Hearts Must Change Before Institutions Can

“No longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16).

Slavery. A high percentage of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire were slaves. Slaves were viewed as property, and had few personal rights in the Roman world. Several of the New Testament epistles encourage Christian slaves to serve their masters wholeheartedly, as if serving Christ (Eph. 6:5–9; Col. 3:22–25; 1 Peter 2:13–21). These same letters urge masters to treat their slaves well.

There was a movement in the Roman Empire in the first century that saw many masters free their slaves. Other slaves purchased their own freedom with income they earned on the side. It is striking that the Christian community did not become involved in this social issue, even though slavery seems to violate the biblical view of the value of every person. Paul even told Christian slaves not to be troubled by their state, but to accept freedom if the opportunity came (1 Cor. 7:21–23).

The underlying reason seems to be that the early church emphasized the opportunity that any social role gave an individual to serve others. Service, not social status, was given priority. A slave could minister in his servitude; a slave owner could minister by caring for his slaves; a rich man could serve by generously sharing his wealth; a poor man could serve by using his gifts to contribute to the body of believers. What really counted was not the position a person filled in society, but how he served God and others in that role.

Paul greeted and expressed thanks for Philemon (vv. 1–7), and appealed to him to welcome back his runaway slave Onesimus as a brother (vv. 8–22). He closed with greetings (vv. 23–25).

Understanding the Text
“A prisoner of Christ Jesus” Phile. 1:1. Most believe Paul wrote this letter while in prison in Rome, aboutA.D 60–61. If so, the letter is an illustration of something Paul wrote at the same time to the church in Philippi: “What has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel” (Phil. 1:12). Even in prison Paul found opportunities to share Christ—and reached at least one person, Onesimus, he would never otherwise have met.

We need to have a similar perspective on our downs, as well as our ups. God remains in charge even when we suffer reverses. Indeed, our reverses might be more important than our successes in fulfilling God’s plan for our lives!

“The church that meets in your home” Phile. 1:2. The “home” was that of Philemon, and the fact that it was large enough for him to host a church, as well as the fact that he owned slaves, suggests that he was relatively wealthy.

How fascinating this is. A zealous, Pharisaic Jew wrote a warm personal letter to a wealthy Asiatic Gentile, appealing to him to welcome back a runaway slave as a brother! No greater social gaps can be imagined than between these three groups in the first century. And yet these people had become one in a common commitment to Jesus, and in the fellowship of His church.

How good it is to become blind to social distinctions, and to see acutely the bond that makes us one with others who know and love our Lord.

“You, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints” Phile. 1:4–7. We can appreciate Philemon as a genuine Christian. Sometimes folks like to invite the traveling evangelist or missionary home—but won’t have anything to do with ordinary folks. This is not the impression we receive of Philemon. According to Paul, he was a man marked by love, who expressed love by welcoming and refreshing “the hearts of” all the saints.

Even so Paul prayed that Philemon would “have a full understanding of every good thing.” Paul was about to stretch Philemon’s capacity to love by asking him to welcome back his runaway slave.

The quality of our love and understanding will be shown when we too are challenged to love someone we might have reason to despise! It’s going the extra mile that shows the great depth of Christian love—and reveals a mature understanding of what is good.

“I appeal to you on the basis of love” Phile. 1:8. Influence, not power, is the secret of Christian leadership. What is the difference? Power coerces others, forcing them to do what we wish whether they want to or not. Influence respects the rights of others to choose, and makes it clear that others have the freedom to make up their own minds.
Paul did marshal a variety of strong arguments, that made very clear what he thought Philemon should do. He exerted a kind of pressure that only a close friend, whose love is well known, would be comfortable in exerting. In fact Paul was confident that Philemon would respond as a Christian should. How wonderful when we can have confidence that our loved ones will do what is right.

“Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful” Phile. 1:11. There is a play on words here in the Greek, for the name Onesimus means “useful.” As a runaway slave, Onesimus “stole” from his master—even though he may have taken nothing away but himself.

In the first century an ordinary slave cost about 500 denarii, equivalent to some 500 days pay for a common laborer. Slaves with special skills might cost hundreds of times as much. By running away, Onesimus was not only “useless” but deprived his master of his rightful capital.

It is understandable, then, why runaway slaves were not very popular in the Roman Empire. When caught they were often put to hard labor in mines, or other settings where they quickly died.

Paul reassured Philemon that Onesimus would now be an asset to him. In doing so he implicitly asked Philemon not to punish the runaway severely.

“Better than a slave, as a dear brother” Phile. 1:16. Paul did not ask Philemon to free the slave Onesimus. Indeed, he implied that the once-useless slave would now be an asset. What he asked was that Philemon now see and treat Onesimus as a “dear brother.”

Ultimately this transformation of perspective undercut the institution of slavery itself. Slavery can only be maintained when some people are viewed as property rather than human beings. The Christian Gospel has not only lifted up repressed classes by acknowledging their human rights, but often has led to the recognition of outcasts as brothers and sisters to be loved.

“I will pay it back” Phile. 1:17–21. Paul here used the language of business. His “personal note” constitutes an IOU. If Philemon had lost money on Onesimus, Paul was willing to repay it personally if Philemon should so demand.
Martin Luther saw this as a picture of what Christ has done for us. Luther wrote, “Here we see how Paul lays himself out for poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleads his cause with his master, and so sets himself as if he were Onesimus, and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, so does Paul for Onesimus with Philemon. We are all his Onesimi, to my thinking.”

The Eye of the Beholder
(Philemon 8–21)
We have a new game. You have folks look at some weird inkblots, write their interpretations, and then you guess who wrote which interpretation.
Everyone knows that inkblot interpretations depend more on what a person thinks than on what he sees. The average person might see a butterfly—and a disturbed person a giant with outstretched arms, about to grab and crush him. What a person sees says more about him than about the inkblot.

The Letter to Philemon reminds us that how we see others is also “in the eye of the beholder.” Paul asked Philemon to stop seeing Onesimus as a “runaway slave,” and to begin seeing him as a “dear brother.”

The Gospel makes the same request of each of us. We’re to stop seeing others as “that dumb blond,” or “that sloppy dresser,” or “that dreamboat,” or “that Very Important Person,” and start seeing them in totally different ways. Non-Christians we’re to see as individuals of infinite worth and value, for whom Christ died. And Christians we’re to see as “dear brothers,” and to love them as members of our family.
Perhaps this is the great contribution to modern believers of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. It asks us pointedly, “What is in your eye when you look at others?”

Personal Application
See others as God sees them, and you will be able to love them.

“Man becomes a holy thing, a neighbor, only if we realize that he is the property of God and that Jesus Christ died for him.”—Helmut Thielecke

Larry Richards

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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