Onesimus; Or The Profitable Servant. 

[Adapted Particularly To Servants]

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.) (Philemon 1:10-11)

Our sermon this morning is titled: Onesimus; Or The Profitable Servant.

In George Burder's day servants were found everywhere throughout Europe. The largest concentrations were in the cities and towns, but servants were also found in rural villages and on farms. It constituted the biggest employment after agriculture. (

Although this sermon was adapter particularly to servants, it is still helpful to us in our roles as employees and workers and how we relate to those we report to. It highlights general Christian principles which can be helpful in all our relationships.

This is a short epistle, written by the apostle Paul, to his Christian friend Philemon, who resided at Colosse; it was written in behalf of Onesimus, who had been a slave, belonging to Philemon. It appears that Onesimus had robbed his master, and then ran away from him to escape justice; he wandered to Rome, where the apostle Paul was then a prisoner, and by some means or other he went to hear him preach, probably in his own rented house: here he was converted to God, and became a new man; the apostle became acquainted with him, and Onesimus was much attached to him.

The apostle felt himself interested in his welfare; he found him very useful to him as a servant; but as he belonged to another, he would not retain him without his consent, but sent him back to his master whom he had wronged; and in order to secure a favorable reception, sent with him this letter, which competent judges consider as a perfect example of good letter-writing as containing the most lively sentiments both of humanity and generosity. A letter from such a man as the holy and venerable apostle Paul, whose heart was so full of Christian piety, may be expected, though written on a temporal affair, to contain evangelical sentiments of the most useful kind; and accordingly we find in it much matter of the most edifying nature. We will, in the consideration of it, focus on two things.

1. The character of Onesimus before his conversion; and

2. The great change that was worked in him by the grace of God, with the evidences of it.

1. Let us first consider the character of Onesimus before his conversion.

It appears from this epistle that he was a slave---a servant of the lowest description, one who was bought with money, and entirely at the disposal of his master. This was allowed by the law of Moses; and we here see a good man having a servant of this description in his house. No doubt he was treated, not with rigor and severity, but with Christian kindness and compassion; (nevertheless slavery seems to be incompatible with the teaching of the Gospel of Christ; and does not accord with that excellent rule, commonly called "The golden rule."---"Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them."(Matthew 7:12)) Being converted to God, the apostle requests Philemon to receive him again into his family and service.

But Onesimus had not only been a servant, but a "useless" servant; "formerly useless"(Philemon 11)---that is, a worthless and hurtful fellow, in contrast with his name Onesimus, which means profitable: the apostle hints at how inconsistent his character had been with his name; and, indeed, there is too often a sad disagreement between a person's name and character. How many are called by the honorable name of Christians, who are really a disgrace to their profession! which reminds us of what was once said by Alexander the Great to a private soldier in his army who was a worthless man and a coward: he ordered him either to change his name, or become a better soldier: and thus it might be said to many who are called Christians.

It is doubtless the duty of servants to endeavor to make themselves useful to their employers. This man, in his unconverted state, was useless; but now he had become a useful man. All servants should endeavor, by honesty, frugality, and diligence, to seek the welfare of the family in which they live; and surely this man was under double obligations to have done so, for he had a very good master; the apostle speaks very highly of him; he calls him, in the first verse, "Our beloved fellow worker;" he speaks in the second verse of his having "a church in his house"---that is, the little society of the faithful, who lived at Colosse, assembled for worship in his home; and probably the first Christian churches used to assemble in like manner in private houses.

And in the sixth and seventh verses we find there were many good things in him to be acknowledged, and particularly that "the hearts of the saints had been refreshed through him;" so that he appears to have been a man of eminent piety; and was it not a great privilege for Onesimus to live in such a family as this? But sadly! he had neglected and abused these privileges: and let it be observed, that the faults of bad servants are double faults when they live in good families; it makes their guilt so much the greater; for how inconsistent is their vicious conduct with the order of a pious house, in which the Scriptures are daily read, and prayers and praises offered up to God!

