He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. –Colossians 1:13
Sunday we will begin a one-month study in Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is a personal letter, of sorts, from Paul to Philemon, a believer who resided in the Roman city of Colossae. Philemon was apparently a man of some status. He was known to Paul personally, he had the means to support a church gathering in his home, and he was a slave owner. The term “slave owner” does not sit well with us when connected to the term “believer,” and rightly so. How a follower of Christ could “dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” as Abraham Lincoln eloquently stated it, is beyond our imagination. Lincoln, as he so often did, was utilizing a biblical allusion when he made his statement. God had told Adam that, as a result of his sin, “from the sweat of your face you will eat your bread.” Slavery adds to this curse by forcing others to do the labor (free of charge) so that the master might eat in ease. It is a double curse.
Nevertheless, it is quite apparent that Philemon did just that. It is also apparent that Paul considered him a faithful servant of the Lord. How does that wash? It is one of the many thorny questions we will tackle in this short series. One cannot walk through Paul’s letter to Philemon without addressing the issue of slavery, along with the issues of manumission, obedience to church leaders, obedience to slave masters, theft, repayment for wrongs done, obeying the law when you disagree with the law, etc. We will talk about all of these issues, but we will be diligent to talk about the most important themes in this letter; salvation and reconciliation.
Paul sent this letter from Rome to Philemon with Tychicus, a mutual friend, along with at least two other letters – one to the entire church family at Colossae (that met in Philemon’s home) and one to the church in Laodicea (approx. 10 miles from Colossae). We still have the letter to the Colossians, we do not have the letter to Laodicea. Since the letter to the Colossians went to the same location as the letter to Philemon, and since Philemon was clearly a leader in the church at Colossae, we should expect some common themes, and our expectations are not disappointed. Although Paul does address a multitude of other issues in his open letter to the Colossians, his theme of redemption, reconciliation, and hope in Christ permeates throughout. He is also careful to address the issue of masters and slaves in the letter as well.
In my opinion (shared by some but not all biblical scholars), Paul has in mind that Philemon will release Onesimus (his slave who is now a brother in Christ) from his bondage and send him back to Paul so that he might be utilized in his ministry. Before he does that, however, Paul would have the master Philemon and the slave Onesimus reconciled to each other. Past grievances forgiven on both sides and mutual friendship and brotherhood established. Why should Philemon do this? First, because he himself has known redemption and reconciliation in Christ, and second, because it was, either directly or indirectly, via the preaching of Paul that Philemon experienced this reconciliation. Philemon owed Paul his life (spiritually speaking). As such, he should honor Paul’s request.
The letter to Philemon is incredibly short, and incredibly complex. Scholars still debate what the letter is all about. The letter to the Colossians is longer yet less complicated. Both teach us a vital truth. God has reconciled us to himself through the work of his Son on the cross. That reconciliation matters in our lives and should cause changes in our thinking and behavior. We do not have slaves to manumit, but we all need to be reconciled to our own master – God. As the passage above from Colossians reminds us, we were once slaves to sin ourselves, but now by the mercy and grace of God, those who have believed on Jesus have been set free and delivered over to a new kingdom, not as slaves but better – as sons.
It is a great curse to be a chattel slave. It is a greater curse to be enslaved to sin. Onesimus had already been delivered from the greater curse, Paul would have him delivered from the lesser as well. And that is where our story begins this coming Sunday…
Grace and peace,