“As a child, I never really knew my father. My mother battled drug addiction and poverty. I was constantly surrounded by negativity and dysfunction. Things got so bad that I was eventually removed from my mother’s house and placed in the foster care system. That’s when I started really acting out. I did my best to cause as much damage as I could to the families that took me in. I was angry, and I wanted to sabotage every relationship. I was eventually adopted into a family, and I wreaked havoc on them. I did everything I could to cause pain to the parents that had adopted me, but they persisted. And I finally settled in there for the remainder of my childhood. My parents were not Christians, so I never went to church; I didn’t know anything about God. I stabilized enough to finish high school and go on to college. Something was missing, though. There was a God-sized hole in my life. Somebody invited me to church when I was in college. I went to church and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior! And now, my life is on a completely different path!”
I could not believe what I was hearing the first time my young friend opened up to me about his life’s story. He was in his early twenties at the time. I was a relatively inexperienced pastor. Sitting in my office, as my friend shared about his journey, all I could think about was what a remarkable transformation was taking place in his life. I would have never guessed he had such a troubled past. The man in front of me was brilliant, funny, outgoing, talented, respectful, compassionate and filled with zeal for life and for God that was unparalleled. He was an excellent student at his university, and he was well liked by everyone. He was hungry for spiritual growth. He asked lots of great questions about his budding Christian faith. He read his Bible constantly, prayed passionately and served faithfully at his church. How could such a likeable young man overcome so many difficult challenges in life?
God is on a redemptive mission to transform lives.
That same young man has become a spiritual son to me since that day in my office when he shared the obstacles that he persevered through in his life. He has become part of my family. He continues to shine the light of Christ everywhere he goes. He is graduating from law school this month, and I am officiating his wedding to a wonderful Christian young lady next month. He already has a job lined up at one of the most prestigious law firms in the region upon graduation. I have no doubt he is going to make a huge impact with his career. And he is going to be an incredible husband. I believe all the dramatic progress he has made in life can be contributed to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. His is one of the most amazing stories of transformation I have ever witnessed! And I see the work of the Lord throughout every part of his life!
God is on a redemptive mission to transform lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. All things are possible because of God’s transforming power. There are many examples of people becoming empowered to overcome challenging life circumstances throughout the Bible. One of my favorite examples of empowerment is found in a little letter in the New Testament called Philemon. The letter was written by the Apostle Paul while imprisoned in Rome, mostly likely in the year A.D. 62. Paul wrote the letter to his friend Philemon, a wealthy businessman from Colossae that Paul led to Christ during one of his missionary journeys. The letter to Philemon was written in order to advocate for a young man names Onesimus that Paul led to Christ in Rome. Onesimus had become Paul’s spiritual son.
Onesimus was a slave belonging to the household of Philemon. As a young man, Onesimus got into a lot of trouble because he stole from Philemon and ran away. He made it all the way across the Roman Empire from the city of Colossae to Rome to hide out among the crowds of the big city. At some point, Onesimus crossed paths with Paul and heard the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Onesimus became a follower of Jesus, and Paul discipled him. During their discipleship journey, Onesimus decided to open up to Paul about the baggage from his past. As fate would have it, Paul actually knew the man Onesimus was running from. What are the chances?
Everything becomes different.
The easiest thing would have been just to let things go. Onesimus had become very useful to Paul and his ministry in Rome. Paul knew his time was short; he needed all the help he could get with the ministry. However, Paul knew something about the character of God. When a person becomes a follower of Jesus Christ, everything becomes different. The old self dies, and a new creation emerges empowered by the Holy Spirit. Paul profoundly trusted in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Paul came up with a plan to send Onesimus back to Philemon so the two brothers in Christ could be reconciled. In that ancient context, with slavery so prevalent throughout the Roman Empire, Philemon would have been expected to kill Onesimus at the very moment of his return to make an example of him.
With the stakes so high, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon carrying a letter advocating on behalf of his spiritual son. And what a powerful letter it was! After Paul’s greeting to Philemon and his family, here is what the letter said:
“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – 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.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For 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.
So 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 – to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you” (Philemon 4-22, ESV).
Why does this letter in the New Testament represent such an amazing story of empowerment and transformation?
Beginning with the empowerment of Onesimus, we know a little bit about what happened to him through studying church history. It’s understandable that Onesimus would go to great lengths to preserve the important letter Paul had given him, as he risked his life traveling back across the Roman Empire to the far-off city of Colossae to give the letter to Philemon. Paul also sent other important letters with Onesimus. Onesimus became pretty good at risking his life to preserve letters meaningful to the early Christians. Today, we have important parts of the New Testament due directly to Onesimus’ preservation efforts. Onesimus, once a scared runaway youth, was empowered by the Holy Spirit to preserve Scriptures for the global Church.
There is no such thing as a lost cause.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened when Onesimus reached Philemon with the letter. It appears as though Philemon did something radical, though, instead of killing Onesimus. We know that a man named Onesimus became the bishop of the largest church in the world at that time – the church started by the Apostle John. Most biblical scholars agree this was the same Onesimus for whom Paul had written his letter. Onesimus’ process of transformation was so profound, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that he overcame the challenges of a dysfunctional life to become pastor of one of the most influential Christian churches in the world. There is no such thing as a lost cause. God can redeem any situation in anyone’s life. This is especially true for vulnerable people on the margins of society such as Onesimus.
Philemon also represents a remarkable transformation empowered by the Holy Spirit. Before encountering the Gospel of Jesus Christ through Paul’s ministry, Philemon was most likely living a comfortable, successful-looking life as a wealthy businessman in a world-class city like Colossae. He seemed to be doing just fine, even if his wealth was acquired by enslaving others. Yet, he accepted the love of Christ, and his life would never be the same! A church started meeting in his home. His shady business practices would be dramatically transformed. He would willingly trade his selfish existence to die to himself and fully embrace the cross of Jesus Christ – an act that might cost him everything. Yet, he was a new creation in Christ. The old Philemon died; the new Philemon was expected to demonstrate radical forgiveness and love toward runaway slaves who stole from him. He would model grace and reconciliation for his city and the world to witness to bring glory to God. We learn from Philemon’s example that God empowers people to overcome the trappings of wealth, comfort, materialism and selfishness in order to find purpose and joy through Christ.
The Apostle Paul discovered the Gospel of Jesus Christ empowers people to live differently and demonstrated that profound truth through his relationships with Onesimus and Philemon. Nearly 2,000 years later, I learned that the Gospel of Jesus Christ empowers people to live differently through my friend and spiritual son. The Holy Spirit led my friend through a process of transformation. And God led me through a process of transformation to discover that God can do literally anything through people that He chooses to work through. God empowers people for His purposes.
~Dr. Bryan McCabe