Let servants in pious families, or in our case when we report to or work for Brothers or Sisters in the Lord, reflect upon the privileges they enjoy, and remember they must one day give an account to God how they have benefited from or abused them. Gladly attend, if you live in a pious house, gladly attend to the worship of God, and do not think it a hardship; do not indulge sleep, when the Scriptures are read, or prayer is presented to God. And let not servants think themselves excused from private prayer, because they join, at least in appearance, in family prayer: rather let it be the means of teaching them how to pray, and of stirring them up to pray in private for themselves.

Further, It appears that Onesimus was a dishonest servant; probably he had acted the part of the thief. The apostle says in the eighteenth verse, "If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account." There is little doubt, though it is expressed in such a mild way, that he had been a dishonest man, and had fled from justice: but "if he owes you anything," says the apostle, "charge it to my account"---"impute it to me," (which, by the way, gives us a just notion of the meaning of the phrase "imputed righteousness"---for it is the same word that is used in Romans Chapter four, "As David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works,"(Romans 4:6) and in other similar verses.)

Sadly! how much dishonesty is committed in the common concerns of life; in the conduct of trade and business; in the behavior of masters and servants! As to the latter, how few are careful of not wasting their master's property, neglecting his business, or idling away their time, which is a real theft, though not usually punished by human laws, but which will not escape the righteous judgment of God. But Christian servants are charged to conduct themselves in a very different manner, and especially "not by the way of eye-service,"(Ephesians 6:6) who do nothing well but when they are watched; but performing every branch of their duty "as to the Lord and not to man."(Ephesians 6:7)

Further, This man was a fugitive, a runaway servant; he deserts the business and house of his master, which was itself a robbery, for he was not at his own disposal, his person being the property of Philemon but guilt generally excites fear. In this way our first parents, when they sinned against God, strove to hide themselves from his presence among the trees of the garden: but who can flee from God? "Where shall I go from your Spirit?"(Psalm 139:7) "There is no gloom or deep darkness where evildoers may hide themselves."(Job 34:22) Besides, "God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil."(Ecclesiastes 12:14) Then, if not before, will that Scripture be verified, "Be sure your sin will find you out."(Numbers 32:23)

Onesimus, in his wanderings, comes to Rome, which was a very great city; and like great cities in general, the very center of iniquity. Great offenders often flee to similar places, to hide themselves amid the multitude of a large city. Or, having lost character and employment, he might have gone there for the purpose of committing further offenses. And here, we might have expected him to have become worse and worse; but, God's thoughts are not as our thoughts!(Isaiah 55:8) God was pleased to overrule his crime, and his coming there, as the means of his being converted to God. And this is the second thing we are to consider.

Let us now consider the great change that was worked out by the grace of God on the heart of Onesimus, and the evidences that were given of that change.

The apostle Paul was then a prisoner in Rome. Having appealed to Cesar he was brought, after very great perils and difficulties, to that great city; and there, the Lord so intervened in his favor, that he continued two whole years, and was permitted to preach in his own rented house, to all those who chose to come: and there, though he was prevented from going on with his beloved work of spreading the Gospel in new places, and traveling from one country to another for that purpose, yet he was permitted to write those valuable epistles to the Ephesians, to the Colossians, to the Philippians, and others; so that though there were some hundred sermons prevented by his imprisonment, yet there have been millions edified by his writings.---There is not a sabbath-day passes---there is hardly a sermon that is preached throughout the Christian world---there is hardly a congregation gathered at any time, that does not derive great advantage from the writings of that holy man of God.

We have reason to admire the grace of God thus overruling the wickedness of men. Nor was he useless in that great city; he was not useless in preaching; there were Christians in Rome, to be sure, before Paul went there; but probably they were greatly revived, and multiplied too, by his preaching; for he says, in the close of one of his epistles, "All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household."(Philippians 4:22)---Into the house of Nero, the cruel tyrant, the grace of God found its way, and had its due effect upon those who were living in the midst of wickedness.

Onesimus came to hear him. What could induce such a man as Onesimus to go to Paul's house to hear him? Perhaps curiosity. Curiosity has brought many a man to hear the Gospel; and though it is a poor unworthy motive, God has overruled it for good. So Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree, for no better purpose than to see what sort of a person Jesus was; but the Lord, that very day, brought salvation to his house and to his heart.

