What does your name mean?
I once did a study with my children on the names of God. We started by looking at each of their names and what they mean. I laughed to myself at the irony of how my children significantly reflect their names’ meanings.
My own name means Christian, or “Christ follower.” Unlike my children, I did not come out of the womb reflecting the meaning of my name. Rather, I put on my name when God gripped my heart and made me his child.
From Useless to Useful
Onesimus had a similar experience with his name. Onesimus was a slave who had stolen from his master, Philemon, and ran away.
He later came to faith in Christ through the Apostle Paul’s ministry. In fact, Paul refers to himself as Onesimus’s “father” because Paul directly shared Christ with him (Philemon 10). The book of Philemon is a letter Paul wrote to tell Philemon (a believer who also came to Christ through Paul’s ministry) that Onesimus had come to saving faith in Christ.
In the letter, Paul asks that Philemon allow Onesimus to return to Philemon without fear of punishment, even though he deserved severe punishment for his disobedience. Paul not only asks that Philemon accept Onesimus back, but also that he welcome him as a brother in Christ.
This perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother — especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 15–16)
Onesimus’s name means “useful.” Paul uses a play on words with his name when he writes, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me” (Philemon 11). Once a useless, rebellious slave, Onesimus became useful through the saving and transforming grace of God.
From Many, Onesimus
Philemon is a tiny book and often overlooked, but it is powerful with gospel truth. It reminds us that only in Christ do we find our true selves, our true identity. No matter what names our parents gave us at birth, or what names we were called on the playground, or what names we’ve given ourselves, we become who we were made to be when God calls us by name. When he calls us to be his own. When he calls us to be his child.
The truth is, before Christ, we were Onesimus. We were useless. We were rebellious thieves and runaway slaves. Deserving punishment for our sins, we feared returning home to our Master. We felt ashamed, worthless, and unloved.
In stepped a substitute, one willing to take for us all the punishment we deserved. The Son of God took on flesh and paid the penalty we were due at the cross. He wiped the slate clean, clothed us with his righteousness, and allowed us to return home to the Father without fear, and with full acceptance, covered by the perfect works of Christ.
Seeing Jesus in the Mirror
Paul mirrored the gospel when he stepped in as a substitute for Onesimus. “If you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it” (Philemon 17–19).
Because of Paul, Onesimus was welcomed back into Philemon’s home. Because of Jesus, we are welcomed into God’s. Martin Luther put it this way: “As Christ does for us with God the Father, so does Paul with Philemon for Onesimus. We are all God’s Onesimi.”
We all have names we’ve been called and names we’ve called ourselves. We all bear shame over things we’ve done or things that have been done to us. The book of Philemon reminds us that when we encounter the gospel of grace, all of that is changed forever. Everything that was past is long gone. We are created anew, given a new name and a new identity.
The Forgiven Forgive
Through faith in the perfect life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection of Christ, we are brought from death to life. We are changed from useless to useful. No longer runaways, we are now children of the living God. In Christ, we find our true selves as Onesimi of God. We find our home in his kingdom and our future as heirs.
Through Christ, we have become who we were created to be.
The book of Philemon reminds us that not only are we like Onesimus, but we also have other Onesimi in our life. Paul shows us in Philemon what gospel love looks like. The gospel not only changes our status and makes us new; it also changes how we love others.
When we have been wronged or wounded, we need to extend the same forgiveness that we have received through Christ. As Paul pointed out to Philemon, we’ve been forgiven for much more than the sins others have committed against us (Philemon 19).
The story of Onesimus and Philemon is also our story — the story of Jesus transforming us from useless to useful, from wandering runaways to beloved brothers and sisters.