Onesimus Was At One Time Unprofitable
V. 11 – “Which in time past was to thee unprofitable but now is profitable to you and me. ”
This verse contains a word play that is lost in English. The name “Onesimus” means “useful.” Therefore, in word play, Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus (“useful”) had become useless to you, but has been found useful to him. Notice that Paul does not say that he is simply useful to Paul, but to Philemon also.
Onesimus’ name means “profitable” or “useful.” It was a common name for a slave. It expressed the master’s expectations for the slave. Philemon likely gave Onesimus this name.
In verse 15ff, Paul tells us a little about Onesimus’ journey to Rome and how he met Paul. I want to study a little bit right now about what led to that trip—we will mention it again briefly later in the study.
John McArthur writes, “Better translated “Useless–Useful.” Paul’s point was that Onesimus had been radically changed by God’s Grace.”
Verse 12: I am sending him back to you! By the time of the writing of this letter, Onesimus was profitable. He was finally living up to his name or potential. The fact that he was standing before Philemon demonstrated he was a different man
Verse 13: Paul did right – he sent Onesimus back. Onesimus did right – he went back. Within this book, Philemon is urged to do right – take Onesimus back . Paul wanted to keep Onesimus to stay and minister along with him on the behalf of Philemon.
Verse 14: But he wanted it to be voluntary on Philemon’s part. But there was a big problem. Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon and Paul did want to do anything without his approval.
Verses 15-18 tell us a little bit about the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul suggests that God’s providence was in the whole episode. What dangers did Onesimus face by going back?
Onesimus Faced A Harsh Judgment If Found
Runaway slaves could face branding, scourging, and even crucifixion if caught. An F for fugitive was often branded on the forehead of runaway slaves. They were marked for life.
They were sometimes fitted with a metal collar, complete with name and address. Sometimes they were sometimes sold. In extreme cases the skin on the bottom of their feet was burned off by glowing iron plates. The only thing that tempered judgment was the value of the slave.
Slave owners were fearful of a slave uprising. There were approximately 60 million slaves in the Roman empire. Conservative estimates suggest that as much as 1/3 of the empire was made up of slaves. Some estimates range as high as ½.
If Philemon forgave Onesimus, what would the other slave owners have thought?
Verse 16: John McArthur writes, “Paul did not call for Onesimus’ freedom (cf. I Cor. 7:20-22), but that Philemon would receive his slave now as a fellow-believer in Christ (cf. Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1: I Tim. 6:2)