God’s People, part 293: Philemon & Onesimus

Read Philemon 1

“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NLT).

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 293: Philemon & Onesimus. Philemon is certainly Paul’s shortest letter and it is one of his most intriguing letters as well. It was most likely written by the Apostle during his imprisonment in Ephesus and it is a letter that bears so much import and urgency that Timothy was listed as one of the people sending the letter with Paul, possibly acting as a notary to verfiy authenticity.

What was so important that Paul drafted a quick and urgent letter, sending it with his most trusted disciple in order to ensure it was properly delivered? The letter was written in regard to a runaway slave named Onesimus. Before I get into the specifics, we need to acknowledge proverbial monster under the bed: SLAVERY. Slavery was a given in the ancient world. They were seen as a part of the natural order of the world. What’s more, though hard to do given our own Euro-American context, we have to lay aside our understanding of what slavery is.

In the ancient world, people were captured in war, or by their debts, and were enslaved. This wasn’t just a Roman reality, but an ancient world reality. There were slaves in Israel, in Mesopotamia, in Greece, in Rome, in Asia Minor, and throughout the entire world. There were elements of slavery that were similar to what we understand slavery to be. Slaves were not free to runaway, they were not free to do as they pleased, and they were expected to fulfill their role in society obediently. There were slaves that were beaten and abused and there have always been cruel slavemasters. Those are realities of human enslavement sadly.

With that said, especially in the context of the Roman empire, there was upward mobility for the slaves that excelled. Slaves could earn their freedom and become a part of free society. Some slaves even became members of the senate and other positions of power. In Euro-American slavery, there was no such reality. Slaves were not seen as people with potential, but animals who were nothing more than property.

That is what made American slavery so heinously distinctive from any other form the world has known. In fact, John Wesely once wrote to Wilbur Wilberforce, who successfully put an end to the British slave trade, “Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.” Wesley despised all forms of slavery, and having been the Rector of the Savannah parish in the Georgia colony, he knew full well that American slavery was “the vilest that ever saw the sun.”

What I have written, thus far, is only meant to provide historical context to the word slavery and what it meant in Paul’s time. I am certainly not justifying any form slavery in any society. All slavery is immoral, evil and in the spirit of antichrist. In Paul’s time, though, abolishment of slavery was not an issue even being thought of, let alone considered. What this means is that, while the letter to Philemon shows that Paul was ahead of his time, he doesn’t go as far as we in the twenty-first century would like him to.

Back to Onesimus, who was a slave owned by Philemon. He found Paul in prison and pleaded for his help because he ran away from Philemon and evidently stole something in the process. It’s unclear how Onesimus was being treated or whether or not Philemon was a cruel master. What we do know is that Philemon led church in his house and even Philemon converted to Christianity.

As a side note, it was not uncommon for mistreated slaves to run away and seek assylum from their master’s master. This was what Onesimus was seemingly seeking to do. Paul, being Philemon’s spiritual “master”, wrote a letter to him telling him that he had received Philemon and he was now sending him back home. (This is where we scratch our heads and say, “Really Paul? Was that a good idea?”) With that said, Paul did not leave it there; rather, he strongly appealed to Philemon to not only welcome Onesimus back mercifully, but to welcome him back as a Christian brother. You heard me right, Paul was telling Philemon that, being that Onesimus was a Christian, he should not be welcomed back as a slave. Paul uses judicious and rhetorical wording, but he is not being soft at all. He even wrote, “That is why I am boldly asking a favor of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do. 9 But because of our love, I prefer simply to ask you…” (vv. 8-9a).

Again, we don’t find Paul taking on the whole of the Roman slave system, nor does he even address whether Christians should own a non-believing slave or not, but we do have Paul addressing slavery within the context of the Christian church. It’s a NO GO. Paul made it very clear that all Christians should be considered family, not owned as slaves. This does give us a pretty clear view of Paul’s thoughts on slavery, even if he does not go as far as we would like him to. What’s more, we do know that Philemon did as his teacher asked. We know this because Onesimus went on to be a prominent Christian leader and is probably the same person whom Ignatius (died 107 AD) named as Bishop of Ephesus.

What’s important to note here is that Paul, just like Jesus, saw justice to be a part of the Christian witness. We cannot be witnessing the power of Christ in the world, when we are living in solidarity with the world and it’s way of doing things. This should challenge us in our daily walk as well. Do we reflect Christ? Or do we reflect our world? Do we promote Christ, or do we promote partisan politics and our own twisted worldviews. For Paul, and for me, the answer is simple, if you are a Christian, you are obligated to foresake that which stands opposed to Christ. I pray we all seriously reflect on this.

“I received therefore your numerous body in the name of God in the person of Onesimus, whose love surpasses words, who is, besides, in the flesh your bishop.” – St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch[1]

Lord, help me to incorporate justice into my Christian faith and give me the strength to fight for it. Amen.

[1] Srawley, J. H. with St. Ignatius. (1910). The Epistles of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (Second Edition, Revised, Vol. 1 & 2, p. 42). London; Brighton: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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