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Philemon and Thomas the Tank Engine

I have a son who will be two years old in a couple of weeks. As you can see from the picture, he loves trains…especially Thomas. (BTW, did you know that Thomas made his debut in 1946 in a story called (wait for it) “Thomas the Tank Engine“? Yeah, me neither. I really had no idea that Thomas turned 64 this year!)

There is one thing that I find very peculiar about Thomas and all the trains of Sodor. The great, all-important value for the trains is to be “useful.” In the 1950 book, after rescuing James, another engine, after a breakdown, Thomas was referred to as a “really useful engine.” Since then, the idea of being useful has surfaced in almost every Thomas book and TV episode.

Here’s why I bring that up. The character who serves as the occasion for Paul’s letter is Onesimus. Verse 10-11 reads, “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” What is lost in English here is Paul’s deliberate play on words. Onesimus’ name literally means “useful” or “profitable.”

Before, Onesimus was just a thieving, runaway slave. In fact, that’s about the very definition of “useless.” But now, as a believer in Christ, his value is not as a slave but as a brother and partner in the Lord. He is now, for the first time in his life, living up to his name.

Useful. Interesting term. Certainly not one that exists in my normal vocabulary. Seems kinda like a quaint, old expression. Question is, what does it mean to be useful? Like Onesimus, we were slaves to sin. Now, in Christ, we can be useful. But what does that even really mean? Your thoughts?


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