Posts Tagged ‘Philemon’

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.

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Paul is a prisoner in Rome – possibly during the time described at the end of Acts (During this time he also wrote Ephesians, Philippians & Colossians). Philemon lives in Colossae, and most likely became a Christian through Paul while in Ephesus (19). He is a respected leader in and host to the Colossian church (2). For whatever reason, one of his slaves, Onesimus has either escaped or not returned on time from an assignment, possibly using his master’s money as he did so (18), and has made his way to Rome, maybe hoping to avoid recapture by being lost in the crowded city. In what the world would call an amazing (but mere) coincidence, Onesimus encountered (or sought out?) Paul. It may be that Onesimus became a Christian at this time, and a deep friendship and sense of partnership in the Gospel developed between them. (10,12) Onesimus is now sent back to Colossae to be reconciled with Philemon, along with Tychicus, who is the courier for the letter to the Colossian church (Colossians 4:7-9). (It it significant to note that in Colossians and Ephesians Paul gives very clear a detailed instructions about slave-master relationships. Clearly this was an issue that was prominent in his mind in light of this encounter with Onesimus.) This letter is is both about personal reconciliation and unity between people in the church, and about social transformation. The Gospel impacts us in a deeply personal way by transforming relationships between individuals, but it also, through the combining of these individual transformations, brings about a wider social transformation in which the culture of a community is changed. The way that Paul opens this letter gives us the foundation for any kind of reconciliation within the church, and of any kind of social transformation. Potentially this letter could cause a rift between Paul and Philemon – and even between Paul and the church in Colossae. Possibly some tension was already there, if word had got back to Philemon that Paul was advocating for Onesemus. It is significant then to take note of how Paul addresses Philemon. Firstly, unlike in most of his other letters, Paul does not introduce himself as an ‘Apostle’. In the letters where he is addressing significant and controversial issues, or giving clear instructions about leadership in the church, Paul uses that title as as way of asserting his authority. As an apostle, he was entrusted with a responsibility to bring Jesus’ commands to the church (As Jesus commissioned his Apostles in Matthew 28:20 to ‘teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.’) However, Paul does not seek to pull rank on his friend Philemon. Rather, he described himself as a ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’. This describes not only the reason he is, literally, imprisoned in Rome: it is because of his proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus that he has been arrested, imprisoned awaiting trial, and possibly may soon be executed; but it also describes his understanding of His calling an mission in life. He is a prisoner not only for or because of Jesus, but a prisoner of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul says, ‘The love of Christ compels us’ when talking about his ministry of proclaiming the Gospel. The word ‘compel’ implies that he has been captured, and has no choice, no other option than to do what Christ, his loving master, demands of him. Secondly, Paul speaks of his as his ‘dear friend [agapato] fellow worker’. I wonder how different some of our confrontations and attempts at dealing with conflict on a personal or community level would be so different if we began with an affirmation of our love and partnership with the other person? Paul does not view Philemon as a potential opponent or enemy, but as a beloved partner in God’s family and in the ministry. So Paul is not writing in order to get Philemon to obey him; rather, he is writing because to not do so would be disobedient to Christ, and he wants Philemon to have the same attitude in how he chooses to respond to Onesimus. What is at stake here is not primarily domestic or church harmony, but the honour of Christ Himself. Repaired relationships is not the end in itself, because it is the repairing of relationships in the Gospel that bear testimony ultimately to Christ – our love for one another will enable to the world to see that we are disciples of Jesus, and so in the end He receives the glory. And so Paul speaks not as an Apostle who stands over Philemon, but as an equal partner in serving Jesus. Paul does not want Philemon to obey Paul, but Christ. There is also something very significant about who Paul addresses this letter to. Primarily this is a letter to Philemon, urging him to deal with a matter that, we could say, was his own personal business. This was about his slave, whom he employed. Any disputes he and Onesimus may have had were personal and private – or were they? In our modern world of individualism and privacy laws we might say ‘Yes. Whatever happened between these two men was no-one else’s business, least of all the church’s.’ Yet, Paul includes, ‘and to the church that meets in your home.’ in his greeting. Very clearly the church in Colossae was not merely a group of people who gathered a few times a week for meetings. They were a community that did life together. Their gatherings were in a home – not in a building reserved just for services and ‘religious’ activities, and so they did not have, as we tend to, a clear distinction between the ‘secular’ and the ‘spiritual’ in life. When we’re told in Acts (4:32) that the Christians had ‘everything in common’ that means not only a certain attitude towards their possessions, but an attitude to one another. Why would you be willing to sell land and  houses in order to share with your fellow believers unless a depth of relationship and loving trust was already established? Why would you be free to give to help a brother or sister in need unless you already shared with one another a depth of openness and vulnerability in your lives that their burden became your burden and laying down your life for the sake of your brother or sister is a natural reaction to their problem? So Philemon’s problem with Onesimus was not his personal private issue. He was a member of the community of the family of God, and like it or not his actions impacted on the life of this community. This was a matter for which the church should not only hold him accountable, but also a problem in which they should be providing support, comfort, encouragement and advice. Galatians 6:2 says, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ This is not an optional extra; it is not a last resort when everything I have tried on my own doesn’t work.  Maybe this is why often ministry can become a tiresome burden and so many pastors burn out – because they end up so often trying to deal with issues that people have been trying to fix on their own so long that they have now escalated to a catastrophic level. If we as God’s people were to be sharing our lives on a deeper level – and I don’t mean living in each other’s pockets every hour of every day – then many of our personal and relational battles may be nipped in the bud before they develop beyond control. Paul has no qualms about making this problem public, and it’s unlikely that Philemon would have had a problem with him doing so, as we see in the next verses that this Gospel community dynamic was already happening in Colossae: In verse 5, Paul gives thanks for the two things that Philemon was known for: love and faith. These are the two authenticators of genuine salvation, and they go hand-in-hand. Sometimes within the Christian community we may see a polarisation towards one or the other; some will say, ‘This person has declared their faith in Jesus. That’s good enough for me! Who am I to judge them?’ We might hear that kind of comment in the context of a celebrity making a public statement about God, or turning up at a church, even when their lifestyle doesn’t seen to correspond to their profession. Or a bit closer to home, it may be that we say, ‘This person prayed the sinner’s prayer, or went up to commit their lives to Jesus and so we know for sure that they’re in the kingdom; or ‘this person has their theology sorted out, and they can explain the Gospel clearly in five simple sentences.’ Others might say, ‘Believing in Jesus is pointless unless you give yourself to serving, doing good, fighting for justice for the oppressed and feeding the poor,’ or ‘That person may not hold to what you consider to be orthodox theology, and they may disagree with you on what the Gospel actually is, but at least they are out there doing something!’. It is not faith verses works. Both genuine faith and loving works are the fruit of God’s work of salvation in a person’s life. We talk about faith, hope and love as being a summary of what it means to be living a true Christian life – it’s a trio we find all through the scriptures. Hope is the certainty of what God will do for us in Christ, based on what He has done for us in Christ. Faith flows from this hope, as the Father revels to us His faithfulness displayed and promised in Jesus and we respond by putting our trust in Him; and because Jesus has set us free from slavery to sin and death, this faith expresses itself in love – for God and for our neighbour. So faith and love are the fruit of our hope in Christ. Just as faith without works is dead, so too works without faith are simply a personal self-justification project. So Paul rejoices and thanks God because he sees the two operating in Philemon’s life. Notice that his love and faith are very specific: His love is ‘for all his holy people’ – not a general philanthropy or social action, but a commitment to the body of Christ; and his faith is ‘in the Lord Jesus’ – not a self confidence or a ‘faith in faith’ where if we believe had enough we will receive what we want, but a complete trust and dependance on Jesus, where He is his all in all, and his life is shaped by a desire to see Christ exalted and made known. Paul goes on to flesh out each of these. Verse 6 speaks of the nature and fruit of faith, and verse 7 the nature and fruit of love. Firstly, Philemon’s faith is not a personal, private one. By trusting in Jesus he automatically is in partnership, or ‘fellowship’ with others who share his faith. Keeping your faith to yourself was almost unheard of in New Testament times; is was unthinkable to separate your faith in Jesus from being part of His body. Christians faced – and still do – severe persecution simply for not keeping their faith private, and often in countries where Christians are persecuted it is the church congregations that are attacked when they are meeting; church buildings are burned; and those who facilitate the gathering of Christians – pastors and leaders – who are imprisoned. Being part of the church is not just an activity we do as Christians, it is an intrinsic part of our identity. So much so that Paul reminds Philemon of the fruit of his ‘partnership [with others] in the faith’: a deepening understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.’ Philemon’s own faith will grow and deepen as he lives it out in the context of community, and in this context specifically as he includes his brothers and sisters in the process of restoration and reconciliation with Onesimus. Secondly, if Philemon’s sharing of his faith with others has led to a benefit for him in his faith growing, in a similar way his active love for God’s people has produced the same effect for others. Most of our modern English translations are a bit politically correct here in translating the word, ‘hearts’. The KJV translates this verse literally: ‘…the bowels of the saint are refreshed by thee…’. In Jewish thinking the heart was the seat of the will, while the bowels were the set of the emotions. Compassion, mercy, tenderness, passion, all came from the bowels – hence our saying, ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this…’ Philemon’s active, faith-filled love for his brothers and sisters had fostered in them not a mere will to do good, but a passion to love that came from within them; a love that was no longer something they did, but something they were. But this is not mere motivation or self-help. In Isaiah 63, when Isaiah is calling out to God on behalf of the people who are in exile, he prays:

Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of thy holiness and of thy glory: where is thy zeal and thy strength, the sounding of thy bowels and of thy mercies toward me? are they restrained? Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting. (Isaiah 63:15-16 KJV)

Isaiah is calling on God, as the compassionate Father, to be moved with compassion and tenderness and mercy and to come and save His people. This is the tender compassion that the Father has shown towards us in giving HIs only Son, whom he loves, to become the lamb who would take away the sin of the world. It is this mercy that the Father has displayed in extending grace to his enemies and pardon to rebels through the cross; it is the tenderness that Jesus his shown by willingly and joyfully going to that cross where He gave all of himself for us. So what is taking place in the Colossians through Philemon’s ministry is not simply that they are better Christians or human beings, but they are people who are reflecting the character of the Father; they are being transformed into the image of Jesus himself. Philemon is not just doing a good thing by loving his brothers and sisters; he is being part of the Father’s work in His people to bring them to the goal he has for them. It’s no wonder then that Paul can say, ‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement.’ He sees in Philemon the powerful working of God. And it is no wonder too that Paul now goes on to speak with a sense of great confidence about the problem that is before them because he knows that Philemon is a man after God’s own heart (bowels!). He begins his discussion of the issue with verses 8 and 9: ‘Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.’ He is confident that the love of God that is at work in Philemon will prevail in this situation. Next time, we will see how Philemon is called to exercise this love, and how the love of God is able to overturn obstacles and transform relationships for His glory.