Salvation: A Game Changer.
It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16 NLT
Philemon was a believer and a slave owner. Onesimus was a believer and a slave. According to the laws of Colosse, Onesimus was the property of Philemon, and yet he had run away. In God’s divine providence, this runaway slave had somehow ended up in Rome, come into contact with the apostle Paul, and came to faith in Christ. Paul, who happened to have had a long-standing relationship with Philemon, Onesimus’ master, knew it was necessary for Onesimus to return home and make things right with Philemon. So he sent this letter along with Onesimus to help prepare Philemon’s heart and pave the way for the restoration of their relationship. But Paul was looking a change in their relationship that would reflect the change that had taken place in both of these man’s hearts. They were no longer the same. Yes, Philemon was still a slave owner, as were a good portion of the people in that day. Technically and legally, Onesimus was still a slave, and likely worthy of punishment for having run away. Interestingly, Paul spends no time addressing the issue of slavery, but simply calls these men to recognize their new relationship as brothers in Christ. Paul reminds Philemon that Onesimus “is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16 NLT). While legally, Philemon had every right to view and treat Onesimus as a slave, Paul emphasizes that their relationship had a new and more important dimension. They were brothers in Christ. They shared a common faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Paul had earlier written the Galatian believers, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NLT). He was not saying that these distinctions no longer existed, but that their mutual relationship with Christ altered them in such a way that they would never be the same again. Within the body of Christ, the distinctions and lines of differentiation went away. Faith in Christ was the great leveler. Rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female – these earthly distinctions were trumped by a common bond in Christ. From a worldly perspective, Onesimus was still a slave. But from a heavenly perspective, Philemon was obligated to see him first and foremost as a brother in Christ. Their mutual faith in Christ was expected to change the way in which they now related to one another. In place of revenge and judgment, Philemon was expected to show mercy, grace, and brotherly love. He was expected to view Onesimus not as a runaway slave in need of punishment, but as a brother in Christ in need of encouragement.
It’s fascinating to see how Paul handled all the different kinds of relationships in his day. There were so many dividing lines within the church. Race, gender, economic status, social standing, education – these all played a role in the society of his day – and Paul saw how they had become points of contention and division. They even threatened the health and vitality of the church. As people from all walks of life came to faith in Christ, they found themselves in fellowship with people who were unlike them and with whom they shared nothing in common – except their faith in Christ. Masters found themselves attending church with their own slaves. The wealthy were suddenly forced into regular and intimate relationships with those of an entirely different economic status. Men found themselves worshiping side by side with their wives. Faith in Christ had changed everything, for everyone. Paul told the believers in Corinth, “Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you–but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:21-22 NLT). The important thing to Paul was not your circumstances on this earth, but your status from God’s perspective. In God’s way of thinking, even slaves were free, and free men were now slaves to Christ. The primary goal should not be to try and change our earthly circumstances, but to recognize our new position in Christ. That’s why Paul told the Corinthian believers “Each of you should continue to live in whatever situation the Lord has placed you, and remain as you were when God first called you” (1 Corinthians 7:17 NLT). Freedom is not found in seeking release from slavery, but in Christ. True riches are not of this world, but of a heavenly, eternal nature. Gender or social status does not provide us with worth or value, only a relationship with Christ can do that.
Paul encourages Philemon to accept Onesimus back, not as a runaway slave, but as a brother. He challenges Philemon to recognize the value of this man as his brother in Christ, not as former property. Which is why Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus will have much more value to him now than ever before. He is more than a slave, he is a fellow child of the King. Coming to know Christ changes everything. It may not change our earthly circumstances, net worth, work conditions, economic status, social standing, or perceived value. But it can and should change every one of our relationships because we are no longer the same. A redeemed slave is totally new slave with a new Master and new outlook on life. A redeemed wife is a radically different wife with a new capacity to love. A redeemed husband is to be a drastically different one than he was before. A redeemed employer is a remarkably different individual with a new perspective on leadership. A redeemed son or daughter is a refreshingly different person with a new outlook on the family. Faith in Christ changes everything. It changes lives, alters relationships, improves perspective, transforms hearts, heals hurts, destroys barriers, and encourages unity.
Paul’s greatest desire was for Philemon and Onesimus to be restored – not as slave and owner, but as brothers in Christ. He knew that these two men now had something in common that was going to radically change their relationship with one another and impact the world around them as they lived out their mutual faith in Christ in the circumstances of their daily lives.
Father, we have been radically changed because of the saving work of Christ. And while our earthly circumstances may appear to be the same, everything is different because of what You have done within us. May we live as changed people, not because our circumstances have changed, but because we have the capacity to live differently in the midst of them. Amen.
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men