In the 1st Century, one in every five or six persons in the Roman Empire was a slave. Slavery was a practice that was neither condoned nor condemned in the writings of the Apostle Paul, but simply accepted as fact. In many situations slavery was a business arrangement in which the slave was working off a debt that he could not pay in a normal way. While we think of slavery in racial terms as Americans, in Paul’s world it was not racially oriented — but it was still wrong. Christians did not have the political pull to change laws regarding human ownership, but they had something far more powerful than laws: the gospel! The gospel could transform individuals, which would transform relationships, which would transform social systems.
Paul’s brief letter to his friend Philemon was a strong statement on how masters and slaves should consider one another within the church (and in light of the gospel). Philemon, who had been saved under Paul’s ministry, was a landowner who lived in Colosse. He was a generous man who had supported Paul financially and had opened up his home as a meeting place for the church (v.2). He loved the Lord and His people (v.5). The subject of Paul’s letter to him was a man named Onesimus.
Onesimus was a slave of Philemon who had evidently stolen from him and then escaped before he could be punished. In the providence of God, the runaway slave had found his way to Rome and met Paul, perhaps in prison. Paul led Onesimus to Jesus and discipled him (v.10-11). Through Paul’s friendship and influence Onesimus became a faithful believer and a very useful assistant. In time he realized that he needed to return to Philemon and face the music.
Paul sent this letter with Onesimus in order to help Philemon understand the change that had taken place in the fugitive slave’s life. He was no longer just a slave of Philemon, but a Christian brother and a partner in the gospel — they were now equals in Christ (v.15-16). Paul had the authority as an apostle of Jesus to “command” Philemon to forgive Onesimus, to give him a second chance and a fresh start (v.8). Legally, Philemon had the right to punish (or even kill) a runaway slave, but Paul encouraged him to receive Onesimus back and to treat him as a brother. Paul even offered to pay for anything his new friend may have stolen before he ran away. He put his own reputation on the line in order to mend the broken relationship.
I take away three things from Paul’s appeal. First, I can relate to Onesimus: I have often found myself in need of forgiveness and a second chance. When I have offended a brother or sister in Christ with my words or my actions it is not easy to humble myself and seek restoration. My flesh wants to distance myself from them and avoid facing the one I have wronged. But Christ in me gives me the strength to do the right thing and mend the relationship.
Second, I can relate to Philemon: sometimes I have been the one who is offended; I am the one who has been wronged or slighted. My flesh wants to withhold forgiveness and make the other person suffer, but Christ in me gives me the grace to forgive.
Third, I can relate to Paul: two Christian friends are at odds, and I am in a position to bring them together, to facilitate restoration. My flesh resists getting involved, but Christ in me gives me the desire to step in and be a peacemaker.
Can you relate to one (or all) of those situations? If so, trust the Lord and make your move. You’ll be glad you did.