Trash to Treasure
The roomful of men sat transfixed as they listened several years ago to the story of the elderly gentleman standing before them. The stark concrete room alternately filled with waves of laughter and hushed silence as John unraveled his journey. Leaning forward to hear every word, they sensed he cared; and they knew he understood.
Like many of them, John, too, had sat on simple wooden benches—cut off from the world by high, impenetrable walls. Incarcerated for life, he had been cast off as worthless by the society that lived beyond the steel bars and razor-edged fences.
In His sojourn on Earth, Jesus was well acquainted with people considered worthless because of their choices—people like Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, Mary who was called Magdalene, and the woman with the alabaster flask of oil. Nor were they the only ones. Stories of people considered useless, worthless, or refuse abound throughout the Bible. How dehumanizing to consider someone trash, to be tossed aside as if unfit to live.
Throughout his ministry, the apostle Paul met such individuals. One man was considered so useless many thought it would be better if he were dead. His name was Onesimus.
A Letter Unfolds
Details are sparse, but we know enough to discern that Onesimus was in a great deal of trouble. His story appears in Paul’s letter to his friend, Philemon, after whom the book of the Bible is named.
Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. How he became such we are not told, nor do we know how long he was in bondage. Since it appears he owed a debt to his master, he may have indentured himself to pay it off. The whole of the tale is complicated. At the time Paul wrote the letter, Onesimus had run away and most likely added larceny to his tainted résumé (Phile. 15–16, 18).
Onesimus’s flight from slavery took him on a formidable journey from Colossae, in what today is Turkey, across the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas to Rome. The trek probably forced him to be shrewd and deceitful to find passage and provisions for the arduous escape. The threat of being apprehended would have been a constant fear because, under Roman law, runaway slaves could be mutilated, tortured, or killed when captured. Slaves in the Roman Empire were considered as cattle, with no rights whatsoever.
Ironically, Onesimus’ name means “useful or profitable.” But from what we can discern in Paul’s letter to Philemon, Onesimus had a reputation of being unprofitable or useless to those who knew him. In a sense, he was considered to have had no reason to exist; he was assessed as worthless (v. 11).
However, in an eye-opening disclosure to Philemon, Paul revealed that Onesimus was with him in Rome. When and how the slave encountered the imprisoned apostle is unspecified. Why he eventually went to Paul, a close friend of Philemon, is also puzzling because Onesimus knew his whereabouts would be exposed.
The letter unfolds the amazing news that God was at work. Something dramatic and unexpected had happened in Onesimus’ life in Rome. This same man who was once deemed unprofitable was now extremely profitable and highly valuable to others.
To lay the groundwork for what he was about to divulge, Paul announced that Onesimus is “my son . . . whom I have begotten” (v. 10). This was his declaration that Onesimus had become his spiritual son through the gospel. Paul used a similar phrase in speaking to the Christians in Corinth, calling them his “beloved children.” As their spiritual father, he reminded them, “I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15).
Using well-chosen phrases to outline the timing and transformation that had taken place, Paul clearly expressed the metamorphosis in Onesimus’ life. Pivoting on the miniscule, contrastive conjunction but, Paul told how this man once was one type of person “but now” was completely different (Phile. 11):
→“Once” he was useless to Philemon. “But now” he was useful and profitable to both Philemon and Paul (v. 11).
→“Once” he was worthless. “But now” he was Paul’s beloved helper in ministry (vv. 12–13).
→“Once” he was Philemon’s slave. “But now” he was a dear brother in the Lord to both Philemon and Paul (v. 16).
→“Once” he was a fugitive from Philemon. “But now” he was to be welcomed as a partner (v. 17).
The runaway, pilfering slave had gone from trash to treasure. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Recognizing God’s Grace
Paul was more than well-acquainted with the “once, but now” change that can take place in a person’s life. He once was a harsh and zealous Pharisee who arrogantly applied the Mosaic Law and murderously persecuted the church. But now, he said, he counted all things “as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him” (Phil. 3:8–9).
Even though Paul had turned to Christ on the road to Damascus, Christians in Jerusalem rejected him. They were afraid because of his reputation and didn’t believe he had truly become a follower of Jesus. In the midst of the mess, a man named Barnabas stepped forward, stood by Paul, and vouched for him before the early church leaders (Acts 9).
Barnabas could spot the grace of God at work in a person’s life. The ability to see such grace, even in the smallest of ways, stirred Barnabas to rejoice and help strengthen God’s work in the lives of others. He did so with Paul. He did so with Mark. And he did so with the new believers in Antioch.
The apostle’s defense of the change in Onesimus’ life is inspiring. Paul was able to see the grace of God at work when others saw only uselessness. Even while imprisoned in Rome, Paul invested his life in this runaway slave despite his dreadful reputation.
The countless ways God works in a person’s life are often beyond our perception and understanding. But Paul understood that Onesimus’ arrival in Rome was no accident. He humbly suggested to Philemon that “perhaps” God had a greater, overriding purpose in all of this. He believed God was at work, but he did not presume to declare the Almighty’s veiled, eternal, and detailed purposes (Phile. 15).
Onesimus was not perfect, nor was Paul. The “once, but now” newness of life begins as a seed of grace that takes root and grows in the power of the Spirit along the road of life. The letter to Philemon was not meant to pronounce God’s work complete and declare that all was well in Colossae. There was much work to be done. Choices had to be made and details agreed on before this life saga could continue to move forward for the glory of God. Paul’s appeal to Philemon to see the useless as useful and the worthless as valuable becomes an appeal to every Christian.
Have you ever known someone whom others considered useless or worthless? Digging into Onesimus’ life brought numerous names and faces to the surface. Not all were prisoners or slaves, but their pasts made them seem worthless in the eyes of others, even by some who called themselves Christians. Each one of their trash-to-treasure encounters with Jesus brought about unique changes that were beyond imagination.
More than 1,900 years after the Holy Spirit had created a new man in Onesimus, He was at work in my friend John, who told his story to the prisoners sitting in a concrete room surrounded by guards. John, too, had come to believe in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross; and his life, too, was changed. With the help of a Christian ministry, he eventually was released from a life sentence that carried no chance of parole and then worked with the ministry for many years.
Once he was tossed away, but now he is a valuable example of what happens in someone’s life when he places his trust in Jesus.
As hymn writer John Newton wrote, “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”