By Lori Gardner
Have you ever eaten black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day? Do you make a list of resolutions that you hardly ever keep? People all over the world have different rituals and superstitions regarding the New Year. Whether it is wearing polka dots or putting coins on all the window sills, the traditions may be different, but the reason behind them is always the same. Everyone wants to be profitable in the New Year.
There are two men in the New Testament that the Apostle Paul described as profitable. In the eyes of the world they were probably not considered profitable. In fact, both could be called runaways. One of them was a young disciple that dropped out and ran away in the middle of an important missionary journey. The other was a runaway slave that stole from his master. Yet, according to Scripture, both of these men became profitable to the furtherance of the gospel of the grace of God.
The first man described this way was a young Jewish believer named John Mark. He was the cousin of Barnabas and was one of Paul’s partners on his first journey into Asia (Col. 4:10; Acts 12:25). Sometime during the trip John Mark abruptly departed and left his fellow workers (Acts 13:13; 15:38). The Bible doesn’t really tell us why he left. In Acts 15:38 the word “departed” is used to describe what happened. That word carries a stronger meaning than just leaving the scene. It means he deserted them, possibly out of revolt. It has been speculated that John Mark did not like the fact that Paul was sharing “the doctrine of the Lord” with Gentiles (Acts 13:12).
Whatever the reason may have been, the sudden flight of the young man caused a sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39). When it came time to leave on their second journey, Paul refused to take John Mark along. The conflict resulted in the breakup of the team.
The actions of this young man seem to have been anything but profitable at that time. However, the Lord has a way of using the most unlikely people to fulfill His purposes. We don’t know exactly how this rift was healed or what circumstances caused hearts and attitudes to change, but we do know that it is the Lord Jesus Christ that enables us to be ministers for Him (1 Tim. 1:12). He obviously worked things out in order to fulfill His plans.
Later on, we see where Paul and Barnabas are in fellowship once again (1 Cor. 9:6). John Mark had apparently proved his commitment to the Lord’s work by that time as well. In 2 Timothy 4:11 we see how Paul had become convinced of John Mark’s worth. The Apostle is close to the end of his earthly life and as he awaits execution in Rome, he instructs Timothy, “Bring him (John Mark) with thee; for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”
The young man that had run away from the Lord’s work had become profitable. He came to be a trusted fellow worker by Paul and was considered a “son” by the Apostle Peter, as well as being used by the Holy Spirit to write the gospel of Mark (Philemon 24; 1 Pet. 5:13).
The other man in Scripture that Paul calls profitable is an unlikely character named Onesimus. He was a slave that stole from his master, Philemon, before running away. That could have easily been the end of a sordid story. However, by the grace of God, Onesimus somehow ended up in Rome under the influence of the Apostle Paul.
The book of Philemon is a simple, heartfelt letter written by Paul to ask his dear friend a favor. He asks that Philemon consider taking Onesimus back into his heart as well as his household. He even calls the runaway “my son” (vs. 10). Paul goes on to write in verse 11, “Who in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me.”
What must have happened in Onesimus’ life to turn him around? We can only imagine the conversations he had with Paul and how the Holy Spirit must have worked in the runaway’s heart to change him so much.
Paul goes on to describe Onesimus in very endearing terms. He says that he is as dear to him as his own heart and that he would have gladly kept him in Rome, but wouldn’t do so without Philemon’s consent (vs. 13-14). In Colossians 4:9, he calls Onesimus a faithful and beloved brother and assures the believers that he is one of them.
Paul obviously saw a real change in the man and recognized his potential. He had so much confidence in the transformation that had taken place in Onesimus that he offered to repay anything that was owed to Philemon (vs. 18).
What would it have taken to be called profitable by a man such as the Apostle Paul? More importantly, what does it take for us to be considered profitable to God? 1 Timothy 4:8 tells us that it is godliness that makes us profitable. God’s Word tells us that we are to “give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.” We are to meditate upon the things of God, and give ourselves wholly unto them (1 Tim. 4:13-15). By doing this, we will profit and it will not only be evident to God, but to everyone.