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Welcome to Through the Word. Today the letter to Philemon. Just one chapter and one small story about one big subject matter. Slavery.
What does the Bible say about slavery? In the not so distant past, slave owners in my own country used the Bible to defend slavery; claimed it was God’s way. And if you skip most of the Bible and don’t pay close attention, you might even believe it. After all, it does say, “Slaves, obey your masters.”
Also, if you don’t pay close attention to the world around you, you might believe that slavery is a thing of the past.
But with a subject this serious, we had better look closer. Look closer at the Bible, and you’ll find that God consistently calls His people to end oppression and stand for justice. Look closer at history, and you’ll find that the movement to end the British slave trade and to end slavery here in the US was led and pressed forward by those who read the Bible and took it seriously.
And look closer at the present, and you’ll see that slavery is real and present in 87% of the world’s nations, including mine. And you’ll see that you and I can and should make a difference.
But what about those past Christians who supported slavery? More importantly, what about us if we call ourselves Christians, and do nothing to end it?
But first, this book is a story, not a political statement. The story finds its way to us by way of a letter written by Paul the Apostle to a friend and brother in Christ, Philemon. We can piece together details about Philemon from clues in the letter and I’ll fill in the gaps just a little. But recognize that all we know for sure is written in this letter.
Philemon was wealthy, owned a home, and owned slaves. Certainly no one in that time would blink at that. Much of the Roman population was a slave. It was quite simply the way things worked. But Philemon was a good man, kind and hospitable. He opened his home to guests and to a church.
Church was a relatively new concept. A few years earlier, Paul showed up in town and began sharing the story of Jesus the Son of God. The story of hope of redemption of forgiveness and freedom from sin. Some people ignored, but Philemon listened and got right with God. And so did his wife Apphia and their son, Archippus. And life changed. As more people found hope, they needed a place to meet. So Philemon offered his home. By the time Paul moved on, he and Philemon were close friends.
So that’s at least pretty close to how it went down. But now we fast-forward a few years. Paul moved on to reach more towns. And wherever he went, trouble stirred. Eventually, it landed Paul in Rome as a prisoner again. This time Paul is under house arrest but still chained to a Roman guard. And Paul kept sharing the gospel, and kept changing lives. And one of those lives was a link back to his dear friend, Philemon.
Onesimus was a runaway slave: a serious crime in the empire. His master was a good man but he still ran away. And can you blame him? We don’t know his story only that somehow or another, by God’s grace, he wound up in Rome and wouldn’t you know, with Paul. Onesimus heard the same phenomenal story that had changed Philemon’s life. Jesus loved him. The Son of God made himself a servant, and died the death of a common thief all so Onesimus could find hope and freedom.
Well, Onesimus heard it and believed. And one more ragged soul was made whole. And the young man who ran away from work got to work helping Paul.
Only there was a problem. Onesimus was still a runaway slave. Right or wrong he belonged to Philemon. And Paul knew it.
What was true for Onesimus is true for all of us. Getting right with God doesn’t make the world right. It doesn’t fix your past, and it doesn’t fix the system. At some point, Onesimus had to face his past. In God’s eyes, he is a son. But in the world’s eyes, he’s an outlaw. Sure the system is jacked, but such is the world.
And so we are arrive at Paul’s letter to Philemon. It likely traveled with the Colossian letter. This matter was personal between three people. I don’t imagine that Paul intended for it to be read by others, nor that he had a sense of history or impact. He was a prisoner writing to friend for the sake of a slave. Nonetheless, this small letter stands as one grand reminder that one person matters. And the impact of one person and one small letter on the course of history may surprise you.
The letter begins with a greeting,
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker….” (Philemon 1).
Notice that the foundation of this letter is friendship. Paul greets the family Apphia and Archippus and he says,
“....the church that meets in your home” (Philemon 2).
I love home church. There’s something great about fellowship in a home.
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus” (Philemon 3-5).
I love how Paul thanks God for people. Great habit. And Paul acknowledges that Philemon is a pretty great guy. Devoted and faithful, a community leader, and just loved people. And yet he owned slaves. We can judge, but step into his shoes a moment. There was no concept of a world without slavery. And Philemon was likely good to his slaves. But look at verse 6,
“I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ” (Philemon 6).
Paul prays that as Philemon partners with these crazy missionaries who sacrifice everything for Jesus, that it will deepen his understanding. That some truths will sink deeper.
And verse 7 is a favorite of mine,
“Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (Philemon 7).
Man, I like this guy Philemon. He was a guy who refreshed the heart just to be around him. He was hospitable and encouraging. What a great calling to refresh the hearts of God’s people. I want to go to Philemon’s home church.
But imagine that sitting in Philemon’s home, bunch of new believers full of joy, full of love, singing songs, reading Scripture. Philemon’s family is great, so welcoming, and your heart is refreshed! And when you need something, Philemon is ready to serve. Or at least, get a servant. And yes, they’re slaves, but that’s how things are. There is no alternative. And Philemon is good to them.
Sometimes when you all talk about your freedom in Christ, you get a funny little twinge of wondering, what does that mean for them?
And then recently, one of the slaves ran. Onesimus. He had never been happy, and finally left. Illegal, of course, and dangerous. Philemon was distraught, but you carry on as before. Until one day, Onesimus is back. And curiously with a band of Christians sent by Paul. They carried letters one to the church, and one addressed privately to Philemon.
And you have to wonder about it. You can’t help but marvel at the irony of the whole thing. Paul, the man who talked about freedom more than anyone, the man who brought freedom in Christ to all the believers. Paul who was in chains and yet knew so confidently his freedom in Christ. And here was Onesimus the runaway returning of his own free will to his master! And yet somehow, he seems to have taken hold of that freedom that Paul talks so much about. What is going on? And what is in that letter? What does Paul have to say to Philemon?
Well, it was private then, but it’s open now. So go ahead take a peak. And we’ll walk through it together tomorrow.
Join us next time as we continue the journey one chapter at a time. And remember, faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word.