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Living up to your name

Emily and Jacob currently occupy the top position on the list of most popular names for babies.  Emily beat out Emma, while Michael, Joshua, and Matthew all trailed behind Jacob.  However, the research failed to consider something quite important to the whole names/popularity discussion; just because a name is popular with parents, doesn’t mean it will be popular with their children.


As a case in point, consider Onesimus, the central character in Paul’s brief letter to Philemon.  I imagine Onesimus was one of those people who grew up not appreciating his name.  You see, one of the mistakes parents often make in the naming process is not considering all their child will have to live through because of their name.  For example the name Onesimus means useful.  Perhaps Onesimus’ parents were naming him in anticipation of what they hoped and planned for him to be.  Maybe he was named after an uncle or grandfather.  We don’t know, so one guess is as good as another.


What we do know is that somehow Onesimus found himself a slave.  Slavery was extremely widespread in the Roman Empire in the first century.  Estimates range from one-third to one-half of the people living under Roman rule being slaves.  You could be born into slavery, you could be captured and made a slave, but a large number of people voluntarily entered into slavery ("bond-servant"), for various reasons including an easier life, economic security, improved social status, or to obtain a certain job.  Obviously slavery in N.T. times bore little resemblance to slavery in the new world.


For whatever reason, Onesimus didn’t fare well as a slave of his master, Philemon.  In fact, Paul makes a play on his name in the eleventh verse of his letter to Philemon when he says that Onesimus was “formerly useless to you.”  No punch pulling there, it’s laid out on the table for everyone to see – “useless.”  And don’t think for a moment that Paul was the first to have played off Onesimus’ name in this way.  I’m sure he had heard it before.  Perhaps it had even become a self-fulfilling prophecy and he had begun to live down to it.           


Whatever the case, we don’t want to miss another important word in the same verse – the word “formerly.”  While Onesimus at one time had been useless, he was no more.  Something changed and he began living up to his name and became useful to Paul and to Philemon.  What changed?  It was Onesimus himself who changed.  Sometime after meeting Paul he became a Christian  (v. 10), and began living up to his name.


Probably few of us today could say what our name means and it doesn’t really matter.  However, as followers of Jesus, like Onesimus, we have a name to live up to.  It is the name of Christ.  We are to live up to the calling we have received (Ephesians 4:1ff,5:1ff).  We are to live up to the purpose God has for our lives.  We are to be useful for Him!


There’s a well worn story about a soldier who had deserted being brought before Alexander the Great.  When asked what his name was the soldier replied, “Alexander, the same as yours.”  The Macedonians thundered back, “Then I suggest you change your life or change your name.”


If you wear the name of Christ, something has to change and that something is us.
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