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Welcome back to Philemon. Today, the epilogue. This is the follow up story like at the end of a true-story movie. The only problem is we don’t know what happened. At least not to Onesimus and Philemon. I would guess based on the fact that this letter got out to the church that Philemon was moved by it and gave Onesimus his freedom. But we don’t know for sure.
But the letter did get out and became part of our Bible. Whether or not Paul knew it would, I believe the Spirit had a plan - one that spans history.
So what does the Bible say about slavery? And how has it played out through history? This is important. During the slave era in my country, the Bible was used to support slavery and racism. And doesn’t the Bible say things like, “Slaves, obey your masters”?
Well, yes, it does say that. But that’s just part of the story. Did you know that there was a “Slave Bible” here in the US? It was titled “Parts of the Holy Bible, Selected for the Use of the Negro Slaves.” We don’t know who published it, but it’s a great picture of the incomplete and hypocritical nature of the Christian faith that tolerates oppression, both then and today.*
The Slave Bible kept the verse in Ephesians 6 about obeying your master. But understand that those are instructions for Christians on how to live right in a world gone wrong. That’s a reality we all face in one way or another, and the instruction stands true: do right even if others do you wrong. The Slave Bible removed Paul’s instructions to slaves to get their freedom if they could, and his reminder that a man’s slave is the Lord’s freedman (1 Corinthians 7:21-23). About half the New Testament is missing, and most of the Old.
There’s a powerful lesson here. Incomplete faith is dangerous. Your blind spots, whether accidental or on purpose, can do a lot of damage. The letter to Philemon is about opening your eyes to that blind spot and allowing faith to affect every part of your life.
So what else does the full Bible say? Well, Paul tells masters to respect their servants and treat them well knowing that God is master of them both (Ephesians 6:9). The Bible consistently portrays the equality of all peoples: male and female, neighbor and foreigner, strong and weak, slave and free. And it challenges us to see others that way. Here Paul tells Philemon to take back Onesimus no longer a slave, but a fellow man and a brother in Christ. Do not underestimate the radical nature of Paul’s words in a society whose economic system was founded upon slavery.
And what about the Old Testament? The Slave Bible kept the story of Joseph in slavery, but omitted Moses and God’s great rescue from slavery.
And when God established the law for his own people, great portions were devoted to justice, equality, and freedom: opportunities for the poor, protections for the widow and orphan, understanding and fair treatment for foreigners.
In Leviticus 25, God prohibits harsh treatment of servants. Now if an Israelite was poor, he could bond himself to work for someone but work toward freedom, and to get his own land. And every fiftieth year was Jubilee: all debts were forgiven, all land restored, and bond-servants set free. The law did allow Israelites to own slaves from foreign lands, and I struggle with that passage, and with other passages of war and violence. But I fear God and trust him, and I do not allow one verse that confuses me to blind me to the pervasive revelation of our God who is just and fair, who consistently calls us to act in mercy, justice, freedom, equality and to end oppression.
See God’s law is an expression of God’s heart. And to really see His heart, read Isaiah 58. God challenges the hypocrisy of those who fast and pray with the appearance of piety, but on the same day exploit their workers and fight each other (58:3-4). That is not fasting. Listen to God’s words,
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6).
He goes on: feed the hungry, clothe the naked. Throughout the Bible, the consistent command of God is to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him; to uphold the cause of the weak and marginalized, care for aliens, visit prisoners. The Son of God Himself tells us that whatever we do for the least, we do for Him.
And what about Racism? From cover to cover, the Bible leads us to God’s plan for His Kingdom, made up of every tribe, every tongue, and every nation. Of course, the Slave Bible omitted verses like Galatians 3:21,
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:21).
For a Christian, any racism is a base hypocrisy.
So that’s what the Bible says, but has Christian history lived up to it? Yes and no. We’ve had our hypocrites to be sure, but those who lived their faith have changed this world.
Remember the gladiators, slaves forced to fight to the death? That ended when a Christian monk took a stand in Jesus name. Telemachus. It cost his life and saved thousands.
Fast-forward to William Carey in India, who shared the gospel and fought to end widow-burning, infanticide, child marriage, and the systematic racism of caste. And yet he respected the many elements of Indian culture that were fair and just. Amy Carmichael arrived later with the gospel, and fought to set free children who were forced to serve as temple prostitutes as part of pagan worship. This is our calling: fight injustice, respect culture, and share the love of God.
So what happened with Christian slave owners here in America? I don’t know. It was quite a blind spot. But not everyone was so blind. The fight for abolition to end slavery was led at great sacrifice by Christians who took the Bible seriously, both black and white.
Listen to the words of Frederick Douglass, a slave who found freedom and became an abolitionist and ordained minister, "I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”†
Strong words. And I encourage you to read biographies of William Wilberforce and John Newton who fought to end the slave trade and of the abolitionists in America. Read the story of Holy Night, the Christmas song, how it was brought to America by an abolitionist who loved the verse, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.” And of the very emblem chosen for the abolitionist movement: a black man in shackles on one knee with the words, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Those words are the very heart of Philemon. And the abolitionists understood, like Paul, that real change required more than just good laws. It required a change in how we see our fellow human.
And the same is true today. Slavery is illegal in every modern nation, yet it is present in 87% of them, including mine. Yes, we must change law and change culture, but the foundation is change that happens in our heart how we see each other. Every human is God’s image bearer. Philemon reminds us that matters of justice, of doing right, are personal before they’re political.
So be determined to look at no man according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:16). And join in God’s work to fight for justice, to free the oppressed and break every chain. There are many outstanding groups today, the largest is International Justice Mission. Check out IJM.org to read their story and support the shared mission to end slavery. Because every human matters.
And Philemon’s message for us? Get the whole gospel, and let it change your whole life. Change the way you see people. Like the poor. Prostitutes. Convicts and ex-cons, addicts and homeless, liberals and conservatives, special needs, mentally ill, the unborn, homosexuals, trans, different color, different culture, different religion, saints and sinners alike. God makes it real simple: love everyone. Just like Jesus loved you.
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.
† Fredrick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, 1845.