Archive for the ‘Slavery’ Category

This chapter would have to be one of the most confronting and shocking passages in the whole Bible; yet also one of the most profound and significant. If it were adapted into a screenplay it would not pass the censors; some verses (9, 25, 26, 36) carry connotations that I dare not explain in this context. The chapter begins with images of tenderness, compassion and love, but by verse 15 the reader is shocked into revulsion as the language deteriorates into crude, even semi-pornographic imagery. This is definitely a chapter that Sunday School teachers should skip.

Yet this passage is a very significant one, because it highlights three key ideas:

  1. The nature of God’s covenant relationship with His people,
  2. The degrading horror of human sin, and,
  3. The magnificence of God’s lavish grace.

Israel’s history is retold, using the imagery of a woman and her marriage to a prince.

3

Amorites and Hittites were two dominant inhabitants of the land of Canaan when Israel entered the land, and continued to be a thorn in their side throughout their history. Abraham began life as an Aramean (a region north of Samaria, in modern day Syria), living in Babylon, as much an idolator as his neighbours, until God in grace singled him out and called him to be the recipient of the Promise. God is reminding the Jews of their origins; in and of themselves, they are no different to anyone else. The only thing that makes them unique is not found in themselves but in the action of God in making His covenant with them. God had made it clear (Deuteronomy 7:7, 9:5-6) that His choice of Israel was not because of them, but because of his faithfulness to His promises to Abraham – which were made not because of Abraham, but because of God’s purpose for the nations.

4-5

Not only are they of pagan origin, but they are not even of worthy pagan origin. This child that symbolises Israel was rejected and discarded by her parents, thrown into an open field as soon as she was born. Infant abandonment was not uncommon in the ancient world. The most common victims were girls, who were left to the mercy of the elements and wild animals. Local laws stated that if an abandoned child was rescued, its rescuer had the right to make the child their slave; and if it was rescued with its birth fluids still on it, the birth parents had no right to claim it back, since by their actions they had relinquished all legal ties with the child. This child was unwanted from the moment of birth, considered worthless and unclean, and had received the immediate sentence of death; a child left in a field would only last hours before weather or wild dogs killed it.

6-7

A Prince rode past the field, saw this abandoned baby, and decided to rescue her. By his decree, this child was not to die, but live, and be brought into his household. Yet this is not just another child to add to a collection of slaves. God repeats Himself in verse 6 to drive this point home: the statement ‘…In your blood, live!’ was most likely a legal term declared over a child who was being adopted. Unlike the god of the nations, God does not see people as slaves, but as members of His family – as sons and daughters.

This corresponds to the period of time when Israel were slaves in Egypt, and God heard their cries and determined to send them a deliverer. The child, while adopted by the prince, was still living like a slave (slaves in the Ancient Near East were normally sold naked, so that their buyer could see exactly what he was getting).

8-14

The girl reached puberty, and the appropriate age for marriage. Rather than find a husband for her among the slaves, the prince married her himself! Verses 8-9 depict the marriage ceremony and the first night in the bedroom: ’you became mine,’ was the result of him making his vow to her; ‘spreading the corner of my garment over you,’ was symbolic of her coming under his care and protection and headship, of sharing in all that is his. Verse 9 describes an incredibly intimate moment after the bride and groom have made love for her first time.

Does it bother you that God depicts his relationship with His people by using such images of marital intimacy? Yet this is intended to communicate the depth of intimacy and openness for which we are created; an unashamed, free giving of our entire selves to Him, just as He gives His entire self to us. Human relationships and marital intimacy are supposed to be a reflection of this, since we are made in His image. This is why any sexual expression outside of committed, faithful, loving, monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is considered an abomination by God – it is not merely breaking laws about sex, but is a degradation and distortion of the image of God in a person, and hence an attempted degradation of God Himself.

Overnight this abandoned Canaanite slave girl found herself exalted to the place of royalty and international renown. Yet she was reminded that her glorious position was never anything of her own doing: ‘…it was perfect through the splendour that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.’ (14)

15-34

Verse 15 breaks in with devastating force. What was this new queen’s response to all of this tender, generous love shown to her by her rescuer and husband? She ‘played the whore’! This was no mere secret extra-marital affair. She used her privileged position to indulge herself in complete ungratefulness to her husband. She took all that he has given her – clothes (16), jewels (17), embroidered garments (used for special ceremonial occasions) (18), gourmet food (19), and squandered and defiled it all in her adultery. And in the ultimate act of rebellion she sacrificed their own children! (20).

