful lines were ever written of one brother’s action upon behalf of another. It is of this supremely important truth that Paul here speaks in somewhat of a veiled manner, reminding Philemon of the debt which once he the master owed, and how it was all discharged in Christ.”
Thanks to: Bill Mounce’s Greek Dictionary website, scripture4all.org, academic-bible.com, and James Burton Coffman’s commentary on Philemon at studylight.org. The image is Benjamin West’s Conversion of Onesimus.
Please read your Bible for yourself. God’s blessings to you!