If you ever talk to a non-Christian and they give you the line, “The Bible is just some old book written thousands of years ago and society has evolved since then,” you might want to share the story of a slave named Onesimus, which means “Useful.” Not the Onesimus in the book of Philemon – we’ll get to him later. No, the Onesimus of 1716. It shows God’s total sovereignty over this world and how He weaves His way throughout all time. He works through all of us to complete His plan – whether a believer or not. The story of the black slave Onesimus shares striking parallels to the Bible’s slave written of in the New Testament.
Puritan minister Cotton Mather of Boston was gifted a slave by a parishioner in 1711. It’s believed Mather changed the slave’s name to Onesimus. And like Philemon’s slave, Onesimus was considered a liar and a thief by his master. But in 1716, Onesimus told Mr. Mather something he did believe: That he knew how to prevent smallpox. He shared with his master how in his home country people would rub pus from an infected person into an open wound on the arm. This would cause mild symptoms and would inoculate the person against smallpox.
Mather was fascinated. He verified Onesimus’ story with that of other enslaved people. Mather, while attempting to spread this great news during the smallpox epidemic, was vilified. How dare he take the word of a slave? A black slave at that? But Mather pressed on. Combining efforts with physician Zabdiel Boylston, the two inoculated their children and enslaved workers. They then began inoculating other willing Bostonians. Of the 242 people they inoculated, only six died—one in 40, as opposed to one in seven deaths among the population of Boston who didn’t undergo the procedure.
While history doesn’t give much credit for Onesimus being a key part of the development of immunizations, he can be found in the story. Like Naamans’ Jewish slave girl, his desire to be useful and seeking a better relationship with his master saw him sharing a cure for so many.
"It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me." Philemon 1:9-11
How useful are we to God? How are our new beginnings lived out for the world to see the glory and gifts of God? For the Boston slave Onesimus, he appeared to never have accepted his master’s Christian religion. He did, however, buy his own earthly freedom by giving Mather enough money to purchase a different slave. But for the Bible’s Onesimus, who stole from his master and ran away to Rome, his freedom was purchased for him. Once by Jesus, when he, after being discipled by both Philemon and Paul, accepted the Lord as his savior. And his earthly freedom was paid for by Paul who stated, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” (v 18)
Paul exhibited a great lesson of our faith in Jesus, to stand for those who cannot stand on their own. And in doing so, lived out an example for Philemon to follow. If Philemon believed in what Jesus taught, not just believed “in” Jesus, he knew he must live out the fruits of the spirit – kindness, compassion, forgiveness, grace, etc. This was no small feat. Just as in the world of the 1700s, slaves were a valued commodity. And allowing a slave to run away without punishment was bad enough, but to allow a thieving slave (like both were) to do so was unheard of. Mather suffered public humiliation by accepting his slave as an equal partner in curing a deadly disease. Philemon was certain to suffer the same fate from other slave owners if he accepted Onesimus back as an equal in Christ.
But what about the Bible’s Onesimus? Where does he fit in God’s plan? Notice that our worldly sins and crimes are not erased without any repercussions. Paul did not say Philemon should just welcome Onesimus back with all debts forgiven. A crime had been committed and it needed to be repaid by someone.
Onesimus took a number of steps in his life to become useful to God. He first sought out Paul in Rome when his life had become a mess. He accepted Jesus as his savior. And like the first 3,000 Christians, he sat at the feet of a great teacher to learn about Christ and his expectations of us. He then, apparently, asked to go home and face Philemon, his old master.
15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. Philemon 1: 15-16
We can only imagine the scene of Onesimus and his fellow travelers arriving at Philemon’s door. Hat in hand. A posture of humility most likely. Asking for forgiveness. He became God’s instrument to help others learn how to forgive, how to love, and how being a Christ follower transforms us. My friend Andrea has been the person in my life to model forgiveness. I’ve watched how she has forgiven well-trod hurts and has been eternally grateful for receiving forgiveness. By seeing her transformation, it has helped to transform my heart. She has been very useful to God!
Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps are well known by many. And placed in a Christian context may help some of us to follow in Onesimus’ footsteps to being fully available for God’s purposes. To be “useful” in our new beginning. With a few minor edits, those 12 steps are:
- We admitted we were powerless over (sin)—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Come to believe that (God) is greater than ourselves and can restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God (forgive) all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove(/forgive) our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to (all sinners), and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Jesus paid the price to be our intercessor, our kinsman redeemer. We are accepted by Him in full. But it’s now up to us to do the work to live out being acceptable to Christ each and every day with our new beginning.