She set out to destroy and defile all the good things she had received, thinking that her satisfaction will be found in anything except her own husband.  This is the essence of idolatry. As Paul describes it in Romans 1:23-25,

‘…they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator, who is forever praised. Amen.’

Idolatry is looking to find in created things that which only God can give us, and which only He has the right to give. Just as Adam and Eve looked to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, human beings ever since have forsaken God’s glory to worship and serve the creation. Things that are good in themselves, nevertheless become the most evil, vile and corrupting force simply because they are set up in the place of God. An idol is anything that we take from God’s good creation, thinking that it will serve us and our own desires, but which then turns and enslaves us so that our desires become captive to it. We think it will give us dignity, worth, security, identity and fulfilment, but instead it robs us of all those things and sucks us dry. As our idols steal our joy, we seek bigger and better and more exciting idols thinking they will solve our emptiness, but they just make our slavery greater.

We see this progression happening with this adulterous queen. She turned from the local Canaanites to the great nations of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon (26-29) but even after this ‘you were not satisfied’ (29). And in the ultimate degradation, we see her paying her ‘lovers’ – she sank lower even than a prostitute, and men would only sleep with her if she payed them to.

35-43

Finally the adulterous queen is brought to justice, and her punishment fits her shameful crime. She is stripped naked, stoned, and her corpse hacked to pieces – by the very idols she had sought her satisfaction from! God’s judgement is to had us over to the outworking of our own sin. To live in the degradation, shame and alienation that sin brings is the essence of Hell. God sends to Hell those who have chosen it over the joy of knowing Him.

44-59

The seriousness of the people’s sin is rubbed in by comparing them to Sodom and Samaria. Sodom was known as the epitome of pagan sinfulness, being destroyed by God by raining sulphur (Genesis 18 & 19), and Samaria (The northern tribes) were considered even more given over to idolatry, and had been captured and scattered by the Assyrians 150 years earlier. Yet the sin of the people of Judah, smugly sitting in Jerusalem thinking they were OK, made these two peoples seem righteous by comparison! So much so, that, ‘…your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before (55) – ie. they will be restored to their former glory; but you will be restored to your former status, as an abandoned child, left to die in the wilderness.

60-63

This is the most shocking part of the entire chapter!

God has just brought his case against the people, and shown them that they deserve all that they are about to receive from the hands of the Babylonians. Justice would demand that the prince cancel the covenant, divorce His wife, strip her of all that He had given her, and cast her out into the streets with nothing, left to be destroyed by her sin and her idols, and abandon her forever – just as her original parents did. But He doesn’t!

In the face of horrific, degrading, abhorrent sin, God remains true to His gracious promise to bring restoration to the world. He will ‘remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth’ – ie. the promises made to Abraham: ‘…in your blood, live!’ – and establish it as ‘an everlasting covenant’ (60). This is lavish grace. We may often think of grace as God being a bit soft, thinking nice things about us, and saying, ‘You’re all right, I guess!’ However true, biblical grace is when we, deserving the worst, are given the best; when God acts with pure unmerited favour towards those who have spat in His face and shown nothing by disdain for Him; it is God loving his enemies and praying for those who persecute him (Matthew 5:43-44). Grace leaves us with no delusion that that we deserve in any way any of the good that God does towards us in saving us from our sin. Grace is not God overlooking or ignoring sin, but accepting sinners on the basis of the atonement that He Himself, at His own cost, makes for sin (63). This is why God is so explicit and crude in his depiction of sin; so that the beauty and magnificence of Grace may be seen for what it truly is.