Thus it was with Onesimus. Perhaps some acquaintance might have invited him to go to hear---one who had profited under Paul's preaching; and it is very commendable for persons who have benefited from the word, to invite their friends to come and hear it also. Many have been converted to God by this means. It is not improbable that Onesimus might have heard the Apostle Paul preach at his master's house; he had perhaps heard his doctrine and witnessed his behavior, he had probably listened to his conversation; and there is something so attractive in the truth, in holiness, and in zeal for God, that some persons, though wicked, cannot help feeling a reverence for it; indeed, there is something in the preaching of the Gospel so much superior to any other preaching, that some who do not understand or believe it, feel an attachment to it, and hear it almost against their will.

This man, however, was "born of God;"(John 1:13, 1 John 3:9) the Apostle says of him, "Whose father I became in my imprisonment;" he also calls him his son, "my child Onesimus"---This form of expression is common in Scripture. It is said in James, "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures;"(James 1:18) and the Apostle Paul says the same to the Corinthians, "I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel."(1 Corinthians 4:15) In all ages God has used the preaching of his Gospel as the principal, though not the only means of the conversion of sinners; the preaching of the cross is "the power of God for salvation."(Romans 1:16) "The weapons of our warfare," says the Apostle, "are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds."(2 Corinthians 10:4) Now, this man renounces the hidden things of dishonesty, and he shows, by sufficient and satisfactory evidence, that he has become a new creature. Let us look a little into this evidence.

Paul, we see, had the fullest satisfaction in him; he speaks with the greatest certainty concerning him; and does not hesitate to recommend him in the warmest way. In the first place, as an evidence that he was really changed, we mention his confession of his former wickedness: for doubtless he did make confession of it; or how did the apostle come to know it? He knew nothing of this man; he had never seen him in this great city; but grace always humbles the subject of it; it always leads him to an acknowledgment of sin. It is likely that this man had come forward and made himself known to the apostle. We can imagine him, in a humble posture, approaching this man of God, saying, "Perhaps, Sir, you do not know me; but I remember you when you were at Colosse, at my master's house. I had a good master, Sir, Philemon, your friend; but I have been a bad servant. I have wronged him, and fled here: but by the grace of God, through your preaching, I have been brought to repentance; and have come to open my mind to you, and to take your advice."

Another evidence of his conversion was his willingness to return to his master, for no doubt he was perfectly willing to do so, and Paul did not write to this effect without his consent; he was willing to go back, and humble himself before his master, whom he knew, being a good man, would be glad to receive him, if he had evidence of his being changed, which evidence he would have by this good letter of the Apostle Paul.

No doubt, true penitence is always accompanied with a desire to make restitution. If a man has wronged another, true penitence will make him wish to undo the evil he has done, as much as possible: and in matters of dishonesty, we should think little of any man's religion, or pretended repentance, who did not find some means to make restitution. This is doubtless the duty of every man, and if the party wronged is deceased, then to his family or if that not be possible, then it should be made to God and the poor.

But the Apostle says that "formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me." Pious servants will make themselves profitable; and let that pretended piety be deemed good for nothing, and mere hypocrisy, that does not lead servants to be good servants in the family where they live---honest, agreeable, hard-working; then they will be profitable: for a good servant is a great blessing to a family, and a bad servant is a real curse. Now also he had become profitable to the Apostle; perhaps his love to the servant of Christ, from whom he had derived so great a benefit, induced him to offer his service to this poor prisoner of the Lord, to do his errands, and serve him in every possible way; and Christians will esteem it their privilege to show respect and affection to those ministers from whom they have derived spiritual advantage.

In addition. Notice the Apostle's great regard for this man. He calls him his "Child,"---he calls him his "beloved brother,"---he calls him "my very heart." All these epithets are expressions of Christian love and kindness to a child of God. This shows us, likewise, that in spiritual concerns, God is no respecter of persons. In Christ Jesus "there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female"(Galatians 3:28)---there were great distinctions of this sort under the Old Testament dispensation, but not now; Christ is "all and in all,"(Colossians 3:11) nor was the humble condition or poverty of this man any reason for the Apostle's thinking the less of him.

