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Philemon: A Case of Christianity and Its Power Upon Lives

American slavery ended the wrong way.  It ended with bloodshed and with violence.  It ended with whites in both the North and South turning on African-Americans.  The end of the Civil War saw the rise of racist groups such as the KKK and in turn the NAACP.  The terrible end to the slavery question in the United States gave rise to the Jim Crow era laws and would keep African-Americans in “chains” for another 100 years after the end of the Civil War.  The abolitionist movement was successful in getting both Abraham Lincoln elected and in turn passing the 14th Amendment which abolished slavery (with the Emancipation Proclamation before it) but they fueled racism for another 100 years and it is still with us to this day.

Philemon, however, shows how Christianity, when it is truly preached, changes relationships completely.  Tonight we studied Philemon with our boys in Royal Rangers.  Philemon, of course, was written by Paul the Apostle to his friend Philemon who was a dear brother in the Lord (vv. 4-7).  Philemon had a church meeting in his home (v. 2).  Philemon had a slave named Onesimus who had run away from his master.  At some point Onesimus heard the gospel and was saved under Paul (v. 10).  Under Roman law a runaway slave must be returned to his master or face the possibility of getting caught and possibly killed.  Until AD 20 in the Roman Empire, slaves had no rights but the Roman Senate passed a law that gave slaves the chance to purchase their freedom.  Onesimus had bypassed this and fled to Rome where Paul was in prison (v. 9).  Paul knew the law and was sending Onesimus back to his master but Paul pointed to the fact that Onesimus was now a brother in the Lord (vv. 15-16).  Paul asked Philemon to forgive Onesimus (vv.17-20).

Surely also Philemon would have heard of Paul’s teaching from Ephesians 6:5-9 which reads:

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. 9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.

Notice the transformation of the relationships between saved masters and saved slaves.  Now we must also bear in mind that slavery in the Roman Empire was not based on race as it was in Europe and the United States.  Slavery was often good for many slaves in the Roman Empire but could equally be cruel as well.  The New Testament does not seek to abolish slavery by the power of men but rather through transformed relationships.  I would think that Onesimus’ relationship with his master, Philemon, was transformed by the gospel and would have been a happy situation for him.  Often slavery provided slaves with food, water, protection, shelter, and medicine.

I do think that slavery is best gone but true Christianity can break the chains of slavery unlike anything else.  The American Civil War is a case in point.  Sadly, the Civil War saw the rise of the State becoming the factor in moral issues.  Take abortion for example.  The Church too often looks to the State to end abortion.  It should learn from the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and see that the gospel is what will end abortion.  If abortion doctors and nurses get saved or if women in our culture hear the gospel and get saved, this transforms the culture.  The gospel can transform the world!  Jesus makes all things new (2 Corinthians 5:17).  The cultural ills we see in our culture from the sin of abortion to the sin of homosexuality will only end with the gospel being preached and people repenting of their sins.  The gospel can change our world.

The gospel changed both Philemon and Onesimus.  The gospel can change our world as well.  May we be faithful to preach the gospel and see the power of sin broken over people’s lives.

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Written by The Seeking Disciple

08/22/2013 at 10:30 AM

4 Responses

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  1. Hello seeking disciple!

    I fear this isn’t as simple as that, since many slave owners justified their practices by appealing to a straightforward application of Scripture.

    However, one might argue that the type of Slavery endorsed by Paul and Jesus is a human one, very different from the American one.
    If the masters had loved their slaves as themselves, all the gruesome and horrific aspects of slavery disappear.
    I’ll probably write a post on this topic in the future.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    lotharson

    08/22/2013 at 2:00 PM

    • I agree. American slavery was based on racism. Had American churches preached against racism and preached that slave owners must treat their slaves as Scripture calls them to, slavery would have looked very different indeed. Slavery in the Bible was not based on race per se. It was often based on the social-economic level you were born into. Roman slaves often were treated fairly, were protected by their masters, and in return had a place to live, work, and food to eat. However, as the book of Philemon shows, the Christian was to treat all people differently because of the gospel. In turn, this would eliminate slavery not by force but by relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ.

  2. “I do think that slavery is best gone but true Christianity can break the chains of slavery unlike anything else. ” – Yeas! And there is a reason for it. Because Christ made uns free from sin, the deadliest form of slavery.

    JNj.

    08/23/2013 at 4:34 PM


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