This section also contains a hint of the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring blessing to the nations. The restoration of Samaria and Sodom have never happened in a physical way, however in the book of Acts we see the Gospel go out to Samaritans and then to Gentiles. God’s people will receive ‘…your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you (61) – in other words, God will do something new – a New Covenant – that will bring the pagans and the estranged Samaritans in to become one family with the Jews. This covenant was established through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. Ezekiel 16 gives a message not just for 6th century BC Jews, but of all people everywhere:

  1. Know the purpose for which you are created: An intimate relationship with God
  2. Recognise the greatness of your sin; the destruction and degradation it brings, and the judgement it deserves; and
  3. See the lavish grace towards you, displayed in the death and resurrection of Jesus for your sin, and put your trust in Him.
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Some estimates have up to 90% of the population of Rome were slaves or slave origin in 1st & 2nd centuries, and 30% of the whole empire! Slavery was very much a part of the social fibre. Slaves technically had no civil rights, yet by New Testament times slaves were permitted to ‘marry’ (although their children remained the property of their owners), and many slaves were paid, which enabled them to eventually buy their own freedom and even sometimes enter into business partnerships with their former masters. Slaves were named by their masters (‘Onesimus’ means ‘useful’ and was a common slave name); many freed slaves changed their names to noble names to escape the stigma of slavery. A number of names mentioned in the New Testament are such ‘upper class’ names, probably because a fair number of Christians were former slaves, possibly given their freedom because their owners had also become Christians.

It was not uncommon for someone to enter voluntarily into slavery as a means of paying off a debt they owed, and on these occasions it was a contractual agreement based on a certain amount of money or a certain time of servitude.

There were both slaves and maters in the Christian community. Nowhere in the New Testament are masters called to release all their slaves, nor for slaves to try to escape; instead Christian masters are called to treat their slaves with kindness and fairness, and slaves to respect and obey their masters; and (where applicable) they were to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. In most cases, it would have been unloving for a master to release a slave who had no other means of living.

Neither are Christians called in the New Testament to lobby or demonstrate for the abolition of slavery in the empire. In fact the idea of lobbying and protesting for social or political change is virtually absent from the Bible. Not only were the majority of Christians in no place to have any social or political influence, living in an empire where the government was never to be questioned; but they also understood that their mission was not to reform the political and social structures of this world, but to proclaim Christ in light of the breaking in of the Kingdom of God, which will mean the eventual downfall of the kingdoms of this world. So Christians were called to honour and pray for the government (yes, the same government that had crucified their Lord and Saviour, and who were hostile to Christians and the Gospel, with an Emperor who had proclaimed Himself to be Lord and God!), and to entrust themselves to their faithful Creator while doing good. They were to have confidence in their sovereign God who through history has been behind the rise and fall and fortunes of nations and empires, engineering history to come to just the right moment for the entry of the Son into this history. If the Nations were in the Father’s hand to that point, they could trust that He was still at work in the nations from that point onwards.

Slavery was never fully abolished in the Roman empire, however from the first century onwards it did begin to decline, and the civil rights of slaves improved. It’s clearly no coincidence that this change in society was happening at the same time that a revolutionary, grassroots movement was growing explosively throughout the empire – the spread of Christianity.

Paul’s words in Philemon are a testimony to the transforming power of the Gospel.

11-14 – Personal change

In verse 11, Paul uses a play on words: Onesimus means ‘useful’ or ‘profitable’ – yet he was obviously lazy or disobedient or just plain absent, and so ‘useless’ to Philemon. Maybe he had fled after being disciplined by his master – and Roman law placed no restrictions on how harsh the discipline of slaves could be. But he Gospel had done such a work in him that he was now obviously a changed man – not so much in ability as in attitude. The Gospel takes a heart that is self centred and rebellious, and transforms it to one that is willing to serve others, as well as to have a confidence in God’s provision and Fatherhood that enables us to accept our position in life and not attempt to control our own destiny.

Why do you do what you do – in your study and career? Because the world has told you that you will only be a ‘useful’ person if you get a degree and a establish yourself in a career that will contribute to the advancement of society? Or, do you desire to be useful more for the Kingdom of God than for the kingdoms of this world? Your real usefulness is not in your skills, but in your identity in Christ, and how that flows into a life lived for Jesus.

15-16 – Relational change

Onesimus’ and Philemon’s relationship has changed: from Master and ‘useless’ slave, to beloved brothers.

This is no trivial thing. Paul highlights the radical nature of this change by using two contrasting words for timeframes: ‘he was separated from you for a little while’ – literally, ‘an hour’ or ‘a moment’; ‘that you might have him back forever’ – literally, ‘eternally!’ And this verse is a parallel to the first part of verse 16: ‘no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a beloved brother.’ ‘Slave’ corresponds to ‘little while’ and ‘beloved brother’ to ‘forever’.