"Listen my beloved brothers, (says James) has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?"(James 2:5)---Oh how valuable is the saving of one immortal soul!---What is Onesimus? A slave!---a dishonest slave!---a runaway slave!---but no sooner is he a partaker of the grace of God, than he is "a beloved brother;" indeed, the Apostle speaks of him as his "very heart"---so tender is the regard he feels for this man. And so the conversion of one soul, of whatever degree the person is---the conversion of one soul is an event of great importance, in the eye of faith, to the man who looks forward to an eternity of existence in heaven---the conversion of one soul is a matter of much greater importance than the revolution of a kingdom or of an empire.

And see how the grace of God obliterates, and blots out former offenses! Paul seems almost to have forgotten what the man was---he looks at what he is---a brother beloved in Christ Jesus; and this is agreeable to the scheme of the Gospel. "What do you think?" says Christ, "if a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?"(Matthew 18:12) and, is there not joy in heaven over one sinner that repents?(Luke 15:10) and if there is joy in heaven, shall there not also be joy on earth? God, in his infinite mercy, passes by and forgets all the offenses of those who believe in his dear Son; it is a branch of the covenant of grace, "I will remember their sins no more;"(Hebrews 8:12) and as it is expressed by the prophet Ezekiel, "if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him."(Ezekiel 18:21-22)

And here also Paul gives us a striking example of brotherly love. Dearly as he loved Onesimus, now a converted man, and very useful to him, he will not retain him; he is the property of Philemon, and therefore he parts with him; and not only so, but he sends a letter, containing all the arguments that ingenuity could devise, in order to serve this man, and to secure for him a kind reception. He restores him to his master, assured that by the grace of God he will become a truly valuable servant.

Now to conclude.

Let us, in the first place, admire the wise providence of God in overruling all human events, and sometimes even the sins and follies of men, for their everlasting advantage. God permitted this man Onesimus to do what he did; he permitted him to run away to Rome, and there the grace of God found him out---so Joseph was sold into Egypt; it was a vile transaction; but after many remarkable events, when Joseph made himself known to his brethren, and when they were troubled at his presence, Joseph said to them, "Come near to me, please. And they came near. And he said, I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God:"(Genesis 45:4-8) Consider what benefits they ultimately derived from this act to their brother! and so it often happens, in the mysterious proceedings of divine Providence, causing the wrath and even the guilt of man to praise him.

But again, Let us adore the riches of sovereign and almighty grace, as manifested in this man. Surely it must be admitted that here was a man saved by grace.(Ephesians 2:8) By what else could he be saved? and it might truly be said of him that "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more."(Romans 5:20) O how remarkable is the event, when you reflect both on the preacher and the convert! Who was the preacher? Once a persecutor of the saints: and who was the convert? A converted thief!

See also the genuine effects of true grace! This man, who had been unprofitable, indeed, more than unprofitable, this man, who had been extremely hurtful, becomes, not only a partaker of mercy for himself, but he becomes a useful man to others; he was useful to Paul, and no doubt he was useful afterwards to his old master Philemon; and perhaps many in the town would hear of it, and be induced to say, "What a marvelous change took place in this man! How did it come about?" Some think that Onesimus himself afterwards became a minister of the Gospel. O what a blessed alteration grace makes, and if it produce a change in a man's heart, it will certainly produce a change in his conduct also.

Further, let pious persons from now on derive encouragement as to their ungodly relations and friends. It may be that while we have been hearing about Onesimus, your thoughts have been traveling to some spot or other, where your relations live, with regard to whom you have reason to fear for their eternal state. Think then of Onesimus, and offer up incessant prayer to God for them; for nothing is too hard for the Lord: none are beyond the reach of divine grace.

Finally---Let this subject recommend to all men the use of the means of grace. Let it recommend the hearing of the Gospel of Christ. How did all this change happen? It was doubtless by the special grace and power of the Spirit of God, but then it was through the instrumentality of the word.

We should therefore be encouraged to bring all we can to hear the word of God; and let nothing be done to discourage the worst of men from coming to hear it, even such as show that they hate and despise it: yet let them attend. Who can tell what God may bring about by the teaching of his Holy Spirit? What is the language of wisdom? "Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors."(Proverbs 8:34)

Yet let none presume upon future times and opportunities, we cannot know what a day may bring; but this we know that "now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation."(2 Corinthians 6:2)