But the parallel contrasts go even further:

philemon parallel

If we were to read just those words in the right hand column, we get an idea of how Philemon is now to view and relate to Onesimus: ‘That you might have him back forever, better than a slave, as a beloved brother, even dearer to you, and in the Lord.

With Onesemus’ coming to faith in Christ, something has happened that is so radical and permanent that things can never be the same again. Onesimus has, in the words of Colossians 1:13, been ‘delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ Remember, the letter to the Colossians was written at the same times as Philemon, and delivered to the same people. And so it is no mere coincidence here that Paul, in describing the nature of the kingdom of Jesus uses a word taken straight out of the vocabulary of the slave market: ‘redemption.’ This was a word used to describe the transaction made when a slave, or someone on behalf of a slave, purchased their freedom by paying off fully the debt they owed.

We were once all slaves to sin, death and fear. We had no rights and no citizenship in the Kingdom of God, because we all voluntarily entered into a contract of slavery by rebelling against God and incurring a debt so huge that were would never ever be able to repay it. Yet we have tried – thinking that somehow our own goodness would be enough to pay it off, or else trivialising our sin in order to make the debt seem less serious than it is. We have all squandered our master’s assets, and fled from Him, trying to hid from him and the wrath we deserve in the great metropolis of human pride, ambition and sophistication.

Into this disaster that is humanity alienated from God, steps Jesus the Son of the Father. While He is free from sin, he willingly enters into our weaknesses and failures – indicated by his baptism where he takes the place of repentant sinners – and experiences in himself all the outworking of our sinfulness – both in his life on earth and in his going to the cross where he not only faced the full, just, and complete wrath of God in our place, but also where he paid in full the price that we could not pay – the price of our freedom: our Ransom.

But that is not the end. We are not just freed slaves, sent off to try to make a life for ourselves. The Father has adopted us into His family. He has filled us with the Spirit who enables us to cry out, “Abba, Father!” He has guaranteed a place for us alongside His own beloved begotten Son, and we now share in His inheritance!

This is earth shattering, revolutionary news! If we fully grasped the lavish grace that the Father has poured out upon us in Jesus we would be dancing in the aisles; we would not be able to contain ourselves for the joy; we could not shut up in declaring this wonderfully great news to our friends and neighbour and colleagues; we would never be satisfied with broken or half-hearted relationships, or with squabbles and divisions in the body of Christ. In short, we would be such a different people that the world would be forced to sit up and take notice and ask, ‘What is it about these people, that they love one another – and us – so much?’

If you are reading this and are not in a place of trusting in Jesus, then you are still in slavery; still captive in the the dominion of darkness. No amount of self effort or denial will contribute one iota to rescue you or solve your dilemma. Your only hope is in Jesus – the only one who is able and willing to reach into your dark place and rescue you by paying your debt and making you a member of the Father’s family. I urge you to put your trust in Him.

And so Philemon, if he is to be true to the work that Jesus has done in his own life, can do nothing else but to now treat Onesimus in light if Jesus’ work in Onesimus’ life. ‘We no longer regard anyone from a worldly point of view… if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)

In verse 17  Paul tells Philemon to accept Onesimus as he would Paul, ie. as a partner – an equal and a coworker in the Gospel.

History is filled with failed experiments at human harmony. Whether it’s race or ethnicity, religion, education, or social status. We have a delusion that we will one day grow out of our prejudices and learn to get along with each other. Hostility and resentment, cannot be ‘grown out of’ – it can only be broken by the power of grace – a grace so great that it is able to forgive us of our own enormous debt and reconcile us to God.

Colossians 3:11: ‘Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.’

A Christian who refuses to be reconciled to others is a walking contradiction – as reconciliation is at the heart of our faith. A Christian living in the grace of God that enables us to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, for our friends, and even for our enemies, is a walking display of the glory of God. It is through us – His church – that this transforming Gospel power will spread to our communities, so that we will not just see this world become a better place (that is really a pathetic, weak and second rate option), but people rescued from darkness, and lives transformed eternally, to the glory of God.

I pray that you may know this overwhelming, transforming grace.